The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost, 2021.
Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 116; James 2:1-18; Mark 9:14-29
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes, especially when I was about high school age, I use to feel as though I was living in a book—with a plot, characters, and parts written for me that I didn’t totally understand, but that I had to live into and through them anyway. I long since outgrown that world view.
At this stage in my life, I know that my life is a movie complete with wonderful and dramatic musical score. In fact, I sometimes think that the movie is a part of a trilogy—that seems to be the current trend. Most of us love a good story: reading one or hearing one. Sometimes we feel as though we are in a story, and we just hope that it is a good one.
Last Sunday evening, some of us gathered on the Hansen’s new deck, and fell into the human custom of sharing stories. Some were funny, especially the ones in which we were not always heroic, to say the least.
In the context of the story telling which we are about in Church, I want to state the obvious but easily missed point that my use of the term “story” doesn’t imply that something is fictional but speaks to the truth in our lives as we live and experience it. Full speed, in Technicolor and with Surround Sound!
I don’t know if any of you remember the elements that have to be present in a story, but there are five of them (flashing back to English Lit 101!) There has to be a plot. There have to be characters involved in the plot. There needs to be an overall theme to the story. There has to be some kind of conflict, which brings about a resolution or solution to the conflict.
So, let’s look at today’s story from the Gospel of Mark, in Chapter 9. The Gospel for today definitely includes all of the parts of a story I just mentioned. The theme for this story is one of my favorite lines in Scripture, and, except for Alleluia, or Help me, Jesus, or Thank you, Lord, it is probably my most prayed direct quote from Scripture.
It is Mark 9:24 “I believe; help my unbelief!” The theme of this story about Jesus will also give you the theme of the sermon, which is that our faith can be imperfect or incomplete, if we have a perfect Savior. We can be completely human, we can struggle with unbelief, and our faith can fail and seem to have given up the ghost and died—and we will come through that experience, if we know that God is bigger and more powerful than what we may be experiencing, if we know Jesus, and know him as our Savior and our Lord, as the one who is really in control.
Now, I want to look at this story from Mark in three parts. One is the basic plot or the story of the story, then it gets more detailed as we will look at the characters, and we will wind up with Jesus—which is where I think we should want to wind up.
To begin this story before the beginning of today’s story, Chapter 9 of Mark’s gospel begins with Peter, James, and John on top of a mountain with Jesus as Jesus is transfigured as they look on. In other words, Jesus is revealed in his glory in an amazing way, and then Moses and Elijah show up to testify about Jesus. Peter, who didn’t have a clue as to what to say, decided that it would be good if they set up three tents (tabernacles) for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. That’s when the voice of God is heard and God declares that Jesus is his Son, and that the disciples should (must!) listen to him. This is one of those places in Scripture which give us the expression, “mountain-top experience.”
I share all of this with you as a kind of “prequel”, or the story before the story which ends up being important for the context—so you won’t be dropped into the middle of Jurassic Park II, with no clue to how or why dinosaurs should still be alive, much less why they are in downtown San Diego.
Our story for this Sunday is another healing story, as are many of the actions taken by Jesus in the Gospels, particularly the ones that we hear read on Sunday. Last week, you may recall, we had the story of Jesus healing a deaf and mute man.
So, this week Jesus and the three disciples come down from the mountain and walk right into a big, hot, mess, which has resulted in an argument. The Scribes (the religious lawyers) and the disciples who weren’t on the mountain are fighting it out, and Jesus asks what’s going on?
The father of a boy who has been suffering (has been tortured, really) by a spirit, and who doesn’t care about the fine points of the argument, but (rightly!) about his son, explains to Jesus that he had presented his son to the disciples for help. Unfortunately, it turns out that they weren’t helpful at all. Jesus, the father, and the boy now become the central focus of the story. After crying out and a question from the father to Jesus, Jesus rebukes the spirit and heals the boy…
Now, let’s backtrack and look at the other characters in this story. The characters in this story (I’m still thinking movie) are the crowd, the disciples, the father, and the son. Jesus, we’ll talk about separately. I think it’s important to say, right out loud, that in this list of characters in this story, we will find something true about our own story. Each of these characters give a partial picture of the human heart and soul, and a picture of our imperfect faith.
Often in the stories in the various Gospels, there is a crowd. They are often present for the action but are not usually a major character. That’s true here, as well. They are curious about Jesus, maybe, but are in no way ready to be committed to him. In other words, their reaction to Jesus two thousand years ago is not much different than the reaction of the crowd to Jesus now. Jesus is easier to deal with at arm’s length. Lots of curiosity, but no real investment.
Within the crowd are two smaller groups: The Scribes and the disciples. These two groups are at the center of the argument, while the crowd is looking on from the sidelines. Let’s look at the Scribes first. Scribes are also referred to in the New Testament as “Teachers of the Law.”
When the disciples had failed to heal the boy, the Scribes were there and ready to let the disciples know that they had failed. They also would have let the disciples know that that is exactly what the Scribes thought of them, anyway, and, whatever else was true of the disciples, they were several rungs lower on the ladder than the Scribes. Although Scribes and Pharisees are often mentioned in the same breath, and though a Scribe could also be a Pharisee, they really are distinct groups. Both were religious leaders of the day, but Scribes were specialized: they were experts in the law, both secular and religious. Jesus didn’t generally have kind words to say about either group. Both saw following the law as they way to God, the problem being that their resulting self-righteousness became a stumbling block, not just to them, but to others (remember “the crowd”?) They loved winning arguments more than being right. There is no need for a Savior, or faith in him, if you think you have it together already. They were wrong but couldn’t admit it. There is no room, in the end, for faith—and especially for imperfect faith.
