Sunday, March 16, 2014
Homily for Reminiscere - The Second Sunday in Lent
Matthew 15:21-28; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7; Genesis 32:22-32
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
What’s in a name? Often, quite a lot. The name Israel, for instance, means literally one who “struggles with God and prevails.” We receive this definition and understanding of the name Israel from Genesis 32:28, the account of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the LORD, which was our Old Testament reading this morning. In this pericope, the Patriarch Jacob was in great distress, believing that his brother Esau was coming to kill him in revenge for his treachery. Thus, Jacob sent his wives and his servants, his children, and all his belongings across the river and he waited alone for imminent arrival of his brother. Only, Jacob wasn’t alone. There was a man with Jacob, and not only a man, but the Angel of the LORD, whom many theologians understand to be a pre-incarnate manifestation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God. This man engaged in wrestling with Jacob all through the night. Quite literally, Jacob “struggled with God.”
We all experience trials and tribulation in our lives. We have financial struggles, marriage struggles, and parenting struggles. We struggle at home, at school, and at work. When we come home in the evening, we are confronted with struggles in our community, our nation, and our world. We struggle to remain healthy against the natural forces of aging and mortality, and we struggle against spiritual forces which are continually against us, tempting us to sin or to despair so that we take our focus off of Jesus and place it upon something, anything, else. We all face these struggles and know them well, and we know that when we face struggles we should pray to God for help and strength and relief. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that, sometimes…, sometimes it truly seems as if God is causing us to struggle, or at least permitting us to struggle. Sometimes it seems as if God is our enemy. We cry out, in our hearts or with our voice, “Why God? Why are you doing this to me? Why are you against me?”
If you’ve felt this way before, know that you are in good company! You stand in a long line of Patriarchs, Prophets, and Apostles including Jacob and Moses, David and Jeremiah, Peter and Paul, the Canaanite Woman, Luther, and a countless host of ordinary Christian believers who have felt as if God was against them at one time or another. I know that this sounds like something you’re not supposed to feel, to think, or to give voice to, but I say to you, “Go ahead. God can take it.” In truth, there is something very faithful about complaining to God in this way – As with prayer of a more positive nature, you are actually confessing faith in God when you complain. You are confessing that He is there and that He is in control. Such complaints, cries, and screams are still prayers – prayers that confess faith in the God who can bring rescue and who can allow trial and tribulation to come upon you, but always, always with the promise that His grace is sufficient for you, that His power is made perfect in weakness, and that He will never leave you or forsake you, but will see you through, one way or another, and that the victory His has secured for you in His Son Jesus Christ can never be taken away from you, no matter what may happen to you, good or bad, in this life.
This is the example we find in both our Old Testament reading about the Patriarch Jacob wrestling with God and in our Gospel reading about the Canaanite Woman, in effect, wrestling with Jesus. Each of these protagonists demonstrated strong and tenacious faith, even while struggling with a God who seemingly rejected them and even fought against them. Jacob cried out, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The Canaanite Woman took Jesus’ insult, calling her a dog, and insisted, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” God blessed Jacob and changed his name to Israel, which means, one who “struggles with God and prevails.” Jesus praised the Canaanite Woman saying, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”
The example for us, however, is not that we need to do something, not that we need to have greater faith or hold on more tenaciously. No, that would be to miss the point altogether. The point of these lessons is not that Jacob had such great faith to hold on even when God fought with him and wounded him, nor that the Canaanite Woman was strong to hold on through Jesus’ insults and rejection. No, the point is what these two confessed about their Lord and their God. Jacob insisted on a blessing because he believed and he knew that God would bless. The Canaanite Woman insisted that Jesus have mercy because she believed and she knew that Jesus was merciful. In effect, they both held God to what God had revealed, to what God had said, about Himself. They used God’s own Word against Him. They held Him to His Word and His promises. And, you know what? God LOVES it when you do that!
You see, prayer isn’t a hope, a shot in the dark. When you pray, you can, you should, pray in confidence that God will hear – because He has promised to hear. When you pray, you can, you should, believe that God will answer – because He has promised to answer. Jesus taught that whatever you ask the Father in His Name He will give it to you. This is true! That doesn’t mean He’ll give you that winning lottery ticket you prayed for or that promotion you prayed for – but He will give you what you ask in Jesus’ Name. What does that mean? That’s a good question! To ask in Jesus’ Name is not merely to tack “In the Name of Jesus” on to the close of your prayer, but it means to pray in accordance with the Word and the will of God. Chances are that winning lottery tickets and promotions are not in accordance with the Word and the will of God. Maybe they are; probably not. However, what definitely IS in accordance with the Word and the will of God are the things that He has already promised to give and to do in His Word. Therefore, when you pray, hold God to His Word. Pray His Word back to Him and hold Him to it. That is what Jacob did. That is what the Canaanite Woman did. Even when God seems not to hear, even when He seems to be against you, ask, pray in Jesus’ Name, holding God to His Word. Don’t let go, no matter what, until He blesses you. In this way, your faith will be strengthened and God will be glorified.
This Sunday is called Reminiscere – Remember. It is not we who are called to remember, but it is we who call upon God to remember – to remember His mercy and His steadfast love as of old and to deliver us out of trouble: trouble of our sins, trouble of our enemies. Does God forget? No, of course not. But, He loves to hear you remind Him of His goodness, love, and mercy, and He loves to answer and respond in kind. And, He has answered, He has responded. He has sent you His Son, Jesus. Jesus was truly ignored, insulted, and forsaken by both men and God in our place. He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us, that we might, in turn, become the righteousness of God. Jesus is God’s Word, will, and promise kept for you. Therefore, ask, pray in Jesus’ Name, and do not let go. In this way you show yourself to be a true Israelite – one who “struggles with God and prevails.”
Life is a struggle, to be sure, and the Christian faith and life is a supreme struggle. Christians struggle against sin and the devil, against their own fleshly desires and temptation, against enemies who mock and take advantage, and sometimes even against God who tests our faith that it might increase and grow ever more fruitful. St. Paul provides a long list of fleshly passions and desires that we must strive to resist and overcome. Moreover, He says that it is God’s will that we do, that it is part of our sanctification, His making us to be His holy people. Therefore, you see how we do indeed struggle with God. Left to ourselves, we will surely fail. But, take heart, Christ has fulfilled the demands of holiness for you. Now you are covered in His righteousness and holiness. Trust in Him, especially in trial, tribulation, and temptation, that He has borne the burden for you and shares the burden with you even now. Jesus Christ is God’s promise fulfilled for you. In Him you are baptized. With Him you are fed. You eat, not crumbs from the Master’s table, but the flesh and blood of the Bread of Life Himself. In Him you are blessed. Trust and believe, and call your God to remembrance of this Truth. He loves to hear you remind Him. He loves to bless you anew and to make you a blessing.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.