Breaking the barriers of bigotry

An award-winning sermon in the 1994 Talent Search in narrative/expository preaching

Willard L. Santee is a district pastor in Oregon and an associate speaker for American Cassette Ministries, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The popularity of the Nazarene had turned. The majority of those who had openly followed Him now hid in the shadow of their leaders. The seeds of bigotry, sown by religious zealots, had done their work. Only a handful of followers remained.

From Bethsaida Jesus and His faithful twelve made their way across the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. From here they traveled toward the mountains of Lebanon, which took them west to the Great Sea.

Between this seaway of colors and the rainbow of floral dancing, between the cedars and firs of Lebanon, rests a narrow body of land known as Phoenicia. She extends her delicate hand northward more than 100 miles, grasping the rich coast land with fingers that form islands and bays, creating natural harbors for ships that grace her small towns and villages like pearls laced about her wrist.

From the south her border sweeps up over the Carmel ridge, whose slopes are dotted with dwarfed oaks and wild olive trees. They stand as if reminiscent of a time gone by, when a prophet once stood as a mighty oak yet dwarfed by the multitude of men and women whose hearts beat wildly after other gods. It was from this mountain, rising to a summit of more than 1,700 feet above the dark-blue waters of the Mediterranean, that Elijah had stood in defense of Jehovah—God of Israel.

Today the voice of Elijah has been replaced by the sound of men, men who are tired from their 50-mile journey and the heat of the day. There is the added burden of half-empty skins of water that hang about their sun-darkened necks and broad shoulders. From each pair of worn leather sandals a different set of prints has been etched on the surface of the hardened earth—each to be changed in time by the ever blowing sand that has long ago erased the footprints of a people who once worshiped the true God.

It was from this land that the Phoenician princess Jezebel had sought to destroy the children of Israel. It was here that the gods of Baal and Astarte were introduced. From the days of the Greeks, four centuries before, the mountain to the south had been called "the holy mountain," for it had been dedicated to heathen gods. The disciples too considered the mountain to be holy, but for a different reason. Just the thought of walking in the footprints of Elijah filled them with a sense of pride. With these thoughts they trudged on behind Jesus.

Jesus had a purpose

Jesus had brought them here for more than a temporal rest from the biased crowds that had for two and a half years followed them and consumed their emotional strength, producing a physical weariness. He had chosen this time and place for a lesson they would never forget.

As they entered the hill country on the borders of Phoenicia they could see, spread out upon the plain below, the ancient rival cities of Tyre and Sidon, with their heathen temples, their magnificent palaces, and marketplaces. They could see the harbors filled with seafarers who had been trading with Egypt and all the other countries surrounding the mighty Mediterranean. They could see the merchants selling their wares and the common people pressing their way through the narrow streets. They could hear the noise of commerce mixed with the bleating of sheep on the slopes about them. There were people here and there on the path they were traveling. An occasional beast, under a burden imposed by its master, labored past them.

According to Mark, Jesus and His disciples made their way to a home, which undoubtedly was that of a friend. It was perhaps a Jewish home, for many Jews were living at that time among the Phoenicians.

Picture the story with me. Imagine a small house hidden from the village below, nestled neatly at the base of a steep slope of the Lebanon Mountains. There, overlooking the Mediterranean, Jesus and His disciples have found rest with a small Jewish family.

The happy sounds of children running, laughing, and playing fill the air. A small puppy joins in the fun as it nips at its master's heels. There is a delightful aroma of freshly baked bread as it cools on the hearth of a fired brick oven. A warm drink from a goat just milked is offered to the guests as they arrive.

A special assortment of almonds, mulberries, figs, walnuts, apricots, pears, and olives are placed on the long low table in the center of the room. The women of the house art fully place a number of large reddish pomegranates at strategic points to complete the living picture.

Jesus and His disciples are invited to the table, where they recline on rugs made from the skins of animals and woven hair mats. Two young boys sit quietly now, one on each side of their father, who resides at the head of the table. Jesus is next to the younger boy, who insists on holding his treasured puppy close to his chest and secured by his arm.

A moment of silence is broken as the father offers his petition of praise and thanksgiving to Jehovah for the honor of being among the chosen race and for the guests that have entered his dwelling. After seeking protection for those within his care and claiming the promise of the coming Messiah, who would deliver them from the evil of those about them, he closes his formality.

Without hesitation, Jesus and the disciples join their host in talking, laughing, listening, and eating. The temporal joy that ensued can be understood only by those who, like these men, have traveled over hot dusty roads without a bed to sleep on or a table to sit at for many days.

What is she doing here?

So occupied are their minds, mouths, and hands that only Jesus and the two small boys notice the woman who has persisted in joining them, at the resistance of the mother.

