<My most recent sermon>
When they came back to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. Immediately, when the entire crowd saw Him, they were amazed and began running up to greet Him. And He asked them, “What are you discussing with them?” And one of the crowd answered Him, “Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute; and whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it.” And He answered them and said, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!” They brought the boy to Him. When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth. And He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. “It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” When Jesus saw that a crowd was rapidly gathering, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You deaf and mute spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again.” After crying out and throwing him into terrible convulsions, it came out; and the boy became so much like a corpse that most of them said, “He is dead!” But Jesus took him by the hand and raised him; and he got up.
This is a fairly ordinary story that happened immediately after the Transfiguration. We go from a divine, sublime, experience, to an all-too human, mundane experience.
This story is repeated in Luke and Matthew. But I like this version for one reason. In the Mark version, is recorded that Jesus says “All things are possible to him who believes.” The father responds, “I do believe, help my unbelief.”
When I read this story, I want to fill in the blanks. We all do this. It is part of interpretation. For millenia, Jewish scholars would create what are called midrashes. A Midrash is a story that expands on a Biblical story— it involves a creative and speculative interpretation of the Biblical text. As such, it makes some guesses, fills in some blanks, but still must be faithful to the Biblical text.
The problem listed is that a boy has an evil or unclean spirit. Today, that term could only mean a supernatural being… a demon. However, in the Bible the term is used broadly. In many cases it means an actual demon, while in other cases it can mean any power beyond human control. In the Matthew version of the passage the boy is described as “moonstruck” which was the Greek way of describing insanity or epilepsy. So did the boy have a demon, or epilepsy? I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter… because Jesus had power over both.
In this story, I connect with the father. Understandable, I am a father. I like to think of this father is a good man. There are reasons that some may think he is not. His son has an evil spirit. That sure sounds like a curse to some, Also, according to the account in Luke, this boy was their only child. At that time, having only one child could be seen as evidence of God’s disfavor.
But I think he was a good man. Many times in the Bible, God blesses a godly family with just one child. Abraham and Sarah had just one child together. Hannah, a devout woman, had just one child, Samuel. Samson was the single child of Godly parents. A godly couple who cared for Elisha was blessed with one and only one child.
Although their son had an evil spirit, the Bible is pretty clear that suffering is as much a reward for faithfulness as are more welcome blessings. Job suffered greatly before he was rescued by God. His suffering came as a result of his faithfulness. Paul suffered greatly throughout his ministry. The writer of Hebrews describes tremendous victories, and temendous pain suffered by the faithful in “The Hall of Faith,” Hebrews 11. Most importantly, Jesus suffered beyond what you and I can imagine… and Peter noted that He is an example to us:
But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His footsteps: I Peter 2:20-21
The boy may have epilepsy or something, and the couple may only have one child. That means nothing as far as the father (or mother) being bad.
On the other side, the father cared for his son. Not an easy son to care for. Most likely they were judged, condemned, and gossipped about by neighbors. It happens. Good people can suddenly become Job’s friends— gossiping, pointing fingers, clicking their tongues, and judging, when they see someone struggling. It is a great evil today that this is a common reaction even in churches. It is likely they were poor. If they were not originally poor, they probably became poor, taking their son to various healers, exorcists, and whoever else would promise to give healing… for the right price. Over and over there was failure. They only had one child, but that child could not communicate with them, and they had to be constantly vigilent that he would not be burned, drowned, or otherwise injured. The father overcame shame to bring his thrashing son into a public gathering in the almost ludicrous hope that this exorcist could actually provide healing, after so many others had failed. He stayed even after several of Jesus’ discples failed.
No. I don’t think the father was a bad person. I think he was a good person going through years of struggle…. a struggle that is soon to end.
And I feel sorry for the son. It must be horrible and terrifying to not have control of one’s own body. When asked how long has the child been so afflicted, the father answered, since childhood, probably meaning that the boy does not remember when he did not have this problem. This was suffering beyond the boy’s control. It is hard to feel out of control– Day after day. Week after week. Year after year.
I feel sorry for both the father and the son… but I have to admire their tenacity… their determination not to give up… their decision to embrace hope when things seemed hopeless.
The disciples in this story are not as admirable. Personally, I cannot blame them for failing to heal the boy. But soon after this event, instead of growing through the story, they are soon arguing among themselves as to who is the greatest among them. What a foolish thing to concern themselves with.
..And yet I can relate to the disciples as well. I think all of us at times struggle with insecurity— worried about who is God’s favorite. That insecurity can become even stronger when we believe that God is not listening to us. It is difficult when ministry work does not go as planned. We want control, but God is in control. We want victory, but God chooses the victor– we don’t. So if we can’t be in control, if we can’t be God— the next best thing is to be closer to God than anyone else. Not only people can be like that, churches can be like that as well— seeing themselves as being closer to God, and getting excited that a person has left a different church and joined their own church suggesting that their own church is better than other churches.
It is foolish, but it is very human… and churches are made up of humans.
Let’s bring ourselves to the statement of the father…. “I believe, help my unbelief.” I have read a number of commentaries that look down on the man for this statement. A common interpretation of this passage is that this man has a poor faith if at all because it is mixed with doubt. Jesus is unhappy with this lack of faith but decided to heal the boy because of the crowd, or perhaps because of compassion for the child. Jesus heals the boy despite the weak faith of the father. While I don’t recommend being quick to doubt Biblical scholars, I do think they have this wrong. I don’t think that Jesus was at all unhappy with the father’s answer. As human beings, our faith is always mixed with doubt. Jesus certainly knew this more than anyone.
