“Wrestling with God”
Genesis 32:22-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Lent 2, March 1, 2015
Pastor Aaron A. Koch
Mt. Zion Lutheran Church
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
As a Christian you believe that Jesus is one who will never betray your trust in Him. He will never forsake you or turn against you. You can count on Him to keep His Word, to be faithful to you and stand by you. That’s what you believe. And that’s right and good. But sometimes you know that only by faith and not by sight or experience. Sometimes it’s like in today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings. For in both of those readings, God acts as if He were the enemy. He doesn’t appear to be the faithful friend, but an adversary, first of Jacob and then of the Canaanite woman. It’s bad enough when other people are against you, we sort of expect that. But sometimes it can even seem that God Himself is fighting against you, that through the experiences and circumstances of your life He’s slapping you down. Why would He do that?
We must always remember that God deals with us in two different ways–through His Law and through His Gospel. Those aren’t just theological words, those are the realities of how we experience God’s coming to us. The Law brings judgment; the Gospel brings mercy. With His Law, God holds a gun to our head, so to speak, so that our predicament as sinners before His holiness hits home with terrifying reality. Like Isaiah when he stood before the Lord and said, “Woe is me, I am a dead man,” so also we haven’t really dealt with reality until we’re scared to death that God is going to be our worst enemy. He holds your life in His hands. His Law undoes all of your defenses and lays you bare–no excuses, no escape, nothing to bargain with at all. There’s no more playing games with such a God. For, as Martin Luther said, “Where there is no fear, there is no humility. Where there is no humility there is pride, and where there is pride, there is wrath and judgment.”
But God behaves this way toward us, humbling us, laying us low, not to harm us but to save us. The Law ends up serving the Gospel. God “kills” us in order that He might raise us from this cursed life to real life. We need to know the terror of death before we can truly live. And so God slays us sinners with the Law in order that He might recreate us holy in Christ with the Gospel. Through His damning Law God clears out and creates a place for His mercy in our fallen hearts where there was no place before. And this is what He wants–hearts stripped of all pretense and self-sufficiency, directed only toward Him, seeking and taking refuge in His mercy in Christ. It is written in Hosea, “Come, let us return to the Lord; for He has torn us to pieces, but He will heal us; He has injured us, but He will bind up our wounds. After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up that we may live in His sight.”
Like a gloved and masked surgeon approaching you with his scalpel ready to make his incision, God calls you to faith in Him even when it appears that He’s harming you. This faith is something that the Holy Spirit creates in you, giving you to believe that God’s true nature is one of love and mercy, and that his attitude toward you is favorable in Christ, even when everything that you feel and see seems to say otherwise. This is what it means to say that we walk by faith and not by sight–trusting in His mercy that we can’t always see against His judgment that we often see all too clearly, believing that His promises are greater than His threats.
This is what we witness in today’s readings. God comes to Jacob as a nameless stranger who fights and wrestles with him. Jacob probably would’ve hoped for God to come to him in a more gentle manner. For Jacob was already under a lot of stress. He was about to meet his brother Esau. Esau you recall was the one whom Jacob had tricked out of the inheritance and the family blessing some 14 years earlier. This would be the first time they’ve seen each other since then. Jacob didn’t know if Esau would receive him or try to do harm to him and his family. And in the midst of all this, God comes and wrestles with Jacob until the break of day.
But He does so for Jacob’s good. For despite appearances, He is making Himself accessible to Jacob here. The Lord is with him to wrestle away his fears and to strengthen Jacob’s faith in the promises He had made to him. So it is that Jacob clings to the Lord and will not let Him go until he receives a blessing from Him. That’s faith, that’s what the Lord wants. Though He seemed like an enemy, God was ultimately there as Jacob’s ally. For He blessed him there. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, which means “struggles with God.” For he struggled with God and men and prevailed by faith.
