March 16, 2014 Second Sunday in Lent
1 Kings 8:37-43, Psalm 86, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, St. Matthew 15:21-28
Ever noticed the address that opens the collects in the Book of Common Prayer? Many begin “O Lord” or “O God” or “O Lord God.” During Lent, however, and extending to Good Friday and Easter Day, the standard opening, as in today’s collect, is “Almighty God.”
I find it fascinating to try to get inside the heads of Dr. Cranmer and his associates way back in the 16th century as they compiled this incredible work, as up-to-date in its theology today as it was then – and more faithful to the sacred Scriptures than most of what has been produced since.
I suspect – and I put this forth as nothing more than a suspicion – that their concentration on God’s might is meant to balance the Lenten focus on man’s wretchedness in his sin-stained state.
When I was a whelp, my Uncle Jorgy and Aunt Maxine had a river house in addition to their house in town, which had a swimming pool in the back yard. They used the river house as a weekend place, and sometimes my family and I joined them out there and we all went swimming and crabbing and boat-riding.
In my own family, we were not particularly well-off, and I saw my uncle, who owned a construction company, as a titan of industry. I mean, he owned a boat and this sprawling estate on the river with huge pecan trees and two docks.
In the house was a chest-style deep freeze and in the deep freeze he always had a five-gallon tub of Mocha chocolate chip ice cream from Howard Johnson’s. To my pint-sized mind, this was luxury on a scale rivaling Buckingham Palace.
Many years later, long after my uncle died, I owned a boat of my own. I launched it one day above the location of my uncle’s old house and puttered downstream until I found it. I had to make two or three passes to assure myself it was the right house because it looked so different from the picture I had carried in my mind all those years.
The lot seemed too narrow by half and the house itself was no mansion but a simple one-story structure of probably 1,200 square feet. But there were the two docks, just as I remembered them on the day we hauled in more than 100 crabs on lines baited with bacon, and there was the pecan tree we climbed, exactly where it was supposed to be.
From an adult perspective, it wasn’t nearly as grand a place as I remembered. It’s all a matter of perspective. The authors of the collects knew as much.
The smaller we make ourselves, the bigger God looks to us. One of the things that drew me to conservative Anglicanism and the Reformed Episcopal Church was the straightforward way in which we call ourselves what we are, craven sinners desperate in our need for God’s grace.
“We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed . . . provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us . . . The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable . . .” That’s the kind of sinner I am.
When we have thus come clean, we have warrant to beg, “Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father . . .”
If you have not wandered down the street and looked in on another church lately, let me assure you that we have here something rare and precious in this honest appraisal of ourselves and where it leaves us in our relationship to our Creator and our Lord. Most cannot even think in these terms today.
During Lent in particular of all the times in the liturgical year, our hearts prepared, we kneel down and pray, “Almighty God . . .”
And so He is. Let’s look for a moment at this way of addressing Him. In the Old Testament, the word we translate as “Almighty” is “Shaddai.” It has a noun form – “the Almighty” – and an adjective form – “Almighty God” or “El Shaddai.”
The origin of the term is not certain but most scholars today believe this word “Shaddai” comes from a word meaning “mountain.” In the ancient world, “mountain,” like “horn” and “right arm” represented great strength. “Shaddai” was “of the mountain.”
The Greek translation of the Old Testament translates this word as “pantokrator,” literally all-powerful. The Latin version follows with a word with the same literal meaning, one you’ll recognize: omnipotens.
By this name, El Shaddai, God appeared to the patriarchs, to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, in the context of making covenant with them. In the covenants, they as vassals pledged their obedience and faithfulness and He as Overlord promised progeny, or offspring, in which was great blessing.
The human fathers of Israel looked not to the mountains for protection but to the Lord of those mountains.
After “Almighty God,” our collect continues, “who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves . . .” admitting our abject impotence. Because we are devoid of power we must look to Almighty God, El Shaddai, for help.
We need help on two fronts. “Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul . . .” The collect concludes, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Our sin has left us vulnerable to attack in both body and soul. Now, let’s have a look at our Scripture lessons for this morning.
Our Old Testament text is snatched out of King Solomon’s prayer of consecration for the Jerusalem temple. He pleads with God to save His people from famine, pestilence, plague and enemy assault. He asks God to hear the people’s prayers “when each one knows the plague of his own heart,” and more than hear only, to forgive and act and “give to everyone according to all his ways, whose heart You know for You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men.”