The greatest example of faith listed in the Bible was when Abraham offered up his son, Isaac, to God to be sacrificed. Paul used this story as supporting the the idea that righteousness before God come from God through faith. Yet, Abraham’s faith was flawed. The writer of Hebrews said that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. This was incorrect. Abraham’s example in faith was that he chose to obey God even though he did not really know what God would do. In the book of Daniel we have the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The three of them refused to bow down to worship the great golden idol. King Nebuchadnezzar said that they would be thrown into a gigantic firy furnace. The three responded that they were not worried because their God could save them from the furnace. But then they add, But even if He doesn’t save us, we will not bow down to the idol. Their faith in God was not based on knowing what God would do— it was not based on an ability to predict with confidence how God would act. Rather, the faith was a committing of themselves, a yielding of themselves to God’s will— even in the face of doubt.
This is what I see with the father here. He is human and as a human he has doubts. Yet despite those doubts he comes in his desperation and hope to Jesus. This is a good faith. That’s what we do as well. The Psalmist in Psalm 34 says, I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears, in verse 4 and Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! In verse 8. Faith is not an absence of fear, but a seeking God. Faith is not knowing exactly what God will do, but it is tasting, seeking God as refuge.
So after all of that reflection, I come up with a broader story, that makes sense to me. You may agree or disagree.
In this story, I see a husband, I will call him Micah, and wife Sarah. They had a good, if simple, life, but they had no children. I imagine them going to the temple on the holy days, and much like Hannah in the Old Testament, they pray for a child. One year their prayer was answered, and they had a son, and they named him Nathaniel, meaning “Blessed of the Lord.”
Little Nathan was strong and healthy and a great joy to Micah and Sarah. However, before he even learned to speak, he started to show symptoms of problems. He could not or would not speak, and his body would go into spasms and convulsions. It was terrifying to the child and to the parents, especially since it would happen seemingly randomly. They feared that if they did not keep a constant watch on Nathaniel, he could die from one of these attacks. Their neighbors would come by and show concern… but soon the gossip would start. “What evil did Micah and Sarah do to be cursed by God like this?” The visits from neighbors became less frequent as the people began to fear that God’s curse would rub off on them as well. Still they would would periodically get well-meaning, even if useless, advice.
“O if only you have little Nathaniel eat this herb during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I know he will be healed.” or perhaps “ “You need to give a bull as a burnt offering at the temple… not just a pidgeon… that will convince God that you are very sorry for whatever you did, and your son will be healed.” Or others will point them to special healers or exorcists. And Micah and Sarah would take little Nathaniel to them all. They loved their son and would spend whatever it took for him to be healed. They paid whatever these healers asked… but the result was always the same… failure.
One day, Micah hears that Jesus of Nazareth, a great exorcist and miracle worker was coming to a nearby village. Despite all of the failures before, he had to try again. Early in the morning, He and Nathaniel began to walk to the base of Mount Hermon where Jesus was supposed to be.
When they arrived, Micah was disappointed to discover that the healer had gone up the mountain the day before with a few of his disciples, leaving the rest at the base. Micah was frustrated, but he would not give up. Maybe one of his disciples could heal his son. He had heard that Jesus’ disciples also did miracles.
One of the disciples responded to his pleas and said that he would heal his little boy. Nathaniel was rolling and the ground convulsing. The man prayed over Nathaniel and called the evil spirit to depart, but there was no change. When the others saw the failure of their comrade, each came over to try to heal the boy. It soon seemed as if it became a competition— who could be the one who could succeed while the others had failed. Some of the scribes who had come to see Jesus began arguing with the disciples, and mocking them.
In the midst of the chaos. Jesus of Nazareth came down the mountain and asked what is going on. Micah came forward and said to Jesus,
“Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute; and whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it.”
There was perhaps a bit of bitterness in his voice. He had come with such hope, but his son was still afflicted, Jesus’ disciples, allegedly holy men, seemed to be acting like children, and the other religious leaders in the crowd were adding to the chaos, rather than helping.
Jesus looked at his disciples and the crowd and said, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!”
They brought little Nathaniel to Him. When he saw Jesus, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth.
Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From a young child. It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!”
Jesus said to him, “ ‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.”
Micah was afraid, maybe Jesus felt insulted. He had been disappointed so many times before. But even in all of that disappointment there was hope. Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”
Jesus, as if saying “That’s all I ask,” said “You deaf and mute spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again.” After crying out and throwing him into terrible convulsions, it came out; and the boy became so much like a corpse that most of them said, “He is dead!” But Jesus took him by the hand and raised him; and he got up.
Micah ran to his son and hugged him. Micah and Sarah have now a new blessing. Their son is finally healed.
I feel as if this story is repeated in one form or another in our own lives.
We are suffering— broken people in a broken world. Our friends, neighbors, family, want to help, but in many ways often make things worse. We have wasted our money, our time, our resources on stuff that are supposed to fix us, make us whole, bring peace and joy. Yet, time and time again, we are disappointed.
People tell us, Go to Jesus. He can provide meaning, can fulfill hope, and turn suffering into joy. But we have been disappointed before. Some of those who have disappointed us the most have been Christians… Christian neighbors, Christian leaders. How can one trust God when His own servants disappoint and disappoint again.
Do we risk hope on one who may fail and disappoint again? Do we come in faith to Jesus, still with doubts, but coming nonetheless?
This is the message of the Lord today. After the service, if you are willing to place your hope in Jesus— to be saved from your sins, or casting other fears or struggles on Jesus, just talk to one of the church leaders here after church.
Do not have faith in me. Over the years I have failed or disappointed people countless times. I suspect all of the other leaders of this church can say the same thing.
Rather, are you willing to trust Jesus… trust him enough to come to Him, perhaps still with fears and doubts? I pray that you can come to Christ and say, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” I pray then that you can soon say, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears,