Preached March 20, 2011
1 Thessalonians 4:1–8
St. Matthew 15:21–28
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today on the second Sunday in Lent we continue the three Sunday cycle begun last Sunday dealing with the themes the devil, the flesh, and the world. Thus today we take up the temptations of the flesh, the temptations to make ourselves and our wants into little gods to be worshipped in place of the one, true God in Heaven.
In the opening words of St. Paul’s Epistle lesson, we sense the urgency with which he is exhorting them to holiness of life when he says, 1 Thessalonians 4:1 Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. It is a most serious exhortation, given as a brother in the name of the Lord no less!, a reminder that they have already received all of the instruction that is needed, and now it is time to put it into effect and live those instructions in their lives to the end that their lives will see the abundance of God showered upon them. This is no trivial matter, but rather of primary urgency for the Church at Thessalonika. He does not want them to fall back, but rather to press onward.
1 Thessalonians 4:2 For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. St. Paul is reminding the Church at Thessalonika what he has told them previously, reminding them that they have heard all of this previously but that it is absolutely essential for them to put it into practice in their lives. In the same manner, we too have heard all of this before, but it is equally necessary for us to put it into practice in our lives as well; we are no different at all from the Thessalonians.
1 Thessalonians 4:3 For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: There are two important points in this verse: (1) It is the will of God that we should be sanctified, and (2) For that purpose, we must abstain from all fornication. Considering the first point, this is evident when we consider that our sanctification is necessary if we are to eventually return to God our Father which we know to be the ultimate end of all those who are saved. Until we are sanctified, we are not fit to enter into God’s presence, so our sanctification becomes a most necessary step. The term fornication here needs to be understood to include all forms of sexual immorality in the broadest possible terms. While God is the author of sexuality, He intended it only for application with the bonds of marriage and not otherwise. This is clarified in the next verse, 1 Thessalonians 4:4 That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; The word vessel in this verse has two meanings. First it means for each of us our body, so that the verse tells us that we should know how to possess, that is to keep and use, our bodies in holiness and honor. We should not use them in ways that dishonor God or keep Him out of His temple in our bodies. The verse makes perfect sense, and is fully applicable in this sense. There is also a second meaning for the word vessel, referring to a wife. Taken in that sense, this verse is an instruction to every Christian man to provide a wholesome, loving sexual relation for his wife, without any sort of degradation, pain, or perversion. The husband must keep in mind that he is responsible for his wife’s salvation, so he dare not do any thing to harm her soul. In particular, 1 Thessalonians 4:5 Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: This is to say that the husband and wife are not to lust after each as things, but to always see each other as a fellow creatures, as creations of the Father and made in His image, uniquely pledged to each other before God. They can never look upon each other as objects simply to be used for their own purposes.
1 Thessalonians 4:6 That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. Taken alone, the opening clause of this verse might be understood to apply to everything in general; no man is allowed to go beyond what is proper and thereby commit fraud upon another. In the specific context of this discussion, it is evident that what St. Paul is talking about is one man seeking to turn the affections of another man’s wife. This would be striking at the heart of marriage, God’s plan for man and woman together since the beginning of the world. This is sexual immorality of the worst sort, it destroys not only the people involved but the whole community around them. St. Paul warns that it is God Himself that deals with such cases, and it is a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of God when He is angry as He will be in such a case as this.
If we look around us today, we see how lightly this is taken, but that does not lessen the severity of the penalties at all. It just means that today’s people are foolish and blind. 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit. This is the situation that we see all around us, where man ignores the commands of God, often even denying that God even exists, and proudly goes on his way. We look around and are often puzzled by this, why they seem to do so well in spite of all of this. But then the words of the ancient Psalmist come to mind, Psalm 73:
