[This is the last sermon I am giving while a member of St. John Lutheran Church, N. Tonawanda, N.Y., the home congregation of my late bride, Beth. This is why I direct some thanks toward the man who was Beth's pastor and has been mine, Ron Oravec. In two weeks, on September 1, I will be moving back to my native Nebraska.]
IN NOMINE JESU
It is quite a privilege for us to be children of the heavenly Father, raised and nurtured by the mother Church, for it is here that we are washed and fed, fed through God's Word and Sacraments. This takes place during the Divine Service, reaching its twin climaxes in the reading of the Holy Gospel and in the Words of Institution, through which climaxes we are fed the Bread of Life, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Think of the Liturgy as a slice of bread and of each component of the Divine Service as a crumb from that slice of bread. Our Lord, who is our Host at the Feast we will partake of in a few moments, is giving us the crumbs throughout the Liturgy. Every invocation is a crumb. Every confession and absolution is a crumb. Every hymn, every canticle, every Reading, every sermon, every consecration and distribution of the communion elements, and every benediction…all more crumbs for us, given to us by our gracious giver God. There is a tremendous blessing to knowing the Liturgy, and that is that, since it is rooted in the Word of God, we can look to it for comfort in times of trouble, as our Lord comforts us with His Word.
When the Divine Service is celebrated and confessed regularly, it can become a part of us. This is most certainly true in the case of the sick and shut-ins and the dying within our fellowship. I am sure Pastor Oravec can echo the experiences I have had in ministering to such individuals. In many cases, as I came to bring them the Lord's Supper, I would lead them through the Liturgy, and they would speak the words of the Liturgy along with me. In the form that I had been using, I would lead them in the confession of sins, speaking the entire prayer of confession and then asking the member if that was his or her sincere confession, followed by his or her saying yes. Many times I did not need to ask that question as they were praying aloud with me. Confession, Creed, Lord's Prayer, Nunc Dimittis—it mattered not, for they knew the words and would speak along with me. Many times they said that the words of the Liturgy got them through their times of trouble and anxiety. They rejoiced in receiving the Word and Sacraments through my visits to them, as my visits as their pastor were, in many cases, their only connection left with their home congregations. Having been away from the Lord's Table and His house, through no willful act of their own but only by the effects of aging and illness, they craved the crumbs that fell from their Master's table. How great their faith was! By the Holy Spirit, they were able to repeat the words of the Liturgy, learned in their youth, echoing the words spoken and sung by their forebears in the faith, the saints and martyrs, including the very first Christians as well as St. Laurence, whom we remembered last Sunday, St. Mary, Mother of Our Lord, remembered this past Friday, and St. Bartholomew, one of our Lord's apostles who was martyred and whom the Church will remember next Sunday. The Liturgy was their connection with them and us, the saints today. Through sickness and age they who at one time were the children at the table were now as dogs begging for crumbs from the table. Through the Means of Grace given in the Liturgy celebrated in their homes or rooms, crumb by crumb the Lord fed them, restoring them to their places at the table, and they were filled with His grace. This is why the Liturgy can be compared to a slice of bread, as we are fed on the Bread of Life. It could be said that the Liturgy has been the best thing before and since sliced bread.
There was a Canaanite woman who came from her heathen land to see Jesus. No doubt she had heard of Him and His miracles and had wanted Him to heal her daughter of demon possession. But she was not an Israelite, not of the bloodline the Lord had come to redeem. She cried out to Him, speaking liturgically (though she likely did not realize that), "Kyrie eleison!" "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!" She was essentially saying, "Lord, be an Atonement Cover for me! Cover up my sins! Do not look upon me on account of my sins but by Your mercy!" The Lord hears the prayers of His people, but she was not one of His people; so He said nothing. She persisted, crying out all the more, "Lord, help me!" If the Lord had not answered in order to test His disciples, they failed the test miserably, "And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she cries out after us" (v. 23b). They just wanted Him to give her what she wanted so that she would be quiet. The disciples were annoyed with her, but the Lord had something greater in mind. He wanted to show that His grace would be for all people. He came to preach repentance to the Jews, for salvation was of the Jews. The Lord had come in human form to save His chosen people first. It would only be after His resurrection and ascension that forgiveness and salvation would be preached to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike.
