On Wednesday in my adult Confirmation class, we were discussing the Lord’s Supper. One of the things we talked about was what we think about while receiving the Lord’s Supper. I said that I couldn’t speak to specific thoughts, but rather the general attitude. When we use Settings One and Two of the Divine Service we get to pray the Eucharistic Prayer during the Communion liturgy. I think they summarized our Lord’s Supper attitude perfectly in this one sentence: “With repentant joy we receive the salvation accomplished for us by the all-availing sacrifice of His Body and His Blood on the cross.” While it’s an oxymoron, it’s the paradox that is the Christian heart during the reception of the Sacrament.
When we think of Israel’s sacrifices, the first animal that comes to mind is the lamb. As Christians, that image of Jesus as the Lamb of God dominates our thoughts. But there were other animals, like goats and doves and pigeons and rams. The ram is one we forget about, but we shouldn’t. There’s a good reason why a ram was the animal provided when God spared Isaac. The ram’s greatest glory was found in his sacrificial use, his standing in the place of others and giving of himself for greater purposes.
As is typical of the disciples, they have a good idea, but get off track in its execution. In the case of tonight’s Gospel, they understood that physical problems are the result of sin. There was no blindness, lameness, deafness, cancer, homelessness, or death in Eden. They were right—the blind man had sinned, as had his parents, all the way back to his first parents. They were right—the man was blind because of sin. But they weren’t right about his blindness being the result of a specific personal sin, a punishment visited upon him for a transgression, an external mark of an internal uncleanness.
Rejoice! In the midst of the Muller report, in the midst of knowing that another election cycle is about to begin; in the midst of measles outbreaks; in the midst of legislation targeting the most vulnerable, rejoice! In the midst of the season of repentance and fasting, in this violet season, rejoice! Today you are given a glimpse of a brighter color; the violet is lightened to rose. This is a reminder that, for you, dear Christian, heaven is not far off, for God is with you. The light pierces the darkness. This world and its troubles will soon pass away. The God who is in control of it all sees to all of your earthly needs. He teaches you this through simple bread and fish, earthly food with a greater implication, that if He takes care of something as mundane as food, how much more will He take care of that which really matters?
There’s a reason why tonight’s Old Testament Reading didn’t have all Ten Commandments. We only heard the Second Table, those Commandments that deal with our earthly relationships, because the Second Table is where we get into the most trouble. It’s where we put all of our stock, thinking that if we can convince people we’re righteous in Commandments 4-10, then we must be just as good with Commandments 1-3. It’s why the Pharisees in the Gospel were more concerned with hand washing and tradition than their interactions with God. The reality is we’re all in the same boat as the Pharisees. It’s why we sang “Let not self your thoughts control.” We think that as long as we maintain an outward righteousness, a façade, all is well.
There is no middle ground. That’s the moral of today’s story, the point of today’s Gospel. “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” So says Our Lord. You can’t sit on the fence when it comes to your Christian life. A divided household falls. Today’s Gospel asks you who you will choose to hear: Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus or Satan. Of course, we know the answer in a Romans 7 kind of way—the good I want to do I do not do, and the evil I do not want to do, that I do. The new man created in each of us by Holy Baptism wants to hear Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus, and rejoices in what they say; he is happy to receive guidelines and boundaries. But the Old Adam, the flesh we all wear, cringes at those things. The Old Adam hates Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus. Today’s Gospel is a warning that it’s possible to fall away even after faith is created. It’s a reminder to guard our life and conduct. It’s an admonition to be one who hears the Word of God and keeps it.
Tonight’s Readings do an excellent job of illustrating our lives. There is reality, and then there is perceived reality. “I walk in danger all the way” is the truest statement we could speak. Thanks be to God, though we walk in danger all the way, He is always beside us to defend us.
Today’s Gospel Reading is one of the most difficult ones we wrestle with all year. Not because of its doctrine or its interpretation, but because of the image of Jesus we receive. If you hold onto any image of Jesus being a fishing buddy or someone who is a cuddly friend, today sends that image right out the window. The first time this poor woman pleads for mercy for her daughter, Jesus ignores her. Then, the disciples tell Jesus to tell her to be quiet and go away, and Jesus’ response is that He wasn’t even sent for her. And then when Jesus finally speaks to her, He calls her a dog. And in first century life, dogs weren’t fur babies who get treated better than people. Dogs were filthy and mean and you didn’t want them around. They looked at dogs with all the affection that you and I have for rats. This is the equivalent of looking the sweetest grandmother in the eyes and sneering at her, you don’t even deserve the air you breathe. So, why? Why does Jesus do this? Why do we hear this account? Through this Canaanite woman Jesus is teaching us to put all of our trust in the Word of God and the truths it reveals. Do not rely on what your eyes see or your ears hear. They will deceive you. Trust only in what Holy Scripture reveals to you, because that is the only thing you can trust.
One of the hardest things for us to remember is that we are in God’s gracious care and keeping. We confess in the First Article of the Creed that God graciously gives us clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. When we pray the Fourth Petition, “Give us this day our daily bread,” it is a confession that God gives us absolutely everything that we need, and He does it even if we fail to ask for it or thank Him for it. But the anxiety still creeps in. Is God really looking out for me? It didn’t feel like He was with me through that trial. If God is really with me, would He let me stare this problem that just keeps getting worse? When Satan tempts us with unbelief, when he asks us “Does God really care,” it’s easy for us to fall into one of the two faithless responses we have seen in tonight’s Readings. But as Paul reassures Timothy: “If we are faithless, [God] remains faithful” (2 Tim 2.13).
Satan has it out for us. He’s working to make evil sound good, and good sound evil. Both Adam and Jesus are told by God to fast. Adam’s was a minor fast—you cannot eat from this one tree, but everything else is fair game. Jesus’ fast was a much greater fast—forty days with absolutely nothing to eat or drink. This fast, which God knew was good for both, was made out by the devil as something evil. To Adam Satan said God is holding out on you. This is the epitome of unfairness! You won’t die from one bite. To Jesus Satan said God is holding out on you. This is the epitome of unfairness—You have the power to create and yet you’re being told you can’t do it as your body wastes away in starvation and dehydration. You won’t die from one bite. So, do not be surprised that the devil says all the same things to you today. They may not be the same words, but the concept is the same. Satan tris to convince you that sin is okay, that it’s not a big deal, that you can mess around with it and come out just fine. Do not be deceived. In this season where we focus on spiritual warfare, remember that the one trying to convince you that sin is okay is the Father of Lies.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.