Monday, September 17, 2012

Sermon on Mark 9:14-29 for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, "I believe; help my unbelief!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our Gospel reading from Mark takes place right after Jesus has returned from His mountaintop transfiguration, where 3 disciples saw Him revealed as the Son of God. Returning to the plain, He finds out that the other disciples had failed in casting out a demon from a young boy, and were now surrounded by a crowd, arguing with the scribes. Jesus enters the scene, with the disciples likely embarrassed by their failure and the crowd eager to see if Jesus could succeed where the disciples had failed. Even the father of the child has a lukewarm hope in Jesus’ ability.
When Jesus hears the father’s report of the disciples’ failure, He shows great disappointment: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” Where was their faith? Later He would explain to them they also lacked prayer. How would Jesus attend to this man’s needs, as well as to the weakness and lack of faith around Him?
v. 22 shows the deep passion and love of the father for his child, explaining the sufferings of his child, which just then were put on full display for Jesus and the crowd to witness. What a pitiful situation, with a son who was deeply afflicted, and a father who was barely able to prevent his child from suffering because of a malicious spirit that was casting the child into fire or water. The father begs that Jesus help and have compassion on him. His plea is still filled with doubt, hesitation, and fear: “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus doesn’t turn away from this passionate request, but seeks to bolster the man’s faith and his request, asking almost in His own amazement, “If you can!?” If only you knew who you were asking!!! “If you can” doesn’t even enter into the equation when you are asking God! With God all things are possible. There is no limitation to what God can do. To ask if God can is to forget who God is!
It’s a separate question if He is willing to do what we ask. How can we know? We might compare this to the leper in Mark 1, who asked Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean”—to which Jesus replied, “I am willing—be clean”—and the man was instantly made well. Here again with the father of the epileptic child, Jesus was willing to grant the healing. Jesus was ever-willing to show compassion. But Jesus needed to elevate that man’s doubt, hesitation, and fear to become faith. The man doubted there was anyone who could help. He was nearly resigned to the terrible fate of His child. But Jesus was not one to leave a person captive to uncertainty. “All things are possible for one who believes”—He invites the man. The Lord God had given Jesus the “tongue of those who are taught, that [He] knew how to sustain with a word him who is weary” (Isaiah 50:4). With a sustaining word, Jesus gave hope to the man, showing that help from God was possible—indeed very near to him.
The stricken father responds again with deep emotion, “I believe; help my unbelief!” “I’m crying out to you, and I know my lack of faith is in the way. Help that too!” Jesus’ doctoring of this man’s soul was taking effect! He too, not only his son, needed Jesus’ help. Like a dimly burning candle wick, or a bruised reed, the glimmer of faith was now visible in this man. Smoldering embers were receiving oxygen and starting to glow. He didn’t crush the bruised reed or extinguish the dimly burning wick, but Jesus gently breathed life and faith into this injured man who had the cares of the world and a desperately sick son weighing on his shoulders. A man who barely dared to hope for help, and who’d been disappointed already once by Jesus’ disciples. A man caught in the chaos of an unfeeling crowd that could feel little of his deep pain in watching his son suffer.
To a man like this, to weary or grief-laden sinners like us, Jesus breathes His life. To those who feel resigned and hopeless under a world of evils and troubles beyond our power to fix or escape, Jesus speaks a word to sustain the weary—the word of His Gospel. To those with a weak or faltering faith, Jesus bolsters and revives our faith, shows us who we are talking to, and gives us faith with the very words that command it! His Word and Spirit speak life into us where before there is only the fear and gloom and suffering of life. His Word gently breathed across our dimly burning faith, invigorating, lightening, oxygenating our faith—as flakes of ash and doubt and despair fluttering away. The Good News that Jesus has taken all our sins and burdens upon Himself at the cross—this gospel creates and sustains our weary faith.
His Word moved that father, and it moves us in moments of doubt and disbelief to pray. To pray, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!” I’m hanging on by a thread. I know you’re there and that You alone can help. Help me Lord! Fill me with the Holy Spirit where I am empty and lacking! Charge me with courage and strength, to overcome my weak and weary heart! And in a moment this loving father learned what we should all know—that it’s not the strength or weakness of your faith that determines the ability to save, but rather it is the One in whom you trust. Before the whole crowd, Jesus took command of the situation, demanded the unclean spirit to be gone and never return. He then raised the apparently lifeless boy and restored him whole and well to his father. In that moment, the father of the boy learned that Jesus is the One to trust—He is the One who can save.
