Text: Mark 9:14-29
Date: Pentecost XVI + Proper 19 + 9/13/15
Today’s dramatic Gospel is again all about faith or the lack of it. It’s about the fight of faith against, as we heard in last Sunday’s Epistle, “against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph 6:11-12). Many have denied the demonic explaining away the experience of the young boy in today’s Gospel as merely the medical condition of epilepsy. But the father of this son says clearly that the problem is not with the boy but with “a spirit that makes him mute,” that “seizes him, throws him down.” Furthermore St. Mark claims that it was not the boy but rather “when the spirit saw [Jesus], immediately it convulsed the boy.” We will draw comparisons to our present evil days in a moment.
But don’t forget this narrative is all about faith, or more accurately the lack of it, unbelief. Jesus and the three disciples He had chosen were just returning from that spectacular display of His Transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah and the Voice from the cloud. So it is that our reading begins, saying, “When they,” that is these four, “came to the [other] disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them.”
It was the next day that they rejoined the other disciples. The nine disciples were arguing with the scribes, the official teachers of the Law, trying to come up with an explanation of why they were not able to cast out this spirit and help this man with his son. But you see it’s about faith or unbelief. “O faithless generation,” Jesus says to them, “how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” They deserved this balling out! And so do we often. Later, as depicted on today’s service folder, it was in a house when the disciples asked Jesus privately and straight out, “Why could we not cast [the spirit] out?” Jesus said, “This kind [of spirit] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” And prayer implies the expression of faith. It’s all about faith or the lack of it, unbelief.
The father of the boy is even having a crisis of faith. He complained that Jesus’ disciples could not cast out the spirit. When Jesus immediately sprang into action saying, “Bring him to me,” this was already a promise of help. It was not because Jesus didn’t know but in order to operate on this man’s heart opening it to true faith that He asked, “How long has this been happening to him?” The father repeated that it’s happened repeatedly that the spirit “has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him.” Then he says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus barks back, “If you can!” and then speaks words inviting faith, “All things are possible for one who believes.” Then the mystery of faith; the father at once cries out, “I believe,” but immediately adds the prayer, “help my unbelief!”
You see, true faith happens even as we confess our lack of it! Faith and unbelief happen at the same time, sort of like the fact that the Christian is saint and sinner at the same time. That’s because faith is not of our own making but is totally gift. Only the heart that despairs of itself and is empty of self can be filled with the gift and life of faith, faith in Jesus. So what’s troubling you? Remember the apostle Paul begging the Lord three times to take away his famous “thorn in the flesh” only to hear, “my grace is sufficient for you.” God’s grace is sufficient for you no matter the trouble, the threat, the danger, the fear, the doubt. Faith knows that “Yes, He can,” “all things are possible for one who believes.” The outcome or answer to our prayer of faith may not be what we expected but is always according to God’s grace.
The most dramatic and tender moment happened after the spirit had been cast out of the boy. At first they thought the boy had died, just lying there for a moment like a corpse. But Jesus…. He did not lift up the boy. But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.”
Now who are we in this story? On the one hand we are like those troubled disciples often doubting God’s plan, His love, His will and ability to help us in time of need. Then we are like the father of this boy, desperately aware of our lack of faith yet praying the Lord to help us anyway. But most of all we are like the boy himself. And who is Jesus but the Son of the Father “who is (not) unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:15-16).
When Jesus said, “This kind [of spirit] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer,” He implies that there are other kinds of demonic spirits. This one was “mute and deaf” in its effect on the boy. But think of the devil-inspired evil around us. Every word or action against Christians because of their faith in Christ is driven by the old evil foe. In his famous list of desires of the flesh that are against the Spirit the apostle Paul includes something translated (only in the RSV) “party spirit,” “divisions” in the ESV. I remember suggesting to a member in a previous parish that he was operating out of this “party spirit.” Unfortunately he did not understand me because he was thinking of a party as in singing, drinking and dancing! The word specifically refers to causing division by means of false doctrine. St. Peter wrote, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Pet 2:1).
As I said at the beginning, like this young lad possessed by a destructive spirit, we too wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and rulers of the darkness. As St. Paul says in another place speaking of the effects of the opposition to the faith, “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Cor 4:7-14).
When it seems we are losing, overwhelmed, overcome, tired, weak, worn, dying, this is the place where, by His Word and Sacrament and Spirit, Jesus takes you by the hand and raises you up. So is our prayer, “Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand…. Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord; lead me home” (LSB 739).