When we first moved to Monterey, Virginia, a friend loaned me his bicycle and I began riding, something I hadn’t done for many years. It was hard at first, but eventually I worked up to doing the 25 mile ride in the Mountain Mama Bike Challenge. It felt great, getting out and enjoying that kind of exercise which I hadn’t experienced for years.
Then the following summer I got the bike out again. Man, was it hard! I thought: “What’s wrong? I was doing so well at the end of last summer.”
The problem was I hadn’t cycled for about nine months. My muscles weren’t prepared to take on the kind of exercise I’d been doing the summer before. I needed to work into it slowly.
What is true of physical muscle is also true of spiritual muscle. Muscles that aren’t used atrophy.
Today we are going to read about what Jesus, Peter, James and John encountered after they came down from the Mount of Transfiguration—when they came down into the valley. Here they encounter a father who has brought his epileptic son to the other nine disciples and they can’t heal him.
What’s the problem? The problem is that the disciples haven’t been exercising their spiritual muscles. Remember way back in Matthew 10? Jesus sent out the twelve with authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. The Twelve learned to heal by Jesus’ authority without Jesus being present. I don’t know how much time elapsed between that mission of the Twelve in Matthew 10 and the events recorded in Matthew 17—but it is clear that the disciples’ spiritual muscles had begun to atrophy. They hadn’t been exercising properly—so now they couldn’t do what they had been able to do before.
I think when we read Matthew 17:14-23 we can learn about how to stay in good spiritual shape even in the valleys of life. . . .
When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”The main thing we see in this story is that FAITH is essential to staying in good spiritual shape.
“O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment.
Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn't we drive it out?”
He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.
First of all, notice the focus of the faith of the father. First he brought his son to the disciples for healing—and they failed in the task. But then the father got his faith rightly oriented; he brought his epileptic son to Jesus.
What a picture this is of a very modern problem! How often do people bring problems to the church that we cannot solve in our weakness and sinfulness? It happens often.
And those same people rightly think, “If I could just get beyond the church and make direct contact with Jesus—maybe I will find a solution in him.”
That is something of what this father must have thought. And he was right. When he brought his son to Jesus he was coming to the right place. He was coming to the one who had all authority to heal his son.
So that’s the first lesson. If we are going to stay in good spiritual shape we have to have our faith focused in the right direction. Our faith must be trained upon Jesus. Our total trust must find its repose in Christ and Christ alone.
How many of us put trust in the church? Or trust in our jobs? Or trust in our family? Or trust in our friends? Or trust in our bank accounts? Or trust in our government? All of these things and people will fail us. But Jesus will never fail us. We will never be disappointed if we put our trust in the Lord.
But often, like this father, we come to Jesus as a last resort. We should always come to Jesus first with our problems. For when we come to him we will not be disappointed. Notice that Jesus healed this epileptic boy instantly. He rebuked the demon; it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment. The moment we come to Jesus we find healing.
Our problem is just what Jesus says it is. We are too often unbelieving. We don’t think Jesus can do anything to help us. We think our problems are too great for God to handle.
We are, as Jesus says, a perverse generation. We are twisted. Our faith has twisted itself away from God into things and people that will never satisfy our need. The focus of our faith is all-important. We must get our faith focused on Jesus. Our trust must be in him alone.
Secondly, we need to notice the small amount of faith of the disciples.
The disciples were mystified as to why they could not heal this boy. They had healed so many people in the past by the authority of Jesus. What was the problem here?
Jesus says, “The problem is that you have so little faith.” The implication is that the disciples’ faith is even smaller than a grain of mustard seed. That’s pretty small.
Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible to you.”
That’s all we need—faith as small as a grain of mustard seed. Even if we have just a little faith, so long as it is directed to Jesus, so long as our trust rests on him, then we can do the impossible. It’s not that we will need to literally move mountains. Who needs to, or even thinks of, moving a mountain? But there are many problems in life that seem as big as mountains. Jesus says if we have just a little bit of faith in him, we can deal with these mountain-size problems.
The movie Simon Birch follows a boy with stunted growth who has a clear sense that God has an important plan for his life. Little Simon is often met with obstacles and opposition, but he plods on through life until he really does become a hero.
