I would like to begin today by talking to you about hope. Hope is so important to life. Some scientists once did an experiment
which illustrates this. They took a group of rats and let them swim in water for as long as they could and what they discovered is that these rats would swim for about an hour before they drowned. Then they took a second group of rats and also placed them in water, but, from time to time, they would lift them out of the water and give them a rest for a bit before they would place them back into the water. And what the scientists found is that this second group of rats swam for 24 hours before they drowned, 24 times as long as the previous group. And the scientists theorized that the second group swam longer because they had hope. They had the hope that someone or something would come along at some point and rescued them from the water. And that is what enabled them to endure so much longer than did the earlier group. And that is with animals. I believe that hope is even more important for humans. Some have even said that human beings cannot live without hope.
But as we think about hope there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, there is such a thing as false hope. It is possible for us to hope in something or someone that will eventually fail us, and when that is the case we are doomed to despair, because our hope is resting on a false foundation. Even people who believe in God can have false hope because sometimes we trust in God for promises that he did not make. God did not say that he would take away all of our problems in this world. God did not say that he would heal all of our illnesses in this world. And as one parent speaking to others, God did not say that if we raise our children in a godly home they will follow Jesus as believers when they become adults. God did not say those things. But when we live our lives as though he did, we are living our lives in false hope and though we are followers of Jesus.
A second thing about hope is that when we are in a time of despair—when you go to your doctor for some test results and the results are not good, when your bank account is empty and your car breaks down and you need your car for transportation to and from work, or when you go into work and your boss calls you into his or her office and they begin by saying, “I’m sorry, but…” and you don’t even need to hear the rest—when we are in those moments when we need hope the most, we tend to think that if the circumstances around us would change then we would have hope, and everything would be okay. But as Jesus comes along and interacts with the people around him in the pages of the Bible we see that he often has a different message for them and for us too. Jesus tends to tell us that we don’t need our own personal circumstances to change—we only need to have the eyes to see and the ears to hear that our personal circumstances have already changed. And if only we could see and hear this new reality that Jesus has already brought about for us, then we would have all the hope that we need and more, in spite of the circumstances that we face.
As we look at our Gospel lesson for today (Mark 7:24-37), we have two stories about Jesus. I would like to reflect with you on the first one. In this account, Jesus is in the area around Tyre and Sidon, which is in present-day Lebanon. Not many Jews lived in this area back in that time. It was a predominantly Gentile region. And that means two things: First, the people are largely influenced by Greek and Roman culture instead of a Jewish culture. And second, this is a people who are not usually associated with worship of the one, true, living God. And yet here Jesus is, right in their midst.
And a Syrophoenician woman, that is, a Gentile woman, approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her little daughter who is struggling because of a demon. And what this woman does as she comes to Jesus is good and proper. She asks Jesus the right thing in the right way. And yet, Jesus does something that to us seems kind of harsh. He says to her
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27) And what Jesus is doing here is something called a “riddle contest.” A riddle contest happens when someone is given a riddle to solve and should they solve it successfully, they will win the prize that they seek. We have an example of this in the Bible in Judges, chapter 14. At his own wedding feast, Samson challenges his thirty companions with the following riddle contest: “Let me now put a riddle to you. If you can tell me what it is, within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty changes of clothes, 13but if you cannot tell me what it is, then you shall give me thirty linen garments and thirty changes of clothes.” And they said to him, “Put your riddle, that we may hear it.” 14And he said to them, “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.” (Judges 14:12-14) And Samson is speaking of a lion that he had previously killed. Some bees built a hive in the carcass and so when Samson came along at a later date, he sampled some of that honey.
There is another example of a riddle contest that comes to us from Greek mythology. The story was told of a Sphinx that held captive the city of Thebes. Whenever a traveller came along the road into Thebes, the Sphinx would challenge them with a riddle. If they were unsuccessful in solving the riddle, the Sphinx would eat them. But if anyone were to give the correct answer, the Sphinx would destroy itself and the city of Thebes would be saved. And the riddle went like this, “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?” The answer is a human being, for we walk on four legs when we crawl along in the morning of our lives, we walk on two legs at noon, in the middle of our lives when we are more mature, and in the evening of our lives, we walk on three legs if we use a cane. And, legend has it, that Oedipus came along, solved the riddle of the Sphinx and rescued the city of Thebes.
And so Jesus is testing this woman with a riddle contest. But he is not testing her intelligence or her determination or her sincerity. Jesus is testing her world-view. And what Jesus said is not something that he just made up. It was something that was believed by some of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day.
