A sermon on Mark 9:14-29 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 25 November 2018
I have been a believer all my life. One of my earliest memories is of my mother leading me in prayer at bedtime. I have always believed in God and in his son Jesus. As a child I loved going to church and Sunday School. No one ever made me go. I loved reading the Bible. I remember as a ten year old, trying to read the Bible from cover to cover. I started from Genesis chapter 1 and I got all the way to the book of 1 Chronicles. Where I stopped. And if you’ve ever read the beginning of 1 Chronicles you’ll understand why a ten year old would.
But this was only a minor setback. This childlike faith has grown and matured with time and study through suffering and through ministry. What a joy it is to know the Lord. How comforting to know that my heavenly Father provides me with every blessing. How inspiring to hear the call of Jesus to follow him. I have been a believer all my life and I would not give up being a child of God in Christ and by his Spirit for all the money of the world.
But sadly, I have also been an unbeliever all my life. I have not cursed Christ nor have I forsaken his way. But at the heart of every sin – every wrong I’ve done, every cross word I’ve said, every unworthy thought I’ve had, and every good I’ve failed to do, every phone call I haven’t made, every time I haven’t stood up for what was right – at the heart of every sin there is unbelief. Doubting the Lord’s goodness, doubting his power, doubting his word, doubting his good will, doubting the good he has done in other people’s lives. This unbelief drags me short of the purpose for which he made me. So as much as I have been a believer all my life, in some small way I’ve also been an unbeliever.
That’s why I identify with the father in our story from Mark chapter 9. I even admire him, his honesty in the midst of his pain. “I do believe,” he said to Jesus. “Help me overcome my unbelief.” This is the story of my life. I am just like him and he is just like me. I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.
And yet it would be a mistake to make this man the hero of the story. The true hero is the Lord he turned to. The one who was willing and able to do what he asked him.
This story follows after the account of the Transfiguration that we looked at last week. Jesus had taken Peter, James and John up a mountain and had been transformed in front of them. They saw his glory as his clothes shone a blinding white. They heard the voice of God say of Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love, listen to him.”
The next morning they came back down the mountain to find a commotion. “What are you arguing about?” asked Jesus.
A man in the crowd answered,
Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.
What a sad story. Imagine this father’s pain at seeing his son’s distress and, worse, at the hand of a malevolent spirit. Beyond his control and his capacity to help. It makes us feel sorry for him. And it should make keen readers of the book of Mark wonder: what is wrong with Jesus’ disciples? Had he not sent them out two by two back in chapter 6? Had he not given them authority over evil spirits? Had they not returned from their mission full of stories of the wonders they had seen and done? And yet here in chapter 9 they had been unable to help this father and his son in their desperate need. These followers of Jesus are seriously becoming as much an obstacle to his work as the chief priests and the Pharisees.
“O unbelieving generation,” said Jesus, giving vent to his frustration. “How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” But with more compassion for the father, he said, “Bring the boy to me.”
Immediately the boy was thrown into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. “How long has been like this?” Jesus asked.
“From childhood,” replied the father. “But if you can do anything,” he pleaded, “take pity on us and help us.”
His request makes an interesting contrast to the request of the leper at the end of Mark chapter 1. In our first reading, this man came to Jesus and said, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” He was confident of Jesus’ ability to heal him. Perhaps he’d been told of Jesus’ remarkable healing ministry by a friend or family member. Perhaps he’d looked just for this chance to meet Jesus. He had no doubts about Jesus’ ability. But he did not want to presume on Jesus’ willingness. “You can heal me, if you want to,” he said. “I do want to,” Jesus replied, “be healed.”
But the father in chapter 9 wasn’t so confident. He was desperate enough to try anything. He believed enough to go to all the trouble of trying to see Jesus. But he didn’t believe enough to dare to put all his hope in Jesus. “If you can help,” he said to Jesus, “have pity on us.”