But here comes this Gentile woman…before the Lord's time had come, before He would atone for the sin of the world. She comes to Him, begging that He would heal her daughter from demon possession. When the Lord finally spoke to her, He said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs" (v. 26). In other words, He was telling her that it was not meet, right, and salutary that He should abandon His divine call of serving His people in order that He would serve another people He was not called to serve, especially an heathen and unclean people. It is important to note, however, how our Lord used the word dog. The verse I just read, from the New King James Version, refers to the "little dogs," meaning that Christ was referring to the dogs that were kept as house pets, not as the strays that run wild and have no owner. This Canaanite woman seizes upon these words of Christ and acknowledges that she is one of the little dogs, saying, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table" (v. 27). Luther, preaching on this text, spoke very well of this woman's response, saying:
She does not despair, but agrees with His judgment and concedes, she is a dog, and desires also no more than a dog is entitled to, namely, that she may eat the crumbs that fall from the table of the Lord. Is not that a masterly stroke as a reply? She catches Christ with His own words. He compares her to a dog, she concedes it, and asks nothing more than that He let her be a dog, as He Himself judged her to be. Where will Christ now take refuge? He is caught. Truly, people let the dog have the crumbs under the table; it is entitled to that. Therefore Christ now completely opens His heart to her and yields to her will, so that she is now no dog, but even a child of Israel. All this, however, is written for our comfort and instruction, that we may know how deeply God conceals His grace before our face, and that we may not estimate Him according to our feelings and thinking, but strictly according to His Word.
God deals with His people according to His grace and mercy, not on our merits, our feelings, or our thoughts. For this reason He desires to continue feeding us on His Word and Sacraments, as the crumbs He gives fill us well…and more! He dealt with this Canaanite woman who came to Him in faith. He knew what He was about to do, well before this woman cried to Him, for wanted to make His mercy known to His people, of whom this Gentile woman now was. The Lord has dealt mercifully with His people through the ages, even though we have not always acted as His people, as His children. We take Him for granted, seeking to turn His free grace into cheap grace; that is, we know what sin is, but we deliberately do what He forbids. We take Luther's words—"sin boldly"—to the extreme. We think that, as long as God promises to forgive, we can continue to sin. St. Paul writes:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. [Rom. 6:1-4]
As long as we continue to live in our sins and apart from our Savior, we push ourselves farther and farther from His table, where He deigns to feed us, and we put ourselves in the Lord's doghouse. By our sins, as long as we desire to remain in them, we show that we do not want to be children of God, that we do not want His mercy, and that we do not want any part of His gifts. We would rather starve our souls than receive even the tiniest crumb of grace that the Lord offers. For us hardened sinners, the Liturgy becomes rote, if we even care to remember it; we errantly look at the Liturgy as something we do rather than what God does. We bark about the hymns. We whimper about the length of the Divine Service. We howl about what was said in the sermon (if we dared to pay attention) or how long the sermon was. We froth at the mouth if the Word hits too close to home. We want this day our daily bread, but we couldn't care less about the weekly bread, that which our Lord desires to give us each Lord's Day within the Divine Service. Even though, as the saying goes, you can't teach an old dog new tricks, it is imperative for each of us to learn that, regardless of age or of standing in the congregation, when we reject the gifts, we reject the Giver of the gifts…we reject God Himself. Do you remember the movie Old Yeller and what happened to that dog? Well, as long as we reject the Giver God and His life-saving and life-changing gifts, we face a fate far worse than did Old Yeller; we are looking at spending eternity in hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and where damnation is not the devil's breed of dog.
Things were looking bleak for the Canaanite woman, but she continued to pray without ceasing. She did so not on account of who she was, but on account of who Christ is. His healing her daughter had less to do with her persistence than it does with His mercy. The life of the Christian is never about the Christian; it is about Christ and what He has done for the Christian. He says, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance" (9:12b-13). The great early Church father St. Augustine explains beautifully what our Lord means by this:
Lo here are the sheep of whom He said, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." For to them He exhibited His Presence, for them in the midst of their violence against Him He prayed as He was being crucified, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. "The Physician understood how those frenzied men were in their madness putting the Physician to death, and in putting their Physician to death, though they knew it not, were preparing a medicine for themselves. For by the Lord so put to death are all we cured, by His Blood redeemed, by the Bread of His Body delivered from famine. This Presence then did Christ exhibit to the Jews. And so He said, "I am not sent, but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel;" that to them He might exhibit the Presence of His body; not that He might disregard, and pass over the sheep which He had among the Gentiles.
