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17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19) - Series B

Text: Mark 9:14-29

Title “In Every Believer, Unbelief Persists”

Date: Sunday, September 16, 2018

Pastor Steve Bocklage

Have you ever been in that tension where you believe, but then you are not certain that you really believe? “I believe!” “I don’t believe!” Which is it? Where is your faith on a scale from extra certain and strong…to weak, faltering, on the brink of unbelief? Faith either grows strong or it becomes weak. It never stands still. More often than not, we plead with the man in Mark 9:24; “I believe; help my unbelief!”

        This man in our sermon text is a father who loves his son very much. But the young boy is severely tormented, overtaken, and dominated in his entire person by an evil spirit…a demon. (cf. vv. 17–18) And this demon robs the boy of his speech. The condition only gets worse and the boy’s father is desperate. “Who can help us?” “What are we going to do?” Neighbors and friends witness this family’s anguish and pain but they keep their distance and seem quite helpless.

        In our world today, there are fine hospitals for children that are located in many cities, each equipped with advanced technology for treating many illnesses. However, no such help is available anywhere in the ancient world for this family. And even if it had been, the technology and medicine would not have helped because the boy is possessed by a demon. But this boy’s father has heard what is now widely known…that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, healed many with various diseases, and that He drove out many demons. (cf. Mk 1:34; cf. 3:22–27; 7:37)

Prior to His arrival at this village, Jesus was away in the mountains with Peter, James, and John for them to experience His glorious transfiguration. But His other disciples remained in this village where this father brings his son to them, but they cannot drive out the demon. (cf. v. 18) Frustrated and disappointed, this father is losing hope…and losing his faith! All this is out of his control. Is there a doctor or specialist who can help? But there is no help to be found! His son will never be normal. There is nowhere to turn. How can he continue to believe in God? By the time Jesus and three of the disciples return to this village, the man is drained and exhausted. He can only heave an agonizing sigh and cry out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (v. 24) Such desperation, if it is not answered, can lead to unbelief.

        Unbelief takes many forms. Unbelief does not respect anyone. It plays no favorites. It plagues all kinds and sorts of people. A story is told about a Lutheran pastor who gave a surprising if not shocking testimony shortly before he died. He had been a pastor for more than thirty years. By all accounts, He had been faithful to his calling and did all the things expected of a pastor—preached good sermons, taught stimulating classes, comforted the sick and the dying, led his congregation in ministry and mission. Yet, on his deathbed, he confided to a fellow pastor and friend, “I never believed; I never believed any of it.” You need to be alert and aware of unbelief…your unbelief! Didn’t one of Jesus’ disciples, named Judas, have skepticism about the very Lord He pledged to follow? How else could Judas have become an opportunist and betray our Lord for only thirty pieces of silver?

        Unbelief can also take the form of apathy, which evokes less clarity and more confusion…doubt…and indifference. In the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, congressmen and their staffs…agents of the CIA…and political activists engaged in a covert war to support Muslim Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, who are seen as godless invaders. Most of these players claimed in one way or another to be Christians, but that identity never really mattered. Their lifestyles betrayed any link to the Christian Gospel. To such people, God remains something irrelevant, or practically speaking, nonexistent.

        Unbelief is also a taunting temptation for people who are sincere and do believe in the Lord. Carrying heavy crosses, burdened Christians sincerely desire to believe. But they struggle to believe or have grown weary of believing because the illness…the condition…the circumstance…the situation in their life only seems to be getting worse. Frankly, they are out of sorts, and out of patience, and they are disgusted. Is there help for such believers who understandably are gripped by unbelief?

        When our Lord returns from the mountains and approaches the village, His disciples are engaged in a heated discussion with certain scribes. (cf. v. 14) In fact, these disciples are under attack because they could not deliver this young boy from the demon and return him to normalcy. Our Lord had empowered them to cast out demons (cf. Mk 6:7–13) but they couldn’t get it done here. But now Jesus arrives and everyone expectantly looks to Him. The Lord asks: ‘What is all the fuss about’? From the crowd, the father of the demon-possessed boy calls out, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And 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.”  (vv. 17-18) Jesus then says: “O faithless generation,” (v. 19a) chiding His disciples.

        The disciples had been successful in the past in casting out demons…but not here. They cannot get it done. Momentarily, their arrogance takes over. They become faithless, going on their own without prayer, and accomplishing nothing! It seems that they have slipped out of faith into unbelief, taking for-granted the power vested in them by God, as if they possessed such power in their own right. American-born clergyman, scholar, author, and poet…Eugene Peterson…once said: “Those people who pray know what most around them either don't know or choose to ignore: centering life in the insatiable demands of the ego is the sure path to doom. . . . They know that life confined to the self is a prison, a joy-killing, neurosis-producing, disease-fomenting prison.”

        That’s why the demon doesn’t budge, and the young boy continues to suffer. Jesus confirms this saying: “This kind [of demon] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer,” (v. 29) meaning you and I are to have complete dependence on God and His power, and not dependence on our feeble powers. Pray to God and trust in Him and depend on Him, since Jesus is the only One who gets it done!

Looking for the demon-possessed boy, Christ commands: “Bring him to me.” (v. 19b) No matter how terrible your circumstances…no matter how desperate your situations…no matter how frustrated or angry you are…you are never out of reach of the Lord. You are never beyond His presence. And where Christ is present, He takes charge!

        As Jesus calls for the demon-possessed boy to be brought to Him, a crowd gathers to see the outcome. Here is a desperate father, pleading for help, crying out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (v. 24) Jesus’ disciples have failed. What will Jesus Himself do? The crowd grows larger…the situation is tense. There is going to be an incident here on the streets, but Jesus takes command and directs stern and loud words to the demon: “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” (v. 25) What happens then causes the crowd to be astonished. The demon thrashes the boy violently, so that the boy lies on the ground. Some shout, “He is dead.” (v. 26) “But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.” (v. 27) The father lunges forward and reaches for the boy and begins carrying him to their home.

Yes, you may go from moments of faith to moments of unbelief, caught in that miserable tension. This going back and forth…this tension of believing, then not believing…is resolved when you pray and look to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the One who dwells with you in His Word and the Sacraments, and sustains your faith by His mighty acts, which deliver you from sin, death, and the devil. Amen.

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