Frowning Providence - Smiling Face
On this 13th Sunday after Pentecost, the season of growth, we have some painful growing to do. "Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,/ But Trust Him for His grace;/ Behind a frowning providence/ He hides a smiling face." That's what we sung in the sermon hymn. It's easy enough to sing that, and it even makes sense in a worldly sort of way. Every dark cloud has a sliver lining. Roses only grow among thorns. However, it's one thing to sing these words; it's another thing to grow in understanding them.
The plain truth is that very often God's actions are at variance with God's Word. Surely you can see this in the case of the Canaanite woman. She comes to the Jesus who had said, "Come unto Me all you who are burden and heavy laden and I will give you rest," and she found not rest but resentment. She came to the Jesus who had said, "Ask and it shall be given unto you," and not only wasn't it given to her, she wasn't even heard. She was a sheep whom the Good Shepherd apparently wasn't looking for.
Not only wasn't the Good Shepherd looking for this sheep, but He calls her a dog. Dogs were considered annoying. They were regarded as despicable, insolent, and the most miserable of all God's creatures. Earlier St. Matthew had recorded Jesus saying, "Don't give what is holy to the dogs." St. Paul warns the Philippians about false teachers saying, "Beware of the dogs." Revelation 22 says that outside of heaven are the dogs.
Can you see that Christ's actions towards this Canaanite woman are at variance with His Word? Can you see the frowning face of Providence here? More importantly can you see it in your own case? Please tell me you're not one of these happy-go-lucky people who only and always sees the smiling face of God. Please tell me that you're not a Protestant Pollyanna or a Pentecostal positive-thinker who just knows that everything is going to be all right. If this is you, go your way; you have your reward. You have your Gospel, but it's not that of Christ's.
However, if you're one of those whose burdens are not always taken away by Jesus; if you're one of those to whom Jesus doesn't always seem like the burden Bearer but sometimes the burden Builder; if you're one of those who pray for health and get more sickness; if you pray for peace and find more conflict and if you're one who prays for forgiveness and feels more guilt, I have a Gospel for you behind the frowning face of God. This Gospel will shine forth even when God has put on His worse frowning face. When, like this Canaanite mother, the Lord ignores your prayers for a daughter or son, a loved one or friend. There's an ugly, frowning face of God!
No Protestant Pollyanna or Pentecostal positive-thinking Gospel can help when you've prayed and asked and begged for your dear one, but there's nothing. Nothing but glowering clouds that your prayers bounce off of back to earth. You know how much you love your child, your spouse, your friend, and you know the perfect Jesus must love them more. If you would give your right arm to help him or her, shouldn't the One who gave both His right and left arm, indeed His whole body, be even more willing to help? If your parental heart is breaking, what must His heavenly, holy heart be doing? Yet nothing.
Not only does Jesus fail to help. He passes you by. As Jesus did in the case of the Canaanite woman, He answers you not a word. Not even a "No." Just a total ignoring. At such times, you get the feeling that Jesus isn't really YOUR Savior. He wasn't sent for you but for better, different people. Heaven seems closed to your prayers and the situation has relentlessly beat you down. You feel like a whipped dog.
What is to be done when God's actions in your life are so at variance with God's Word? Don't go to the local Christian book store and find posters, cards, and plagues to cheer you up for then you will most certainly be lost. This is the wisdom you will find there: "As children bring their broken toys with tears for us to mend, I brought my broken dreams to God because He was my friend. But then instead of leaving Him in peace to work alone, I hung around and tried to help with ways that were my own. At last I snatched them back and cried, "How can you be so slow?' "My child," He said, "What can I do? You never did let go?"
Some of you like that, don't you? Sure there is wisdom in those words, but it's only the wisdom of the Law. If you deal with God's frowning face using the wisdom of this poem, you'll constantly be under the Law. Kicking yourself for not letting go. Chastising yourself for picking your problems back up. Your whole focus will be on you, you, you. NO! The only answer to the frown of Providence, the only answer to being bitterly disappointed by God, the only answer to feeling like a dog whom God has kicked one too many times, is God. More specifically, it's the face of God, Jesus.
Notice, unlike the Christian bookstore poem, the Canaanite woman never lets go of her problem, but she never lets go of Jesus either. Rather than focusing on what she did she focused on what Jesus did. The Canaanite woman went right to Jesus as if she had every right to. St. Mark tells us that Jesus had entered a house at Tyre and Sidon and didn't want anyone to know He was there. That didn't stop this woman. Even after Jesus says He's not for her, she still goes to Him, cries after Him, and finally she came to Him not just kneeling but worshiping Him and saying, "Lord, help me!"