This stranger is not a Jew. The boys can tell by her clothes that she is a Greek or a Gentile. They recognize her as a Syrophoenician by race, but it is her heathen ways that has led them to be instructed to shy away from sinners like her. Her type is a reproach to the "true religion" that is held in such high es teem throughout the Jewish system. Without speaking, the boys send a mes sage with their eyes to one another, "What is she doing here?"

For months, perhaps years, this woman has longed to see her daughter set free of the demon that has possessed her. She does not understand these things—where demons come from; that they are fallen angels working under the power and control of Satan, the prince of darkness.

She has grown up in a land of demon worship. They are her gods! She is not afraid of them. They send the rain and make the crops grow. They sustain life and take the souls of those who die into a better world. Yet somehow her daughter has been attacked by an "evil" spirit.

In order to get rid of this demon she has sought help from her heathen gods. She does not know that Satan will not cast himself out, but she tries the things she has been led to believe. Her faith is strong, but pointed in the wrong direction. Her child is no better. There is no relief.

Though she is ignorant of Isaiah the prophet, his inspired thoughts are fulfilled in her. She has consulted the mediums and the spirit guides of her day. As a result she has passed through the land, "hard-pressed and famished." Now she looks to the earth, "and behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish" and she is driven away into darkness (Isa. 8:21, 22, NASB).

It is in this loneliness of soul and rejection by even her own gods that she hears of the Nazarene, the Man who heals all manner of disease. He makes no distinction between rich and poor. If only she could go to Him!

She knows that He is a Jewish teacher and she a Canaanite. But she is also a mother, a woman having flesh and blood and a heart that yearns to see her little girl set free from the supernatural power that controls her. How can she concern herself with such things as national pride, ethnic barriers, or religious prejudice!

Will the Galilean choose to heal?

Yet the one question that, perhaps above all others, robs her of her potential joy is "Will the Galilean choose to heal her daughter, or is He prejudiced too, like all the rest?"

Her thoughts play hide-and-seek with her mind. She vacillates between acceptance and rejection, between be lief and unbelief. Then today! In her village word has spread that Jesus is there. He has come to her!

Has it been in answer to the unspoken prayer of a mother's heart, even though she knows not how to pray? Can it really be for her that He has come? It does not matter. All her plans for that day are forgotten. Leaving her little one in the care of another, she rushes from her house. A prayer is on her lips. She runs, while at the same time trying to walk like a lady with dignity. There is a throbbing in her breast that she cannot hide. It is like a new song waiting to be released and a thou sand instruments of praise, each fighting among themselves to be the first to send it forth into the world.

Her eyes, filled with tears of expectancy, fail to focus on the familiar eyes that stare back at her from above the veils of those who pause in wonder along the way.

She is determined not to lose her only hope. Jesus must heal her child! It is her resolute purpose to present her case to the only One left who can. Nothing can stop her now, not all the hosts of hell, for no one can choose to take even one step toward the Master without Him hastening to enfold them in His arms (see Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons, p. 206).

When she arrives at the home of the Jewish family she finds them talking and eating. Her excitement cannot be hidden, though her small frame is lost in the large size of the open doorway.

She is recognized by the woman of the house, who quickly takes her place in front of the uninvited guest. Before she can be confronted she cries out, "Which one is Jesus?" Her eyes move quickly from one face to another as she excitedly stumbles through her unrehearsed excuse for being there.

"I must speak to Jesus!" Her eyes stop when she sees the Man near the head of the table, the One seated near the little boy holding the puppy under his arm. There is something about that Man. She cannot explain it, but she is drawn to Him. She sees in Him a com passion that He is powerless to hide. She moves quickly past the hostess, who chooses not to stop her for fear of making a greater scene.

The stranger throws herself at the feet of the Master, crying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My  daughter is severely demon-possessed." Jesus does not answer. He refuses even to look in her direction. He continues to eat as though she does not exist. This is an embarrassing situation for the hosts. Their guest is being compelled to listen to the senseless sobs of a Canaanite woman.

Why this woman?

Angry looks are transferred from the priest of the home to his wife, who should have prevented this unnecessary intrusion. The wife stands at a distance, twisting a woven cloth about her fingers, not knowing exactly what to do. She waits for a command from her husband, who chooses to glare at her instead.

The children observe it all. They see the looks that flash like jagged emeralds from their father's eyes. They sense the fear and strain being placed upon their mother. Children are like that. They have a sensitivity that reaches out to people who are hurting. They have a natural tendency to trust people and accept them as they are. They are also quick to learn by example.

