At first glance, our Gospel reading this morning would seem to be about demon possession and exorcism. It’s about a boy with a troubling demon that causes epileptic type seizures and even attempts to throw the boy into fire or water. That’s serious, scary stuff. What makes this even scarier is that the disciples weren’t able to deal with this demon on their own, but needed Jesus’ direct intervention. For some reason, the disciples seem to be lacking whatever it takes to take this sort of demon on.
And we are suddenly fascinated by it. What is this business of “prayer and fasting,” and yes, I believe fasting belongs in the text and shouldn’t have been suppressed. Why couldn’t the disciples deal with this demon? You may recall last week in which Jesus healed a deaf mute by sticking his fingers in the man’s ears, spitting, and grabbing hold of the man’s tongue, and saying “Ephphatha!” No mention of any demon there, but it should sounded like an exorcism.
This one explicitly involves a demon only Jesus can exorcise. And our modern ears have one of two reactions. We either dismiss this who thing as unsophisticated, prescientific nonsense, that the boy had epilepsy, plain and simple, or we get all fascinated and even preoccupied over the demonic and begin to look for a demon under every rock.
There is almost a pattern. In places and among people where the devil is not taken seriously at all, he makes himself even less serious. Frivolous even. Halloween stuff. The result is that we don’t take the devil seriously enough, and even pass him off as a piece of religious mythology that we have outgrown today. Big mistake! Evil has its source in the father of lies who roams around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour, looking for the easy pickings, the isolated believer.
In places and among people where the devil are taken seriously, he makes himself even more serious, creating fear and terror in the hearts of people. He would have you become superstitious, turn to magic, to voodoo, to spiritists and mediums and all sorts of wizardry and whatever. He would turn your faith into a superstition and your God into a good luck charm. The temptation is to take the devil as seriously as God, even to the point of making him like a competing god. The devil always seeks to drive us into the ditches and wants you in one of them, either taking him too lightly or too seriously.
This episode happened on the backside of the transfiguration. Jesus was coming down from this moment of glory on the mountain with Peter, James, and John where they met up with the other nine. What they encountered was a crowd and all sorts of arguing including the scribes. Unlike the crowds that typically followed Jesus, this one was skeptical and even a bit hostile.
Someone shouts out from the crowd about bringing his son to the disciples to be healed of a demon who caused him to become mute and have seizures and foam at the mouth. The disciples weren’t able to heal him. Surprisingly, Jesus seems really irritated by this whole episode. “O faithless generation,” He says to the crowd, “how long am I to be with you? How long must I put up with you?” The whole thing seems to put Jesus in a really foul mood, snapping questions, ordering people around.
What has Jesus angry is the unbelief that He encounters. Just because the disciples couldn’t heal a boy of his epileptic demon, now all of a sudden the crowd turns on Jesus. Even the father of the boy isn’t sure that Jesus is up to the task. “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” If you can. There it is. The doubt, the unbelief, the wavering, the half-heartedness. And Jesus flags it. “If you can! What do you mean ‘if you can’” All things are possible for one who believes.” All things are possible for with God nothing is impossible. With God a virgin conceives, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the demons are cast out, the dead are raised. How much proof do you want? How much proof does it take, and still they are not convinced of it when one little demon proves to be a bit “resistant.”
Now we come to the heart of this story. This isn’t so much about a stubborn demon as it is about what happens to our faith when our religion doesn’t seem to work. You can substitute whatever you like for the stubborn demon and come to the same place: the incurable cancer, the sudden accident, the failed economy, the child who abandons the faith, your unanswered prayers, your dashed hopes and dreams. You brought your problems to the church, and the church couldn’t fix them. You prayed for healing and you only got worse. You prayed for a better job and you lost the job you had. You know how it is; I know you do.
The temptation at that point is to trade in your God for another model, and swap your religion for one that “works.” I think our culture particularly is prone to the “whatever works must be true” way of looking at things. We’re pragmatic people. We admire whatever gets the job done. So if you go to some witchdoctor and he makes your lumbago go away, then it’s all good, right? Or you go to some fortune teller and she manages to pull a tidbit of your future and get it right, then it must be good, right?
You can see where this is heading, and how the devil has a brilliant deception under his sleeve if he can get us to bite on the notion that something is true and right and just and holy if it “works.” So then when it stops working, when the disciples can’t heal the demon and the church can’t fix your problem you have a ready made excuse to move on. And you will chase what works straight into oblivion because “what works” is too short term a criterion. It’s too narrow. For the sake of things temporal, we are sorely tempted to lose sight of things eternal.
“All things are possible to the one who believes.” Does this mean that if you believe hard enough, you’ll get your wish? Is that what faith really is? Believing hard enough that you can obligate God? Is that what trust is? Does a child only trust the parent when the parent gives him what he wants rather than what he needs? And what sort of trust it that anyway?
To his credit, the father of this child eventually does get it right. “I believe; help my unbelief.” That’s a very Lutheran way of saying it. We might consider him the first Lutheran in the New Testament. Simul justus et peccator. Simultaneously a sinner and a saint. A believer and an unbeliever. That’s you; that’s me. I believe, Lord, help Thou my unbelief. In face of things where I cannot find a way out, where You, O Lord, appear not to be doing anything, help my unbelief. Teach me to trust You when You appear weak. Teach me to trust Your Word when it doesn’t appear to work. Teach me to trust your promises over and against my own reason and senses.”
That’s how the faithful pray in this life. Mixed with faith there is always, always, a tinge of doubt. We are dealing with unseen things. We are dealing in matters of trust. And the devil, the unbelieving world, and our own sinful selves would cause us to doubt God’s goodness and mercy in face of suffering and injustice and evil. The question here is this: Do we trust Jesus when He doesn’t cast out the demon? When He doesn’t cure the disease? When He doesn’t fix the problem, but says to us as He did to St. Paul, “my grace is sufficient for you; my power is perfected in weakness?”
When Jesus finally gets around to exorcising the demon, things initially seem to go from bad to even worse. The demon departs, but the boy looks like he had died. And what would have been your reaction then? The cure turns out to be worse than the disease and it kills you. Is that a failure on God’s part? The demon is gone, but the boy is dead, or at least, apparently so. But in the hands of Jesus, death, disease, and demons are all cut from the same cloth. He takes the boys hand, lifts him up, and he arose. It’s a little resurrection. (Same word!) That’s where it all comes together, finally and for good. In the resurrection.
Privately, the disciples are still troubled by why it didn’t work. “What did we do wrong?” Jesus gives one of HIs patented sideways answers: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” Nothing “magical” here. Simply prayer in the intensified focus of fasting. The most stubborn of demons, which only the Lord could cast out, which left the little boy nearly dead upon leaving, is cast out by the simple prayer in faith in the emptyness of fasting. It’s about trust. It’s about faith. It’s about prayer that is in tune with the will of God because it has heard and is shaped by the Word of God. The devil and His demons are defeated not by our might, our power, but by the cross of Jesus Christ, by His death and resurrection, and by the simple prayer that rises up through Him to the Father.
So whether things are working out well or not. Whether God is doing things your way or not. Whether it “works” or not. Trust in the Lord. Trust His promises. Trust your Baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. Pray, praise, give thanks always. He will raise you; He already has.
In the name of Jesus, Amen