Despite what Jesus has said and done to her the woman speaks in imperatives to Him. Despite Him hiding in a house away from the needs of people, she says, "You must mercy me." Despite being told by Jesus, "You're not My kind of sheep," she says, "You must help me." Despite being called a dog by Jesus, she still takes it for granted that He is going to help her. How can this be? Because she doesn't go by the circumstances, by appearances, but by the revealed will of God. She doesn't go by how God is revealing Himself in this particular situation - a deaf, hard-hardhearted, selective shepherd - but how He reveals Himself in His Word. Yes, the One who declares His mercy endures forever must be merciful to her. The One who calls Himself the Help of the helpless must help her.
The woman based her appeal to Jesus on His revealed Word, and not as the disciples suggested on her great need. They tell Jesus to "release her" from her burdens just as they had seen Jesus do so many times before. And why do they think He should do this? Because she is crying so much. But what did Jesus do? He easily steps over that, "This isn't one of the sheep I was sent for," He says. So when you're in great pain, when you're faced with great tragedy, when every fiber of your being is begging God to help your loved one, DON'T put your tears, your suffering or that of your loved before Jesus as a reason to help. He can easily step over that.
What Jesus can't step over is His own Words. He tells the women, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." The woman grabs hold of that Word, "dog." You see Jesus didn't use the word for the despised dogs of the streets, but the Word for "house dog." Yes, Lord," she says, "I am as you say a house dog, and accordingly, house dogs, eat the crumbs that fall from the table of their Lords." The woman says in effect, "You yourself say I am a house dog. Of course, it wouldn't be right to take food from your children to feed such an animal as I. But house dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs that fall from their Lord's table. All I seek are the crumbs."
The women doesn't put before Jesus her positive thinking but her utter dependence, not her suffering but His mercy, not her words but His. Jesus can step over our positive thinking, our suffering, and our words. But He will not step over our dependence, His mercy or His own Words anymore than you and I will stop a house dog from getting the bits of food that fall from our tables.
You're faced with the frowning face of God; sickness, tragedy, problems come into your life. God Himself says that sinners deserve disease, disaster, and death. So why should you expect any different? Ah but God declares that He sent His Son into the world to save dirty, disgusting sinners. God Himself declares that He has mercy for those who don't deserve it; He has justification for the unjust; He has forgiveness for those who really sin. All you have are sins? Fine Jesus says He came to buy sins. All you have is your wretched sickness? Fine, Jesus like any good Physician, says He's looking for the sick. All you have is a broken heart. Fine Jesus says He came to mend the brokenhearted. Jesus wants us to hold Him to His Word.
Friends, even us sinful fathers, most of the time, love for our kids to catch us by our words. When my children remind me of some promise I made, they show me they are really listening to my words. When they hold me to my words, they show me they expect me to keep them. Now if this can be true for a sinful father like myself, weak as I am in my love, how much more is it true of our dear heavenly Father.
When I pray, I hold the Lord to His Word. I say, "Dear Lord, you promised that You want to lead Your sheep into green pastures, so I can ask you to lead me. You said that you will in no way cast out the one who comes to you, well I'm coming with all my sins, wretchedness and rottenest. You said, 'I don't desire the death of the wicked,' so I'm asking you on behalf of this dying wicked person to spare them. You said I'm a house dog, so give me the crumbs that fall from Your Table."
The crumbs from God's Table are more than enough. The Psalmist said he was satisfied to be just a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord. The Centurion was content with just a Word from Jesus' mouth. The woman with the issue of blood was satisfied with just touching the hem of Jesus' garment. Just the crumbs that fall from our Lord's table are more than enough, but what do we find?
While just one drop of baptismal water gives eternal life, Christ gives us the whole font! While one sentence forgives a lifetime of sins, Christ gives us the whole Bible. And while there is a enough forgiveness, life, and salvation in just a drop and crumb of Holy Communion, Jesus invites us to pull up a chair at His table and feast on His Body and Blood. Baptismal Waters show God's true face; flood waters don't. Words from a doctor about disease don't show God's true face; His own words do. The problems we face in our flesh and blood don't show us the face of God, the Body and Blood of His Son given and shed on the cross and given here at this altar do.
The God of power, might and Providence may indeed frown upon us through tragedy, disaster, or disease, but God's smiling face shines on us in Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. Look, stare, contemplate God in His ways in the world and you will find Him powerful, judgmental, and wrathful, but look upon Him in His gifts of Baptism, Absolution, and Communion, and you will find only grace for sinners there. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XIII (8-18-02), Matthew 15:21-28