How long shall I put up with you? - Mark 9:14-29
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Does having a faith in the Lord Jesus Christ make any real difference to the rough and tumble of everyday life? Some people think not. Faith, they say begins where reason ends, a flight into fantasy. Well, just listen to this tribute written by a father upon the loss of his little girl, Bristol, which might make such folk think again.
My Dear Bristol,
Before you were born I prayed for you. In my heart I knew that you would be a little angel. And so you were.
When you were born on my birthday, April 7, it was evident that you were a special gift from the Lord. But how profound a gift you turned out to be! More than the beautiful bundle of gurgles and rosy cheeks - more than the first-born of my flesh, a joy unspeakable - you showed me God's love more than anything else in all creation. Bristol, you taught me how to love.
I certainly loved you when you were cuddly and cute, when you rolled over and sat up and jabbered your first words. I loved you when the searing pain of realization took hold that something was wrong - that maybe you were not developing as quickly as your peers, and then when we understood it was more serious than that. I loved you when we went from hospital to clinic to doctor looking for a medical diagnosis that would bring some hope. And, of course, we always prayed for you - and prayed - and prayed. I loved you when one of the tests resulted in too much spinal fluid being drawn from your body and you screamed. I loved you when you moaned and cried, when your mom and I and your sisters would drive for hours late at night to help you fall asleep. I loved you with tears in my eyes when, confused, you would bite your fingers or your lip by accident, and when your eyes crossed and then went blind.
I most certainly loved you when you could no longer speak, but how profoundly I missed your voice! I loved you when your scoliosis started wrenching your body like a pretzel, when we put a tube in your stomach so you could eat because you were choking on your food, which we fed you one spoonful at a time for up to two hours per meal. I managed to love you when your contorted limbs would not allow ease of changing your messy diapers - so many diapers - ten years of diapers. Bristol, I even loved you when you could not say the one thing in life that I longed to hear back - "Daddy, I love you." Bristol, I loved you when I was close to God and when He seemed far away, when I was full of faith and also when I was angry at Him.
And the reason I loved you, my Bristol, in spite of these difficulties, is that God put this love in my heart. This is the wondrous nature of God's love, that He loves us even when we are blind, deaf or twisted - in body or in spirit. God loves us even when we can't tell Him that we love Him back.
My dear Bristol, now you are free! I look forward to that day, according to God's promises, when we will be joined together with you with the Lord, completely whole and full of joy. I'm so happy that you have your crown first. We will follow you someday - in His time.
Before you were born I prayed for you. In my heart I knew that you would be a little angel. And so you were!
I know there are some of you here this morning who have undergone a similar experience to that father, in fact some of you are undergoing a similar experience now. And it is in the midst of those kinds of experiences that faith- trust in the Lord Jesus Christ- comes into its own, that is, if it can be found.
Well, that was the dilemma of the father in our passage this morning, he cried, ‘I believe, help my unbelief’. And it was the lack of faith which led to Jesus’ troubled question: “You unbelieving generation. How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?’”
Does not your heart go out to this poor father as he relates the miserable condition of his son? He is ‘robbed of speech’ –he is a mute. He has never heard him say ‘Dad, I love you.’ He may have seen it in his eyes, but more often than not all that he would have seen was a tortured cry for help. Even to describe his condition as ‘epileptic' would be woefully inadequate for without a moment’s notice the boy would suddenly be seized by a fit, shaking on the floor, eyes rolling, teeth clenched foaming at the mouth. And this was no mere mental defect; he was possessed by a demon. It was a psychopathic demon too, v21 -he was often thrown onto the fire or into the waters and nearly drowned. So can you begin to imagine what the boy’s face would look like, as well as his arms and legs? We have all seen pictures of burn victims, well that is what we have here, a frightened, disfigured young man. And you have to ask: how come he had survived for so long? The only answer I can think of is that there must have been someone perpetually by his side to pull him out of the water or drag him from the open fire. And the one who more than likely fulfilled this role was, of course, his father. And so in your mind’s eye can you see how tired and desperate the father is? When he came to Jesus, he wasn’t looking for some mystical experience called ‘faith’ to escape reality, he was looking for someone he could trust to help release his son from the reality which was one long nightmare. And that may well be that is the way you are feeling this morning if the truth be known. You are here not to escape but to search for something or someone that will help you deal with some awful reality which awaits you back home. If so, then keep listening to this story.
As Jesus steps into this tragic situation what does he find? Nothing but unbelief -v19 ‘“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?’ What more could people have wanted? They had heard Jesus teach, they had seen his amazing miracles and yet he finds himself in the midst of a sea of unbelief.
First, there is the unbelief of the teachers of the law v14, ‘When they came (that is Jesus, Peter, James and John) to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them.’ These were the professional theologians of the day. They are arguing over the inability of the disciples to cure the boy as we read in v 18. So what were they doing here? Back in chapter 7 Jesus had already scandalized them by demolishing in one stroke the ritual of ceremonial hand washing and several other traditions which were sacrosanct to the Jews as well as implying they were hypocrites into the bargain. So it doesn’t take that much of an imagination to work out what form their arguments with the disciples would have taken: ‘How can you expect to heal this boy when you associate with a religious philistine like Jesus? He is bad company. God wouldn’t dream of using someone like him.’ This is a case of my mind is made up don’t confuse me with the facts. It was pretty obvious God was using Jesus; more to the point he spoke and acted like God himself; that was one thing which was aggravating them-‘blasphemy’ they called it. And that might be where you find yourself. For you Jesus is just a good man; another religious leader; a failed social reformer. That is your belief. But it is not a belief which arises out of an examination of the facts. It may be a belief based on hearsay- ‘That’s what everyone believes isn’t it?’ Or it may be a belief based on prejudice so that for you it is not, ‘I can’t believe that this is God in the flesh who deserves my loyalty and obedience’ but, ‘I won’t believe because the price I would have to pay is way too high, my life will have to change.’