Solomon, at least for now, seems to have learned his lessons well. His father, David, opens Psalm 86: “Bow down Your ear, O Lord, hear me; for I am poor and needy.” He adds in v 3, “Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I cry to You all day long.”
The king goes to his knees before the King of kings. As he decreases, God increases.
In our epistle lesson, St. Paul takes us out Israel and escorts us to Thessalonica, the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. The infant church there is struggling already with “adversities which may happen to the body.”
This is a predominately gentile church in a city awash in the Roman imperial cult, the Greco-Roman pantheon and even Egyptian cults. The allure of sexual sin runs strong among recent converts from paganism.
Sanctification, the apostle tells the Thessalonians, means “that you should abstain from sexual immorality . . . not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God.” God called us not to uncleanness, he goes on, but in holiness, so that any who rejects this admonition “does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit.”
The power of the Holy Spirit is in us. If – and especially so during Lent – we will suppress the desires of the flesh we can tap His power and use it to grow in grace.
In his gospel, St. Matthew tells the story of a remarkable woman. She approaches Jesus with an unqualified belief in His saving power. Her daughter is in the grip of “evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” A demon has possessed her.
Alas, Jesus has come to offer salvation first to the Jew, and this woman is a gentile from the region of Sidon and Tyre, outside Israel. He says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
She does not argue with His covenantal priorities. She does not plead for an exception based on her urgent need. She does not claim as much right to divine mercy as anyone else. No, she picks up His characterization of her as a “little dog” and acquiesces in it:
“Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” Making herself smaller, she demonstrates faith beyond measure in One so much greater and wins a crumb of His mercy. She knows that morsel is more than equal to her need.
This passage gathers up a sub-theme running through our psalm and lessons. Solomon, most abruptly, breaks off his plea for Israel and begs for God’s mercy on “a foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, but has come from a far country for Your name’s sake.”
David declares, “All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and shall glorify Your name.” Paul wants those converts in Thessalonica to know sexual sin is inexcusable under the new covenant which God has made with those of all the nations of the earth; the Holy Spirit has written the law on their hearts.
As the Canaanite woman with the demon-possessed daughter knew, El Shaddai, God Almighty, reigns not over Israel alone but all of His creation. And He asks simply that we confess our need for Him.
I once had a friend considerably older than I. We played a lot of golf. When I came to saving faith I tried to convince him of his need for the One I had found.
“I don’t need anybody,” he snarled. “I came up during the Depression. I looked out for myself. Wasn’t anybody else going to do it. I look out for me.”
I was not a child of the Depression but I once sported pride on that scale. In His great grace, God took me through a long, dark tunnel in which I spent years. My children ran amok and I tried one strategy after another to straighten their paths. Nothing worked. I was an emotional granny knot – or maybe a backlash.
And I never did pull the right string. It was when I admitted my powerlessness and dumped the problem in God’s lap that I finally found peace. His greatness absorbs my weakness.
But to access His strength we must confess our need of it. Since that day, I’ve seen my kids come to faith and mend their ways and walk with their Lord. Do try this at home – but I can’t guarantee a similar outcome.
For He truly is a sovereign God. We cannot manipulate Him into delivering our desired result. We can only offer up thanksgiving and praise for His incomprehensible grace. It is the very confession that He knows the right result and I do not in which peace abides. And it may not be the one I seek.
But if I could see more clearly than He, if I could maneuver Him into a corner, if I could put Him in my debt, if I could overrule His will, what sort of God would He be? And of what comfort to me?
Now, gentlemen, a word with you, if you please. If we fessed up and spilled the long and short of it, we’d get it on the record that, much more than our better halves, much more, we believe, each one of us, that we should run the world.
Over and again we lunge for control and each time it wiggles out of our grasp like a greased pig. We tell ourselves we can bring every dog to heel, break every horse, tame every tiger. And when we come short we curse ourselves for our impotence.
Well, God wired us to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over it. Maybe we can unload some of the blame on Him. In fact, He invites us to do just that: “My yoke is easy,” He says, “and My burden is light.” He’s God, and we’re not. Get it?
But we must keep two thoughts constantly in our front lobes. He did not impart His divine nature to us. And our sin has compromised our power. We need God.
And until we form those words and force them out past our teeth we are in competition with Him. It’s the wrong arena, the wrong fight, the wrong foe. Take it from one who has been on both sides: A surrender that brings about a just peace beats the hell out of waging forever a war we cannot, and should not, win. Amen.