Each month, on the final Wednesday of the month, we will begin running a new feature: a guest devotion post from a missionary of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod or a pastor of a partner church body. This month, LCMS Career Missionary Rev. Dr. Christopher Ahlman has translated his sermon from German into English. The sermon was preached this past Sunday, the 17 Sunday after Trinity Sunday, in Lukaskirche, Leipzig, Germany.
–By Rev. Dr. Christopher S. Ahlman
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly, (Matthew 15:21-28, ESV).
“What does that look like?” That’s a question that I ask more and more frequently when I read and study the Bible. Not so much “What is that?” or “What does this mean?”, as privileged as these particular questions are in our Lutheran tradition—questions that remain ever important to ask. More often, rather, I find myself asking: “What does that look like?”
Certainly such a question is neither a foreign nor a strange question in the Christian faith. After all, we confess with St. John and the Council of Nicea that our Lord Jesus Christ “became flesh” (John 1:14, ESV). We confess with Tertullian and the Early Church Fathers that “the flesh is the hinge of salvation.” (The Resurrection, 8.2) What this means is that the very salvation of God Himself has come into this world. It has taken on form, it stands in our vicinity and is even able to be grasped. One can see it, feel it, even taste it—figuratively-speaking and otherwise. Such a question is actually one of the most sensible questions that a Christian can ask: “What does that look like?”
This question is not simply one that could be asked; rather, sometimes it is a question that must be asked. This is especially so when the Lord Jesus prevents us from asking any other question.
“Woman, great is your faith!” Such a sentence spoken by Jesus is one that elicits the question: “What does a ‘great faith’ look like?” For an answer to that question, look no further than to the Canaanite woman. The woman had doubtless heard of Jesus’ words and deeds from the outset of Jesus’ teaching and earthly ministry (cf. Matthew 4:23-25), and when Jesus came through the region of Tyre and Sidon, she acted accordingly. Having heard of His fame, that He was “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people,” she was filled with hope and sought out none other than Jesus Himself, the source of hope, in order that He would heal her demon-possessed daughter.
And so, she cried out with a vibration that strained the vocal cords and ear drums, but no answer came from Jesus. She, however, continued to cry out after Jesus and His disciples, perhaps even louder, in the hope that Jesus would eventually do something, attempting to involve His disciples, if that’s what it took, and to this Jesus answers in a rather apparent cold shoulder-ish fashion: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In response to and in spite of this, she approaches Jesus physically, kneeling before Him, demanding that He have mercy upon her daughter and heal her. Nothing will stop her, not even a forthrightly-spoken truism from God himself.
Such is an example of what “great faith” looks like. It is a “fleshly” faith: it involves the body, the mind, the soul, the spirit. It involves every circumstance, situation, and condition. It draws quite near to God where, when and how He can be found, no matter as to whether God appears friendly or not.
And make no mistake: the Lord can, at times, show Himself to be rather unfriendly. Although God Himself tempts no one, He has indeed set a precedent by bringing one into the realm of temptation by the devil—a reality that St. Luke makes crystal clear in his narrative of the temptation of Jesus (cf. Luke 4:1), on account of which Jesus Himself teaches us to pray to God, that He would “lead us not into temptation”! Faithfulness and piety can serve as target of punishment from the hand of God, a reality of which we learn not only in the narrative of Job (cf. Job 1-2) but also from the life of Jesus itself, as it is given witness in the writings of the New Testament. God called Moses alone to lead His people out of slavery in Egypt, and then God immediately makes an attempt to kill Moses (cf. Exodus 3:24-26). God appears out of nowhere, solely to physically wrestle Jacob to the ground (cf. Genesis 32:23-25)
But make no mistake here either: there is a recourse, direct from the hand of God Himself, when an unfriendly-looking God comes, and this recourse is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ Himself—Who conquered the devil and Who has not forsaken you. When God comes to punish you on account of your faithfulness and piety—or, perhaps, even to kill you, then simply remember the wonderful example of the Lord Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2), where the crucified Lord Jesus has taken His place on your behalf. When God comes out of nowhere to wrestle and fight with you, then simply remember—particularly in this situation—that you have a particular name “Israel”, which you can scream into God’s very own ear. With the Lord Jesus is the gracious promise of God—even when you receive no answer from God, and even when He is only giving you the cold shoulder.
After all, this name “Israel” belongs to you. Baptized into Christ, you are “Israel” in accordance with the very intention of God. God came in order to wrestle with you, so that you can make us of your gracious Recourse, so that you can overcome the wrath of God, so that you can receive a blessing from God, and so that you can show off your limp before God and humanity and the entire world with confidence. You are “Israel” and, although you may not be eating only crumbs under the table, you will surely eat your bread with all of God’s children at the table of God’s kingdom.
That is what a “great faith” looks like, in the name of Jesus.