Monday, August 21, 2023

What is Faith in Christ?

[Below, you'll find the message shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, this past Sunday, August 20, along with live stream videos of both our traditional and modern worship services.]

Matthew 15:21-28

Just before the event recounted in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus had an encounter with Pharisees from Jerusalem. They confront Jesus for allowing His disciples to break God’s Law that said good religious folks must undergo ritual cleansing before eating.

Jesus explains that it isn’t the things that enter our bodies from outside of us that make us unclean in the eyes of God. Instead, it’s the sinful nature inside each of us that leads us to commit sins that makes us unclean. Jesus says, “...out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person…” (Matthew 15:19-20)

Then, as if to demonstrate what He means about not being defiled by what comes from outside of ourselves, our lesson for today finds Jesus, the pure, perfect, holy, Son of God, going into territory that Jews deem unclean, the region of Tyre and Sidon. This area hugging the coast of the Mediterranean was a land whose people were notorious idolaters and sinners. The whole region is regarded by Jesus’ countrymen as evil.

And here’s Jesus going into this unclean land to encounter a Gentile woman with a saving faith in Him that the Pharisees and most of Jesus’ fellow Jews would reject.

We all know the central importance of faith in Christ. Every little child in the Church knows John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” 

Romans talks about faith and salvation too. "...But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe [who have faith]." (Romans 3:21-22)

Our salvation in Christ isn’t based on what we do or even on what we are, but solely on what Christ has done for us and our faith or trust in Christ.

But what does it mean to have faith or to believe in Jesus?

The great Lutheran preacher of the last century, Bo Giertz, posed this very question and said that the Canaanite woman in today’s lesson illustrates exactly what it means to have faith in three ways. So, I want to take those three insights of Giertz and talk about each of them.

To have faith in Jesus means, first of all, to set all one’s hope on Jesus. That’s an enormous statement!

Faith in Jesus means that we trust that He, God the Son, is the author of “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17), the supplier of everything we need, from our eternal salvation to our next meal. He is “our daily bread” in this life and the next.

We may wonder where this woman got her faith in Jesus. The gospel of Mark tells us in recounting this same incident, that the woman had “heard” about Jesus. (Mark 7:25) So, in some form or another the Word about Jesus had traveled from Capernaum, which is where Jesus’ ministry was centered at that time, to Tyre, about the distance from Dayton to Springfield.

This Word about Jesus had done its work in this desperate woman. By this second-hand Word about the Lord and Savior of the world, the mother of the demon-possessed girl, had come to believe in Jesus. She set her hope on Jesus.

The apostle Paul asks in Romans: “How…can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14)

And He says that once the Word about Jesus reaches people, the Holy Spirit can create faith in Christ within them: “ comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (Romans 10:17)

The Canaanite woman had been given the Word about Jesus and through it, had come to set her hope on Him.

To have faith in Jesus means also not to think much of oneself. I’m not talking about “self-esteem” here.

The Canaanite woman, a Gentile who stood outside of the covenant God made with His people, the Jews, through Abraham, knew that she didn’t deserve anything from God.

When she approaches Jesus, we’re told, “A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.’” (Matthew 15:22) And again she says, “Lord, help me!” (Matthew 15:25)

The woman acknowledges Jesus as Lord, that is, as Yahweh, God of all, and as the Son of David, the Messiah King, true God and true man.

She asks for His mercy. “I am a sinner, Lord,” she is effectively telling Jesus, “I don’t claim to be entitled to anything. I can’t claim to be a good person. But because You are good, because of Your grace, I ask, I beg. for Your mercy.”

As I’ve explained before, we sinners who cannot perfectly obey God’s Law nonetheless keep it when we acknowledge that we are rightly judged to be sinners by that Law–the Ten Commandments–and turn to Christ for mercy, grace, and forgiveness. This is what the Canaanite woman does!

When Jesus tells her that it would be morally wrong to take blessings away from God’s people to give them to dogs (what Jews called Gentiles), outsiders, the woman fully understands. No parent would be right to scrape the food off the plates of His own children in order to feed dogs. This is, in essence what Jesus is telling the woman. The woman agrees with Jesus but says, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:27)

Now, this incident occurs between two miraculous feedings by Jesus: the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14 and the feeding of the 4000 in Matthew 15. At both feedings, there were leftovers, 12 baskets-full at one and 7 at another.

“Lord,” the Canaanite woman is saying, because of her faith in Jesus, “don’t give me the choicest of Your blessings. I know Your grace is overflowing. Just give me the leftovers. Just give me Your crumbs. I know You and I know that will be enough!”

Faith means not to think too much of ourselves, but to always think of how great, good, gracious, and wonderful is the God we know in Jesus!

Finally, Giertz says, “faith holds onto Jesus even if He does not seem to answer.” Why does Jesus delay answering the woman’s prayer for her daughter? Why does He seem to delay or not answer our prayers? I don’t know. Like you, I’ve experienced God seeming to tarry in answering my prayers in Jesus’ name. And I’ve experienced things going completely differently from what I prayed would happen.

But, like the woman, our call is to keep praying and seeking from the God we know in Jesus the blessings we feel we need and trust Him to sort things out as He, in His grace and wisdom, sees fit. This is the point of our praying, “Thy will be done.” We trust and pray in the certainty that it is His pleasure to show mercy to those who cling to Him in faith. And when the answers to our prayers seem to be delayed, Jesus blesses us with His presence and places us in the comforting presence of His people.

The woman in our lesson trusted in Jesus as God and King. She acknowledged her sin and that she didn’t deserve God’s favor. She expressed faith in the enormity of God’s grace that could provide even for her, an undeserving sinner.

Friends, whether in this life or the next, Jesus loves to bless and reward such faith. It is people with this kind of faith that are meant when the Bible tells us, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

And so, Jesus tells the woman that the disciples wanted to send away: “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” We’re then told: “And her daughter was healed at that moment.” (Matthew 15:28)

How does one acquire such a faith?

You don’t decide to have it.

You can’t work to get it.

God gives it to us through His Word and His Word made visible in the Sacraments. He speaks faith into us.

Through the Word about Jesus, we know that Jesus is our God and King, that we are sinners saved by grace through faith in Jesus, that all our sins are forgiven, and that Jesus wants to give us His mercy. By the power of the Word about Jesus, you may believe that this is all true! Amen

The Gospel of John, August 20, 2023

This is the adult Sunday School class of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on August 20, 2023. We cover John 1:35-2:11.

The audio is difficult to hear at first. But once I connect and clip on the microphone, it's clear. That happens a few minutes into the session.