Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sermon: Lent 2 - Reminiscere

8 March 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 15:21-28 (Gen 32:22-32, Rom 5:1-5)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There was a time when our world knew no struggle and strife. There was indeed a golden age when food was everywhere and men did not have to work for it. In those days, man and God had a carefree face to face relationship, not of equals, but certainly not as enemies. But of course, those days didn’t last very long.

After the Fall, our life in this broken world has been characterized by struggle and strife. Man earns his bread by the sweat of his brow. Women bear children in pain. No living creature is exempt from death. We struggle against temptation, sickness, one another, God, Satan, animals, nature, ourselves, and death.

This is our curse. This is our consequence for our disobedience.

Sometimes such struggle is demoralizing. Sometimes it is all we can do to get up out of bed in the morning. Sometimes we don’t have it in us to fight another day. We might be racked with pain, with guilt, with sadness, with fatigue, with many reasons to say: “I quit.”

And yet there is a paradox. Struggle makes us stronger. A weak man can become a strong man not in spite of his struggle, but through his struggle – as he lifts weights and hardens his body. A beginner becomes an expert by practice. A loser becomes a winner by training. And indeed, a sinner becomes a saint by passion. Not our own passion, and especially not by our own emotional exuberance or effort. A sinner becomes a saint by Christ’s passion, by Christ’s struggle, by Christ’s cross. It is indeed His pain, but our gain, His death for our life, a happy exchange that barters our sin for His righteousness.

And yet we still live in a world marked and marred by struggle, and will remain so until we enter eternity.

Sometimes struggle in this life is physical. Jacob had a limp his whole life long as a reminder of the physical cost of sin. And yet, even in a painful physical debilitation, there is mercy. Jacob wrestled with a man, a unique Man. In fact, he wrestled with God, whose human face he was able to see. Though God could have blown the molecules of Jacob’s body apart with a single breath, Jacob is permitted to struggle and strive with God, grappling all night to a draw. Even when asked to quit, Jacob refused to cease his struggle until God blessed him. And Jacob was rewarded for his tenacity, his faith in refusing to let even God off the hook. And instead, he held God to His promise and His Word. And while this pleased God, Jacob still kept a painful reminder of his struggle with God.

Out of the struggle came not only a blessing to Jacob, but through Jacob’s family line would come a blessing to the whole world. And this Seed of Jacob born more than seventeen centuries after this wrestling match would be the very God whose human face could be seen, whose body could be grappled with, whose incarnate cruciform struggle would lift sin’s curse from mankind once and for all. For from the very body of the man who struggled against God, in the fullness of time, would come the God who became Man to struggle against sin, death, and the devil, to wrestle on behalf of mankind, to restore peace between God and man for all time and for all eternity.

And we see another man, another human being, a Canaanite woman struggling in her own right. In her travail, she cried out a prayer to the God-Man on behalf of the daughter that came from her own body, a daughter herself struggling with a demon. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David” she prays, as her struggle gives birth to words of prayer.

But rather than being defeated by being ignored, she persists. Like Jacob, she refuses to capitulate. For she knows to whom she prays. She knows He has power. And she refuses to let go until she receives a blessing. And even when the Word of God seemed to discourage her, she refused to give up. She holds the incarnate Word of God, the Son of David, the Son of Jacob, the Son of God – to His Word of promise. And like that of Jacob, her struggle is not in vain: “O woman,” Jesus blesses her, “great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And that particular struggle ended with the healing of the persistent and faithful woman’s daughter.

Faith is not a warm and fuzzy “passion,” or an emotional feeling. Nor is faith a cold and calculated intellectual form of knowledge. Rather faith is holding God to His Word, and struggling against any and all tests, trials, or temptations to quit. Faith is belief, and it clings tenaciously to Christ. Faith refuses to back down, refuses to quit, refuses to surrender hope. And though faith may be weak, and though hope may be but a faint glimmer, faith holds fast to Christ – for in reality, Christ holds fast to us.

And this kind of faith is not the kind of struggle that earns God’s favor, but is rather the result of it. Faith does not merit our justification, but rather flows out of it. Strictly speaking, we are not so much rewarded for our faith as we are rewarded by faith.

St. Paul states it both logically and poetically like this: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith” – notice that the justification by faith is a given, a starting point. Paul continues: “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In other words, the warfare is over. The strife and struggle that pit man against God are done. St. Paul confesses: “Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope in the glory of God.”

Dear brothers and sisters, our Lord Jesus did all the struggling and striving on the cross as he defeated Satan on our behalf. And though we have this grace, this access, this faith in the here and now, there is indeed a “not yet” component as well. For we still live in time and yet abide in this fallen world. We still struggle, but we struggle not as one who may be overtaken by his enemy, rather we struggle as an athlete who uses struggle to become stronger.

For listen to St. Paul’s description of the Christian life: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Dear friends, when we struggle, when we strive, when we get knocked to the ground, when logic and reason seem to defeat us, when temptation pummels us, and when the devil seems to overpower us – we have no reason to lose hope. In fact, all of our trials and crosses in this life are a training exercise to give us endurance, character, and hope. We already have the victory. For while baptismal water was poured upon you, “God’s love has been poured into [your] hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to [you.]” Given to you!

While you didn’t struggle or fight or scrap or otherwise climb your way to earn the Holy Spirit, nevertheless, the Holy Spirit was earned by Him who struggled and strove on the cross. And it is Christ who gives us salvation and the Holy Spirit as a free gift.

Even when our trials are severe, our Savior is greater. Even when our pain and anguish are almost unbearable, our Lord endured far worse for us. And even when we must wrestle with death itself, we know that we have already defeated that foe through the faith given to us by the One who defeated sin, death, and the devil in the struggle to end all struggles.

Our golden age is not only our past, it is our future and our eternity according to the promise and the Word to which we hold our Lord by faith, to His delight and unto our salvation. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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

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