Straight away Jesus picked up on his wavering faith. “What do you mean “If you can”? Everything is possible for him who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.” It is the plea of the honest doubter. He has faith enough to make a scene like this in public, without a care for what anyone thinks. And he is honest enough to bring his greatest weakness out into the open. “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.”
Every professional has met someone like this. Whether you’re a teacher or a nurse or an accountant, you’ve met that person who is in big enough trouble that they know they need help, but either through inexperience or because of a bad experience, they just can’t put their whole faith in you. I’ve met them at funeral interviews. I come into their life as a stranger, wearing a suit and tie and a nervous smile. They are hurting. Grieving. I want to help them and they need me to help them, but they just aren’t ready to trust that I won’t embarrass them at their loved one’s funeral in front of all their family and friends. They have a thousand questions: what are you going to do? how are you going to do it? They ring up twice a day to make sure I don’t forget to mention some detail in their loved one’s life. And they realise that they’ve made the mistake of being too honest about the deceased in the interview and would I mind not mentioning that bit. I’ve been through it enough to know that I can’t really reassure them. The only thing I can do is to do a good enough job that they’ll trust me next time.
We’ve all met people like that and some of us have had to deal with them. But if we were honest, we’d admit that we’ve been that person. Not trusting our child’s teacher. Not trusting the good folk at Centrelink. Unable to put our whole trust in God. Desperate enough to pray. O how desperate we are! Surrounded by problems and helpless to do anything about them. Desperate enough to pray. Desperate enough to shout out our wants and needs to whatever supreme beings there are in the universe. But too afraid to dare to hope that we might be heard and that our pray might be answered.
Now, it’s important to stop for a moment and to step back and be clear about what I mean. I do not mean that your prayer hasn’t been answered because you don’t have enough faith. Look at Jesus. Look at what he said. Look at what he did. He said to the evil spirit, “You deaf and mute spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” Jesus was not hampered at all, not one little bit, by the man’s wavering faith. His ability to heal doesn’t depend on the strength of anyone’s faith in him, but it only depends on his own divine power. God isn’t hamstrung by our doubts. God isn’t raring to go, to pursue his purposes, but left waiting for you to jump on board before he can do anything. God is the creator of all things. He built the mountains. With a word, a thought, he shakes them and moves them. That’s why faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains, because it is a tiny faith in the big God who moves mountains every day and puts them wherever he wants. And he is the giver of faith. He will not despise the size of his own gift.
What I do mean is that our faith needs to be the kind that dares to ask and dares to hope that the request can be answered. Will be answered? Now that’s a different question. Who can guess our heavenly Father’s purpose beyond his sure and certain promises in the Scriptures. What we can be certain of is that his purpose is to rub out even the smallest stain of unbelief from our hearts.
In private the disciples asked Jesus, “Why couldn’t we drive out the evil spirit?”
Jesus said, “This kind will only come out with prayer.” Which is true. Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of things you can do without prayer. You can make a mistake without prayer. You can ruin your life without prayer. You can limp through life without the one thing that would make it better. You can easily do that without prayer. Imagine then all the things you might achieve with prayer, trusting that the Lord can do what you need, trusting that he might even want to.
And so to pray we must believe that God is willing and able to help us. Ephesians chapter 3 verse 20 says,
God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.
What can God do? He can do more than we ask. He can do more than we imagine. You can’t measure how much more he can do and all according to the power of his Holy Spirit that is already at work among us. Look at what miracles he has already done in your life. He has made you. He has given you every good thing. He has brought you to himself. He has opened your eyes to the truth. He has given you faith to trust in Christ and by his Spirit you overcome troubles every single day. You are a miracle of God. Do not doubt that he can do more. Because he has only just started to warm up.
I have been a believer and an unbeliever in mixed proportions all my life. But the boy’s father in Mark chapter 9 is not my hero. Instead, it is the Lord Jesus who was willing and able to help him. Who is willing and able to help us. Trust in him. And do not doubt. Let your prayer be, “Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief.” And the Lord who is both willing and able can and will.