Sunday, January 29, 2017

Taking a Closer Look

There is an incident in the Gospels that I fondly remember from my days as a new disciple. It was the first text that I grappled with. It’s the time when Jesus was approached by a mother for the sake of her demonpossessed daughter. The dynamics of what happened are quite fascinating. So, what we’re going to do this morning is to take it apart in order to see what we can learn from it. And I do think that it has important lessons that can make a difference. Listen.

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

Let’s start by listing the cast of characters. First, there is the demon, then the disciples, the mother and Jesus. There is also a hidden member of the cast whom we always must remember. And that’s God Himself. He is always involved in what is happening, whether we’re talking about the days of Jesus’ ministry or something that happened yesterday. He’s always a member of the cast.

Now, let’s look at these individuals. And let’s start with that behindthescenes member of the cast. God created the situation. Remember, He is the one who controls every event in history. So, He created this situation. And He did that so that these people, the rest of the cast, could respond to it. Some did a good job of it, but others not so much.

Then, there’s the demon. Whatever else is true of him, he is the presence of evil. In every situation that we face in this life, there is, somewhere and to some extent, the presence of evil. That is not something we should forget. It’s the demon’s presence that sets up this situation.

Next, there are the disciples. Now, we need to be fair. To their credit, they have set aside jobs, family responsibilities and more so that they could learn from this new teacher. But, sad to say, they respond poorly to this situation God created. They don’t get it. They don’t feel the evil that plagues this mother. She is simply a problem to be dealt with. They want her gone. But they are there watching Jesus, and I think that I can say that what was going on was, in part, for their benefit. There are things that they were to learn from this God-created situation.

Then, there is Jesus. He responds wisely to the situation that His Father has created for Him. We can say that because of how it ends, though in the midst of the situation Jesus acts in ways that none of us would have expected.

And, of course, there is the mother. She also responds wisely to the situation God has created. And bear in mind that this situation includes the tormenting of her daughter which leads to her own torment. She responds well to that problem and to Jesus’ presence.

So, there’s a look at the cast. Now, for the obvious question. What in the world is Jesus doing? Well, one thing that He is doing is teaching. He knows that He has an audience, those disciples. And they need to learn more than just a thing or two. And He knows that He teaches them not just by His words but also by His actions. Jesus is teaching them. I’m quite sure that they had a lot to ponder once the mother returned home to her rescued daughter.

But, what about how Jesus was dealing with the mother? He really seems harsh. First, He ignores her. When has He ever done that sort of thing when someone in need approached Him? Then, He insults her because of her ethnicity. She is a Gentile. Or to say it the way many Jews of the day would have, she is a Gentile dog. What is happening? Is Jesus just being calloused or is there something else going on?

The answer to that question is tied to the mother. So, let’s take a look at her.

Here’s one thing that stands out. She cares about her daughter. And that is a key motivation for her. She wants her daughter freed from that demon. But there is more that motivated her. She is convinced of some things. She is utterly convinced of three statements.

1. Jesus can fix the situation. He can get rid of the demon.
2. He can be moved to act, to fix the situation.
3. What is required of her is to persist in asking Jesus to fix the situation. She may need to run the gauntlet of obstacles that Jesus has erected. She is prepared to do that and in fact, does exactly that until she moves Jesus to action.

So, the thing to focus on in this situation isn’t that Jesus is being difficult. The thing to focus on is that mother and her convictions.

Now, is she right about those three statements? Are her convictions wellfounded?

Well, Jesus can fix the problem. He can get rid of the demon. That’s something that is objectively true. That is, it’s true regardless of any other factors.

But what about the other two statements? What about her conviction that Jesus can be moved to act, to fix the situation - and that all that is needed is her persistence? These two are not always true. Sometimes it’s not about persisting until all the obstacles are overcome. Sometimes it’s about accepting Jesus’ ‘No’ as final. Here, think about Paul and his thorn in the flesh. He knew Jesus could fix the problem and could be moved to act. He was also convinced of those things, just like the mother. So, he persisted. But he was told ‘No’. As a result, he stopped asking. He stopped persisting. And that ‘No’ was so that Jesus could grant a better ‘Yes’.  Listen to how Paul describes his situation.

But the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  2 Corinthians 12.9

This mother had concluded that hers was a situation where it was possible to persuade Jesus. She had concluded that it was right to persist. So, she became like Jacob when he wrestled with God. Remember how he said to God, 
I will not let you go unless You bless me.  Genesis 32.26

The mother was convinced, so she persisted.

And all of this explains what Jesus was doing. He wasn’t being harsh. He was testing the mother. In effect, He was saying to her, ‘Are you really convinced of those three statements?’ And she showed that she was. And that is why Jesus ultimately granted her request. That’s when Jesus commended her by saying,

O woman, great is your faith!

I think that it will be quite something to sit down with this mother in the age to come and chat with her about what happened on that day. That will be a very interesting conversation.

Now, what does this have to say to us? I think that Jesus’ final comment is the key. This situation that God created was about faith.

But be careful. What is faith? It isn’t some blind leap, a wish for something good to happen just because you want it to. That’s not faith. That’s silliness. It makes no sense. And faith isn’t some feeling you get that tells you that your wishes will actually be granted. Faith is much more than a feeling. Faith is being convinced about something. It’s being convinced about something about Jesus. Now, it needs to be said that not all convictions about Jesus are actually biblical faith. And that’s because someone might be convinced about something that just isn’t true about Jesus. Faith is always tied to what is true according to the Bible. And it is always a conviction.

This explains something rather important when it comes to making requests in your prayers. Are you convinced? Are you convinced that Jesus is able to deal with whatever it is that you are praying for? Are you also convinced that He can be moved to do whatever it is that you are praying for? Or to say that differently, are you so convinced of these things that you are ready to persist, to overcome obstacles that Jesus might put in your way?

To be as convinced as this mother there are some things that you will need to address. You need to understand Jesus well - to understand what He really is about. Too many requests are based on convictions that people should not be convinced about. That thing you want Him to grant - why do you think He should grant it? What is the basis of your conviction about that? It is as we get to know Jesus well, and get to know what He is up to in this world that we can arrive at convictions that are actually based on solid Gospel truth. That’s when we will be as persistent as that mother was and receive what we are asking for.

You also need to have a growing sense of the guidance of the Spirit. He’s the one who reveals Jesus to us. He is the one who gives the ability to be properly convinced. And He is the one who lets you know when to accept Jesus’ ‘No’ so that you can enjoy His better ‘Yes’.

Last thought. So, what did I do today? I talked about persisting in asking because of convictions. Or to use church words, I talked about prayer that is based on faith.

I also did something else. I modeled something for you. I worked through what happened with that mother step by step. First, I listed the cast of characters. Then, I commented on each of them. After that, I focused on the two main characters, examining what they were doing. And I asked questions and answered them so that I could understand why they were doing those things. I modeled how to meditate on a narrative text of Scripture. There is nothing that I did this morning that you can’t do. And as you do what I did, you will see more of what the Bible is about, more of what Jesus is up to.

I am convinced that one big need of the day is for churches to be filled with Christians who drill down into the Bible so that they can see things that they haven’t seen before. This is an important skill. It’s as we get deeper into the text and see more of the riches that are there that we will be greatly used by God to change the world.

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