I Believe and Don’t

Mark 9:14-29 / Proper 19B / 16 September 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

Last week seemed so easy, this week oh so complicated. Last week was almost fun, wasn’t it? Jesus heals a deaf mute by sticking his fingers in his ears, spitting, grabbing his tongue, saying “ephphatha” and that was that. This week, it’s messy, it’s complicated, involving demon possession and the failure of the disciples and unbelief and a Jesus who seems to be packing some attitude.

Jesus was returning from the mountain where He was transfigured. Peter, James, and John were with Him. They encounter a crowd. There’s arguing. In the middle of it all is a man with a deaf mute son who is demon possessed. The boy has been like this since childhood. He has seizures in which he foams at the mouth and goes rigid; he frequently falls into fire and water. The man had brought his boy to Jesus‘ disciples while He and Peter, James, and John were gone, but they couldn’t do anything. So here’s this desperate man, his demon-possessed son, nine disciples who are looking like losers, a bunch of religious wonks arguing in the middle of a crowd. Messy.

And Jesus isn’t too happy either. “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” In other words, “How long to I have to put up with this unbelief?” And he orders the father to bring the boy to Him, and immediately the demon throws him into a convulsion. And the man in desperation cries out, “If you can do anything at all have compassion and help us.” And Jesus snaps at the man, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes!” Wow!

Is this the same Jesus we encountered last week? Why the change? Well, part of it has to do with the context. Jesus has just returned from the mountain where He showed His glory to Peter, James, and John. And He’s been talking with them about how He must suffer, die and rise. This is the start of His journey to Jerusalem to take on Sin and Death and to die once and for all. And so this encounter with the father of the demonized child is almost a detour, a sidetrack to the cross.

Jesus is not angry with the boy or his father. We need to be clear on that. He’s angry at the devil and his demons and the chaos they cause. He’s angry at the scribes for whom this is just another opportunity to argue religion. He’s angry at the unbelief that seems to hang like a cloud over this whole episodes – the clueless disciples, the uncertain father, the crowds. Just how many miracles does He have to do before people will believe? For every miracle in one city, there is unbelief in the next city.

And there’s the point. Miracles don’t create faith, they just create a market for more miracles, and when the miracles stop, the people stop believing and take their business elsewhere. The disciples failed, so let’s take the kid to Jesus to see if He can do it. And if not, we’ll have to look for someone else? Isn’t that the way it goes? If you don’t get what you want, you shop around until you do. If Jesus and His crew can’t take care of the problem, well maybe we best look for someone else.

“All things are possible for one who believes,” Jesus says to the man. It’s not “if you can” but “if you are willing.” God can do anything He wants. That’s not the issue. The only issue is if He’s willing. The man should have said, “If you are willing, have compassion on us,” just as we pray “thy will be done” because we don’t know what God’s will is for any particular circumstance other than our salvation. But it’s not a matter of whether Jesus can do something, but only if He is willing to do something. And faith is open to all possibilities.

That’s how we can pray for a miracle and go to the doctor and accept a sickness all at the same time. Nothing is impossible with God, and all things are possible for one who believes. That doesn’t mean that you get everything you want if you believe hard enough and in the right way, but that faith is always open to every possibility because with God nothing is impossible.

That goes to the heart of things and of this man. Now we hear some honest faith talk. “I believe, help my unbelief.” You can’t say it any better than this. He is simultaneously believer and unbeliever. I believe, help my unbelief. This is no self-credentialing, self-justifying, self-referencing “faith.” This is the real deal. This is how faith sounds – I believe Lord, and only you, the author of my faith, can deal with my unbelief.

Faith is not something to boast about. It’s not even something for us to talk about. You hear it far too often. “Oh, she has such great faith.” Or, “I have my faith.” The truth be told, we are a mixed bag of great faith and great unbelief. And when things get really messy and complicated and downright demonic, that’s when even the greatest faith wavers and doubts settle in and we find ourselves wondering, “Can Jesus do it or is this too great for Him?”

Jesus sees the crowds running toward them, and He quickly rebukes the spirit who makes a terrifying show and finally obeys, because demons have no choice but to obey the voice of their Lord. And the boy, we don’t know how old he was, looked dead. Maybe he was. But everything had gone from bad to worse. And you can only imagine what’s going through this man’s mind. First the disciples had failed him, and now Jesus had failed, and by all appearances, the boy was dead.

But Jesus wasn’t done yet. And you have to wonder if this was intentional on the part of Jesus, as when He intentionally let His friend Lazarus die. Was He pushing the man’s faith just a bit further, the way a trainer makes you do those 5 more sit ups or push ups? The man wasn’t sure if Jesus could rid his son of the demon that threatened his life, and now he must trust Jesus with his son’s apparent death. Could Jesus help him now? It’s almost as though Jesus amped up the miracle just a bit more, turned the volume up a notch or two.

Be careful how you pray and what you pray for. People like to say, “I’m praying for patience.” I always say, “Be careful. Patience is created through suffering and trial.” This man prayed, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” And Jesus is doing precisely that: helping the man’s unbelief. He wasn’t so sure Jesus was stronger than the demon. Now will he trust Jesus with his son’s apparent death?

It wasn’t long. Just a moment or so. No conversation. Just a silent moment where the boy simply laid there motionless and apparently lifeless. And as He had done on other occasions like this one, Jesus reaches out His hand, the hand of God in the Flesh, and lifts the boy up and he arose. ἀνέστη in Greek. The resurrection word.

In the house, Jesus and the disciples discussed it afterwards. “Why couldn’t we cast it out?” Why didn’t it work with us? And Jesus’ answer is rather cryptic: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” It’s a reminder to His disciples, soon to be apostles, that that power lies not with them but with Him, and that they have only a dim understanding of the forces they are dealing with.

What Jesus did for that boy and his father, He does for all on the cross by His death and resurrection. Mark even portrays the death of Jesus as an “exorcism.” Jesus has absorbed Sin and Death and devil into Himself and with a loud shout in the darkness of His death He casts out the devil and conquers humanity’s greatest and fiercest enemy, Death itself. He does it by dying and rising. He goes into the darkness. He becomes Sin for us. He takes on the demons. He dies. And in His death, He conquers. He baptizes you into His death, and in Him you conquer too. Nothing can harm you eternally. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. That’s the daily prayer of a Christian, a baptized believer. By the grace of God we believe. But as sinner/saints there is still that unbelieving heart of old Adam in us. We are a strange mixture of faith and unbelief all wrapped together as one. Every day is a day for repentance, a change of mind, a turning from unbelief to faith. Every day, a baptismal dying and rising in Christ. Every day until the day we finally die and the hand of Jesus reaches down to our grave and raises us up to life.

All things are possible for one who believes, because with God nothing is impossible. Nothing is impossible. Not your forgiveness, not your life, not your salvation, not your standing justified before God, not you

In the name of Jesus,