Who Is My Adversary?

Text: Isaiah 50:4-10
Date: Pentecost XVI (Proper 19) + 9/16/12

Interestingly, we have never heard today’s Gospel (Mark 9:14-29) on a Sunday in any of our previous lectionaries. Even more interestingly this new addition we share only with the Episcopal Church. St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing of a boy with an unclean spirit agrees with Matthew and Luke that this incident happened immediately following our Lord’s Transfiguration (Mt 17:14-19; Lk 9:37-42). It seems that while Jesus and His inner circle of disciples, Peter, James and John, were having their “mountain top experience,” the other disciples were approached by a man who asked them to cast out an evil spirit from his son. The disciples apparently tried, as they had previously been authorized to do and even had success (Mark 6:7 and 13), but in this instance they were not able. When He arrived Jesus took the opportunity to speak about faith, both to his disciples (calling them, “O faithless generation”) and to the man who now doubted that if His disciples couldn’t heal his son, maybe Jesus couldn’t either. “If you can,” asked the man. “If you can!” answered an exasperated Jesus. There is no question that Jesus can heal the boy. What was in question was the man’s faith. “All things are possible for one who believes,” challenged Jesus.

In our struggle against the devil, or as St. Paul writes, “the cosmic powers over this present darkness,” “the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph 6:12), God has provided the way of escape (1 Cor 10:13) and deliverance from the devil, sin and death. God also gives the faith that believes and receives His deliverance. That way and deliverance is, in a word and in a person, Jesus. And that faith God gives to those who hear His Word.

So said God through the prophet Isaiah especially in his famous “Servant Songs” (Is 42, 49, 50 and 53). Our Old Testament reading today is the third Servant Song of Isaiah. In each of them the Servant is none other than Christ. This Song can be outlined in four sections where the Servant repeatedly calls God “The Lord God” (Adonai Yahweh). This Song proclaims the assurance of God’s salvation through the victory of the Messiah, the Christ, the Servant of the Lord.

First, the Servant says His calling is to save and that this salvation comes to weary people by means of the Word of God. In an interesting contrast to the faithless disciples in today’s Gospel, the Servant says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught,” that is, the Servant comes as the perfect, faithful “disciple.” Elsewhere Jesus repeatedly claimed to be totally about “the will of Him who sent me.” “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work,” He said (John 4:34).

And what is the work and will of God through the Savior? He says, “that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” This weariness is specifically associated with all forms of idolatry, that is, any and all attempts to become righteous by way of your own good works, trying to become good enough to be acceptable to God. Finally, however, you become worn out to no avail, as Isaiah himself preached, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Is 64:6). Therefore Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). The perfect “disciple,” Jesus, is fully aware of His purpose and mission.

And what does the Servant provide in place of our weary works? His own work as the only perfect sacrifice for the life of the world, for the full forgiveness of your sins, for the gift of righteousness and salvation. So we cannot hear these words without thinking of that Good Friday scene, “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” For His persecutors “spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him” (Mt 26:67). “And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head” (Mt 27:30).

This was the holy purpose for which He came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary and was made man—in order that He may be the perfect Passover Lamb, shedding His blood for the forgiveness and deliverance of the world by the grace of God. So determined was He that He says, “the Lord God helps me…therefore I have set my face like a flint.” Like the hardest rock He was given the hardness to endure unfeeling the attacks of His foes. He knew that the God who sent Him would vindicate Him. As St. Peter wrote, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

Now by faith in the Savior we can ask the question of saving faith with Him, “Who will contend with me? Who is my adversary?” The devil, sin and death, though powerfully bent on our destruction will not and cannot stand as St. Paul put it, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom 8:33-34).

So comes the call and invitation to faith that makes His victory our victory. “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.” Isaiah wrote of this saving God, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (Is 26:3).

Hear the invitation to faith. “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: whoever believes will not be in haste’” (Is 28:16), in haste, that is, not to flee in terror but to stand firm in the safety of God. And the prophet Habakkuk joined in the invitation declaring, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4).

Jesus gave faith to His at times faithless disciples. He inspired faith in the man whose demon-possessed son He healed. He is the Servant of the Lord who brings deliverance, salvation and peace and gives the gift of faith to receive it. Come to Him at His invitation and He will give you rest, and He will raise you up on the Last Day.