Sunday, February 28, 2010

Unconditional Faith

Reminiscere – The Second Sunday in Lent

Matthew 15:21-28; Genesis 32:22-32    (Audio)

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

If we are to get straight to the point of what this day’s theme would teach us, then we must learn about faith. Now, faith can be a difficult thing to pin down. Thankfully, however, we do not need to turn to Webster’s or even Haley’s dictionaries, for Holy Scripture interprets itself and defines faith for us: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the certainty of things unseen,” proclaims the preacher to his congregation of Hebrews. Now, in our common usage, I suspect few would include the words “assurance” and “certainty” in their definition of faith, and yet that is precisely the point the Scripture makes. Faith is neither blind nor irrational, as many suppose, even though it does not require verification according to the senses. Neither is faith weak, for it is not a thing in itself, but faith is unconditional trust in that which is absolutely and unswervingly true, the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, who is Truth.

Moreover, faith is not choice that you make, nor is it a work that you do. You do not choose to believe, though you can refuse to believe. Neither do you make yourself to believe, though you can do things contrary to what you believe that will eventually lead you to unbelief. For faith is a gift of God’s grace so that, if you have faith, then thanks be to God for this precious gift, and, if you do not have faith, then there is something that you can do, stop thinking, saying, and doing the things that you are doing and repent, that is, be turned from the path that leads to death back to the God who desires to give you His life.

Further, faith is not quantifiable – you cannot measure it. If you have faith, then you have it, and if you do not, then you do not. Nevertheless, we can see faith in the words and the deeds of others, in their confession of faith. We can see those who have great faith, and perhaps surprisingly, quite often they are the ones suffering great affliction, tribulation, and distress. We marvel at them saying, “I don’t know how she does it!” “He’s a fighter, he just won’t give up.” And yet, we are not to attempt to measure the faith of others; we are not given to judge who has faith and who does not, or how much.

Faith is kind of like what they keep saying about gold in this recession that we’re in, “It’s never worth nothing.” However, while your $1,000 dollar investment in gold may at some time be worth only $100, your faith, no matter how small, is always worth eternal life and sonship in the kingdom of heaven. And so, the lesson is not about how much faith you have, but it is about what faith looks like and what faith believes, what your faith is in.

It is for this reason that Jacob is presented to us. Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau who was coming after him with 400 men. Jacob sent his wives and his children, his servants, and all his possessions across the river to safety and he remained utterly alone, stripped of all comfort and support, to face his brother, whom Jacob believed sought to kill him.

Then, to make matters worse, the Scriptures tell us that a man wrestled with Jacob through the night until dawn. Jacob confesses that this man was none other than God Himself. Unable to overcome Jacob, the man who is God puts Jacob’s hip out of socket, but still Jacob will not let this God-man go until He blesses him.

And so, there is Jacob, standing alone in faithful trust that God will help him even as Esau approaches with his 400 men, only to have God Himself wrestle with him all night, exhausting his strength, and then causing him excruciating, crippling pain by putting his hip out of socket. What do you do when God Himself seems to be your enemy? What did Jacob do? Did he curse God? Did he accuse God of being unfair or evil? No, Jacob held onto God all the tighter, he refused to release Him until God blessed him. And God did bless him. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means, “he who wrestles with God and prevails”.

For, such is faith – to wrestle with God and prevail – to not let go in unbelief, but to cling to Him no matter what, trusting that He is good and that He keeps His promises. Jacob surely thought that he would die, alone there in the wilderness with his brother and 400 men coming after him, then being exhausted and crippled by the God-man who wrestled with him all night long. Yet even in the face of near certain death, Jacob held on to God in faith. And, as it turns out, God being the master story-teller that He is, when Esau finally arrives with his 400 men, he embraces Jacob and has mercy on him, and the two brothers are reconciled. Even Esau’s anger against Jacob was an instrument of God’s testing of Jacob’s faith that Jacob’s faith might persevere and produce in him character and hope. For, the greatest blessing is God’s mercy shown to those who refuse to let go of Him in faith.

However, the lesson continues, and we are presented with another example of tenacious faith. This time the subject is not a patriarch of Israel, but a lowly and despised Canaanite woman. She cries out to Jesus for mercy upon her and her demon-possessed daughter, and Jesus ignores her. Still, she continues to cry out to Jesus. First, Jesus chides her saying that He was not sent to help people like her, but then He insults her, comparing her to a dog. Still, she will not let go of Him. What do you do when God seems to ignore your pleas and your prayers? You pray and you pray, still the cancer spreads, the miscarriage occurs, your loved one dies. Do you curse God? Do you rail at Him, “Where are you?!” Or do you cling to Him like this Canaanite woman, like Jacob, in faith, trusting that God is good and merciful and will work all things for the good of those who love Him?

The woman pleads with Jesus saying, “Yes, I am a dog. I am not worthy of the gift that I ask. But I know You; I know that You are good and merciful, gracious and kind, that You give to those who trust in You what they do not deserve. I will eat the crumbs of Your grace that fall from Your children’s’ table. For, even a crumb of Your mercy and grace, Your forgiveness and life, will satisfy me and make me whole.” Jesus replied to this woman, “Great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. What does faith look like? This is what faith looks like, says Jesus.

Today’s lesson is about holding on to God in faith – no matter what – to plead with Him continually, incessantly, even when He seems not to be listening, even when He seems to reject your prayers. Even then you are to without ceasing. Because faith is a struggle. Faith is like Jacob who wrestled with God all night saying, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” Faith is like the Canaanite woman who, even though she confessed that she was not worthy, would not let Jesus go without blessing her.” Faith is tenacious and resilient, and God will bless those who hold on to Him in faith no matter what the result might be. He will give you what you need to persevere, and, ultimately, to overcome. But God knows what we need, which is often quite different than what we think we need, and He supplies us all that we need to support our bodies and lives now, and into eternity.

Even now He provides for His children, hearing with ears of faith, seeing with eyes of faith, precious and holy crumbs fallen from the festal board of the Lamb in heaven. Faith is the certainty that this is the real and true body and blood of the God-man Jesus Christ given and shed for you; faith is the assurance that, in eating and drinking, your sins are forgiven just as Truth Incarnate has said. And when it seems like God has forgotten you, cry out to Him in faith, “Remember Your mercy, O Lord, and Your steadfast love… Let not my enemies exult over me. Redeem Israel (Your one who struggles), O God, out of all his troubles.”

In the Name of the Faithful One + Jesus Christ. Amen.

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