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Great Faith 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
08/14/11

FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE
DR. TODD B. JONES
AUGUST 14, 2011

Great Faith
Genesis 45:1-15
Matthew 15:21-28


One of the most important and interesting art exhibits to hit America in our time comes from the Louvre in Paris to the Philadelphia Museum of Art on August 30. It is called, Rembrandt and the Faces of Christ. For centuries, Jesus was painted according to a set of sources regarded as sacrosanct by Medieval and Renaissance artists, and it left Jesus often looking like something other than human, most often resembling some kind of Greek god. Rembrandt, during the most difficult period of his life, when his wife had died and he had lost three of his five children, a time when the artist was struggling with bankruptcy, began to disregard these rules and paint a more human-looking Jesus. At first, he did this not for sale but perhaps for his own soul. Time Magazine says, "He painted a Jesus who would listen." Most experts now think he found Jewish models in his Amsterdam neighborhood to pose for these eight portraits, seven of which have survived and will be on display in Philadelphia for the next two months. Along with about fifty other related sketches and paintings, the exhibit shows how Rembrandt transformed the way we picture Jesus, and all the paintings show a humble, gentle face that is deeply contemplative. Rembrandt's Christ was no stylized icon, but fully and richly human.

No one disputes Rembrandt's greatness. We know it when we see it. The word "greatness" itself is overused in this media-driven culture. For some people and publications, everything is "great." But true greatness, when we encounter it, has the power to elevate and deepen us as people. It is why we love to see a Rembrandt or a Reubens or a Cezanne, or read a novel by Mark Twain or a play by Shakespeare, or listen to Mozart, or watch a truly great film. It is why people still watch black and white films of Bobby Jones' golf swing, or why Joe DiMaggio's fifty-six game hitting streak in 1941 is the subject of a best seller seventy years later. Greatness touches us in places nothing less ever will, and it has the power to lift us out of the ordinary and enables us to grow.

So in today's Biblical passage, Jesus, who almost never used the word, said to this nameless "Canaanite" woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon, "O woman, great is your faith!" I wonder if we could look at her for a time this morning to see what Jesus meant.

Both Mark and Matthew tell this story in the Gospels, and while Mark calls her a "Greek, a Syrophoenician" by birth, Matthew calls her a "Canaanite," a group of people who have not existed for centuries, but who played a huge role in the history of Israel. Matthew's Gospel may be the most Jewish of them all, and this is likely his way of saying that this woman was a Gentile, that is, not a Jew at all.

So in trying to see what is great about this woman's faith, let's start there. Matthew goes to great lengths to paint this woman as an outsider, as someone who does not belong. And yet, Jesus sees in her greatness of faith. Maybe this is a clue about great faith. This woman's faith in Jesus can overcome every barrier or boundary we can conceive. Nothing can keep her from Jesus! Matthew, of course, tells us at the very beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is not only a Son of David, but also a son of Abraham. But read Matthew's genealogy carefully and you will see that Matthew slips in a few women and a few Gentiles into the lineage of Jesus. It is a hint at the beginning that we see now more fully in this encounter that even though Jesus is the Messiah of Israel for Matthew, indeed, precisely because He is, He is also the Savior of the world. At the end of Matthew's Gospel Jesus will send His followers out into the world "to make disciples of all nations." But here we see that there are no barriers or boundaries that can keep anyone from Jesus. This woman's faith is great because she saw that none of the differences between her and Jesus really finally mattered…. Not race, not religion, not gender, not class, not even the demons that possessed her daughter.

She allows nothing to get between her desire to face Jesus and to plead to Him. Jesus is clearly moved by her ability to see through all the differences that Jesus is really the Savior and Redeemer of the world, to see that there is something profoundly and deeply universal in Jesus, indeed, to see that Jesus is Lord. Dale Bruner suggests that Jesus, a Jew, may have in fact been taught something by this woman on this count on His own calling and mission. Great faith always sees that in and with Jesus, there are no outsiders. There is only family.

