Believe It or Not

Text: Mark 9:14-29
Date: Pentecost XV (Proper 19) + 9/13/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

When the Blessed Virgin Mary inquired of the angel as to how it would be that she should bear a child without a human husband, she was told, “nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk. 1:37). By faith in that word she conceived and bore the Son of God. When the disciples heard Jesus suggest the difficulty of the rich young man and people like him to enter the kingdom of heaven at all and asked, “Who, then, can be saved,” Jesus said, “with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). I have been blessed to know a few people of some earthly means and wealth to also be examples of generous and lively faith. Jesus Himself, before His suffering and death, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed, “Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk. 14:36). In the Book of Hebrews faith is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). “By grace you are saved through faith,” says the Apostle Paul, “and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). It appears that this thing called “faith” has to do with issues that are beyond our manipulation or prediction. Yet faith, in the Bible, is not blind, it is not just a hunch or a wild bet or wager based on your wildest dreams or desires but is, rather, the appropriate God-given response to the promises of God.

Saving faith is not a product of the human mind or will, but is the creation and gift of God through the word of the Gospel. Faith has content and substance. Faith can show up in surprising places. And it can be missing where you would otherwise expect to see it. Today’s Gospel is about the struggle of faith. Or maybe we should say the struggle of believing. For, doubts enter that contradict faith. And so we have both faith and doubt at the same time. Faith may be at times “strong” or “weak,” “bold” or “hesitating.” In our text there are two examples of this struggle of faith. Jesus calls His disciples a “faithless generation,” and the anonymous father of a young, demon-possessed boy demonstrates a wavering faith. The good news is that any faith, whether weak or strong, steady or wavering is, nevertheless, saving, effective faith. The only problem with weak or wavering faith is that it can become no faith at all unless it remains connected to the word of the Gospel, the means of its origin and continued strength.

A few words about the context of our Gospel will help explain the identity of who’s who here. Jesus had just taken Peter, James and John with Him up into the mountain where He was transfigured before them. With this amazing sight still flooding their minds, and Jesus’ command not to tell anyone stopping their mouths, they returned down the mountain (Mk. 9:2-13). These four, then, Jesus, Peter, James and John came to the other nine disciples who, they found, were surrounded by a great crowd, some Jewish scribes up front arguing with them. Suddenly the crowd saw Jesus arriving and ran over to Him, greeting Him.

When Jesus asked what the argument was about it was not His disciples nor the complaining scribes but an anonymous “someone from the crowd” that answered Him. He was the father of his son who for years suffered from the possession of an evil spirit. His symptoms describe epileptic seizures except for the demonic addition of attempts to destroy him in fire or water. This man had brought his troubled son for Jesus’ to heal. In Jesus’ absence, however, the man asked the nine disciples to cast out the demon. We don’t know what formula of words or commands the disciples used. But they tried. They had, remember, been authorized, empowered and sent by Jesus to preach and to cast out demons (Mark 3:14-15). But for some reason in this case they were not able. Was Jesus’ initial authorization only on a trial basis, a temporary healing permit that had now run its course? Part of the problem was weak or even disappearing faith. The other part Jesus mentioned when they asked why they could not cast it out telling them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (v. 29).

Bringing the boy to Jesus, the demon in him immediately reacted. Jesus asks the father how long his son has been suffering this way. He asks this for the father’s sake, to make him remember and realize that during all this time no one was able to give the boy relief. Now he was asking for nothing short of a miracle. Jesus was preparing the way for faith. As we said last week, we do not believe because we have seen miracles. Rather, we see miracles only when we have faith.

A most interesting thing happened as the man is answering Jesus. Jesus’ disciples were not able to help. That made the man begin to doubt whether even Jesus could help. He said, “If you can do anything…help us.” Notice how Jesus then zeros in on the man’s doubt. “If you can?” He says. Then the assurance, “All things are possible for one who believes.” Faith, when it is there, ought to cast out all doubt. No ifs, ands or buts. Then the man puts into words where you and I and so many believers through the ages are or have been; in the struggle between what God’s gift of faith moves us to see and hope for on the one hand, and the sad doubts and fears that plague us on the other, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

That’s the sound of that familiar struggle when your hopes and prayers for God’s help, action or intervention are dampened by the storm clouds of the daily grind we blithely call “reality.” “I believe,” we confess with all our heart. “I really do. How can I not? God’s Word has so convinced me of the Way, the Truth and the Life that Jesus says He is.” But…. It’s just that…. “There’s something in me that says I don’t believe, or at least I don’t believe ‘enough.’ I’m afraid!” But…. “But I want to, I would rather believe.” And so it goes until we remember and continue to learn that faith is a gift and we are to quietly rest and trust in God’s good and gracious word and will.

It is that quiet rest and trust that calms our fears; that assures that we are not a “faithless generation,” that casts out our unbelief. As we are so fond of saying, the person who fears that he or she has fallen away from saving faith hasn’t! For, only they who do not care, worry or fear are in danger of having fallen away if, indeed, they ever possessed that wonderful gift in the first place.

All things are possible for God. All things are possible for one who believes. Faith, when it is true faith, has as its object nothing and no one less than Jesus. His greatest miracle, after all, was the miracle that was done to and for us all, the miracle of the payment for our sin and the sin of the world, the miracle of our redemption, the miracle that now, for the sake of Christ’s holy death, God looks at each of us and says, “my beloved!” He asks each of us to remember “how long this has been happening to you” and prepares each of us for faith so that we can daily see and appreciate the miracle—the miracle of faith. So we pray today, God, grant us faith and cast out our unbelief.