Being rich when you are poor - Mark 9:14-29
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Theresa Briones is a tender, loving mother honest! There was a very good reason for her flooring the woman in the laundrette. What happened was this: Some children were making fun of Theresa's daughter Alicia. You see, Alicia is bald. Here knees are arthritic. Her nose is pinched. Her hearing is bad and she has the stamina of a seventy year old. And yet she is only ten. "Mom," the kids taunted, "come and look at the monster!" Alicia suffers from progeria- a genetic ageing disease that strikes one child in eight million. The life expectancy of progeria victims is twenty years. "She is not an alien. She is not a monster," Theresa defended. "She is just like you and me." Mentally, Alicia is a bubbly, fun loving junior school girl. She watches television in a toddler sized rocking chair. She plays with Barbie dolls and teases her younger brother. And Theresa has simply grown accustomed to the glances and questions. She is patient with the constant curiosity. Genuine inquiries she accepts, but insensitive slanders she does not. That is what the mother of the finger pointing children was soon to find out. She came along to see what her brood was laughing at- Alicia. "Oh, I see it!" she told her offspring. And that is when it happened. "My child is not an 'it'," Theresa counted, then she decked the woman with a good left hook.
Now, who can blame her? Such is the nature of parental love, that God-given ability for a parent to love and protect their child regardless of any imperfections they have, that parents can become rather passionate about their children. It is not that parents are blind. On the contrary, it is because they can see clearly. Theresa saw the need and frailty of her child and loved her. No doubt she was aware of her own needs too. Well, the Bible would tell us that we are all like Alicia- spiritually speaking: weak, helpless, full of need. It would also tell us that God is the perfect parent- he sees us with the eyes of a Father, all our defects, errors and blemishes andhe still he loves. He also knows our value which he has placed upon us as we are made in his image. But whether or not we actively become the recipients of that love is, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent upon whether we recognise our need.
This is the way Jesus himself speaks of it in the Sermon on the Mount: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.' (Matthew 5:3). It is no accident that this 'beatitude attitude' comes first, and is all do with 'the kingdom of heaven' that is entering into God's saving, loving rule. The word used here for poor (Ptochos) is from a verb meaning "to shrink, cower or cringe" as beggars often did in those days. It refers to a person reduced to total destitution, who crouched in a corner begging. As he held out his hand for alms he would often hide his face with the other hand, because he was ashamed of being recognised. Now, says Jesus those are precisely the kind of people who recognise themselves to be in this state spiritually who are the recipients of my kingdom and only those - 'Blessed are the poor in spirit.' When it comes to our standing before God we do not come to him holding our heads high, with our thumbs tucked in our waistcoat pockets, 'Saying, here I come God, look at me.' On the contrary, there is this feeling of sneaking into God's presence, too ashamed of our sin to even dare show our faces. It is those who see their need who will seek a Saviour. Martin Luther once said, 'Until a man realises he is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.' And that is true. Now it may well be that you are here tonight and all this talk of being spiritually destitute is rather offensive to you. You actually see yourselves as a descent sort, and the last thing you see yourselves as is the spiritual equivalent to the homeless, selling the 'Big Issue.' Well, if that is the case then God would ask you to pause and think again. Instead, come with me to an episode in the life of Jesus which illustrates perfectly what it means to find yourself at the end of your own resources and so open to God's resources. It is all there in Mark chapter 9 and the father of the demon possessed boy.
Now the first thing we notice is the poverty of the situation: 14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. "What are you arguing with them about?" he asked. A man in the crowd answered, "Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not." And the verse 20: 'When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy's father, "How long has he been like this?" "From childhood," he answered." It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him."'
