St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2021
“Behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.”
IT’S A LEGAL QUESTION, when a party brings a case to court: what is your standing to seek this court’s favor and judgment in your case? Having standing is your right and importance to be heard. Jesus had no official standing accorded by His rulers, yet His spiritual standing was undeniable. He stood against powers that war against souls.
Such powers exist today more than ever before in our lives. We see them in the guise of politics, as terrorists, gatekeepers that rule professions, institutions, entertainment, and media. We can spot more easily than ever those who oppose the Christian faith, but it really isn’t they with whom we are at war. Remember St. Paul’s armor speech. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Eph 6:12 We can point out the sins of people and organizations on earth, but they are just the prisoners and captives of our real enemy.
We renounce the world and the flesh at baptism: sources of temptation keyed into the nature we’re born with. In a serious diet, you may renounce bread and cheese and ice cream. There is nothing evil about those foods, nor about your body. You just need self-discipline. That’s common to all people, while the world pressures us to go with it.
But the third party we renounce at baptism is not usually part of us. That third thing is the devil. Our bodies, this world, may be in some ways redeemed. There is no redemption for Satan, no common ground of understanding between us, no benefit of understanding the goals he sets for our future. As in the movie Predator, we seldom see him, he’s big and very ugly, with weapons that are unfair, and he plays with us and hits us when we’re down. We’re his favorite game, and hunting season on humans began a long time ago.
Don’t fear. There are many things going for us in this battle. Even ignorance works for many people. Believing in Jesus, loving, and doing good send the enemy’s designs into disorder, and a simple prayer has him screaming. But at times we need warriors who are fully aware of this enemy, his schemes, his wiles, and the signs of his approach.
One day Jesus and His disciples take a vacation from Galilee and Judea on the Mediterranean coasts of Tyre and Sidon. Given His reaction to the woman in our Gospel today, we see that Jesus isn’t going there to fill His time with ministry, but to be alone and teach His chosen few. But for the woman this chance to claim attention from Jesus of Nazareth cannot be passed by. Her life is in ruins. Her daughter is fully demon-possessed. Matthew describes the girl as being vexed.
Vexed means to be tormented, distressed, tossed about, afflicted. It’s the opposite of peace, in other words, her daughter is at war and she knows it. The source of this war should be obvious to her, but Jesus has to establish how much she knows and how far she will go to see her daughter be free. He’ll vex her just a bit. She cries:
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.” Mt 15:22 She keeps that up for a while, and Jesus looks away, as though she isn’t there. Ignoring someone sends a strong message that they are unworthy of attention. We don’t like to see Jesus act that way, but He’s angling for something. His disciples begin asking that He tell her to get lost. To them He says, “I am only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It isn’t His mission to seek the Gentiles. Jesus only does what the Father shows Him, and the entire world is not the first target of His Gospel. It must come first to the Jews. Later His disciples will go to the outside world. She hears his words, but still she can’t take No for an answer. Understanding this is a Jewish thing, she bows down to Him, crying, “Lord, help me.”
Now Jesus speaks to her, but again without comfort. “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs.” We can’t believe He’d be so unkind. It’s a racial slur, what you’d expect from a Pharisee, not the Lamb of God. Why’s He being so cruel? See what follows. Her response forms the basis for our Prayer of Humble Access, the collect immediately before we take Communion. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs that fall from Thy table. What does the Syro-Phoenecian woman say to Jesus calling her a dog?
“Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.” It’s perfect. She places herself and her people at the feet of the Jewish Messiah and lets Him decide to allow a crumb fall to her under His table. How can He refuse? This humility wins His heart. “O woman,” He says warmly, “great is thy faith: the demon has left your daughter.” She returns home to find her daughter fully restore to sanity, showing no further sign of vexation.