Second, this woman teaches us something about life's interruptions. That is how Jesus' disciples treat this pest of a woman who intrudes upon them shouting, or maybe more accurately, "shrieking." "Send her away," Jesus disciples say, "for she is shrieking after us." And Jesus Himself seems to ignore her at first. But then she came and knelt before Jesus. "Lord, help me," was her simple prayer.

What starts out looking like an interruption turns out to be a very important moment for Jesus and even for us two thousand years later. Do you ever notice how often this happens? What we think of as an interruption turns out to be the main business of life. C.S. Lewis noticed this. He once said he often felt distracted from his real work, only to learn that the distractions were the real work God wanted him to attend to. We love to plan! But God loves to interrupt our plans with what turns out to be life. Lewis wrote, "What we call hindrances are really the raw material of the spiritual life." 

John Calvin was on his way to "more important things" in July of 1536 when he arrived for a brief stay in Geneva. William Farel pleaded with Calvin to stay, and what Calvin thought was an interruption to his plans turned out to be his life's work. He transformed Geneva. When he died, he asked to be buried in an unmarked grave so people would focus on God alone and not on him.

I just read the biography of Stan Musial, the Hall of Fame Saint Louis Cardinal. Musial started out trying to make it as a pitcher, but he hurt his arm and could not throw anymore. He thought it was an interruption to his career. It turned out it was what had to happen so he could find his career as one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. Musial turned the interruption of his pitching career into over 3,600 hits!

At the age of thirty-three in December, just before Christmas, I had a heart attack. I thought it was an interruption of all my plans I had for ministry. But looking back; it turned out that it would be one of the defining moments of my life, and God used that shocking event the way God used Joseph's being thrown into the pit and sold into slavery by his brothers: To teach me to trust more in the Lord, to make me look more deeply into who God wanted me to be, to humble and to make me more vulnerable.

Don't you get it? We love to plan. God loves to interrupt. And God's interruptions often turn out to be the grace of God that saves us.

Finally, if there is anything that this woman teaches us about faith that is great, please do not miss what she shows us about the power of persistence. She simply will not give up until she gets from Jesus what she wants with all her heart and soul, what she believes Jesus alone can give.

Jesus first ignores her, and she will not be ignored. The disciples try to send her away, and she will not leave. Jesus tells her she does not fit with His mission. "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." She says in effect, "Then expand your mission." She kneels in front of Jesus and says, "Lord, help me." Have you ever been there yourself? Have you ever pleaded to Jesus in the knowledge that you had nowhere else to go? I am not sure you know much about faith, much less "great faith," until you have been where she is, kneeling before Jesus, begging, pleading, "Lord, help me."

Helen Keller, no inconsiderable woman of faith herself said, "We can do anything we want as long as we stick to it long enough." Helen Hayes, the storied actress, herself a devout Christian, said, "Nothing is any good without endurance." Louis Pasteur, the great physician and healer said, "My greatest strength lies solely in my tenacity."

This woman would not let go, she would not give up on what she believed Jesus alone could do for her daughter. And Jesus called her faith "great." We all need to take a page from Henry Dempsey. Dempsey was a pilot for one of those small commuter airlines in New England. One day on a flight from Portland to Boston, Dempsey heard a funny sound in the back of the airplane. He went to check and saw to his alarm that the back door with steps had not been shut completely. When he touched it, the door flew open and he was sucked out of the airplane. The co-pilot found the nearest runway to land, and reported that Dempsey had been thrown from the plane. But upon landing, they were all stunned to learn that Dempsey somehow took hold of the steps, and held onto them for dear life for ten minutes, and somehow landed safely without getting hurt at all. He held onto that door with all his might!

We need to hold onto Jesus like Henry Dempsey held onto that door! That is what made this woman's faith what Jesus called "great."

How about you? What is it you are longing for, praying for, this day? Great faith never gives up, never gives in, and holds onto Jesus for dear life, like a drowning person clings to a life preserver in a storm. So hold on, dear friend, hold on to Jesus! And never let go. Because what I have learned, the hard way, is this: Jesus never, ever let's go of you.

AMEN.
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