Text: Mark 9:14-29
Gospel for Proper 19, Series B
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Many of us have grown up watching movies and TV shows made by Walt Disney. Disney productions try to be somewhat inspirational. One of their big themes is “faith”. Quite often this comes in the form of “believe in yourself.” If you believe in yourself, you can do anything you put your mind to. If you believe in yourself, you can accomplish your dreams. Sometimes the message is slightly better: believe in something greater than yourself. Disney portrays faith as a sort of power that you must activate to make anything possible. In the gospel text before us, faith is also a big theme and it looks like the disciples have the Disney kind of faith.
As our Gospel lesson picks up, Jesus along with Peter, James, and John, have been away from other disciples. During their absence, Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, Christ predicted his coming crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem, and the disciples received a glimpse into Christ’s glory during the Transfiguration. They return to find the remaining nine disciples surrounded by a crowd, and in a bitter dispute with some Jewish religious leaders.
I. Faith Fails When We Trust in Ourselves
The nine disciples had come face to face with failure. A father in the crowd had a son who was possessed by a demon. This demon prevented the boy from speaking or hearing and plagued him with seizures. While Jesus was with the others, it was up to the remaining nine disciples to cast out the demon. Jesus had commissioned the disciples earlier to cast out demons and they were successful. So, the disciples thought that there could be a repeat performance. They became confident in their own abilities. One-by-one they roll up their sleeves, “Don’t worry, I got this!” However, the demon overpowered them. They were not strong enough to cast out the demon.
Why did they fail? They were the disciples after all, the heroes of the New Testament, men whom we look up to as examples. They failed because their faith was in the wrong place. You could even say that they had a Disney sort of faith. In other words, they were trusting in their own strength and ability to cast out the demon. Later, they asked Jesus, “Why could WE not cast it out?” Theythought they could do it. They looked deep inside for the strength to beat the demon and found it lacking. Their faith failed them because it was, however inadvertently, a faith in themselves.
What would Disney have advised these disciples? Well, Cinderella says, “If you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.” “You just need to believe in yourself,” encourages Rex from Toy Story. Yet, that’s exactly what the disciples tried, and it failed miserably. When you are battling the Devil, a Disney type of faith will end in disaster. That’s the world’s way! But, From the moment of our conception and birth we are under the power of the Devil and we can never defeat him on our own. Only in Christ lies the victory. But sadly, we so often experience defeat because, like the disciples, our attention is fixed on ourselves rather than on Christ.
We are tempted to think that the Christian life is lived by our own fortitude. Many times, we Christians find ourselves in the same position as these disciples. It’s not that they didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah. But they put their trust in themselves during a critical moment. When we are faced with life-or-death situations, that is exactly not the time to be trusting in ourselves. When someone is in the hospital, face to face with death, with only a few months, days, minutes to live the message, “believe in yourself” is the worse possible advice, for such self-centered faith runs completely contrary to the faith given us by God.
II. Faith Does Not Fail When Trust is in Christ – The True Object of Faith
Jesus heard the report of what had happened. In exasperated frustration Jesus groaned, “You faithless generation! How much longer must I put up with you?” (v. 19) He looked around and saw unbelief and doubt everywhere: a bunch of unbelieving disciples, an unbelieving crowd, and unbelieving religious leaders. That deep frustration over rampant unbelief can also be directed at our unbelief.
But despite being deeply frustrated, Jesus didn’t give up on them. No, instead, he called for action. The boy was brought to him and the demon inside at once recognized who Jesus is and seized the boy. In desperation father of the boy pleaded with Jesus. “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” (v. 22). And how did Jesus respond? “All things can be done for the one who believes.” (v. 23)
Now, wasn’t Jesus simply advocating the Disney kind of faith? You just gotta believe? Not at all. The father is asking about what JESUS could do for him. The point is not that with enough faith you can do anything. It is rather that God has the power to do anything! It is not the amount of faith that is important either. Your faith is not like those hammers with the bell at the fair, hit the hammer hard enough and you will ring the bell. Faith is not something which God will reward it when it reaches a certain level. It is the object of faith – the one we are placing our trust in! With faith like a mustard seed you can move mountains because that faith is in the Almighty Lord of the universe. With God a virgin conceives, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the demons are cast out, the dead are raised. When the disciples asked Jesus why they couldn’t cast out the demon, Jesus responded by saying that this type of demon required prayer. Prayer is not trusting in yourself, but in God. Prayer is clinging to God. Prayer is calling upon his aid! Prayer confesses our dependence upon him.
Faith isn’t a power you have to activate. It is placing your confidence and trust in someone else who has the power. That someone else who has the power is Jesus. Faith clings to Jesus Christ because of who he is and what he has done for you. Who he is – He is the very Son of God, the Creator of the universe, the long-expected messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the one who was crucified and yet walked out of the tomb three days later. What he has done for you– He has defeated Satan. He has crushed the head of the serpent and slain the Dragon. He has claimed you as his own and purchased and won you from the Devil. He has transferred you into his kingdom through the gift of Holy Baptism. Christ was strong enough. He conquered the Enemy. He is the one who we should turn to for aid! The disciples failed because their faith was in themselves and not in Jesus. Our faith won’t fail us if it is in Jesus.
III. The Father is an Example of Both
The father of the boy had faith in Jesus. But he also had doubts and unbelief. He had heard about Jesus. He had likely heard the stories circulating about Jesus’ miracles, healings, and exorcisms. So, he brought his son to Jesus because he had faith. His confidence was on Jesus and his ability to deliver his son. He knew that Jesus would be able to do it. That’s faith. But, the father at the same time began to develop some doubts. “If you can…” he said to Jesus. The father thought Jesus might be able to do it, but at the same time he wasn’t quite sure if Jesus was strong enough. Perhaps the failure of the disciples shook his confidence in Jesus. He had doubts, but he did not want to give in to his doubts.
“I believe,” he said. “Help my unbelief.” That is a cry of faith. Confessing his unbelief and crying out to God for stronger faith, is faith. By confessing his sin, he was no longer trusting in himself. He knew that he didn’t have the power to do it. And he knew that Jesus could help his unbelief! And he did. Jesus came to his aid and cast out the demon. Christ’s deliverance of the boy strengthened the father’s faith.
We are like the father. We believe but are simultaneously involved in a battle against unbelief. We are at one and the same time righteous and sinners. That’s you; that’s me. I believe, but still doubt. So, Lord, help my unbelief. We remain weak creatures and sin and unbelief can still cling to us. We have faith in Christ, but we still doubt too. So, don’t say when you are sick “If I just have more faith, than God will heal me.” No. leave it with God. TRUST in Him as the Introit Psalm said, “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.” Leave it with Jesus. He loves you. The size of your faith is not what is important. The size of Jesus power, and mercy is. But thanks be to God in Christ that we, like the father, recognize our weakness and sin, and we cry out to Jesus Christ, the only one who can come to our aid. Before God, it is faith alone in Christ alone.
So, even though Disney may make for great entertainment, it doesn’t make for good theology. Disney would have you believe in yourself. Faith in yourself is bound to fail, because we remain poor, miserable sinners who are in constant need of God’s help and deliverance. Instead, St. Mark would have you believe in Jesus, who forgives your sins, all your doubts, and answers all your prayers and cries of faith according to his will. He is strong enough to overcome all your “demons”, whether they be struggles, temptations. He has already done that in Holy Baptism and continues to do that each time you remember it. He feeds you in his Holy Supper, with a blood that is strong enough to conquer all evil. Your faith won’t fail you because Christ won’t fail you.
And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.