For to the Gentiles He went not Himself, but sent His disciples. And in this was fulfilled what the Prophet said; "A people whom I have not known hath served Me." See how deep, how clear, how express the prophecy is; "a people whom I have not known," that is, to whom I have not exhibited My Presence, "hath served Me." How? It goes on to say, "By the hearing of the ear they have obeyed Me:" that is, they have believed, not by seeing, but by hearing. Therefore have the Gentiles the greater praise. For the others saw and slew Him; the Gentiles heard and believed. Now it was to call and gather together the Gentiles, that that might be fulfilled which we have just now chanted, "Gather us from among the Gentiles, that we may confess to Thy Name, and glory in Thy praise," that the Apostle Paul was sent. He, the least, made great, not by himself, but by Him whom he once persecuted, was sent to the Gentiles, from a robber become a shepherd, from a wolf a sheep. He, the least Apostle, was sent to the Gentiles, and laboured much among the Gentiles, and through him the Gentiles believed. His Epistles are the witnesses.
The Word became flesh and came to the Jews. This same Incarnate Word came to the Gentiles read, proclaimed, and administered. He came to the Gentiles through the work of men like Paul, Laurence, and Bartholomew, men who were put to death on account of their faith. He came to the Gentiles through the preaching and teaching of Martin Luther, who was persecuted for teaching the one true faith. He has come through His Word preached and taught by men such as Pastor Oravec, my mentor, my brother, and my friend. I will never forget Pastor Oravec's coming to our house to bring the Lord's Word and Supper to my bride, Beth, as she was dying from cancer, giving her the Master's crumbs. When she was in the hospital during the last hours of her life, he came with more crumbs from the Bread of Life, giving her the Word of God, reminding her of her Baptism, that she would in her final hours remember who she was and whose she was, a sinner belonging to Christ, redeemed by the blood He shed on the cross for her, for me, and for you.
[Ron, I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to preach the Word and administer the Lord's Supper here during your time of vacation over the past few weeks. I am honored that you would allow me this great opportunity to preach Christ crucified and risen. This also gives me the opportunity in this, my last sermon here at St. John prior to moving back to my native Nebraska, to publicly thank you, Ron, for being Beth's pastor, for all the years she was a member here and you fed her on God's Word through catechesis and on His body and blood in the Holy Communion. I thank you for bringing her the Lord's Word and His Supper to our house, that she would receive the crumbs of God's grace for the growth and strengthening of her faith even as her body was wasting away through the process of dying. You gave her the one thing needful: you gave her Christ. I thank you, and, more importantly, I thank God for you and for your ministry to her…and to me during the time I was home with her and since the day the Lord called her to her eternal home. Thank you, Ron. I love you, dear brother in Christ!]
Fellow redeemed, the Lord has come to the Gentiles, to you and to me, by His own word that He preached from the cross: "It is finished!" His work of bringing salvation to the Jews was completed, though they rejected Him. Those words of our crucified Lord began the work of preaching the cross to the Gentiles, "for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'The just shall live by faith'" (Rom. 1:16b-17), "For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:22-24). Through the preaching of Christ, we also preach Christ risen, for He has risen and conquered sin, death, and hell for us. By His death and resurrection and our God-given faith in Him, we crave the crumbs the He gives us. He fills us on the bread that is the Liturgy, giving us His Word and His body and blood, and, as St. Paul writes in our Epistle: "The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29). Christ's conception, His birth, His life, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, His Word, and His Sacraments are all for you. He is about to give you His body and blood, that you would be fed on Him and be satisfied, nourished and strengthened in your faith. These gifts are His crumbs to you, crumbs that fill and satisfy more than we could ever ask or hope. Through this Supper, we eat and drink with our fellow believers, with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, including those who have gone before us in the faith, including Laurence, Mary, Bartholomew, John the Baptizer, Beth, and those whom we knew and love and now rest in the Savior and dine at the eternal Feast. May it be our prayer that God would continue to strengthen us in faith, that we would continue to live as His children here on earth and will live as His children in heaven. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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