Sunday, September 7, 2003

Thirteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; he will come and save you.

Today's Old Testament lesson was a word of hope given to the Israelites. They were exiled, far from Jerusalem. In their minds, they were far from God, for He dwelt in the temple. They wanted freedom, but feared the future. They still had enemies, enemies that sought their destruction. What would happen if they were released? Would they even make it home?

In Chapter 34, Isaiah speaks to them about what God has in store for Israel's enemies. The name Edom, while a specific place, was also used for all those who opposed God's chosen people. Isaiah writes, "For Jehovah hath a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion." (Isaiah 34:8) God had plans for Edom, and for Israel. The day would come when there would be joy again and the glory of the LORD would be seen. Through Isaiah, God offers the weak and downhearted a word of hope. "Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; he will come and save you." What great promise these words hold, the salvation of God is near.

Great and wonderful things will happen that day. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk and the mute will shout for joy. The desolation of the wilderness will be transformed into a place of praise and beauty. You can almost hear the exiles singing today's psalm. "Praise the LORD, O my soul. I will praise the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live." They were weak and afraid, but God spoke a word of hope into their lives. They were exiled, far from home, unsure about tomorrow. Would they survive? Would they ever be near the LORD their God again? Yes, God had not forsaken His people. He was coming to bring healing and peace. Hope is found only in the Lord.

Israel's problem, for most of their relationship with God, is that they never really trusted Him to be there when they needed Him. They turned to others. The sought the aid of other nations. They asked for an earthly king. They tried to find salvation in God's creation, rather than from God Himself. The psalmist reminds us that we should never put our trust in men; they cannot save. They will pass away; their plans will come to an end. But those who trust in God will be blessed, for He is faithful.

A Syrophoenician woman trusted in the One who came to save. Many years after the promise in Isaiah, God did truly come to His people. Oh, they'd been saved from exile, sent home to Jerusalem. They had praised God and lived under His kingship for a time. But it did not last. Years passed and the people turned again from God. This time they were oppressed by an occupying nation, but the enemy was even closer than the Romans. They were trying to save themselves. They thought that if only they did everything right, if they followed all the rules, then God would bless them.

In their quest to become perfect, they built walls dividing people who they deemed unworthy of God's salvation. They separated themselves from the sick, the foreigners and the sinners. God would not come for them, only for His chosen people. Yet, the promises in Isaiah and the Psalm tell the great things that God will do for those who are rejected. He will ensure justice, feed the hungry, free those in prison, give sight to the blind, lift the fallen, and love those in a right relationship with Him. He will protect the foreigner, the fatherless and the widows. God will bless all those whom the elite of His day reject.

"But the way of the wicked he turneth upside down." Isn't that what Jesus did? He turned the whole world upside down. He ministered to the outcasts, the oppressed, the sick and the lonely. He forgave the unforgivable. He ate with the sinners, taught the women and shared the kingdom of God with foreigners. He came for the weak and afraid and spoke the words of hope into their lives. "Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; he will come and save you." Only it is not a future event, the Savior stood in their midst.

He healed the sick, comforted the grieving, and befriended the lonely. He gave sight to the blind and made the deaf to hear. Today's Gospel lesson tells two very different stories. In the first, Jesus did not want any attention. He hid in a home, but a woman found Him. She fell at His feet and begged Him to heal her daughter. "Sir, she has an unclean spirit, please free her." Jesus' response seems strange. Why would Jesus insult this woman? In His words we see how the world saw the woman. To them, she was a dog. But Jesus did not reject her request, He asked her to wait. "Let the children first be filled."

She does not give up. "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." She had heard of Jesus and she came to Him in faith. She was not offended by His comments, but rather accepted their relationship as it was seen - He was Lord, she was a dog. He didn't accept their relationship that way. He was Lord, she was His by faith. She got exactly what she asked from Jesus, her daughter was healed.

The second story is about a deaf man who could not talk well. His friends brought him so that Jesus might touch him. Again, Jesus did something quite strange. He stuck his fingers in the man's ear, spit then touched the man's tongue. Then He looked toward heaven, sighed and said to the man "Ephphatha." He commanded the man's ears to be opened. At once, the man could hear and he could speak plainly.

I wonder why Jesus sighed in this story. Could it be that Jesus was sad because there was so much dis-ease in His world? Could it be that He knew what would happen next? He commanded them to keep this incident a private matter, but how could they stay silent? Jesus did an amazing thing. He was fulfilling the promises of God. They could see that Jesus was much more than a teacher; He could heal and change lives. "He hath done all things well; he maketh even the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak."

He crossed barriers and broke walls. He showed no favoritism. He healed; He changed lives. In these two stories, the ones who were healed were not even the ones who asked. The woman's child was not there. The man could not speak for himself. Jesus healed because the woman and the friends trusted Him. They turned to Him for the sake of others. There is no mention of faith, but it is obvious that they believed He could make a difference.

James relates to this story in today's passage. "Hearken, my beloved brethren; did not God choose them that are poor as to the world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to them that love him?" Jesus didn't heal the ones who knew the prophecies and had memorized the Psalms. He didn't heal the ones who righteous according to their own understanding, relying upon themselves for salvation. He spoke a word of hope to those who were weak and afraid.

We still build walls. Perhaps they aren't the same as the ones the Jews had built by the time Jesus came to turn the world upside down, but we can certainly relate to the story told by James. He writes of two men who go to worship. One is well dressed, with rings in his fingers. The other is a poor man with ragged clothes. The people treated the rich man with respect and rejected the other. They dishonored the one whom Jesus would have touched.

Jesus lived the royal law as James described it, "Love your neighbor as yourself." He showed no favoritism. He touched people, healed their deepest illness and changed their lives by His love and mercy. James asks, "What doth it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but have not works? can that faith save him?"

The faith of the Jews could not save them because it looked to themselves for salvation. They did nothing for those who most needed the love and mercy of God. The faith of the Syrophoenician woman and the friends of the deaf man looked to Jesus. That is the faith that saves, the faith that looks at Jesus. But it is not invisible. It is the faith that actively reveals itself through action - loving our neighbors. James tells us that faith without works is dead. Faith in Jesus brings action. The woman sought Him out, asked Him to heal her daughter. The friends sought Him to touch Jesus. When Jesus made him hear and speak, they could not stop talking about it. In Christ we continue His work of breaking down walls, bringing hope to the weak and afraid, seeking Jesus to bring healing to those we love. Blessed is whose help is in the Lord. Thanks be to God.

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