Monday, September 14, 2015

Sermon on Mark 9:14-29, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, "Faith, Prayer, and Spiritual Warfare"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Last week we heard how Jesus healed a man who was deaf and mute. But there was no hint that his condition was anything but physical problems with his ears and tongue. Today, Jesus commands a “deaf and mute spirit” to leave a young boy, who is being tormented and abused by this demon. Both the boy’s desperate father and Jesus also, clearly recognize the demon is causing the boy’s physical afflictions. Comparing the two readings seems to show that some physical illnesses have simple physical causes in the body, while at other times, a spiritual cause can produce physical symptoms. The skeptic in us might already say the young boy was just an epileptic. We’re not to assume that everyone who has epilepsy or seizures is demon-possessed, are we? That would certainly go beyond what the passage is saying. But on the other hand, are we ready today, to acknowledge that some afflictions may have a deeper, underlying spiritual cause? Is what we see in this world understood only through “what meets the eye?”
The people of Jesus’ day had no trouble recognizing that there was a spiritual world of demons and angels at work behind the scenes in everyday life. People in Africa, where Christianity is growing fastest, have no trouble believing that there is a spiritual world. In our modern, “scientific” age, we all but dismiss the supernatural, or limit it to the extreme exceptions or the world of the bizarre. But does Jesus’ frequent encounter with the demonic world challenge our assumptions? Might we actually be ignoring or unaware of how real and present the spiritual world is?
This passage gives us a glimpse of the spiritual landscape, of the spiritual warfare going on beyond our senses. It shows the effects of this spiritual warfare spill over into the physical world. We learn some important things. One is that Satan and his evil spirits are bent on the destruction, the misery, and the harm of the human race. The devil has no love or compassion, but is a liar, a deceiver, and incites people to evil. We also see that unbelief in God aids and abets the Evil One in his purpose. Unbelief assists the devil by keeping us divorced from God and His help. It makes us idolaters who worship something other than the One True God. We further learn that Satan’s forces do not fold and run easily. This unclean spirit resisted the disciples’ first attempts to cast it out. And when it finally was cast out by Jesus, it departed so violently that the boy appeared dead. Finally we also learn that prayer is powerful and necessary in winning this spiritual battle. Without faith in Jesus and prayer to Him, we don’t stand a chance against the devil’s attacks. But with Him, we have victory.
Jesus expresses His frustration with the disciples: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” Faithless. Unbelieving. Trust in God was absent. Faith in Jesus could transform this situation. Faith would confidently hold onto Jesus for help. If anyone of us had said “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”, instead of Jesus, we might read those words like someone ready to throw in the towel. Like someone who didn’t have any more patience for our slowness. But of course we know that Jesus had incredible patience, divine patience, and that He bore with and loved His disciples to the very end. And Jesus doesn’t thrown His hands up in despair, but calls for the child and heals him. He is frustrated by the lack of faith in His disciples, but He acts decisively and with authority to change the situation.
If we are honest, we’re a faithless and unbelieving generation. We’re slow to hear and slow to learn Jesus’ word. We need to hear it again and again. We are so much like the disciples. We face up to a difficult challenge, a spiritual challenge, and our half-hearted, half-believing efforts fail. The apostle James describes a person who asks God while doubting—as being like a wave tossed about by the wind, and that such a person shouldn’t expect to receive anything (James 1:6-7). Instead, like Jesus, he admonishes us to ask in certainty and faith. Faith is central to being a disciple of Jesus, and it’s central to the work of Jesus’ kingdom, over against the kingdom of darkness, the rule of the devil. Faith is God’s shield in our hands, to block the fiery arrows of the devil.
So is faith a power we summon up from within ourselves? Or does faith come from somewhere else? Is the success of the spiritual battle that rages around us measured by the strength or weakness of our faith? Or where does the power of faith rest? We can turn back to Jesus’ conversation with this poor boy’s father for some answers. The father is deeply distressed that the boy seems beyond a cure. The disciples failed. It’s one more disappointment. Probably lifetime of dashed hopes for his tormented child to be healed. Low in hopes and expectations, he turns to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion and help us.” Your heart breaks for him and for every other person who has cried out in the same distress for someone with a chronic affliction. And his suffering was compounded by the evil, demonic nature of this torment.  