What is really going on here? The people of Tyre and Sidon were Phoenicians, a seagoing people who had been the northern neighbors of Israel for centuries. This is today’s Lebanon, and their people historically acted peacefully toward kings such as David and Solomon, sending supplies for the building of the Temple. But such friendship endangered the purity of God’s people, for the Sidonians were idolaters of the first order. They had a pantheon of 53 gods, by such names as Baal, Anath, Asherah, Astarte, and Adonis: gods of beauty, love and war, a queen of heaven, fertility, healing, craftsmanship, death, dawn, dusk, the sun and moon, and so on. Temples dedicated to such demons were centers of their culture, staffed by priests, musicians, diviners, scribes, and a prostitution crew of young males and females. Child sacrifice was also common.
What we may regard in archeological terms, just an article in National Geographic, was a society that, on the surface, was advanced in letters and science, manners and statesmanship, but underneath it seethed with a wild and hedonistic Satanism. Ritualized sex and killings bought their gods’ favor. I can’t describe in Church things they called normal. And children were used for many of them. The Canaanite woman’s daughter was caught in this nightmare. It’s most probable that, in channeling a demon ‘god’ for pleasure and ‘worship,’ the girl was possessed by it. Such possession could be deemed valuable. St. Paul’s encounter with a Macedonian slave girl with a spirit of divination is an example. The devil does business with those who cooperate. What we recoil in horror about was business as usual for the Sidonians.
Over the centuries, the Jews’ friendship with Tyre and Sidon led them to incorporate such fiendish practices into their own lives. Ahab married Jezebel, daughter of their priest. You notice that her name includes Baal: and she led the people far from God. Prophets of God and good kings repeatedly scoured Israel to remove the Asherah poles and Baal altars, but the people built them again. Ultimately these cherished cultural paganisms led the Jews into devil worship and their kingdoms were ruined. This was a matter of life, death and eternity. So, when the woman came to Jesus for a favor, He wasn’t just handing it out. I feel sure she had led her daughter into those very acts that now caused her insanity and defilement. He must be sure, and make her commit that this was the end it. She lived squarely in the center of it. She had to choose.
And she came through. Taking Him as her master, not just a visiting holy man, she saved her own soul and that of her daughter. It was worth the roughing up by Jesus in a momentary test of her humility. And here is the secret weapon for us to keep safe in our hearts. Humility.
In pride, we may see our world far removed from the days of devil worship and idolatry. Oh, no it isn’t. Just as in the days of Moses, where God commanded, “They shall no more offer their sacrifices to demons, after whom they have played the harlot.” Lev 17:6-7 our culture plays games with Satan every day. Tattoo parlors advertise Satanic designs permanently scribed on young people’s bodies. Growing cults of Satan worshippers communicate openly by internet. Sidon never went away.
This week, the Hasbro company decided that Mr. Potato Head can no longer be called Mr. Same with Mrs. The outcry was, thankfully, enough to recall that decision. I remember the first Mr. Potato Head, where you supplied your own real potato. For the sake of gender dysphoria, we’re going to stop referring to anyone by their God-given sex. Whose idea, really, was this confusion? You will not die. You will become as gods, knowing both good and evil.
So, we are at war, and the real enemy is not our own bodies, nor humanity. Flesh and the World are both broken and sullied, but they are our native diseases. We must make sure we’re not in the dance with the evil one. Most of the world’s levers of power are now fully captive to evil, Lucifer parading himself through his puppets and thralls, souls he has enslaved. You see them on TV.
How do we fight the invisible predator?
First, and last, humility. We may learn spiritual war and employ the victory we have in Christ, but we won that victory only by getting down on our knees before a holy Messiah and spilling our guts, telling Him we are not worthy of His love and forgiveness, and that we only hope He has a crumb left for us. We can’t claim and curse and declare as our divine right before Heaven. It is so much more powerful and to the point to kneel, take our pounding in patience, and keep our faith in the One on the cross. Then sing a hymn. Praise God, the true God of heaven. Our victory depends on our knowing we are but God’s happy little dogs.