And here we come to the disciples. They have just provided us with another face palm moment (maybe even a double face palm!), and there was no way of turning around, walking away, and forgetting about it. These people are the masters of imperfect faith (God bless them, everyone)—and aren’t we glad and fortunate that we have these stories about them? I know they make me feel a lot better as I travel through life.
So, when Jesus comes down from the mountain, one of the first things he finds out is that his disciples have failed in casting out the demon from the boy. Why? Back in Mark 6, Jesus had sent them out two by two, as his witnesses and to do his work. “And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits… So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” [Mark 6:7, 12-13]
So, it wasn’t that long ago that they had success with this very thing. But what happened this time? Jesus answers that question for them at the end of this passage: “And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” [Mark 9:28-29]
Here is another teaching/teachable moment for the disciples. What is true prayer? True prayer is faith in and dependence upon God. Our prayers are almost never perfect, but, at their best, they do reflect our need for God. The disciples have just been caught out, acting like they didn’t need God, or his power, or his presence. They had acted as though they could do it in their own power and their own strength.
Tim Keller, in his book The King’s Cross, pulls no punches about the disciples: “How arrogant, how clueless they are about their inadequacy to deal with the evil and the suffering of the world and in themselves. The disciples tried prayerless exorcism for the same reason they couldn’t understand why Jesus had to die—they didn’t see how weak and proud they were. They underestimated the power of evil in the world and in themselves.”
Now a question for us: Have any of us ever tried to live the Christian life and fulfill the commands of God in our own strength? [Nod] Do we ever try to serve God, but forget to pray or to be “prayed up in advance”? Do we sometimes feel ourselves to be more sufficient than we are? This is what I mean by imperfect faith. Sometimes Jesus laments and rebukes the disciples for their imperfect faith. Not here. He simply tells them they were going about it in the wrong way—he, again, was pointing their imperfect faith toward their perfect Savior. This is the cure for our imperfect faith: To turn more to Jesus, with our failures, our questions, difficulties, doubts, and anxieties. We’re like the disciples. We are also like the father of the demonized boy at times.
There are three characters that begin to stand out from the background scenery. The father, his son, and Jesus. In verse 24, the father says that is one of the things that I am so glad that the Lord put into the pages of Scripture: “I believe, help my unbelief.” That is the heart cry of an imperfect faith that is crying out to a perfect Savior. But what brought the father to that statement?
The father, bless him, doesn’t seem to care about or be involved in the argument between the Scribes and the disciples of Jesus. In fact, it is interesting to note that when Jesus asks his disciples the question, “What are you arguing about with them?” it is not the disciples who answer, but the father of the child, and without hesitating. No doubt, from the father’s point of view, something way more important is going on.
He tells Jesus about the boy’s affliction, and the whole sad tale of bringing his son to the disciples hoping, based on what he had heard that they could heal him. But the disciples failed. Jesus offers up a lament, and then asks the boy to be brought to him. Immediately the spirit that has invaded the boy takes control of him. Verses 22-24: “’And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’”
In response to Jesus’ question about how long this has been going on the answer is since childhood. And listen to the heart of the father in verse 22:” And it has often cast him into fire and into water to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” This is the first cry of an imperfect faith. It is in the right place, but it doubts. Remember, the father has already been disappointed by the disciples of Jesus once. What will Jesus do? “If you can,” he says.
The son is both a major and a minor character in this story. He stands in the middle of the action, at the crossroads so to speak, but he has no words. Let’s put ourselves in his position. He is afflicted and assaulted. Ever felt like that? It doesn’t require an evil spirit for us to know the brokenness of this world and of our bodies, and of our hearts, and of our minds. Maybe he wondered where God was in this. Well, God shows up in and through Jesus. Jesus brings complete healing and deliverance to him. We don’t know if he followed Jesus after this, but we cannot dispute that his life was forever changed.
(Interesting side light: the boy is referred to being like a corpse, so that many thought he was dead. “But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up and he arose.” Lifted him up and arose are Scriptural words, words that refer, usually to the Resurrection.) Can we see ourselves here too? Have we been delivered and had our lives changed? Our faith, imperfect though it may be, is the means that the Perfect Savior uses to deliver us from our greatest afflictions and greatest needs for deliverance.
Turning to Jesus: We can have an imperfect faith, if the object of that faith is a Perfect Savior. In our story today, Jesus comes to the argument between the Scribes and his disciples and brings order out of chaos. Power and glory related to Jesus are demonstrated both in the Transfiguration prequel and the power in exorcising the demon by simply rebuking it. And then resurrection, manifested in lifting up, raising the boy up by the hand.
Putting this story together with the healing of the deaf and mute man in last Sunday’s Gospel, I hope we all appreciate, that Jesus, the Perfect Savior, is the common thread in both these stories, and, in fact, in all of the stories in the Gospels. Jesus is the one we need. Be encouraged this morning. We can have an imperfect faith, if we have a perfect Savior.
We can be desperate and wounded, if we know the Savior who doesn’t fail. We can be afflicted for years, and helpless in every way, and find the help that we need in Jesus Christ. Where are we, each of us, in this story? Which character are you right now? And where does the Savior fit into the story of your life?
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen