A desperate situation - Mark 9:14 - 29:14

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 12th November 2000.

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Let me begin by telling you a tale of two scientists.

The first concerns Professor Francis Crick, Nobel prize winner and molecular biologist who with his colleague James Watson discovered the double helix pattern of DNA. A few years ago he suggested that there might be a religious gene. In an interview with the Times in 1994 he wondered out loud if there might be something in people’s brains which made them more susceptible to religion than others, more prone to having ‘faith’, whether it be inherited or the product of early training. A ‘faith’ gene perhaps?

Then there is Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford. He has suggested that religion is a mental virus- a false belief which infects your mind the way a virus infects your body. Look at the symptoms, he says. People don’t adopt religion after carefully weighing the evidence; faith is ‘caught’ pretty much the way a cold is. It spreads from one person like an infection, especially in families. For those who convert, says Dawkins, an evangelist may be the infectious agent. Revivals are virtual epidemics of faith. In short, faith is a sickness.

Notice what is being assumed about the nature of faith in both cases. It is seen as some irrational disposition, an inclination whether genetically constituted or environmentally conceived. But in neither case is the scientist asking whether what is believed is true. Let’s turn the tables for a moment. Supposing there was a scientific gene, does that means what a scientist believes, say about the composition of the air, is to be discarded along the lines’ ‘Well, you would think that wouldn’t you, it's your genes.’ Or supposing the reason Dawkins is a scientist is because his interest was ‘caught’ from Mr Smedley the science teacher at school. Does that mean what he believes about the nature of the photosynthesis in plants is to be dismissed as a mere bout of the science bug? Of course not. How we learn about religion or come to faith is a separate question from whether or not it is true.

Now Mark has taken the time to write something he calls ‘gospel’, which is not just a certain type of book, but a message, a relating of actual events which centre upon the person of Jesus Christ and the significance of those events for people throughout the world. In other words claims are being made that certain things are true. And it is these facts being related by Mark which are meant to call from us the response of ‘faith’, belief . Jesus did not say ‘Come unto me all you who are genetically inclined.’ He said, ‘Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ This good news is not just for certain types of persons, but for all types of sinners who all need a Saviour.

And what we have in the story we are looking at this morning is a very important lesson about the nature of faith, just what saving faith , life- transforming faith, is. And what we find is that the genuine article is set against the backcloth of several examples of false faith as displayed by different groups of characters in the story. So do turn with me to Mark 9:14ff.

Now the setting underscores the fact that when we talk about faith, we are not dealing with something which is abstract and academic, but living and personal -something to do with making our way through the rough and tumble of life. Does not your heart go out to this poor father as he relates the miserable condition of his only son-v17ff. He is ‘robbed of speech’ 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 what he would have seen was a tortured cry 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 defect, he was possessed by a demon. It was a psychopathic demon too, for 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-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. Do you see how tired and desperate the father must have been? When he came to Jesus, he wasn’t looking for a some mystical experience called ‘faith’ to escape reality, he was looking for someone he could trust to help him ,someone to release him and his son from this reality which was one long nightmare. And that may well be the way you are feeling this morning. 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.

So what does Jesus find as he steps into this tragic situation? Nothing but unbelief -v 19 ‘O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?’ What more could people want? They had heard Jesus teach, they had seen with their own eyes what he could do, at least the disciples had , and yet in whichever direction he looked it seemed that he saw nothing but unbelief. If faith is caught, then these people had done well at inoculating themselves against it. If it is genetic then some serious inbreeding had gone on here sifting the faith gene out of existence

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 were arguing over the inability of the disciples to cure the boy as we read in v 18. So what were they doing here? After all, this is Gentile country. Well, presumably they were there to get more ammunition for their case against Jesus. Back in chapter 7 Jesus had already scandalised them by demolishing in one stroke the ritual of ceremonial hand washing and several other traditions which were sacrosanct to the Jews, and 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 isn’t kosher. 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 getting up their noses-blasphemy they called it. And that may well be your position. For you Jesus is just a good man. Another religious leader. A deluded social reformer. That is your belief. But it is not a belief which arises out of an examination of the facts, a careful weighing of the evidence. It may be a belief which is based on hearsay- ‘That’s what everyone believes isn't it?’. Or it may be a belief which is based on prejudice. It is not ‘I can’t believe that this amazing individual is God in the flesh and so deserves my loyalty and obedience’ but ‘I won’t believe’ because the price I would have to pay would be too costly. It would mean that my life, my time ,my money, would no longer be my own, but his. Either way, such a faith which runs counter to the evidence is a false faith -unbelief.

But then we have the unbelief of the 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 for us 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 later in v 28 when 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 lack of faith or unbelief of the disciples isn’t so much 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 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 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 thought and planning, enough people we can see the winning of a nation for Christ by the year 2005. A lot of Christian organisations think that way you know. 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 for some celestial credit card.. And so there is an a attempt to domesticate God making him into our obedient pet genie. 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. We should never claim what God has never promised- all healing now, all prosperity now, all victory now. Real prayer is a humble asking and is always a sign of true faith. And so in one sense, the extent to which we really do believe in the Lordship of Jesus is at least in part measured by the extent to which we pray. 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? with the prayer meeting still remaining the Cinderella of church meetings? Little faith always results in little prayer.

But then we have the unbelief of the crowd. Just look at v15 ‘As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.’ As we have been working through Mark have you noticed how that reaction appears time and time again- the response of people being amazed? Allow me to let you into a little secret. In Mark’s Gospel there are two reactions to Jesus which are almost invariably seen as negative. They are ‘amazement’ and ‘fear’. By way of contrast the two reactions which are always seen as positive, the very things Jesus is seeking to elicit from people, are ‘faith’ and ‘obedience’. We are not told why the crowd were amazed when they saw Jesus. Perhaps it was that having come down from the mountain where he was transfigured before Peter, James and John, something of the divine glory was still radiating from him, just as when Moses descended from Mount Sinai his face shone with the shekina glory of God. We don’t know. But the one thing that is for sure is that in spite of all that Jesus had said and done through his miracles and teaching, people still did not believe in his power. For when Jesus casts the demon out of the boy, what do they say? v26 ‘ Many said "He’s dead"’. Well, thank you for that great vote of confidence.

This is surely one of the most disappointing responses to Jesus we can ever come across isn't? And which church has not seen it? Speaking personally, it is almost heartbreaking when we have parents who bring their children along for baptism who in some cases within a matter of weeks of making those promises, simply drift away . We explain the gospel, they come along to church and they show so much potential and even enthusiasm. They are taken by the services and are impressed with what we provide for children. They are more than amazed when it comes to Jesus. And so they go on to make promises right here in full view of God and his church. And then? Well, only a few ever keep them. Within next to no time for many of them Jesus becomes a dim memory. Whatever had impressed them earlier dissipates into the pessimism of the crowd. Unbelief you see.

But then we come to the faith of the father and at last there is a ray of hope v22b ‘ If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us’, he says. ‘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.’’

What is Jesus saying? Is he saying, ‘I Jesus can do anything because of the quantity and quality of my faith’? Or is he saying ‘ If only you had the right type and amount of faith, you could do anything?’ -putting the onus back on the man, so its really all up to him? Surely, it is this: ‘ Everything is possible if you have faith in what I can do for you.’

And this takes us to the heart of saving faith. It is made up of two aspects - knowledge and trust. This man obviously knew something about Jesus, that is why he had come to him in the first place as we read in v 17 ‘teacher, I brought you my son’. This was not some irrational leap in the dark, ‘Well who can I turn to, I might as well go to this complete stranger as anyone else.’ No, his action was 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. Faith is not a matter of believing without evidence. Neither is it something which is opposed to reason. For this man it made sense to come to Jesus. As it still makes sense to come to him. His problem wasn’t unbelief as such, but doubt. When he said ‘ I believe, help my unbelief’ he was really saying, ‘ Yes I do have confidence in you Lord, but given the way the disciples have made a dog’s breakfast of the whole situation I feel shaken , unstable, 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, no matter how hard you try, you would be hard pushed to deny that now. But something has happened, circumstances have caused you not to be as confident as you once were, something of that certainty and joy of your first found faith has been bruised. You have had an illness in the family, the church has let you down, someone has hurt you badly and ..well, to be frank it is not as easy as it once was. What do you do? You do what this man does, go on, and come back 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, 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. It is believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith is a living dynamic thing. When I say ‘I believe in my wife’. I don’t simply mean that I know things about her. It means that because of what I know about her, I can trust her and rely upon her. That doesn’t mean she will always do as ask, she knows better than that. But she will always do what she thinks is best for me and the family. That is the sort of person she is. Well how much more the Lord Jesus? Straight away in v 25 we read of how he cast out the demon and restored the boy to his father. Sure, there was still that period of uncertainty when it seemed the boy had died, and we too may have some more shaking and testing of our faith to come .But Jesus was as good as his word as he is always as good as his word. He is determined to get those who have put their faith in him to heaven in the end. He has literally staked his life on fulfilling that promise- I will never leave you nor forsake you. The question is : ‘Do you believe it?’


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