Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, A+D 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Lord I Believe, Help My Unbelief – Mark 9:24
Jesus has been gone. Just prior to our Gospel reading today, Mark reports the Transfiguration, Jesus taking Peter, James and John up on a mountain, where He is transfigured, suddenly becoming dazzling and bright, Jesus allowing the glory of God, which has always been hidden within His human body, to shine forth for just a few moments, while God the Father declares from a cloud: “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.” The Transfiguration insures Peter, James and John will know Who it would be, hanging on the tree, pouring out His lifeblood. God, become man, but still God, the only begotten Son of God, who holds the glory of heaven within His Body, this is the One who would die at Calvary. For this important, necessary, wonderful reason, Jesus has been gone, leaving the other nine Apostles alone for a couple of days.
With Jesus out of the picture, things don’t go so well. Jesus returns to a scene of arguing, of turmoil, doubt and confusion, with Jewish Scribes, the teachers of the law, arguing with the nine, arguing about a problem the nine could not solve. These other nine Apostles had already been sent out by Jesus, sent with authority over unclean spirits, sent to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom. So, not surprisingly, during Jesus’ absence people continue bringing problems to them, including a man who brings his son, a boy tormented for years by an unclean spirit. Interestingly, the man says to Jesus, “I brought my son to You,” even though Jesus wasn’t present when he arrived. This father expected Jesus’ disciples to be able to do the things that Jesus did. But they failed. They could not drive the demon out, causing great disappointment, which somehow led to an argument with the Scribes, and to turmoil in the crowd. Jesus was out of the picture, and the nine apostles failed.
It’s not as if they didn’t try – they tried very hard to be Christians. Christian means “little Christ,” and the nine tried very hard to do the things Christ Jesus does, in His absence. They tried, but they failed.
Not like us. Sometimes we try to be Christians, to do the things we know we are called to do, as baptized believers in Christ. Sometimes we try, and do some good. Sometimes we try, and fail. But far too often we fail to try. We fail to even try to be Christians. Far too often we speak and act as though we have never heard of Christ, as though we just don’t care.
A little over a week ago I unintentionally overheard one of you. I didn’t mean to hear you; believe me, I didn’t want to. But I did. You didn’t know I was there, stuck where I could neither avoid hearing you, nor find a way to let you know I was hearing you. I was stuck, listening to one of you go out of your way to sound as un-Christian as you possibly could. Vile language, and hurtful words. A baptized and confirmed member of one of our congregations, speaking evil, and also denigrating another member, in front of other people. As James warns us this morning, the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness, … staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. … no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God, and even people who have been re-born in Christ. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so.
I overheard one of you prove James right. Perhaps more than one of you think I’m talking about you. But it’s not important that it was just one of you, because we are all guilty. Not one of us is immune to this curse. Not you, not you, not me. Maybe through self-discipline you’ve learned to swallow the curses that rise to your lips. Maybe. But we have all been guilty of thinking Jesus is away, of thinking that if no one from Church is around, if I’m only with my non-church friends, then I’m free to say and do whatever I want. We imagine Jesus isn’t in the picture, we think God isn’t looking, and we all too often betray the confession of faith we make here Sunday after Sunday, failing to give the slightest impression we are believers. Jesus says that all things are possible for one who believes, so you’d think we could at least avoid doing things that completely deny Him. More often than we care to admit, we do the opposite, and it is a frightful thing.
Faith is hard. Confessing Christ before a hostile world is scary. The desperate plight of his demon plagued son focused the father in our Gospel reading on truly important things, driving him to seek out deliverance from Christ, regardless of what his friends might say or think. But still, even so focused by the attack of an unclean spirit, believing in Jesus was a struggle for him. Jesus directs these words: “All things are possible for one who believes,” specifically at this man, because he doubts even Jesus will be able to help his son. “If I can?” asks Jesus. “All things are possible for one who believes.”
So why couldn’t the disciples drive out the demon? For that matter, why couldn’t this father drive out the demon? Jesus will go on to explain that this kind only comes out with prayer. So why could none of them pray correctly? Surely the father had been praying long and hard for his son, to no avail. Surely the nine disciples included prayer in their efforts to cast out the unclean spirit. But they failed. All things are possible for one who believes. Faith as small as a mustard seed should be able to move mountains. But no one can help this afflicted boy. What’s going on? Don’t they believe at all? The father cries out to Jesus, speaking for himself, but also for every sinner-saint, every believer, struggling with doubt and rebellion: “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” And Jesus does.
This kind of unclean spirit can only be driven out by prayer. What kind of unclean spirit? The real kind. A real demon, a real tormentor from Satan can only be driven out by prayer, because only God is stronger than Satan and his demons. Doing real kingdom of God work, actually fighting against evil, requires faithful prayer, because only truly faithful prayer is heard by God our Father. And so, Jesus prays for us. How long must Jesus be with us? Forever and ever, because we are weak. So Jesus prays for us, and joins Himself to us, promising to be with the baptized always, to the end of the age, and beyond. All our strength, all our works, all our faith, all our hope for deliverance depend entirely on Him. “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” This must be the daily cry of every Christian in this life, for apart from Jesus, we can do nothing.
Jesus does pray for us, and He also lives for us, just like He died for us. Everything the Man Jesus did was to make it possible for us to pray rightly, to make it possible for us to call on His Father, even to call the Father of Jesus our Father. Jesus considered it a privilege to stand in for you, to be falsely declared a guilty sinner, by Pilate, even to be considered the sinner by God His Father, for Jesus this was a privilege which now enables Him to declare you are forgiven, not guilty, righteous and pure, by His blood.
Even though you are still a sinner, in and through Christ, you are pure, washed clean, the beloved child of God. And so also, in and through Jesus, your prayers are faithful. Of course, on their own merits, our prayers falter, our desires are not always God’s will. But we do not pray on our own. We do not pray in our own strength and right, but only as beggars, asking God’s mercy and grace, always praying through Christ. Any other prayer is not truly a prayer. We pray through Jesus, trusting in Him and not ourselves, and He is like a holy filter, removing all that is fallen or false in our prayers, making them righteous, faithful, and heard by His Father.
Whether you think I overheard you deny Christ the other day, or whether you have to think back a little while to remember the last time you realized you were publicly betraying God by your words and deeds, all of us must confess that James’ warning about our tongues is true. And when we let our tongues burn with unrighteousness, we spread the stain of sin as far as our voice carries. Repent; just close your mouth if you must; pray to the Lord to give you discipline. But also remember and confess that what James applies to our mouths, Jesus applies to our hearts. Our sinful thoughts are already a betrayal and denial of God, and if we insist on our way, if we continue denying Christ, He will in the end deny us. Day by day, every one of us must cry out: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.
However you may have denied Christ, hear this Good News: your sins, even your betrayals of God, are forgiven, covered by the blood of Jesus, removed from you as far as the east is from the west. And so all things are possible for you. Indeed, you already have all things, in Jesus, the One whose faith never falters, the One whose works always shine, the One who intercedes for you, the One who died and rose, and has given His forgiving death and new, everlasting life to you, the One who feeds you with forgiveness, found in His true body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of all your sins.
Bring your demons and bring your sins to Jesus. Confess them, and rejoice in His sure promises, for He will surely cast them out, and raise you up with His hand, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.