Jesus’ silence

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Reminiscere Sunday
Genesis 32:22–32 Matthew 15:21–28
24 February 2012

A recording of the sermon is posted here.

In the name of ✠ Jesus.

Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”

Why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?

The Canaanite woman was not alone. Her need so desperate, and her only hope implacably silent. Jesus is silent, and when he opens his mouth, he speaks only to discourage and to repel, seemingly impervious to her cries, showing no interest in her plight, determined only to push her away.

In her plight, she joined that dark place inhabited by king David, the author of the psalms you have just heard, and the patriarch Jacob himself, the man named Israel, in whose name Jesus was driving her away: “I have come for the lost sheep of Israel—only for the children of Jacob. Why do you bother me?” That dark place where our desperate prayers are met with rebuttal or, worse, with complete silence. She may well have wondered with the Psalmist, “Has forgotten to be gracious?”

Is this the Jesus who had compassion on the five thousand who were hungry, who was filled with pity at the sight of the blind, deaf and the lame of Israel; the Jesus in whose presence the demons could not stand to remain, who stilled the storm to still the fears of his disciples?

Is this the Jesus who said,

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

And the more I ask, the less I receive, except by way of rejection and insult.

Jacob, too, may well have wondered at God’s plan. He was right by the very place where he had seen the angels descending and ascending, where he had heard God swear to him, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” And as he was coming back to the land, the Lord himself wrestled with him, as if to prevent the promise from being fulfilled. Is this how God rewarded his faith? Is this how God keeps his promises?

It is easy to be discouraged by what life throws at us. Indeed, it is hard not to be, especially when the devil does his worst and God allows us to suffer the most. And when God is silent and our prayers disappear into the silence, it may seem that God has forgotten to be gracious, that he has shut his ears and no longer hears.

We must recognise these times for what they are: times of testing, given to us from the same loving hand that is the author of all good things. Jacob’s desperate and disfiguring wrestling match with the man who was the face of God—that is, with the Lord Jesus himself—did not lead to doom or to death, but rather to greater blessing. Jacob did not let go of the man, because he did not let go of God’s promise, and he received a blessing and a new name—Israel—a name that will never die out, a name that is synonymous with God’s gracious election of his own people. And the Canaanite woman’s struggle with the same Jesus led not to despair or disappointment, but a share in the blessings of Israel, a portion from the table of God’s household.

God disciplines those whom he loves. That is, he trains us in order to strengthen us. Every athlete who wants to succeed needs to cross the pain threshold repeatedly in order to strengthen and grow the muscles that he needs, and in order to burn off the fat the hinders. No pain, no gain; no training, no victory. The Christian, too, is engaged in a race to the finishing line. And that we might endure the race and to gain the victor’s crown, Jesus trains us to grow that which we need and to shed that which hinders. Often, that involves crossing the pain threshold.

Notice what Jesus’ silence and coldness does to the Canaanite mother. At every rejection, she looks for a new way to receive Jesus’ mercy. She calls on him with deference—Jesus, son of David—but no hearing. So far from being discouraged, she turns to his disciples: you get Jesus to get me what I need—still no hearing. And so she knelt before him with the simple plea, “Lord, help me!” She has forced Jesus into a conversation: in which she is put into her place, as an undeserving dog who has no right to his mercy—and he is put into his place, as a gracious lord, who cannot and will not turn away those who in faith cling to his mercy.

For his silence was not to turn away, but to build faith. A parent who gives to a child what it wants when it wants it spoils the child. How often we Christians behave like spoilt children who become all aggrieved when we don’t get what we want when we want it. Jesus told Martha that only one thing is needful—and that one thing is to cling to him and his words in faith. Sometimes, Jesus encounters us as bruised reeds and smouldering wicks that need to be gently tended and caressed back into health. But there are other times when what our faith needs is exercise, being strengthened in action.

Learn to pray from Jacob and from the Canaanite mother. Jacob did not let Jesus go until he received a blessing. The Canaanite woman did not let Jesus go until she received mercy. Every wrestling move, every rebuttal, was taken as it was intended: as an encouragement to keep going, to ask so that they might not only receive there and then, but to continue to receive in faith even after the pressing need was gone—to come to know Jesus who is known not by the eyes beholding experience, but by faith clinging to his word.

For this is Jesus, who suffered rejection for us. He made David’s words his own on the cross, crying, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.’ He was forsaken so that God-forsakenness would be done away with. He was rejected that you may be accepted. He was disfigured and pierced by your sin that you may be adorned and beautified by his righteousness. When you find yourself in the midst of darkness and impenetrable silence, the devil will poke his accusing finger at you and repeat the lie: “See, God doesn’t care about you.” Or else, “See, God is angry at you.”

Send him back to hell with his lies by thanking God that he has loved you enough to see you worthy of his discipline—and grab hold of God by his words and promises. He remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself, and he will surely do it. Should your life take you to the deepest darkness, even there he is with you for the darkness is as light to him.
Crying out of the depths, in Psalm 130, David knew where his hope lay. His hope is Israel’s hope, and it is also yours who are children of Abraham and members of Israel by faith—not dogs eating lucky crumbs from the floor under the master’s table, but beloved children who are invited to feast even today as honoured guests at his table, where He is both the host and the food.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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