In the same way, there may be times in your life when you want God to come gently and softly, and instead you get the God who fights and wrestles with you. But trust Him; He knows what He’s doing. Rejoice that He’s there, that He’s with you. He’s putting your sinful nature to death. Like Jacob, hold on to Him tightly. Cling to His promises; wrestle with His Word. Don’t let Him go until He gives you a blessing. That’s what He wants. That’s why He seeks you out and comes to you. Be a true Israelite, struggling with God and prevailing by faith. Believe that behind the awful judgment of the Law, the Lord is indeed good to you, and His mercy endures forever.
That’s what the Canaanite woman in the Gospel believed. Jesus certainly treated her as if He were her enemy, didn’t He. According to the standards of political correctness, Jesus acted like a racist! This Gentile woman comes to Him believing that He can help. Though she’s not from Israel, yet she believes that He is the Messiah, calling Him Son of David. She prays to Him, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” She doesn’t pray for herself but for her daughter.
But Jesus doesn’t even answer her. He acts as if she is not even worth listening to, turns His back on her. All she gets is silence. It’s like when we pray to God, when our need is serious, but there seems to be no answer to our prayer. Then the struggle and the wrestling begins. Then the temptation arises in your hearts to think that God is loveless (at least toward you), that He doesn’t really care, that there’s no point in seeking His help. The Psalmist knew this struggle when He prayed, “To You I cry, O Lord, my Rock. Do not be silent to me, lest, if you are silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit.”
Jesus goes on emptying this Gentile woman of herself so that He might fill her up with His goodness and life. He behaves as if He’s not for her, saying that He’s only for the Jews. And then, even when she kneels before Him and begs for help, He seems to give her a mortal blow, calling her a little dog who shouldn’t get the children’s bread.
But this Canaanite woman shows herself to be a true Israelite. Like Jacob of old, she won’t let Jesus go until she receives a blessing. She clings to the Lord’s words, and she’s not going to let Him wriggle out of them. Out of His very own words she forms a plea. “Yes, you are right; I have no right to your mercy. I am a dog. Yet, if that is what I am, then give me what a dog gets; give me some table scraps, and that will be more than enough to see me through.” And Jesus delights in being caught in His words and to give to the woman not just crumbs but the whole loaf, all that she desired. She struggles with God and man in Christ and prevails. Jesus says to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” Behind the enemy’s mask, Jesus now breaks through and is revealed to be her truest Friend.
So it is with you, too. God’s Law deals us a mortal, lethal blow. “Lord, your judgement against me is that I am damned sinner. Yes, Lord, it is true. I deserve nothing good from you. I have no right to your mercy. Yet, if I am a sinner, give me what you have promised to sinners. It is written, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’ Grant me that salvation. It is written, ‘The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.’ Grant me that forgiveness. It is written, ‘I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.’ Lord, grant me that life. I’m not letting go until you keep your promises to me.” And Jesus is delighted to have you hold Him to His words. That is what faith is, to cling to Christ and His words, even when everything else seems to be against you, even contrary to what you see. For Christ gives you not just crumbs, but the whole loaf, His entire self, His true body and blood offered up for you on the cross, now given for you for the forgiveness of your sins. No longer are you mere dogs, scrounging around for scraps. You are children at the table of the Lord.
That is so because Jesus traded places with you and put Himself in the position of the Canaanite woman. He was treated as if He were the unwanted street dog, whipped and rejected by men. He too heard the silence of God in His ears when He prayed to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” No answer came back as He suffered our sins and our hell to death. And yet He remained faithful, trusting in and holding on to His Father’s love, and He was vindicated in the end, rising from the grave in victory on the third day, so that with the Canaanite woman, we too might share in His vindication and His victory in the resurrection.
Brothers and sisters of Christ, our God is in the business of death and resurrection. He cuts you so that He may heal you. He kills you so that He may make you alive through His Son. Through tribulation He produces perseverance and character and hope which does not disappoint. Trust Him, then, with your death. Trust Him with your life in Christ.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