You see, faith requires something to trust in. But only trust/faith that is located in the One who can save, is a faith that can save. Whether the weak faith of the father that begged Jesus for more strength to believe, or the strong faith of the one who knows Him who is able to save—both are placed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, mighty to save. That faith placed in Jesus is saving faith—hope and life-giving faith. Faith that fixes itself on the One who is near and is able to help—Jesus Christ our Lord. Apart from Him, we can do nothing, but “All things are possible for one who believes!” And the prayer for more faith, the prayer of God’s children for the gift of the Holy Spirit, never goes unanswered, but God is always willing to supply us with deeper trust in Him and His Spirit to strengthen us (Luke 11:13).
To illustrate how it’s the object of faith, not its strength, that saves, consider the example of a person who needs a life-saving operation, and has total faith or trust in the surgeon, vs. the person who is timid and weak, but by faith consents to the surgery nevertheless. Whether strong or weak, it is the surgeon’s skill, not the patient’s certainty or anxiety that makes a successful surgery and recovery possible. By contrast, for the person who has no faith, who fears or distrusts the surgeon and won’t consent to the surgery, they cannot be helped, even if the surgeon is willing and able. Likewise with God, it’s a matter of trust. Do we have faith in Jesus to perform the life-saving heart transplant that we need?
However, this isn’t to say that there’s no difference between a strong and weak faith, or that weak faith cannot be a hindrance, or that faith doesn’t need to grow. Rather the father’s very prayer implies this need for a strengthened faith, saying: “Help my unbelief!”. There’s always room for faith to grow—even a mature and certain Christian continues to have much room for growth in depth of faith and maturity throughout their lifetime. We pray to God to “help our unbelief” by ridding us of our doubts and moving us to a deeper trust in Him. We pray for a stronger, deeper faith, that clings to Him in all uncertainties and holds to the rock which cannot be moved. But it’s still faith in the same Jesus, and it’s still the same Jesus who saves us—not the measure of how strong or weak we are—but that we look to Him.
In v. 29 Jesus says to His disciples that this demon could only be cast out by prayer. They learned one area where their own faith needed to grow—that of prayer. Jesus declares the incredible power of prayer, power over great and troubling evil and seemingly impossible circumstances. How often we greatly underestimate prayer, and take it for granted. And just like with faith, the power is not in prayer itself as some abstract notion or magical words—but prayer connected and directed to the One True God. Prayer to an idol, or to the mystical universe, or to a human being dead or alive, has no power whatsoever. In fact Jesus warned against the false prayers of the pagans that just heaped up empty phrases or babbled on with many words. He was teaching that God isn’t controlled by our prayer or by how many or how beautiful our words are. But rather God hears the prayers prayed to Him through Jesus Christ. ALL the power of prayer is the power of God alone—the One to whom we pray. God the Father and His Son Jesus command the demons with a word of His voice, and they must obey. Protesting or not, there’s no evil spirit that could oppose Jesus’ words.
Whatever your circumstances, know that Jesus, God’s Son, is in command of the situation, and that He answers the prayer to strengthen our faith, and to rid us of our unbelief. He guards and preserves our soul even through death’s darkest hour, and promises that whatever present sufferings we endure are light and momentary—before the day of glory. He does not send us anywhere He has not first gone, and He showed us His power over life and death by His own suffering, death, and resurrection. He is the true object of our faith—the One who is powerful to save and to heal, to hear and to answer. In Him we trust. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. The account of the boy who Jesus healed of an unclean spirit follows right after the Transfiguration in Matthew 17, Mark, 9, and Luke 9. What scene was developing when Jesus returned from the mountain?

  1. How did Jesus react to the news that the disciples had been unable to cast out the demon? Why was their lack of faith troubling to Him?

  1. Describe the passionate plea of the father to Jesus. Why did Jesus stretch out His response, instead of immediately granting the man’s request? What was He seeking to do? Isaiah 42:1-3, 7; 50:4. How was He inviting him to have hope and faith? Matthew 11:25-30

  1. How does the father’s faltering but hopeful response become a model prayer for us when our faith is weak? Cf. Luke 17:5. When have you been weary and burdened to the point of giving up or losing hope? Why would the devil be delighted for us to be trapped in resignation? How does hopeless despair work in the devil’s favor?

  1. How does Jesus give and sustain faith? How does He enliven and support us? How do we know God is always willing to answer the prayer for more faith and for the power of His Holy Spirit? Luke 11:13

  1. Why is it essential that our faith/trust be in the right person—the true God? Why is this truly saving faith? Isaiah 43:10-11. Like faith, how does the power of prayer rest with God alone, and not our words or “formula” for prayer? Cf. James 5:16. To whom alone should prayer be directed? Matthew 6:7-13; John 14:6; 1 Timothy 2:5

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