Jesus seizes on that word ‘if’! “If you can!” Jesus exclaims. That little ‘if’ expresses all your doubt and unbelief! Jesus challenges the wavering man, “All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Faith is the ticket! Believe, and all things are possible! But Jesus, where can I get that faith? I know I need it, but you yourself have just seen that my faith is lacking! “I believe; help my unbelief!” What a prayer. What a prayer! God, my faith is faltering—but you strengthen me! Help my unbelief! Turn that doubt into trust in you. My child needs your help, and everything else has failed me.
And the faith and prayer of this father is answered! His child is healed by Jesus. Jesus answered the prayer by granting faith to that father. Jesus helps our unbelief and turns it to trust. So what’s the answer to where faith comes from, and what is its power? This faith that is so necessary, the faith that shields us against the devil’s attacks, the faith that engages in the spiritual warfare with the strength and weapons of God, the faith that stands in Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and Satan—that faith all comes right from God. It’s His free gift. The prayer for more faith is always gladly answered with a “Yes” and God generously provides it. Our difficulties aren’t always automatically lifted though—and at times may increase. Paul’s famous example was the thorn in his flesh, that he prayed God would remove, and God answered by giving Paul more grace to sustain him.
But the point is, that faith isn’t something we dig up from inside ourselves, like finding more courage to ride a rollercoaster or go skydiving. No, the faith that faces down demons is a gift of God, and the access to this faith is as simple as hearing the Word of Jesus Christ, and believing it, by the work of the Holy Spirit. Straight from God’s mouth to your ears and heart. So the father’s prayer was just the thing—to ask Jesus to help his unbelief.
I’ve prayed this prayer—“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Perhaps you’ve prayed the prayer, or should. If faith is wavering, if you are feeling like that wave tossed about by the wind, or you fear that a spiritual war is waging, and you’ve dropped your armor. And Jesus is glad to answer that prayer. He’s glad to give us faith, and to teach us how to pray. You see Jesus won the war and sealed the victory of His kingdom, when He died on the cross and rose from the grave. Jesus forever changed the battlefield, by removing the sting death, by forgiving our sins. He’s absorbed all Satan’s deadly accusations. And so when we’re in the spiritual battle, Jesus hasn’t abandoned us, He hasn’t left the battlefield, but He has equipped us and fights by us with weapons of His Spirit. With faith in Jesus and prayer to God in our arsenal, we don’t need to fear the attacks of the devil. And we can stand strong and resist them.
So often we forget the power of prayer—which is really to say we forget the power of God. We forget that He is the One who answers prayer. Because prayer, like faith, only has power because of the One in whom we trust. Prayers and faith turned to a false god are of no help—however sincere. But prayers and faith in Jesus and the One True God find the One who truly can help.
Let today’s reading be a reminder to us that Jesus supplies us faith and that He answers prayers. That spiritual warfare and demons are real, and that today as much as then, the devil is seeking to create doubt, disharmony, and destruction. And that we are not helpless in the face of evil, but that we stand under the shelter of the Almighty One, the God who is the helper of the helpless, and who sent Jesus to bring His kingdom and will to earth as it is in heaven. Faith and prayer bring victory because we stand in Him. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Read Mark 7:32, 37 and Mark 9:17, 25. What did these two people who were healed have in common? What appears to be different about their situations?
2.      Why are people today not inclined to see any spiritual causes behind some physical conditions? Does the Bible teach that the spiritual and physical are connected? Yes or No? 1 Corinthians 15:44-49.
3.      What is Jesus frustrated with, in Mark 9:19, and vs. 22-23? Who can help with our unbelief? Mark 9:24; Romans 10:17.
4.      What unbelief do we struggle with? When is our faith challenged by doubt? When this happens, where must we turn to have our faith strengthened?
5.      Jesus demonstrates His power and authority over unclean spirits, and the kingdom of darkness. What access to Jesus’ help and authority had the disciples ignored? Mark 9:29. Who makes prayer powerful and effective? Mark 10:27
6.      Why is faith so necessary for discipleship, and for the kingdom of God to exist in the world? Who does faith look to? When we are looking to other things or powers, or even giving a door for the evil one to enter our life, what may happen to our faith? What are some dangerous influences we should avoid?

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