3 And why? I was grieved at the wicked: * I do also see the ungodly in such prosperity.
4 For they are in no peril of death; * but are lusty and strong.
5 They come in no misfortune like other folk; * neither are they plagued like other men.
6 And this is the cause that they are so holden with pride, * and cruelty covereth them as a garment.
7 Their eyes swell with fatness, * and they do even what they lust.
8 They corrupt other, and speak of wicked blasphemy; * their talking is against the Most High.
9 For they stretch forth their mouth unto the heaven, * and their tongue goeth through the world.
10 Therefore fall the people unto them, * and thereout suck they no small advantage.
11 Tush, say they, how should God perceive it? * is there knowledge in the Most High?
12 Lo, these are the ungodly, * these prosper in the world, and these have riches in possession:
13 And I said, Then have I cleansed my heart in vain, * and washed my hands in innocency.
14 All the day long have I been punished, * and chastened every morning.
15 Yea, and I had almost said even as they; * but lo, then I should have condemned the generation of thy children.
16 Then thought I to understand this; * but it was too hard for me,
17 Until I went into the sanctuary of God: * then understood I the end of these men;
18 Namely, how thou dost set them in slippery places, * and castest them down, and destroyest them.
19 O how suddenly do they consume, * perish, and come to a fearful end!
(Coverdale Translation of the Psalms)
The sins of the flesh tend often to be known only to God. They are such that, if we are clever, we are able to cover them effectively from other human eyes in most cases. Unlike sins that directly involve our neighbors, many of the sins of the flesh involve only ourselves, and are thus known only to ourselves and God, making it most appropriate that He is the Watcher and Avenger of these sins, He is the One who sees into our hearts. He rewards the pure in heart with knowledge of Himself because He intends that they will dwell forever with Him in Heaven. He punishes the unclean by withdrawing His Holy Spirit because they are to be eternally shut away from Him.
When the conscience is awakened to sins of this sort, the burden becomes extremely heavy and difficult for the person under that burden. There is a sense of depression, of darkness, of being spiritually overwhelmed more than with any other sort of sin because this is so very personal. It is therefore essential that our approach to the Lord for forgiveness be both urgent and persistent. We must be prepared to have God test our sincerity when we come to him for forgiveness.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we have an example of persistent prayer. Jesus and his disciples have left the land of Israel and gone into the “coasts of Tyre and Sidon,” that would be the area of Samaria adjoining the Mediterranean Sea up near these sea port cities. Jesus is accosted by a Canaanite woman, often referred to as the Syro–Phonetian woman, to give more indication of her ethnic and cultural background, the important point being that she is not one of the chosen people at all but rather one of those people who were displaced when Israel took possession of the Promised Land. She cries out to Jesus, Matthew 15:22b Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. We see that she recognizes Jesus for who He is, the Messiah, and she makes a plea for her daughter. Matthew 15:23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered her not a word — that almost stings to read those words because they seem so contrary to the image of Christ that we have in our minds, but then we have the next verse — Matthew 15:24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. All of this paints an exclusivist image of Christ that is quite at odds with what we usually think of when we think of Christ the Redeemer of the whole world. Even so, these are Christ’s own words.
Does this sound like the way we sometimes feel when we think that God has not heard our prayers? For us, as with the Syro–Phonetian woman, God has heard every word and remembers every word, but waits to try us, to exercise our faith a bit, in order that praying the more earnestly we may receive the more abundantly.
Matthew 15:25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. She has continued her entreaty, expressing her confidence and love of God as she continues to plead for help. Even as Jesus engages her in a seeming degrading conversation in which she is compared to a dog, she willingly accepts this, rather than demanding respect. She recognizes that she is indeed talking with the Messiah, the Son of God, and from Him she will accept any comparison at all. But, she perseveres in her plea.
The woman’s final victory comes in the last verse of our Gospel lesson, Matthew 15:28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. After having tested her faith, Jesus healed her daughter even though she was not one of the nation of Israel, the chosen people, but rather was one of the despised Canaanite people. But notice that this comes only after prolonged, intense prayer and testing which would have driven away anyone less sincere. The perseverance of the Syro–Phonetian woman was an absolutely essential element in the healing of her daughter. Had she not persisted, there would have been no healing. This is the lesson for us today.
Note also that the woman was not praying for herself, but rather for her daughter. We ought likewise to engage in earnest prayer for others who, either because they cannot or for some reason choose not to pray for themselves. Our Lord is listening to our prayers, and He is also very interested in the urgency and sincerity of those prayers. Are we persistent, or do we pray once and then drop it? We have much to pray for, particularly regarding the sins of the flesh. Let us pray without ceasing.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.