Praying with Faith

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost based on Matthew 15:21-28

Dear children of God: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

We want to put God in a box. We want to contain Him. When we come to church, we want to open up the box for a little bit, but then quickly close it again on the way out as if God has nothing to do with the rest of our lives. Here in church it’s okay to talk about the Ten Commandments, but out in the world and in our lives we think it’s a different story. Here in church it’s okay to talk about God’s design of marriage until death, of male and female, of wives submitting to husbands and husbands loving their wives to the point of giving up their lives for them, but out there in the world we think we should keep quiet because the world is a free-for-all, as if God’s will doesn’t apply.

When it comes to life in the world, we want to put words in God’s mouth. When we hear something that we don’t like, we say, “God wouldn’t say that.” When we see something we don’t like, we say, “God wouldn’t do that.”

We’ve got it all backwards because of our sinful nature. We want to make a god in our image, but it is God who made us in His image. We can project our ideas of who and what God should be, but God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is. 55:8-9)

Our thoughts and our ways tell us that if a woman is pleading to Jesus for her daughter who is severely oppressed by a demon, Jesus would answer her. Our thoughts and our ways tell us that Jesus would tell her that He came to save her and her people. Our thoughts and our ways tell us that Jesus would give her the best, answer her prayers, and not treat her like a dog begging on the street.

Yet, Jesus answered the woman not a word. She continued to plead for mercy, but Jesus did not respond, so the disciples told Jesus to tell her to get lost. That’s basically what Jesus did. He said that He did not come for her, her people, or her daughter; she’s not one of God’s chosen people, Israel. Even this did not deter the woman. She kept pleading. Jesus then told her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, it is not right to take that which belongs to the chosen children of Israel and give it to those who are not.

We cannot say Jesus wouldn’t do that. He did. We cannot say Jesus wouldn’t say that. He did.

We don’t have God in a box. We do not have Him contained. We do not even understand His ways and His thoughts. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His ways higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts.

At those times that we do not understand God’s ways or thoughts, we would do well to focus on what we do know about Him; what He has told us about Himself. He has promised us that He hears our prayers. He has told us that He is loving, merciful, and gracious. He has told us that even though Jesus came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, all nations will be blessed through Him (Is. 56:6,7).

When it seems to us like God is not listening to our prayers, we know that it is not true. He always hears our prayers. When Jesus told the Canaanite woman that He didn’t come to save her and that she is an unworthy dog, He said this to humble her, because we are indeed all unworthy dogs, undeserving of being saved. That’s why we should pray like the woman, acknowledging our sins and unworthiness. We don’t pray to God because we deserve that for which we pray. As we confess in the meaning of the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.” (SC III.5)

If we pray to God like He owes us something or we deserve that for which we pray based on our own merits or worthiness, we may well receive an answer that seems like God is calling us unworthy dogs so that we would realize our unworthiness and pray to Him not on account of our worthiness, but on account of His love and mercy, and His promise to hear us.

When we pray and God does not answer; when we pray for help and we still get hurt; when we pray for solutions and we only get more troubles; when we pray for rain and we only get more drought; when we pray for an end to rain and we only get more rain – these times when we do not understand God’s thoughts or ways, we need to cling to those things that we do know: God’s promises to us.

When God seems to be distant from us and not answering our prayers, He is working faith in us. When God does not immediately answer our prayers with help and grace, He is working faith in us. When we cannot understand God’s thoughts and ways, God is strengthening our faith in what we do know about Him, so that despite what we see and feel; despite what we do not know or understand, we would still cling to His promises to us.

God has promised that He will hear our prayers and never leave us or forsake us. He has told us that He loves us and wants everything only for our good. He has promised that even though we are unworthy to receive anything good from Him, He gives to us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. He promises us that because of Jesus’ death on our behalf, our sins have been paid for and we are declared worthy of eternal life.

Cling to these promises when God seems distant or angry. Cling to these promises of God when you do not understand what He is doing. Cling to these promises of God when you realize you do not have God in a box and do not have Him contained. Even cling to these promises when you do not understand why God has given certain Commandments and rules and how or why they are best. Even all of God’s Commandments are good for us and for our society, whether we understand it or not.

There are things that we cannot know or understand. There are things God has hidden from us. Every time we face troubles and tribulation, we do not have an answer from God as to why, or even for how long. That is why we cling to what we do know; what God has given us to know and understand. We cling to His promise that He is with us and will never leave us or forsake us. We cling to His promise that everything we face is for our eternal good. We cling to His promise that after grief, He will give relief, whether it starts already in this life, or if it is when we receive eternal life. We need fear no harm, because God will keep us safe in His arm, so we can trust in Him, and submit to His holy and perfect will. He who has given us faith will also keep us in the faith, whatever we must face. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Faith in the Midst of Storms

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost based on Matthew 14:22-33

Dear storm-tossed disciples: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

How do you know for certain that you are saved? How do you know for certain that your sins are forgiven? How do you know for certain that you will receive eternal life? How can you be certain that when you are sinking and you cry out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus will save you?

