Home      Back to Lent 2




Perseverance in Prayer.
by Isaac Williams
from Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels for the Sundays and Holy Days throughout the Year, Vol. I. Advent to Whitsuntide 
Rivingtons, London, 1875 [New Edition.]
Second part of Sermon XXIII. for the Second Sunday in Lent.
 1 Thess. iv. 1-8.    St. Matt. xv. 21-28.
"We beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the LORD JESUS, 
that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and 
to please GOD, so ye would abound more and more."
I THESS. iv. 1.
(for the first part, on the Epistle.
...There is, moreover, an evident suitableness that God should be so peculiarly the Watcher and Avenger of all sins of this nature, because they are for the most part known to God only, Whose eye is on the heart, and on all the secret ways of men.  And because the contrary to this, viz, purity of heart and mortification of life, has the indwelling of God, the hidden Presence of His Spirit, fills the soul with a disposition to unceasing prayer, and draws it more and more into communion with God.  And all this must be in secret.  It is here that God only rewards and punishes.  He rewards the pure in heart with the knowledge of Himself, because He intends that they should for ever dwell with Him in Heaven; He punishes the unclean by withdrawing from them His Holy Spirit, because they are to be hereafter for ever shut out from His Presence.  And, therefore, of such it is said: “A fornicator will never cease till he hath kindled a fire.  He will not leave off till he die.” So says the wise man; but why? assuredly because God takes from him His Holy Spirit.  He saith “in his heart, Who seeth me? I am compassed about with darkness, the walls cover me, and nobody seeth me; what need I to fear? the Most High will not remember my sins: such a man only feareth the eyes of men, and knoweth not that the eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter than the sun.” (Ecclus. xxiii. 17-19) 

Now, such being the nature of these sins, the weight of them is very terrible to an awakened conscience’ which makes any serious attempts to draw near to God; the recollection of sins of this kind, not in deed only, but of any approaches to them in evil thought, depresses, darkens, overwhelms the spirit, perhaps, more than any other sin.  And, therefore, there seems something peculiarly suitable in the Gospel which our Church has appointed for this week, as following the Epistle, and thus connecting it with this most sad subject, wherein we are taught that we have not, under such feelings, to lift up the bitter cry of Esau, of which we have the account in this morning’s Lesson, when, after having sold his birthright for one morsel of meat, “he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears ;“ (Heb. xii. 17.) but, on the contrary, like the poor Canaanitish woman, although unworthy of the children’s bread, and unclean in the sight of God, yet we have only to persevere, and after much importunity and many tears shall undoubtedly be accepted. 

And this may be noticed the rather, because, although the Epistle is, as usual, the same, yet our Gospel for today is different from that of other and foreign Churches.  For this day’s Gospel with them contains the account of our Lord’s transfiguration, when Moses and Elias were seen with Him on the Mount.  For Moses, who represented the Law, and Elias the Prophets, and Christ setting forth the Gospel; all three of them fasted for forty days; and, therefore, all three of them together seem witnesses of this Fast of Lent which the Church keeps; all three of them together conversing on the subject of our Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion, which was to follow.  But our own Church does not on this day take us up to be on the Mount with them; but, after warning us of the sins of the flesh which will for ever shut us out from His Presence, brings before us the example and the acceptance of this poor Heathen suppliant of Canaan, as an encouragement to us penitent sinners. 

Then Jesus went thence, that is, He left the neighbourhood of the Jews, where the Pharisees from Jerusalem were lying in wait for Him, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, those old heathen cities on the borders of the Great Sea.  And behold, a woman of Canaan, one that remained from that wicked nation which God had driven out from the land, came out of the same coasts, and cried unto Him, as He was proceeding along the road with His disciples, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, Thou Son of David.  Thou, the promised Messiah of Israel, which I know Thee to be, though persecuted and rejected of the Jews, have mercy on me: my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.  But He answered her not a word.  He was the same God Who so often seems as if He heard not our prayers, and answers them not, while, all the time, He hears them, indeed, and remembers every word; but waits on purpose to try us, and to exercise our faith, in order that, praying the more importunately and more earnestly, we may receive the more abundantly. 

And His disciples came and besought Him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.  They felt as Jews, for she was not only a Gentile, whom the law had marked as unclean, but, if possible, even worse, one of the accursed stock of Canaan; they could not suppose that the mercies of their Divine Master could overflow for such.  And, besides, they were desirous to be hid and unnoticed in retiring to these heathen parts, whereas she was calling observation upon them.  But He answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  He did not exactly send her away, but, as in other cases when Gentiles applied to Him, He seemed to hesitate; as desirous to grant, but waiting; full of compassions, but as under constraint. 

Then came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me.  It was afterwards, in the house, as St. Mark tells us, that this happened, that she thus “came and fell at His feet,” pressing, with still greater earnestness, her request and supplication.  For she was fully impressed, not only with a sense of His Divine power, but also of His goodness and mercy.  Long continuance and fervency in prayer is always expressive of this on our part.  It always implies confidence and love in God.  And there is nothing which God so much loves, as thus to be pressed by our perseverance and humiliation.  It is this which increases repentance and faith; and it is this which our Blessed Lord means, when He says, “the violent take the kingdom by force:” when the lukewarm give over at any delay or discouragement, the humble and earnest, on the contrary, increase their humility and earnestness.  They know that our Lord has Himself exhorted us not to be faint or weary in our prayers; to imitate the importunate widow, who overcame the unjust judge by her long, persevering entreaties; and the man at midnight calling long, in vain, to his friend, and never giving over till he had gained what he had needed.  There is something of exceeding value and importance to our souls in long and unceasing prayer; and for this reason, Christ so often, in the Gospels, puts off and lingers long before He answered those petitioners with whom He was most pleased. 

