Sunday, March 04, 2007

Sermon: Reminiscere (Lent 2)

4 March 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 15: 21-28 (Genesis 32:22-32, Rom 5:1-5) (One year series)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

This second Sunday in Lent is known by its Latin name: Reminiscere. This is the first word of our Introit in Latin, which comes from Psalm 25, and begins with the prayer: “Remember, O Lord...”

It seems strange to ask God to remember something. Surely God doesn’t need to tie a string around his finger, have his archangels put appointments on Post-Its around the holy throne room of God, or scribble notes in a divine electronic PDA. He’s God. It seems to be a no-brainer that he has a good memory.

In fact, we may worry, like King David, that the Lord’s memory is too good. For in the next verse after he prays: “Remember, O Lord…,” he turns around and prays: “Do not remember…” – just as we did in our Introit.

For like David, we all want God to remember some things: like his promises to us, while forgetting other things, like our sins: “Remember, O Lord, Your tender mercies and Your loving-kindnesses, for they are from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to Your mercy remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord.”

I suppose married people can kind of relate to this “remember, don’t remember” contradiction. We all want our spouses to remember anniversaries, birthdays, and the things we have done right, but we want our spouses to forget all the times we have let them down, hurt their feelings, or forgot something important.

We, the bride of Christ, likewise want a Spouse with a selective memory. And this is what Reminiscere Sunday is all about.

Our Old Testament lesson is a very weird encounter that Jacob has with God. A strange Man shows up in the middle of the night and wants to wrestle. They fight to a draw all night, until the Opponent whacks him on the hip, and leaves Jacob limping. The Opponent asks to be released, but Jacob refuses, and instead demands that his Supernatural Adversary give him a blessing. And so He does. The mysterious Wrestler also changes Jacob’s name to Israel: “He who wrestles with God.” This solves the mystery of who the Wrestler is.

God was testing Jacob. He asked Jacob to go away, but Jacob would not. Jacob demanded that the God of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac keep his word. God was pleased at this demand – just as any loving father looks upon his children in adoration when they call to mind the father’s promise made out of love for the child. Jacob “won” this wrestling match with God, not because he was bigger, stronger, or a better grappler – but because he clung to the Word of God. God reveals his Word, God keeps His Word, and God is pleased when we demand that God remember His promises.

Nineteen centuries after this historic grappling match, the descendant of both wrestlers (the Son of Jacob and the Son of God) is involved in a similar scuffle. This one was not physical, but mental. Instead of wrestling a man, this time, God, the Word made flesh, debates a woman. Instead of the father of the nation of Israel, this time, God goes toe-to-toe with a daughter of Gentiles.

The woman prays to Jesus, just as we do every Sunday, “Lord, have mercy!” For like us, she is being harassed by evil. Like us, she has family members who are in eternal peril, thanks to the ministrations of the devil. She pleads her case directly to the God-man, the same Protagonist that gave Jacob a gimpy leg. For Jesus is the only Wrestler capable of binding the strong man that holds her daughter hostage. Jesus is the Fighter who will not merely strain a hip tendon, but will fatally crush the skull of the evil one. This Gentile woman loves her daughter, and humbles herself in order to get help.

But Jesus ignores her.

The disciples pick up on this, and actually ask Jesus to send the annoying woman away. It seems that Jesus has no mercy to give, and the disciples don’t seem to have any of their own to spare. But this is only a strategy on the part of our Lord. For He is indeed merciful. For as we prayed in the Introit: “Good and upright is the Lord, therefore He teaches sinners in the way.” He has a lesson to teach this Gentile woman, the disciples, and all of us. The Great Teacher then engages the woman in a debate.

“I was not sent,” says Jesus, “except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Unfazed, she initially replies not with words, but with deeds: she worships Him. Thus she confesses that He is indeed God. Only then she pleads: “Lord, help me.” Our Lord takes the initiative, and counters: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” He reminds her that she is not a daughter of the promise according to the Old Testament. She is little, and she is of no more consequence than a mangy stray canine. But here, our Lord’s worthy opponent proves her mettle, she delivers the winning blow: “Yes, Lord,” notice that she again confesses the divinity of her Adversary, and continues: “yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”

What a remarkable day! A Gentile woman has “outwitted” God. Of course, “outwitted” is in quotes. She hasn’t won because she is smarter or more gifted in rhetoric than God. Rather, she persists, she refuses to take the bait, she hangs in there, and she holds the Almighty Lord to His promises. Even as we sing in the Liturgy with St. John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world,” For though she is not a child of Jacob, our blessed and merciful Lord indeed gives “crumbs” to the entire world, the whole kosmos. She, like Jacob, refuses to concede the struggle, and in fact, demands a blessing.

And she got it.

For the Lord delights in His people holding his holy, blessed, nail-punctured feet to the fire. And He further delights in giving us poor, miserable sinners, us little dogs, crumbs from the table. For we are all mangy strays, but we are the Lord’s strays. The pedigreed and pampered purebreds think they need no Savior, but we lost and hungry mongrels know better. The “crumbs” He gives us have fallen to us like holy Manna, and come from a table prepared for us in the face of our enemies. For we all approach this altar with another adversary – not a God who wrestles with us or debates with us, but rather with a true enemy, a hateful roaring lion who seeks to devour us. And so we take these crumbs from the table, realizing that these Crumbs are indeed the Body of Him who defeats the devil, who conquers death, and who vanquishes sin. These crumbs fall from the Master’s table, and the Master delights in giving his children good gifts. He delights in his children when they persist, and demand that the Master keep his promises, that he abide by his own Word.

Lent is a time for us not only to wrestle against Satan, not only a season for us to struggle against our sinful flesh, but also a time to go to the mat with God. We, like Jacob, demand that God bless us, through his very promises found in His holy Word. We, like the sainted Gentile woman, demand that the Lord show us mercy and heal us from the ravages of the devil through the sacramental crumbs that fall like manna from the Master’s table.

In so doing, we can indeed, as St. Paul exhorts, “glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

To those cry out “Lord, have mercy,” our Lord keeps His promises. For His mercies are tender and His loving-kindnesses are from of old. He indeed says to those who seek forgiveness, life, and salvation: “Let it be to you as you desire.” Amen.

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

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