Second Sunday in Lent – Reminiscere
“Prayer: An Exercise in the First Commandment”
Pastor Simeon Cornwell
Genesis 32:22-32; Matthew 15:21-28
26 February 2023
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. ✠ Amen.
Lent is a time of more focused discipline. Specifically, the Christian disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – all of which are spoken of by our Lord in the sixth chapter of Matthew. A discipline is something that one makes oneself do, despite the pain or suffering involved, because of the benefit that will result. So in other words, discipline disregards feelings if those feelings are urging one away from that good practice.
You do not workout because it feels good, because typically while doing so you don’t feel good. Your muscles are breaking down, you are gasping for breath, you think how much easier it would have been to stay on the couch and eat potato chips all day. But if you keep up this good practice, you will be healthier, have more energy, be more focused, and have an overall better quality of life.
This is true even more so with these Christian disciplines, because they deal not only with this temporal, fading life, but with eternal life. For in the end, no matter how much you workout, or how healthy you are, you will die. This doesn’t mean you should not practice these things, it’s just the simple reality.
So prayer is a discipline. And it is important for us to remember this, because if we forget this, we will fall into the habit of only praying when we feel like it. So when we’re out to eat or we have guests over who perhaps don’t share our Christian beliefs, we will forgo prayer so that we do not offend them. Or simply so that we ourselves don’t feel uncomfortable.
We cannot think this way about prayer. Because soon, we will not feel like praying at all, and prayer is not an option for the Christian. We see in both our Old Testament and Gospel readings for today examples of people who disciplined themselves in prayer.
Jacob was in a predicament. He had just fled from Laban, his uncle who had cheated him out of his wages ten times. And now, having fled from him, he was about to encounter another threat to his life: His murderous brother Esau, who was coming to meet him with a group of armed men. The very brother whose birthright and blessing he had tricked out of and received himself. In fact, it was for this reason that Jacob fled to his uncle Laban in the first place – to escape his brother Esau because he was seeking to kill him.
Jacob was in trouble. He was afraid. He did not have the numbers to fight against Esau. And so, we’re told, he crosses the ford of the river Jabbok alone, leaving his wives and children safe in the camp, and spends that night alone. And a man, we’re told – who we find out later to actually be the Son of God – wrestles with Jacob all night until the breaking of the day.
Now if any of you have wrestled in your lifetime, whether in high school, just for fun with friends, or most likely with your brothers and maybe even sisters, you know that it is quite the workout. It involves not only the whole body, but the mind as well. Just think of how short your typical wrestling match is and how out of breath they are afterwards. Think on top of that, the amount of conditioning one has to endure in order to prepare for such a short bout. Much work and discipline is required.
So imagine how tired Jacob must have felt, both physically and mentally, come morning time – let alone all night. But his eyes were directed to the good benefit he was seeking from it – namely the blessing of the LORD. His life depended on it.
And through his persistence; through his discipline, he gets just that. And when he encounters Esau the next day, Esau runs to meet him, embraces him, and kisses him. Joyful to see his brother Jacob.
We see an example of the same in our Gospel reading as well. For all intents and purposes, this Canaanite woman should have been dead. She should not have existed. For the LORD commanded His people of old to leave none of the Canaanites alive when they entered the Promised Land. Yet obviously they had failed, because this woman was now standing before Jesus.
And she, like Jacob, was persistent; she was disciplined, focused on the benefit that she would derive from such discipline. She too, had a predicament – her daughter was severely oppressed by a demon. If nothing was done, her daughter would die. For the demons oppressing her daughter did not care for her. They were not concerned for her well-being.
It is interesting to note how this woman addresses Jesus in her petition, her prayer, to Him. She calls Him first “Lord”, which is the Name of God given to Moses at the burning bush. So in other words, she acknowledges Him as God – the God, in fact, of the Old Testament! But she also calls Him “Son of David”, a title frequently used in the Old Testament to describe the Messiah, the Christ. So she confesses Him to be both God and Man, the Christ.
In her addressing Jesus this way, we know for a fact that she had heard – and likely regularly heard – the Scriptures read in Church, or rather more accurately, in the synagogue. For there is no other way that she would know to call Him by these titles, if she had not heard the Scriptures. So we see that proper prayer goes hand-in-hand with hearing regularly the Scriptures. With listening to God in His Word.
From these Scriptures she knows that the Messiah, the Christ, will come to redeem His people from sin, death, and Satan. She also knows that whoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved. And so because of this, because of her hearing regularly the Scriptures, her faith is strengthened in Christ which urges and drives her to prayer.
She knows who Jesus is and what He has come to do. She knows, therefore, that He will help her daughter. This is what strengthens her to discipline herself in prayer, even when she is initially ignored and brushed off by Jesus – or seemingly so. And in the end, her prayer too, is answered. Her daughter is healed instantly.
Note, then, how in both these instances, the two are strengthened to discipline themselves in prayer – despite the sufferings and temptations – because they know God to be gracious and merciful.
The LORD had promised to Jacob before he went to his uncle Laban, to bring him back to his home in safety. Jacob knew this and was strengthened by this promise of God to wrestle with the LORD all night. The Canaanite woman too, heard God’s Word – the Old Testament Scriptures – and was encouraged and strengthened to continue petitioning Jesus, despite His silence and seeming disregard for her.
The same goes for each and every one of us. One of our fathers in the Faith, St. Jerome of Jerusalem – the very one who translated the Bible of his day into Latin, commonly known as the Vulgate – expresses it beautifully: “When we pray, we speak to the Bridegroom (namely, Christ). When we read the Scriptures, He speaks to us.” Luther says the exact same thing in his teaching of oratio (prayer), meditatio (meditation on Scripture), and tentatio (suffering).
Both these knew that the two go hand-in-hand. In a healthy marriage, both the man and the woman have to be in regular communication with each other. It cannot just be one talking always and the other listening. It must be both.
So too we must continually hear God’s Word – the Scriptures – in order that we might rightly pray. Not only that we might know what to pray for, but also that we might grow in a desire to pray to our Father in heaven.
Listen attentively, therefore, to Christ our Bridegroom and then go to Him in prayer in every time of need – in good times, in bad, in ease, or in comfort. For He cares for you. He wants to hear you and listen to you. He loves you, just as He did Jacob; just as He did that poor, Canaanite woman. And he wants you to ask Him that He might give to you more abundantly than you can ask or think.
So, “Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.”
✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. ✠
Now may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen.