As I begin this morning, I would like to let you know that because of recent events, I modified my sermon. What I preach now will be different from my original, written text.
As the news of the school shooting in Oregon began to flash across my computer screen, I became very troubled by the eyewitness reports of the gunman targeting Christians. Apparently, he held a deep seeded animosity toward us. And I wondered why? I mean, first off, don’t get me wrong, I believe that this shooter had something deeply wrong within him. You just don’t go and shoot unarmed people who have no chance to fight back. That is a cowardly act. The man bears the full responsibility of his actions.
Yet, I cannot help but wonder why Christians. I mean, at the heart of our ethics are two commands: love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says that upon these two commands rest all of the rest of the Law and the Prophets. And if we are loving the Lord with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and if we are pouring ourselves out in love to our neighbor, why in the world would anyone target us? Hate us? Desire to kill us? Well, maybe, just maybe, we don’t love God and our neighbor as much as we think. I believe our gospel lesson helps us see this.
Too often today, we define faith is believing something that we cannot prove. Essentially, we make faith an intellectual pursuit. Faith is striving to make our brain accept something we have little or no evidence for, i.e. I cannot see God. I have not experienced God. I see no evidence for God, but I am terrified of what happens to me if I die. If I can wrap my head around believing in God, and if there is life after death, then I can assure that I will not end up in the fiery pit of hell. For your information, I do not like this definition. I think this definition and understanding falls far, far short of what faith truly is, and it is rightly criticized and mocked by people who do not believe in God. Why would I say such a thing.
I think I can actually illustrate it quite well with an old joke. It’s a joke about an atheist who decides to take a walk in a remote part of a national park. While he is admiring the scenery, the trail suddenly gives way and he is hurled off a cliff. He manages to grab a branch that is extended from the cliff wall. He looks up, and he knows he cannot climb the sheer face. He looks down, and it is a drop that will certainly kill him. He begins crying for help. Being the rational sort, he knows no one is likely to come by for quite a while given the remoteness of the area. Being the rational sort, he also knows he is quite run out of options, so he does something that is against much of his nature. This atheist cries out, “Well, God, it seems as if I am in a pickle. If you are up there–and most of my life I haven’t believed that you are–can you give me a hand?”
A voice boomed out, “I am here. I will help. Let go.”
The atheist then retorted, “Anyone else up there?”
I find that joke quite humorous, but I also find it deeply true. Once the voice spoke, the atheist could no longer say that he didn’t believe in God. The voice confirmed the existence of God. However, it is quite one thing to believe in something and quite another thing to actually trust in that something. Let me say that again. It is quite one thing to believe in God, and it is quite another thing to actually trust in God. For far too long, we in the Church have simply talked about believing in God. We have not done a very good job in convincing people to trust in God nor have we done a very good job in trusting God ourselves. We suffer from the same condition the disciples suffered from and the same condition the father in the Gospel lesson suffer from. How so? Let’s turn to the text.
Jesus, Peter, James and John come down off the mountain where Jesus was transfigured. They run smack dab into conflict. The scribes and the rest of Jesus’ disciples are in a heated argument. It is quite interesting that when Jesus appears, people come running to him with utter amazement–the Greek word here is extremely strong indicating an overwhelming sense of awe. Given the context of this verse, I can only think that the crowd is not awestruck in the sense of Jesus has done some sort of mighty act, but they are extremely, extremely glad that He has arrived. Why would they be so glad?
The story, I think gives us the clues as Jesus addresses everyone by asking, “What are you arguing about with them?” I think Jesus’ question is addressed to the disciples, but they are strangely quiet here. It is quite surprising that they say absolutely nothing, and it is a person from the crowd who speaks. It is a man who says, “Rabbi, I brought to you my son [Luke tells us that this is the man’s only son] who has a demon, and your disciples were not able to heal him.” This is an important point because in the rabbinic tradition of ancient Judaism, it was well believed that a rabbi’s followers–a rabbi’s disciples–would be able to do the things the rabbi did. And that’s exactly what had happened in the past. In Mark, chapter 6, Jesus had sent the disciples out to proclaim the Gospel, to cast out demons, and heal the sick. Mark 6 verses 12 and 13 read, “12So they [the disciples] went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” So, the disciples had been able to cast out demons in the past, but they were unable to do so now. This would have called into question Jesus’ teaching. This would have called into question whether or not Jesus was legitimate, and this would indeed precipitate a heated argument between the scribes and Jesus’ disciples. It would also have caused quite a bit of embarrassment to the disciples–they were unable to do the things that Jesus did; that they once had did. Something was wrong.
Jesus reacts rather harshly at this point. I mean, His words are poignant!
“You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” This is not a nice comment. This is not a comment that makes you feel good. This is not a “Jesus loves you just the way you are” comment. No one wants to hear this kind of rebuke, and no one escapes it. Not the disciples. Not the crowd. Not the scribes. Every one of them is included in Jesus’ comment. Every one of them. Why? Why are they all included?
Let’s push on. We will get there. Jesus concludes His questions of anger with the command. “Bring him [the boy] to me.”
They obey, and the demon throws the boy into a convulsion. We look at this and we see a classic example of a grand mal seizure. The medical profession may simply see epilepsy here, but Mark calls us to look deeper. What drives the epilepsy is not something physically wrong with the boy–there is something deeper. There is something malevolent. There is something that not only causes grand mal seizures, but causes them while the boy is around fire or water. There is something that is seeking to destroy the boy, and when that something comes close to Jesus, it begins reacting once again. It begins trying to destroy the boy once again. Evil cannot stand in the presence of God incarnate.
Jesus looks at the boy, and in great compassion, He turns to the father and says, “How long has he been this way?” You see, Jesus is tapping into the father’s deep grief here. Jesus is tapping into the years of this father trying to keep his son from dying at the hands of this demon. Jesus is tapping into the frustration, the pain, the sorrow, the anger, the toil, and the exhaustion that has built up over the years. Jesus wants this father to know that He cares.
You can almost see the father’s grief become manifest as he sighs and says, “From childhood.” And then as the father continues to explain, “It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”
Jesus catches this father’s slip up. “IF you are able? All things are possible–and I’m going to change the translation here–for the one who trusts.”
The father replies, “I do trust. Help my distrust!” This is such an important statement. Hold it in the back of your heads for a little while as I finish going through this text.
When Jesus sees that the crowd is starting to expand, He rebukes the demon and casts it out. He demands that the demon never, ever again enter into the boy. The demon makes the boy have one, final, tremendous convulsion–it’s like a convulsion of all convulsions, and then the boy appears dead. I can only imagine at this moment what the crowd; what the disciples; what the father; and what the scribes are thinking. They are thinking Jesus has failed. The father is probably standing there fighting back tears. The crowd is standing in disbelief thinking this miracle worker has finally met his match. The disciples are frightened that they have indeed tied in with the wrong rabbi. The scribes are secretly rejoicing that Jesus has been shown to be a fraud. But Jesus, takes the boy by the hand, and He raised him up–just so you know, the same word Mark uses for Jesus raising the boy is the same word Mark uses for Jesus being raised from the dead. Sometimes, when it looks like all is lost, that death has won, there is more to the story. There certainly was here.
When all was said and done, Jesus and His disciples retired into a house, and the disciples’ curiosity got the best of them. “Why couldn’t we cast that one out?” they asked Jesus.
“That kind can only come out with prayer,” Jesus responds. Mark leaves us right here. There is no more explanation. What does this mean?
I think, given the context of this story and the trajectory of the book of Mark, I would like to suggest to you that the disciples were still struggling to see. They were still partially blind. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they hadn’t learned to trust in Him. They hadn’t learned that following Him meant submission to Him. Why do I say that?
First off, let me ask you this question: do you know what position the Bible most recommends for prayer? Do you think it’s with head bowed and hands folded? No. It’s not. The position of prayer most employed by people in the Bible is laying down prone on the floor with arms outstretched. The second position most mentioned for prayer? Kneeling. The first position is a position of extreme vulnerability–of ultimate submission. The second position, on one’s knees is also one of vulnerability and submission but not quite as much as the first–the point being, prayer is a position of ultimate submission and vulnerability. Prayer is the place where we come before God to admit our inability, our powerlessness, our lack of control over anything and everything. Prayer is the place where we come and place our complete trust in Jesus. Prayer isn’t about our belief–prayer is about trust. To go back to the joke of the atheist on the branch: prayer isn’t hearing God’s voice and saying, “I’m glad to know you exist;” prayer is letting go of the branch trusting that the voice knows what it is talking about. The disciples were not submitting to God. The disciples were trying to do it all on
their own with disastrous results.
Oh, and at this point, you might expect me to urge you to put your trust in Jesus. At this point you might think I am going to stand up here and tell you that you should stop just believing and allow your faith to migrate all the way to your heart so that you put your trust only and solely in Jesus. And that once you put your trust completely and totally in Jesus you too will experience peace, joy and satisfaction. You too will be able to face illness and death and evil and overcome it. You might expect me to announce to you that this is what the Christian life is all about, and you need to practice this.
You know, this is all true, but if I were to start proclaiming all of this, I would expose myself as the ultimate hypocrite. I mean, if I trusted solely and only in Jesus, I would never take my children to the doctor. If I trusted only and solely in Jesus I would not worry about saving for retirement. If I trusted only and solely in Jesus, I wouldn’t worry about offending anyone by what I said and what I did. If I trusted only and solely in Jesus, I wouldn’t worry about burning out. But when my kids get sick, I take them to the doctor. When I think about growing old, I worry about whether or not I will have saved enough. When I think about what I say, I worry about if I offend anyone. When I think about working, I strive to ensure I do not burn out. And this is just the tip of the ice berg. I believe in Jesus. I believe that He is the Son of God, incarnate, who died and rose from the dead. I believe this with my whole heart and my entire being, but I do not trust Him completely. Over and over again, I trust my self; I trust science and technology; I trust my bank account. “Oh Lord, I trust, but I don’t trust you fully. Help my distrust.” Do you see why I said that statement is crucial? It captures the reality of living the Christian life. It captures every one of us who profess to believe in Jesus Christ. It points us out as those who indeed have some bit of trust in Jesus, but it also condemns us that we don’t trust as we should. We too don’t quite see as we should. We do not have the hearts that we should.
And if we do not trust God in the manner that we should...
If we do not live as though we were totally and completely dependent upon God...
How in the world will we ever love Him with our entire heart and mind and soul and strength?
How will we ever love our neighbor as we love ourselves?
Do you feel very small right about now? I hope you do. I do too.
But the good news is that there is One who indeed trusted His heavenly Father that much. There was One who loved His Father with His entire heart and mind and soul and strength. There was One who loved His neighbor as Himself. There was One who fulfilled the Law and its demands and became the perfect Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.
For Jesus’ obedience and trust in His Father led Him straight to the cross where upon it, Jesus looked down at a world that deserved God’s wrath and punishment; Jesus looked down at a world that deserved condemnation. Jesus looked down at you and I in our distrust; our disbelief; our enmity toward God and toward one another and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Do not let your wrath burn hot against them. Do not forsake them. Forsake me. Let your wrath be turned toward me.” And the wrath of God was satisfied as Jesus took our place on the cross loving us with a love beyond measure.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”
This is the core of the Christian message. The Christian message is not, “Go out there and follow the law better.” The Christian message is not, “You’d better do justice!” The Christian message is not, “You’d better get your sexual morals in line.” The Christian message is, “Look at how much God loves you. Look at how He died for you!” And if we are leading with that message and are still targeted, so be it. For we are leading with the love of God and not striving to tell everyone what to do. We are leaving it up to God to change others’ hearts. May this message be on our lips today and every day. Amen.