Do not respond by saying that it is because you have faith. You do have faith, and because of the faith that God has given you, you are saved (John 3:16), but that is not the answer to the questions.

Look at the example of Peter to understand why having faith is not the answer to the questions. When Peter stepped out of the boat, he had faith in Jesus’ Word. When he saw the wind, he was afraid and doubted Jesus’ Word.

Do we not do the same? We believe Jesus’ Word until we see the wind and waves of this life howling and threatening. That’s when doubt sets in. When we are overwhelmed by loss and strife, illness and death, we doubt. When we pass through trials, with sin and ills contending, bearing the cross that God has sent us; when we are facing adversity and the storms of woe dismay our souls; when death pursues us without rest and the only thing between us and death’s strong grasp is a failing breath – at such a time, do not turn inwardly to find your faith. You will have a hard time finding anything but doubt.

Our response is not likely to be one of faith, but despair. We question why God would allow such tragedy. We may even feel angry towards God. We respond like the widow of Zarephath to Elijah when her son died, who said, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sins to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” (I Kings 17:18)

The widow responded with those words because when she turned inwardly to find faith, she found only sin. She thought because of her past sin, God had taken her son from her. She thought because she remembered her sin, God also remembered her sin and punished her for it.

To find certainty of your salvation; to know for certain that your sins are forgiven and not remembered by God; to know for certain that you have eternal life, do not look inward to your faith. We are sinful people whose faith waivers, especially in trials and temptations. When we are sinking and we turn inward to look for faith, we will find only doubt and despair.

For certainty of your salvation, look to where God has promised you salvation. God has promised you salvation in the waters of Holy Baptism. Scripture tells us that Baptism gives the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38) and washes away sins (Acts 22:16). Scripture tells us Baptism rescues from death and the devil (Romans 6:3-5) and clothes us with Christ (Galatians 3:27). Scripture tells us that as Noah and his family were saved in the ark from the flood waters, so the flood waters of Baptism save us (I Peter 3:21).

When the wind and waves of this life hit you with full force, do not turn inwardly to try and find faith. Instead look to your Baptism where God has given you faith. Look to your Baptism which is not a feeling or emotion. Your Baptism doesn’t waiver. Your Baptism doesn’t wear off. Baptism saves you.

You have certainty in Baptism because that is where God has promised you salvation. In the midst of trials and tribulations, remember your Baptism where God claimed you as His own and promised you the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

For certainty of your salvation, look to where God has promised you salvation. In addition to Baptism, God has also promised you salvation in the Sacrament of the Altar. Scripture tells us that in the Lord’s Supper, we receive Christ’s true body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins (Matt. 26:28). Scripture tells us that Christ’s blood cleanses us from all sin (I John 1:7). Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation (SC VI.2), thus eternal life and salvation are also received in the Sacrament of the Altar.

When the wind and waves of this life hit you with full force, do not turn inwardly to try and find faith. Instead look to the Sacrament of the Altar where God gives you the forgiveness of sins and strengthens your faith. Look to the Sacrament of the Altar which is not a feeling or emotion. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t waiver – you always receive Christ’s true body and blood. The Lord’s Supper saves you through the forgiveness of sins.

You can thus be certain of your salvation through the Sacraments because they are where God has promised you salvation.

When Peter doubted and began to sink, Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of Peter and saved him. Jesus didn’t say, “No, I’m not going to save you because you are doubting instead of believing.” It was not because of the strength of Peter’s faith that Jesus saved him. In spite of Peter’s doubting and lack of faith, Jesus saved him.

All of this does not downplay the importance of faith. Faith is what saves, but faith has an object. Faith believes in something.

Faith in false gods does not save. Faith in one’s own goodness does not save. Faith in one’s own faith does not save.

Saving faith is trust in Jesus and His promises. Saving faith is trust that Jesus’ death on the cross was for your sins. Saving faith is trust that when Jesus’ Word tells you Baptism saves you, you believe it to be true. Saving faith is trust that when Jesus tells you that He gives you His body and blood to eat for the forgiveness of sins, you believe it to be true. Faith is trust that Jesus gives you all the benefits of His life, death, and resurrection through the Sacraments He instituted for that very purpose.

This is why faith does not turn inward to look to itself. Faith looks to Christ on the cross. Faith looks to the empty tomb. Faith looks to Christ and what He has accomplished for our salvation.

Faith must also look to where Christ has promised that we receive that salvation. We cannot receive salvation from the cross. We cannot receive salvation from the empty tomb. We receive salvation in Baptism. We receive salvation in the Sacrament of the Altar. Thus, faith looks to Baptism. Faith looks to the Sacrament of the Altar. Faith looks to these two Sacraments where Christ has promised us salvation.

When the storms of life gather and our road looks dark; when great woes and troubles overtake us; when disaster brings our sins into remembrance and death looms near, know for certain that you are saved. Know for certain that your sins are forgiven. Know for certain that you will receive eternal life. Know these for certain, because these are the promises God Himself has made to you in your Baptism and in the Sacrament of the Altar. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.