Simon and his friend Joe do everything together, even though they are an odd pair. The unlikely Simon is always talking about the great plans God has for his life, but Joe is always doubtful. Joe has been deeply wounded by growing up without a father, and simply cannot move from cynicism to true faith.
Early in the movie, Simon and Joe are heading home from the swimming hole. As Simon and Joe wander through a field of wildflowers, they turn to discussing destiny and the role of faith.
Simon tells Joe, “But things will be different…once God makes me a hero.”
Joe says, “You know, you shouldn't talk about this hero stuff, Simon.”
Simon asks, “Why not?”
And Joe says, “Because it's weird. The other kids tease you enough as it is.”
Simon responds, “I don't care. It’s the truth.”
Joe says, “But you don’t have any proof.”
And Simon counters, “I don't need proof, I have faith. Your problem is that you have no faith.”
To which Joe responds, “I got faith. I just want proof to back it up.”
In the end, Simon does become a great hero, even though it leads to his death. On a church trip a bus loaded with children falls into icy waters. The priest and bus driver is knocked unconscious. But Simon takes over and calmly leads all of the children to exit the bus. Then Simon goes back to help one little boy left behind. He is able to help the last child get out through one of the windows of the sinking bus by holding his own breath under water and holding the child up to get through the window. Simon is able to do this because he has spent many visits to the local swimming hole practicing holding his breath under water. Sadly, Simon loses his own life in the course of saving others. But many years later, as Joe reflects on his friend Simon’s life, he can't help but finally move to a place of faith as well.
It doesn’t take a lot of faith to move mountains, just a little faith put in the right place.
God can use us to do impossible things—even in our smallness and weakness—if we just put our faith in Jesus. But if we are going to be used of him then we need to keep up our spiritual exercises. Some manuscripts of Matthew's Gospel add the comment of Jesus that some demons can be exorcised only by prayer and fasting. The practice of prayer and fasting may sometimes seem useless. But spiritual exercises such as these prepare us to be ready to help others in the valleys of life.
Why don’t we spend more time in prayer and fasting? We don’t because it hurts. Prayer and fasting involves suffering. We all have a tendency to want to skirt around the cross.
Notice that Jesus has to remind his disciples once again of what is going to happen to him. Again he tells them, for the third time in the last two chapters, that the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men; he is going to be killed and on the third day raised to life. The disciples were filled with grief at the thought of this. They didn’t want to be reminded of what Jesus was going to go through. They didn’t want suffering. They didn’t want the cross. They wanted success. And somehow that success was continuing to elude them. Why? Success eluded them because they failed to see that the kind of success they needed, power over the demonic, can only come through the cross of Christ. It is only because Jesus went to the cross for our sins that we have any power whatsoever over the demonic, disease and death. It is by taking those 3 D’s upon himself that Jesus conquered. And it is only as we share in his suffering that we will conquer.
The Lord said to Paul when he asked for the thorn in his flesh to be removed: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
I’m reminded of the story of God’s miraculous healing of Joy Davidman, the wife of C. S. Lewis. Joy was dying of cancer in hospital when Lewis married her at her bedside. The priest who performed the ceremony also prayed for Joy’s healing and laid hands on her. Joy was healed, temporarily, and went on to enjoy three years of married life with Lewis.
What many people don't know about that story is the fact that in the midst of Joy’s worst suffering C. S. Lewis asked God if he could share some of his wife’s pain and thereby ease her burden. Joy’s problem was that she needed calcium in her bones. Almost immediately after Lewis’s prayer he developed a very painful case of osteoporosis. He lost calcium in his bones and Joy gained it, apparently as a result of Lewis’s prayer.
Not only that, but Peter Bide, who prayed for Joy’s healing, later lost his own wife to cancer.
I think there is a lesson in this for all of us. That is that healing comes only through the cross. It is only as we share in the sufferings of Christ that we can bring Christ’s healing to others. There simply is no other way. We cannot live perpetually on the mountaintops of life. There are times when we must come down into the valley—into the valley of suffering. But it is there in that valley that Jesus can do his greatest work through us.