You see, the Jews back in those days did not keep dogs as pets and the only dogs they would have had around were the mangy curs who wandered the streets of their neighbourhood scavenging the household scraps that people would have thrown out for them to eat. And something else is going on in the words that Jesus uses. Our English translations are good, but something of the nuance of words is always lost whenever you make a translation. And here in this section of Scripture our English bibles have both Jesus and the woman using the word “children” in what they say. But it is not the same word in the Greek. Jesus uses the word technon which does mean “children” but also has the connotation of “descendants.” And so what Jesus was implying was the good things of God were only for those who were descendants of God’s chosen people. And they were indeed God’s chosen people, but they had misunderstood what God had said to mean that God had not chosen any other people, and so they believed that the good things of God were only for them, and all those Gentiles—who they thought were like the dogs who ran around in the streets doing all kinds of shameful things—they only deserved to get the leftover scraps of the descendants if they got anything at all. And so Jesus is testing the woman and asking her, in effect, do you believe this?
And it is also a test for us. Do you believe that because your grandparents and your parents were Christians and because you have been a Christian all of your life that perhaps God’s good gifts are only for you and those who are like you? Do you believe that God has no good things left for all those people who are outside the church doing all kinds of things that you and I and God know that they should not be doing? Is that what you believe?
And as the woman answers Jesus, she answers with a word picture from her own culture. For the Greeks and the Romans did keep pets in the house. And she uses paidioi as her word for children, a word that connotes little children and perhaps we can even visualize the image she paints of little children feeding the best of their food to the puppies underneath the table. It is a picture of love and inclusion and abundance. And Jesus considers the words that she has spoken, and then he heals her daughter. The woman answered correctly, not agreeing with the common misconceptions that the people of God had about his love, but accurately describing the way God’s love is in reality.
You see, the message of Jesus, in a nutshell, is this: The world was created by God and it was good. But soon after creation, sin entered the world, and ever since there has been good and bad mixed together in this world. The new and good creation became an Old Creation that is dying. But when Jesus came into this world, he introduced a New Creation. In this New Creation, the deaf hear and the blind see. As Isaiah says, the lame man will leap like the deer (cf. Isaiah 35:6). And Jesus’ miraculous healings are evidence that this New Creation has begun. In the New Creation, people have a restored relationship with God and they will live with him forever. And if you need further proof of the New Creation, think back to the first Easter morning. In the Old Creation, dead people do not rise from the dead. They stay dead. But in the New Creation they do. Jesus rose from the dead and someday you will too. You might be living with a tired old body, perhaps you are even walking around on three legs because of your body’s decline. But one day, you will get a new body. No more will you need glasses or hearing aids or canes. Your body will never again grow old or get sick or die. You will see Jesus face to face and you will live with him forever in the New Heaven and Earth.
The problem for us is that we live between the Ages, we live in both the Old Creation and the New Creation at the same time. And our challenge is not to deny the Old Creation, but to live as though the New Creation was really true.
There was a hospital for children that had an education program for the children being cared for so that they would not fall behind too far in their studies while they were in hospital. And one day, one of the teachers in this program was told by her supervisor to go and see a certain boy. So she jotted down his room number and went to see him. What she did not know is that this boy had been very badly burned and the burns had caused the boy to be terribly disfigured. So the teacher was caught off-guard when she came into the boy’s room and saw what kind of shape he was in. But she managed to stammer out, “I’ve come here to teach you about nouns and verbs and adverbs.” And she spent a little time teaching him some of the basics of language. And then she left.
Two weeks later her supervisor calls her into her office and asks, “What did you say to that boy?” The teacher thought that she was in trouble, but her supervisor assured her that she was not. She said, “Ever since you visited him, that young boy’s attitude has turned around 180 degrees and he has begun making progress in his healing!” The teacher replied, “All I said to him was that I have come to teach him about nouns and verbs and adverbs.” So they went to the little boy and they asked him what made such a difference in his life. And he said, “I thought that I was dying and I had given up all hope, but when you came to teach me about nouns and verbs and adverbs, I know that I was going to live, because they don’t send a teacher to teach those things to someone who is going to die.”
We have someone who has come to teach us. And he is more than a Teacher, he is the Saviour of the whole world. And this person named Jesus has come tell us that, with him, we will not die. Jesus came to teach us that we have a loving and generous God who has good gifts to give to us and to all people.
And on our altar today, we have a bit of the New Creation before us. We see and taste bread and wine, but Jesus tells us he is here in this meal with his body and his blood. And Jesus gives himself to us so that we can have extra assurance that he loves and he is with us and we have a New Creation life with him that lasts forever.
And so my encouragement to you is to live as a New Creation person, and to share this Good News of the New Creation with those around you as you live your life in this Old Creation world. As Paul writes, Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17) Amen.
(Words like these were shared at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Chilliwack BC on 6 September 2009.)