Now just picture that scene for a moment. Does not your heart go out to this poor father as he relates the miserable condition of his only son? He is 'robbed of speech,' that is he is a mute. The man 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 pleading for help. Even to describe his condition as 'epileptic' would be woefully inadequate for, without a moments 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 condition, for we are told, he was 'possessed by a demon'. It was a psychopathic demon too, we read in v21 that he was often thrown onto the fire or into the waters and nearly drowned. So can you 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. So how come he had survived this long? Well, the only answer I can think of is that he must have been continually accompanied; he had a carer perpetually by his side to pull him out of the water or drag him from the open fire. And the one who was more than likely consigned to fulfilling this role was his father. Other Dad's-well they could watch their children grow and mature, he could only watch his suffer. While others were teaching their sons an occupation, he was just trying to keep his son alive. Do you see how tired and desperate the father must have been? If anyone was poor in spirit, here he is.
And in many ways the recognised spiritual poverty of the father stands in stark contrast to the unrecognised self- sufficiency of Jesus' disciples. Why was it that, according to verse 18, the disciples were unable to exorcise 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. Well, two clues are given as to the answer. First of all, the disciples are included in Jesus' outburst of verse 19; they are part of the unbelieving generation. And second, when in v 28 the disciples ask why they were unable to perform the exorcism, Jesus replies, 'Only prayer can drive out this kind.' Now, putting those two together means this: the unbelief of the disciples isn't so much that they stopped believing in God, but rather 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 magic power which they could switch on or off at will. But by speaking of prayer, Jesus is reminding the disciples that they are to be dependent on Another. It is not their authority and power that can achieve anything, but God's authority and power and that is received by asking for it in prayer. Oh, the disciples had faith all right, faith in themselves -misplaced faith.
Now, this is the greatest pitfall we Christians in the west are in danger of falling into. We live in a society which is dominated by a 'can do mentality.' The DIY stores are packed, because everyone is into 'Do it Yourself.' Well, this is the same mentality which has infected the church, so that with enough money, enough thought, enough planning and enough people we can see the winning of our nation for Christ. Sure, prayer is thrown in, but not so much as a pleading with God to act in his mercy and for the sake of his glory, but to claim the power which is ours by right.; speaking in 'Jesus name' as if it were the access code of some celestial swipe card. And so there is an attempt to domesticate God by making him into our obedient pet genie. No, we are not to have faith in faith or faith in power, and certainly not faith in ourselves, but faith in a person, which like any relationship is a matter of trust based on knowledge. And the extent to which we are really poor in spirit will in part be measured by the extent to which we come to God in prayer, as this man does.
So let's take a look at the power of prayer-v20, 'But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."
What is prayer? It is talking to God. It is presenting requests to him, asking him for things, engaging in a conversation. Well, here we have God in the flesh- Jesus who is being approached by a father. But we have to admit it isn't much of a prayer is it? It isn't courageous. It is hardly confident. One word could have made all the difference in the world and then this man may have been elevated into the premier division of saints. Instead of saying, 'If', what if he had said 'since'? 'Since you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.' You see the man is part of the 'unbelieving generation' of verse 19 as well. In the Greek the 'If' is emphatic. The tense implies doubt. It's as if the man is saying, 'Jesus, this one is probably out of your league, but if by the slightest chance you can manage it, then please have a go, but I am not going to hold my breath.' That may well be, buy I tell you this, that 'if' speaks volumes for the spiritual poverty and humility of the man. He does not claim merit, he asks for mercy. In fact, the 'iffyness' of the man's faith, the rock bottom desperation of someone who is holding on to a rope whilst hanging over a precipice with only one strand left waiting to snap, is underscored by what he says next - v23: " `If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes." Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"
Not exactly what we expect from our spiritual superheroes is it? But it is exactly the sort of thing Jesus is looking for from those who would enter his kingdom.
Of course Jesus had many reasons to disregard the man's request. For one thing, Jesus had just come down from the Mount of Transfiguration. While there, his face had changed and his clothes had become as bright as a flash of lightening. A roaring radiance had poured out from him. For a moment the burdens of earth had been replaced by the splendours of heaven. The journey up was exhilarating; but the journey down was plain disheartening. Jesus is met with nothing but chaos. The disciples and the religious leaders are arguing. A crowd of bystanders are gawking. A boy on public display is suffering. And a father stands their in utter bewilderment and agony-pleading. No wonder Jesus says 'O unbelieving generation how long must I put up with you?' Just where is faith in this picture? Can you see it? The disciples have failed, the scribes are amused, the demon is victorious and the father is desperate. It is like looking for the needle of faith in the proverbial haystack!
