Given my previous post on acedia, I thought perhaps the fruit of my sermon wrestling this past week might be an appropriate follow up.
This Gospel lesson confronts us with a number of problems. There is a boy afflicted by a demon. There is a father who desperately wants his boy healed from this affliction. There are the disciples puzzled by their inability to drive out the demon. And finally, there is Jesus left to sort it all out.
At first glance, we may be tempted to write this off as a simple matter of those who lacked faith. The disciples lacked faith because they couldn’t drive out the demon. The father openly admitted he needed help with his unbelief. And the boy himself must have been a total unbeliever since he was afflicted by a demon. Thus, there is the temptation to think that if they had just believed a little bit harder and little bit longer, everything would turn out all right.
But if we read things at this level, we’ll miss the absolute visceral nature of the text. We’ll miss the desperation of a father, the compassion of Jesus, and the rawness of faith.
In fact, such a reading of the text risks turning “faith” into magic. In other words, it treats faith as a simple means to get what you want—just like a magic wand—where you wave it, say the right words, and wish things to be the way you want them and voila, life’s just peachy again.
But that’s not the way it is. It’s in inaccurate view of the sin afflicted life and incorrect view of faith. It’s the idea that, “If I just have enough faith life will always be perfect.” That you’ll have no worries, no hurries, and no juries to tell you what went wrong.
But look around. Life’s not so peachy is it? The fact is, there are a lot of moldy peaches and a lot of rotten peaches in life—the bully at school, the empty bank account, the spouse who wants out, the loved one buried in the ground.
Sometimes life presses in on you so hard, and so intensely, that you can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t even breathe. But don’t you believe for a second that such things happen to you because you don’t have enough faith! That’s a flat out lie. Jesus will never abandon you. He pledges himself to you in baptism.
But the devil wants you to believe He’ll abandon you. He wants you to give up on God, give in to temptation, and go over to a life of sin. And he’ll send any manner of demon and discouragement to get you to give up your faith and give up on God.
However, the Good News is that God’s love is not dependent upon the level of your faith. His favor is not dished out in proportion to the degree of your faith. As Isaiah reminds us in the Old Testament lesson: “the Lord God will help you” (Isaiah 50:9). And He will help you not because He favors some of you more than others, or because some of you are super-Christians and others are not. He helps you simply because He loves you fully and completely.
Listen. You don’t get more of God’ love if you believe harder. You don’t get more of God’s grace if your faith is bigger. God’s love is unconditional and immeasurable. He delivers it to you equally through Jesus Christ. So whether you think your faith is big or small, His favor toward you is equally constant, consistent, and current through Jesus Christ.
This Gospel lesson is meant to show you this truth. It’s meant to give you this comfort. It does so by showing the desperation of a father, the compassion of Jesus, and the rawness of faith:
17“Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”
Throughout the Gospel of Mark we find a very intentional record of Jesus encountering evil spirits and demons that ruthlessly afflict people. Often times our tendency might be to dismiss this as no longer applicable to today, that demons and evil spirits are no longer present and no longer afflict us like this.
This delights the devil. He doesn’t care if people believe in him or not. He doesn’t care if you think his demons and evil spirits are real or not. He’s going to send them to tempt you and afflict you just the same.
They may not be able to “possess” you (like Hollywood often portrays it) because you have been baptized, but they can certainly assail you and assault you, mislead you and deceive you. They’ll seek to divide friendships, divide marriages, and divides churches. They afflict parents and yes, they assail pastors. They are active and real, even if you can’t see them or believe in them.
But the solution to them remains the same today, as it was when Jesus walked this earth.
In the case of the young boy, the disciples couldn’t drive out the evil spirit. What gives? Perhaps that was because they, too, had yet to learn the true nature of faith. They needed to know that faith was not to be about their strength, but the strength found in Jesus:
19And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Anyone who’s had a sick or chronically afflicted child can relate with this father. His child, his beloved son, had been afflicted by this demon since he was a little boy.
The normal impulse of every parent is to protect and comfort your child, especially when your child is hurting or sick. And the desire of every child is to have your father and your mother protect you, keep you safe, and hold you secure, especially when you are frightened and in pain. But this evil spirit kept that from happening.
The father had become desperate. We can’t overlook how desperate he was. Since the boy’s childhood, this father has come running out of his house to pull him out of the fire. He’s had to sooth burns, calm screams, and comfort his little boy in the midst of all the pain and all the confusion his little mind and his little body were experiencing.
Can you see his face? What if it was your boy? This father was desperate. Countless times he’s had to dive into deep waters to pull his son, his precious little boy, out of the waters that would seek to drown his body.
How many times did he see his son’s terrified eyes? How many times did this father hear his water filled lungs? How many times did he experience his fear filled cries? Can you hear them? What if they were your cries?
The father loves his boy. He wants him to live. He wants him healed. He wants him to be safe. He wants to hug him another day.
At our very core, if we’re being honest, that’s what each of us want—compassion. Young or old, we desire compassion.
If you’re full of anger and rage, beneath it all there is a desperate desire for compassion. If you are overwhelmed or overworked, you desire compassion. If you are hurting or scared, you long for compassion.
How many times did that little boy feel the compassion of his father? How many times did that boy experience the love of his father? He loved his boy. And he went through fire and water to prove it.
But how does a father comfort such an afflicted boy? How does he answer his questions? How does he give him hope? Perhaps you’ve been there? Maybe you are there right now?
“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Jesus hears the man’s plea for compassion and He answers. Some might hear this as Jesus chastising the man for his lack of faith. However, it’s quite the opposite.
To the father full of desperation, to the child afflicted by an evil spirit, to you longing for hope, and to you looking for healing, Jesus brings a word of comfort. As He told the Father, Jesus CAN do something!
Jesus was not scolding him for his lack of faith, but pointing him to the object of his faith. All things are possible for the one who believes, because all things are possible for Jesus Christ.
You see, the father was not without faith. The father was pressed down by life. He was full of worry, overwhelmed by anxiety, living in fear, and wanting someone to help, wanting someone to have compassion. Yet, faith was not absent. Rather life had become difficult, and so faith had become difficult.
However, he recognizes his condition, even admits it, and then does what comes natural to faith no matter how big or small it is. He cries out to the author of faith. He cries out to Jesus: “I believe; help my unbelief!” It’s a prayer—one you and I are invited to pray it as well.
In the midst of life’s circumstances, in the midst of our heartache, in the midst of our struggles with sin, you can pray, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” It doesn’t mean you are without faith, it means you need compassion. And Jesus is happy to give it, just like he did for that father and boy.
25And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.
The compassion of Jesus covers you. How many times has he seen your terrified eyes? How many times has heard your sin filled lungs? How many times has He experienced your fear filled cries?
The compassion of Jesus pulls you from the depths of sin and from the fires of Hell. His compassion is so great that he dives with you into the depths of baptismal waters and pulls you out as a new man and new woman drenched with His compassion.
He loves you. And He went through torture and death to prove it. He wants you to live. He wants you to be forgiven. He wants you to be safe. He fights for you, no matter how big or small you think your faith.
To the demons that afflict you and the spirits that assail you, the blood of Jesus protects you and the compassion of Jesus covers you. For, it was his compassion that compelled him to walk through death back to life, in order to give you life.
He knows the heartaches that can leave you like a corpse. He knows the sins that can leave you for dead. Jesus was resurrected so that he could take you by the hand, lift you up, and give you life.
His forgiveness fills you. His life leads you. His compassion covers you. Amen.