Sermon: When Faith Fails

Text: Mark 9:14-29
Proper 19, Series B
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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”. This often 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. Faith is also a big theme in the gospel text before us, and it looks like the disciples have the Disney kind of faith.

Faith Fails When We Trust in Ourselves

As our Gospel lesson picks up, Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, have been away from other apostles. They return to find the remaining nine apostles surrounded by a crowd engaged in a bitter dispute. The nine apostles 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 apostles to cast out the demon. When Jesus had sent out the disciples earlier to cast out demons, they were successful. So, the disciples thought that there could be a repeat performance. 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. 

The apostles are the heroes of the New Testament. We look up to these men as examples. Why did they fail?  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 what the disciples tried, and it failed miserably. They failed because their faith was in the wrong place. You could even say that they had a Disney sort of faith. Later, they asked Jesus, “Why could WE not cast it out?” They thought they could do it. Their faith failed them because they trusted in their own strength and ability to cast out the demon. When you are battling the Devil, a Disney type of faith will end in disaster. 

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 difficult situations, that is precisely not the time to trust ourselves. When someone is in the hospital, face to face with death, the message, “believe in yourself,” is the worse possible advice. A self-centred faith like that is not the kind of faith given to us by God.

Faith Does Not Fail When Trust is in Christ

Jesus heard the report of what had happened. The whole situation has Jesus very frustrated. Jesus groaned, “You faithless generation! How much longer must I put up with you?” (v. 19) Jesus saw unbelief everywhere: unbelieving disciples, an unbelieving crowd, and unbelieving religious leaders.  But despite being deeply frustrated, Jesus didn’t give up on them. No, instead, he called for action. The father brought his boy to Jesus. The demon inside at once recognised who Jesus was and seized the boy. In desperation, the 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. Disney says that with enough faith, you can do anything. That’s wrong! Instead, God has the power to do anything! How much faith you have is not 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 all about the one you put your trust in! You can move mountains with faith like a mustard seed 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 calling upon God’s aid and then clinging to him for dear life! 

Faith is placing your confidence and trust in someone else. That someone else is Jesus. Faith clings to Jesus Christ because of who he is and what he has done for you. Who is he? He is the very Son of God, the Creator of the universe. He is 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 has he done for you? He has defeated Satan. Jesus 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.

The father of the boy had faith in Jesus. But he also had doubts. He had heard about Jesus. Maybe he heard stories circulating about Jesus’ miracles, healings, and exorcisms. So, he brought his son to Jesus because he knew that Jesus would be able to fix it. That’s faith. But, the father, at the same time, began to have some doubts. “If you can…” he said to Jesus. 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 unbelief and crying out to God for stronger faith is faith. By acknowledging his sin, the father 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 Jesus did; he came to his aid and cast out the demon. 

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. So, don’t say when you are sick, “If I just have more faith, then God will heal me.” No. leave it with God. TRUST in Him as the Entrance 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. 

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”, whatever they may be. Christ has already defeated our enemies. We receive that victory in Holy Baptism. We receive it through the word. As Revelation says, the dragon was defeated by the Word and the Blood of the Lamb. To help you in the daily fights of life, Jesus feeds you in his Holy Supper, with 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. Amen.

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