But then we have the unbelief of the disciples. Why is it that, according to verse 18, the disciples are unable to cast out this demon? After all, in chapter 6 we read of how Jesus had given the disciples authority to heal and cast out demons and as far as we can tell they had a 100% success rate. Two clues are given as to the answer. As we have already seen, the disciples are included in Jesus’ outburst of verse 19- they are part of the ‘unbelieving generation’. And when later in v 28 the disciples ask why they were unable to perform the exorcism, Jesus replies that ‘Only prayer can drive out this kind.’ Putting those two together means this: the unbelief of the disciples is not that they stopped believing in God, but they had started to believe too much in themselves. They began to see the authority of Christ which was delegated to them as some sort of magical power which they could switch on or off at will. If you think that then you won’t be asking God for anything, because you think that you already have everything-the power. But by speaking of prayer, Jesus is reminding the disciples, (and us), that they are to be dependent on Another. It is not their power which can achieve anything, but God’s power and that is received by asking for it in prayer. Certainly the disciples had faith but faith in themselves -misplaced faith.
Now I would suggest that this is the greatest pitfall we Christians in the West are in danger of falling into. We live in a society which has a ‘can do mentality.’ So with enough money, enough planning, the right technology we can turn the sorry fortunes of the church around. Sure, prayer is thrown in, but not so much as a pleading with God but a claiming the power of God which is seen to be ours by right. No, we are not to have faith in faith or faith in power, but faith in a person, which, like any relationship, is a matter of trust based on knowledge.
Now could it be that the reason why the church is making so little headway in our society today, as these disciples were making so little progress with this boy, is because there is so little praying going on? The prayer meeting still remains the Cinderella of church meetings- including our own- and that should not be so dear friends, it should be the best attended. Little faith always results in little prayer. But also much faith results from much prayer.
But then we have the unbelief of the crowd- v15, ‘As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.’ We are not told why the crowd were amazed when they saw Jesus. But one thing is for sure, that inspite of all that Jesus had said and done through his miracles and teaching, people still did not believe in his power, to be amazed at Jesus is not the same as believing in Jesus. Because when Jesus casts the demon out of the boy, what do they say? v26 “He’s dead”’. What a great vote of confidence that is!
This is surely one of the most disappointing responses to Jesus we can ever come across. And which church has not seen it? Maybe over weeks the gospel is explained to folk, perhaps parents thinking about baptism for their children or friends get invited along. They come to church and show so much potential and even initial enthusiasm. They are attracted by the services and impressed with what is going, as this crowd is amazed with Jesus. Some may even make a profession of faith, but with the passage of time and the distraction of other things, whatever had amazed them earlier dissipates into the pessimism of the crowd. Isn’t that so?
But then we come to the faith of the father and at last there is a ray of hope, v22, he says to Jesus, ‘If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’ ‘If you can?’ replies Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for him who believes.’ Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.’’
What is Jesus saying? Is it, ‘I Jesus can do anything because of the quality of my faith’? Or is he saying ‘If only you had the right quality of faith, you could do anything’ -putting the onus back on the man, so it’s really all up to him? Surely, it is this: ‘Everything is possible if you have faith in what I can do for you.’ It is the object of faith which is key, namely, Jesus.
And this takes us to the heart of saving faith. It is made up of two elements, like two sides of a coin- knowledge and trust. This man obviously knew something about Jesus, which is why he had come to him in the first place -v 17, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son’. This was not some irrational leap in the dark it is action based on knowledge. At the very least he knew Jesus was a rabbi, calling him teacher. In all probability he had heard about his miraculous powers too. So, real belief begins with a submitting of the mind to the truth as we have it in Jesus. For this father it made sense to come to Jesus. And it still makes sense to come to him. You see, the father’s problem isn’t unbelief as such, but doubt. When he says ‘ I believe, help my unbelief’ he is really saying, ‘Yes, I do have confidence in you Jesus, but given the way the disciples have made a dog’s breakfast of the whole situation I feel shaken, help me overcome this wavering I am now experiencing.’ And perhaps you too feel like that. You really do know in your heart that the Christian faith is true. But something has happened to you, maybe circumstances have conspired against you so that you are not as confident as you once were. Perhaps it has been an illness in the family; a bereavement; perhaps you feel the church has let you down or someone has hurt you badly and …..well, to be frank it is not as easy as it once was. What do you do? Well, you do what this man does- come to Jesus and ask for help. What else can you do? You can’t go back, you can’t stand still; you must go forward.
Which brings us to the next aspect of faith: personal trust, acting on the knowledge you have, in the revelation of God as we find it in the Bible. You see, saving faith is not just head knowledge about somebody, it is trust in somebody. Straight away in v 25 we read of how he casts out the demon and restores the boy to his father. Sure, there is still that period of uncertainty when it seems the boy had died, and we too may have some more shaking and testing of our faith yet to come. But Jesus is as good as his word. He is determined to get those who have put their faith in him to heaven in the end which the father of little Bristol knew and from which he drew great strength. Jesus has literally staked his life on fulfilling the promise- ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’. The question is: ‘Will you believe it?’ We have a number of people who will be getting baptised who are going to publically claim they believe it and made a massive difference to their lives. There are many here in this building who would also say the same. And maybe this morning God has been speaking to you and he is saying leave aside your unbelief, come to my Son and you will discover he is as good as his word.
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