And maybe that is exactly where you are at the moment-suffering and desperate- caught between a rock and a hard place. You are not up on the mountain; you are down in the valley. Your life is like the cacophony of this scene. It is not characterised by serenity but bedlam. The work is too much. Relationships are too strained. Your life doesn't seem to be heading anywhere and- you are looking for help. You want to believe in God, you want a relationship with him, but you feel that you are at the end of your tether. Is that you? Then be encouraged, for you are already you are well on the way towards the kingdom. Remember the qualification: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit.' Do you feel that the prayer on your lips is ill formed, afraid that God will not hear you? If so then look again at what happens next: the provision of the Lord v 26, 'When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. "You deaf and mute spirit," he said, "I command you, come out of him and never enter him again." The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, "He's dead." But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.'
Jesus said that only prayer can drive out this sort of demon-v 29. What prayer- the prayer of the disciples? Hardly. The prayer of the crowd, then? I don't see them holding a vigil for the boy do you? There is only one prayer in this story. It is the honest prayer of a hurting man. And since Christ is more moved by our hurt than by our eloquence, he responded. That is what father's do.
In fact, that is exactly what Jim Redmond did. His 26 year old son from Britain was the favoured winner in the 400 metre race in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Halfway into his semi-final heat, a fiery pain seared through his right leg. He crumpled to the track with a torn hamstring.
As the medical attendants approached, Redmond got to his feet. 'It was animal instinct' he would later say. He set out hopping, pushing away the coaches in a crazed attempt to finish the race. When he reached the stretch a big man pushed through the crowd. He was wearing a t-shirt that read: 'Have you hugged your child today?' and a hat that challenged, 'Just do it.' The man was Jim Redmond, Derek's father. "You don't have to do this," he told his weeping son. "Yes, I do," declared Derek. "Well then" said his father, "We are going to finish this together." And they did. Jim wrapped Derek's arm around his shoulder and helped him hobble to the finishing line. The crowd clapped, then stood, then cheered and then wept as father and son finished the race.
What was it that made the father leave the stand to meet his son on the track? Was it the strength of the child? No, it was the love of the father on seeing the pain of his son.
Now I guess that in theory Derek could have denied the reality of the situation, saying, 'I am in perfect health' the pain is a figment of my imagination.' But reality would not let him. He could have pushed his father away and tried to carry on alone, and would no doubt have failed. But he did neither. Rather like both the man and the boy in Mark's Gospel he recognised his need and accepted the help.
Now let me tell you what it is that is keeping most people out of the kingdom of heaven. It is not that there isn't enough evidence for the truth of the Christian faith- there's stacks. It is not that there is not enough information or churches to go to in order to find out more- there's loads. It is not even that the lives of Christians are unimpressive- many are very impressive actually. The one thing that is keeping people away from God and hell bound is that people do not perceive their need and are self-sufficient. If there is a heaven, then they are determined to get their under their own steam without any helping hand from God, thank you very much. The one word that sticks in people's throats is the word, 'charity' they will give it, but they will not receive it. And so Christianity is dismissed as a 'crutch.' But you know, crutches come in pretty handy when you have broken your leg, so let's not be too hasty in condemning crutches. You see, whether you admit it or not, whether you recognise it or not, every single human being is in the place of this father and son when it comes to entering God's saving rule. There is nothing to offer, nothing to bargain with, just a total inability to meet God's standards and the need to feel cast down by the shame of it all. God is not asking you to come to him when you have undergone some sort of moral self-improvement programme. He wants you to come to him exactly as you are- poor, morally bankrupt, spiritually in the pits, so that he can lift you up and together you can make the long journey home to heaven. Because one thing is for sure you and I are never going to make it alone. And there is only one person you are to come to- the same person the father came to-the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone has the power to set you free. He alone has the right to offer you mercy. Why not do that now as we pray.
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