But He answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs.  The people of Israel, for Abraham’s sake, were designated the children of God, to whom appertained the adoption; and the dogs, as unclean animals, represented the Gentiles in these words, therefore, our Lord expressed, still more strongly, what, in another manner, He had said before, that He was “not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But we may also apply it to ourselves, and understand it in another way; our Lord Himself is the true Bread of Life, the Bread of the true children of God; it is not suitable that this the Bread of Heaven should be cast away on unclean persons.  It is said, at the end of the Revelation, that “dogs” are not admitted into the Heavenly City of the Blessed, where by “ dogs” is evidently meant those guilty of uncleanness and impurity. 

But this woman of Canaan understood our Lord’s words in the first sense, that He spoke of Jews and Gentiles.  And she said, Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.  She acknowledged salvation to be of the Jews, implying, such is the great abundance of Thy mercies, that while there is enough for those that are in covenant with Thee,—for those Thy children who were called in Abraham, the Father of the faithful,—yet even for us outcasts, and unclean heathens, who sit not among the children, but are under the table, and, at the feet of Thy children and Thee, for us also are the crumbs that fall to the ground; and we shall be rich with the least overflowings of Thy goodness.  Very deep was the sense of her unworthiness, and of the greatness and holiness of God.  And here we may observe, how everything with God must be in its own appointed, and ordered place.  Our Lord Himself said, I am not sent but to the lost sheep of Israel, that is, I must keep to the mission and appointment of God, Who has willed and ordained that Israel should be first called.  I must not go beyond that for which I am sent.  And again, ‘all the humility and self-abasement of this woman consists in her fully acknowledging and knowing her own place.  Our Lord spoke of her as one among the dogs, for so the law had declared the Gentiles to be; she murmurs not at this, she accepts it at once, “Truth, Lord.”  I presume not, I know well that such is my place and condition.  We may apply both of these cases to ourselves; the minister has nothing else to do but that for which he is sent and appointed of God; to go beyond this is pride, and not acceptable service.  And, in the next place, nothing more is required of a sinner, than that he should know himself to be such, and act accordingly.  He that exalteth himself, as the Jew did, shall be humbled, because he knows not himself as a sinner.  He that humbleth himself shall be exalted, because to humble himself more and more, is nothing else but his coming to a right sense of what his condition is in God’s sight. 

Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.  And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.  Our Lord, on one occasion, had said to His own Apostles, “O ye of little faith.” And He had said unto them, even just before the last, “if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed,” that is, ever so small, “ye will be able to remove mountains.” What, therefore, must have been the faith of this daughter of Canaan, to whom Christ Himself said, in words that He used to no other, “O woman, great is thy faith.” If faith ever so small could move a mountain, surely faith so great could move Heaven itself, could open the door of the Kingdom of Heaven for those Gentiles, against whom before it had been closed.  And so it was; it was this Heathen woman, and such as she, who pressed with violence into the narrow door of Christ’s Kingdom, for us all to follow after, so that we, who were accounted as dogs under the table, are made the children in His house; fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; to sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the table of God in His Kingdom.  But our faith must be such as that of this poor suppliant, must have the same self-abasement and lowliness of mind for us to continue there.  It is on this subject, of our receiving those privileges which Israel had rejected, that St. Paul exclaims, “be not high-minded, but fear.” 

Our Lord does not say, we may observe, that her daughter should be healed, but more than this, “be it unto thee even as thou wilt;” to faith so great the gift is given, that whatever she willed, it is granted to her; her “daughter made whole from that very hour” was but a pledge to her of things far greater even than this. 

In conclusion it may be observed, that the importunate supplication of this woman was not for herself, but for her daughter.  This, also, we must apply to the great Lesson of this Sunday in Lent.  It may often be the case, that one whose soul is possessed by an unclean devil, or a habit of impurity, cannot pray effectually for himself.  What then?  is he to be irrevocably lost, without hope?  God forbid!  It may be that Christ, in His providence, is drawing near, approaching, and waiting, as He did to the neighbourhood where the woman of Canaan dwelt; and that the humble and earnest prayer of some one else, some parent or friend, may save him.  I speak not of an uncommon case.  Thousands and ten thousands of souls are daily overtaken and perish, because the devil, unawares, creeps into their unsuspecting hearts by some impurity, and has them in his toils before they know it.  Nor does it seem possible, by any degree of care or watchfulness, to prevent this altogether; there are no other means in the world that can prevent it, but the faithful and unceasing prayer of an anxious parent or guardian.  This is a sure protection which cannot fail, but there is no other.  It is a case that comes home to us all; everybody has some one for whom he has reason to pray, as this woman of Canaan did for her daughter. 

There is a very remarkable instance of this kind in the history of the Church, which God has, no doubt, providentially made known to us for the same reason as He has this of the woman in the Gospels.  There is no greater saint in the Church, since the days of the Apostles,—none, I mean, whose works have had a greater influence for good,—than St. Augustin.  He was an unbeliever, living unbaptized till he had come to manhood, because he was entangled by a habit of sin; but his mother, Monica, who was a very devout and holy Christian, never ceased her earnest prayers for him; and her prayers, after a long time, like those of this Canaanitish woman, were most abundantly heard and answered.  She lived to see him become a very remarkable penitent, and holy man; to be herself instructed by his wonderful wisdom in the things of God; and she blessed God and died content.  He was given to her prayers as a brand plucked from the fire, and made to shine as a star in Heaven for ever and ever, turning many to righteousness.  For ever since that time, the greatest of saints and the most humble of penitents have sat, as it were, at the feet of St. Augustin, from whose soul the devil was cast out by the prayers of his mother. 

With these examples I would earnestly entreat those who pray for themselves at this season, to pray also for others who, perhaps, do not or cannot pray for themselves.