The Texts

The Texts

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 & Matthew 15:21-28

Just before God’s people the Israelites entered the land God promised would be their own, he said to them: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant–then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).

 

But it wasn’t long after that Israel had forgotten God. Even before Moses had come down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, the people had made a golden calf and were worshipping it. When Moses reacted in anger by throwing down the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, smashing them, it was a powerfully symbolic way of showing that the people had broken God’s commandments with devastating consequences.

 

Israel’s idolatry was a persistent problem throughout their history. God’s people, having been blessed with freedom were not living in it—because idols cannot bring freedom but only enslave. Idols can’t be everywhere present but must be carried around. Some were carried around on little trolleys and had to be chained down so that they wouldn’t fall over in transport. These idols had carved mouths but they couldn’t speak blessing. They had carved ears and eyes but couldn’t hear the prayers of the people or see their needs. Although Israel had the God of life who had created them in his image they had created useless blocks of stone and wood in their image and they had turned to them.

 

Eventually God brought judgment on this persistent idol worship—not because he is power hungry or a control freak but because idolatry can never help or save people. The Israelites were exiled to Babylon. They had lost their own land that God had given them. The reason that this was such devastating news for Israel is because they no longer had access to the Temple there where God promised to be personally present to them in a special way with divine favour and blessing to cleanse them from their sin. Now they would have been asking: “Have we really done it this time? What’s the way back? Is God still our God? Are we still his people? What hope do we have?” In slavery to the mighty Babylonian Empire the Israelites were powerless to rescue themselves and the Devil would have been rubbing his hands together with glee.

We might expect that that would be the end of the story. After all Israel had so many chances. How many chances would we have been prepared to give them? We might say that in the end that Israel got what they deserved. How many chances are we prepared to give others when they hurt us? How many times would we be prepared to forgive? Have they just got what they’ve deserved too?

 

In today’s reading from Isaiah God shows us that he doesn’t give up on his people. His judgment is always to save; to bring the people to a place where they turn away from death and back to him as the author of life and true freedom.Through the prophet Isaiah God speaks to his people distressed by the loss of their homeland and their temple and encouraged them with visions of a gathering, return and the hope that God would act on their behalf again with favour and blessing. He says: “…My salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.”

 

But what is so special about God’s promise through Isaiah is that God makes this promise to all people—those from outside the borders of Israel also. Listen to what God says in verses 6-8:

And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD

to serve him,

to love the name of the LORD,

and to worship him,

all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it

and who hold fast to my covenant–

 

these I will bring to my holy mountain

and give them joy in my house of prayer.

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;

for my house will be called

a house of prayer for all nations.”

 

The Sovereign LORD declares–

he who gathers the exiles of Israel:

“I will gather still others to them

besides those already gathered.”

 

Through Isaiah God promises that every person who calls on the name of the Lord will be gathered. All people “joined to the Lord” are now invited to God’s earthly house of worship. This is a wonderful text that explores the desire of God to include all people, to make God’s house a house of prayer for all people where they can personally know the saving and gracious presence of God.

 

Our Gospel reading shows that God has fulfilled his promise in Jesus. A Caananite woman—a person from the old pagan race outside the borders of Israel, comes to Jesus begging for his help. What’s more is that in the culture of the day it was the height of social vulgarity for a woman to dare approach a man publicly. Her daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession, under the captivity of the devil. This woman must have seen or heard of Jesus’ saving work. Her address to Jesus, where she combines the title “Lord” with “Son of David” is a confession of Jesus’ saving, divine identity.

 

Jesus initially meets her request with silence, perhaps to test her faith, or to test the disciples’ faith. They want her gone, because she is following them, crying out, making a stir. Jesus says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”—in other words, He was sent to teach and show Israel first that he was their God and Saviour whom his Father had promised through the prophets. That’s why Jesus said to this lady who was not from Israel that it wasn’t right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs. This sounds dreadfully harsh and inappropriate, but the picture is one of family around the dinner table. A mother or father wouldn’t prepare a meal for their child only to put it in the pet dog’s bowl. The pet dog is not a part of the parent-child relationship.

 

So this Canaanite woman takes this analogy up to Jesus! She was aware of the promise in Isaiah—that foreigners would be able to come to God’s temple. So she says: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”…in other words, even though they are not actual children, pet dogs are part of the family household too! She has recognised the promise in Isaiah that this is now fulfilled in the Person of Jesus—that anyone who trusts in Jesus is part of God’s family and can receive His saving help. Because with the birth of Jesus no longer is God’s presence located at the Temple in Jerusalem, but in the Person of Christ the fullness of God dwells in bodily form. Jesus is the new Temple. This woman had come to the Temple of God for help for her daughter and she found joy in this house of prayer. Jesus said to her: “Woman, great is your faith! Your request is granted as you have asked.”

 

The problem of idolatry is still with us today. We might not bow down to lifeless statues but anything we turn to for peace, fulfillment, purpose, security and self-worth can be an idol if it takes the place of God: money, career, retail therapy, ‘soul-food’, possessions, family, pleasing others, or pleasing ourselves. Luther said that whatever our heart clings to in times of trouble is really our god.

 

You and I too were once all foreigners; through sin we were enemies of God. Like Israel we got the judgment from God we deserved. But in Christ God has shown us love and grace by reconciling us to him. We did not have to go through the ceremonial purity rituals the Pharisees enforced, of washing before eating lest we be spiritually contaminated. But Jesus washed us at the font and made us clean. It is absolutely astonishing that when God spoke through the prophet Isaiah that he would gather still others to the Israelites beside them, he had each of you in mind.

 

Right here is the temple of God because Jesus is present in a special way with a promise attached—he meets you through his Word and sacraments to bring forgiveness, blessing and divine favour. Like he rescued the Canaanite woman’s daughter from the power of Satan, Jesus has also rescued you when he said through the minister: “I baptise you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. Engraved with God’s name you belong to him and were gathered from exile in sin, death and darkness and brought into the Kingdom of light. Through his holy supper Jesus himself tells you so: “This is my body given for you; this is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you are good at, what you have done, those who love Jesus and his Word remain a part of God’s family and have his blessing and saving help.

God through Isaiah says:

 

“  all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it

and who hold fast to my covenant–

these I will bring to my holy mountain

and give them joy in my house of prayer.

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;

for my house will be called

a house of prayer for all nations.”

 

Jesus is the burnt offering and sacrifice pleasing to God through whom our sins have been paid for and we have been restored to life with him. It is only through Christ alone that we can stand before God with a good conscience and address him as ‘Father’ in this house of prayer. In Christ the reign of God is present and active, and whoever has ears to hear his words of life on a Sunday morning are the foreigners God has gathered. There is nothing we can do to add to this, and nothing that needs to be. All we can do is call out “Lord, help me” and respond to his lavish grace with thanks and praise for the life he has freely and fully given us. Amen.