The woman moves to one of Jesus' disciples. Getting his attention, she tries to enlist his help in presenting her case to the Master. He argues with himself, saying, "If Jesus treated her with indifference, it is because the prejudice of the Jews against the Canaanites is pleasing to Him, so why should I do anything to help this heathen dog?" He turns from her and resumes eating as though nothing has happened.

One after another the disciples are pleaded with, until every person is aware not only of her presence, but of her incessant whining. The pleasant fellowship has stopped. Every eye now, except for two, looks with contempt upon her.

The disciples turn to Jesus and plead with Him to send her away. They have not come these many miles to deal with her type—or have they?

Jesus speaks. His words are short and to the point. "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." At first the disciples understand Jesus' words as a rebuke to the woman, for she is not of the chosen seed, she is not an Israelite.

The rebuke, however, is intended for the disciples, as a reminder of what He has often told them, that He has come into the world to save all who will accept Him. For whoever comes to Him, He will "in no wise cast out" (John 6:37).

I see the little children watching the face of Jesus with rapt attention, while the disciples study the words just spoken for a deeper or hidden meaning.

The woman returns to Jesus and prostrates herself at the Teacher's feet. She raises up just enough to take His hand and worships Him by kissing it, much like a dog licking at its master's hand. Again she sobs, "Lord, help me!"

Lord, help me

Jesus responds by saying, "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." He is asserting that it is not just or right to lavish the blessings that belong to the favored people of God upon strangers and aliens. She is not an Israelite. She has no right to Israel's blessings. She is a dog!

The woman's head drops from the gaze of Jesus' eyes. Yet there is some thing about His eyes; they seem to search out every corner of her heart where she has hidden pain, guilt, anger, prejudice, and fear. Strange but true, His eyes are unlike the eyes of men— they are free of condemnation and seem to overflow with compassion for her and her little one. It is as if He is trying to tell her something. His words still ring in her ears. "What is He saying to me?"

Through her tears of frustration she sees the little puppy resting quietly near its master's heart and enfolded in his arms. "That is what He is trying to tell me!" His words are an invitation for a response. This is her opportunity. It is the little lad, the little fellow who is sitting so close to Jesus. The Teacher must have seen the little boy wipe the crumbs from the table onto the floor for his puppy to eat.

With a new hope in her heart and faith reflecting in her eyes, she looks up at her "new" Master and says, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little pups eat the crumbs that fall from their (young) masters' table" (Matt. 15:27, Amplified).

Great is your faith

"O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you wish" (verse 28, Amplified). The Scriptures record that her daughter was cured, permanently, from that moment on.

After thanking her Master again and again, and bowing before Him for the last time, I see her turning for just a moment to squeeze the little hand that strokes the puppy's head; as she does, I picture the little pup reaching out and licking at her hand as if to say that he too understands what it means to be fed by the Master's hand.

Nothing could hold back the music in her heart. All the strings of heaven must have picked up her melody that day as she returned home, leaping and singing, and praising God—her God— the God of Israel.

The partition wall that Jewish pride had erected and had kept the disciples from showing sympathy with the heathen world had been shattered—and Jesus was satisfied. He had tested the faith of the woman. By His acceptance of her, He had shown the disciples that this very one whom they had regarded as an outcast from Israel was no longer to be considered an alien, but a child of God's household, having a God-given right to sit at the banquet table in His kingdom to come.

10 Steps to Narrative Preaching

 

1. Select your story. Read it in at least six versions (from literal to loose paraphrase).


2. Check your words. Look up all words you do no: understand. (Make note of all "special meaning" words.)

3. Get your setting. Study the culture of the setting. (Note the geography, history, landscape, etc.)

4. Use your "sanctified" imagination. This is a powerful tool if properly disciplined.

5. Write your theme in one basic sentence. Four questions that will help in writing your theme: a) What is
the general concern? b) What is the specific need? c) What questions need to be asked or answered? and d) Is this a single message or part of a series?

6. Outline your structure. Your story should be based on four questions:
a. "What?" Define the issues.
b. "Why?" Explain or enlarge.
c. "How?" Justify or apply.
d. "What then?" Promises, hopes, or consequences.

7. Write your sermon. All narratives need to be written out before delivery. This helps to preserve your thoughts and keep you within your time limits.

8. Plan your appeal.

9. Rehearse your sermon. Use your pulpit as a place for practice delivery. Record your sermon and listen to it
as a visitor.

10. Talk with your God. Make sure you are both in agreement as to: a) the need for the message; b) the timing of the message; c) the audience who will receive the message; and d) the heart of the one who will give it.

 

 


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Willard L. Santee is a district pastor in Oregon and an associate speaker for American Cassette Ministries, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

December 1995

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