Have you ever had the feeling, when you were flying in an airplane and looking out the window at the clouds and the land far below, that you had momentarily risen above all your problems? I know I have had that feeling on many occasions. But then the plane lands, the cell phones go on, the plane parks at the gate, the seat belts come off, and everyone is in a mad rush to get wherever they are going. Normal life begins again.
I imagine there was something of a similar feeling in Jesus’ heart and mind, and in the hearts and minds of Peter, James and John, when they came down from the mountain where Jesus had been transfigured in their presence. They had momentarily glimpsed heaven, and Peter, for one, wanted to stay there forever. But it was not to be.
Mountaintop experiences are always followed by time in the valley. In fact, at this point in Mark’s Gospel, we are moving from the highpoint of his story, the Transfiguration, down, down, down, all the way down to the low point of the cross. And in our text for today, we begin that descent. Listen for God’s word to you from Mark 9:14-29….
When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” 19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy[a] to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy,[b] and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus[c] asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out,[d] “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. 28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”[e]
There are many dramatic words in this text, for it is quite a scene that Mark paints for us here. We have Jesus, Peter, James, and John, coming down off the mountain, coming down from a great spiritual high. And they are met by a crowd of people in commotion. There are the rest of the disciples, there are Jewish scribes challenging them, there is a desperate father, and a boy apparently in the throes of an epileptic seizure.
Out of all the dramatic words in this text, to me, some of the most evocative are the first three, which are just the simple words: “When they came…” When Jesus, Peter, James and John came to the rest of the disciples, when they came down off the mountain, what did they meet? They met chaos. They met a crowd. They met commotion. They met argument. They met pain and suffering. They met desperation and hopelessness. In a word, they met evil head on.
One reason why I am a Christian is because Christianity is one of the most realistic religions, if not the most realistic religion there is. Christianity does not pretend for a moment that pain and suffering and depression and evil do not exist. Christianity recognizes the dark side of life, and it shines the most brilliant light possible into that darkness.
If you commit your life to follow Jesus Christ, it is not as though you will spend the rest of your life, from that moment on, at the peak of a spiritual mountaintop. No, rather than escaping pain, suffering, and death, Christ promises to rub your nose in the very quiddity of it. Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble.” That’s the bad news. But Jesus immediately follows that up with the good news: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
I love the way that David phrases this spiritual reality in perhaps the most beloved of all his songs: Psalm 23….
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Did you hear that?
God never dumps any of his children in the valley of the shadow to simply leave them there.
Our good shepherd always walks with us through the valley of the shadow, and out the other side.
Just so, Jesus, in this marvelous scene, is walking with his disciples through the valley, and they will not remain there forever. They are going to come out on the other side.
Thus, I ask you, when you come, not if you come, but when you come to the valley of the shadow, who do you want to have walking with you? All I know is that I want to have Jesus my Lord, my good shepherd, walking with me, and if need be, carrying me.
When we are in the valley, and the darkness descends, and the demons attack, and we have nowhere else to go, it is then that we can bring our problems to Jesus. Whoever our problem is, Jesus says, “Bring him to me.” Whatever our problem is, Jesus says, “Bring it to me.”
That is the way we get through the valley. We get through with Jesus leading. We get through by bringing our problems to him and laying them all before him and trusting him to bring healing, hope, and a hallelujah ending to our story.
Now understand, at the moment you bring your problem to Jesus, at that very moment it is going to seem like all hope is lost. At the moment you bring your son, or your daughter, your wife or your husband, your grandchild or your grandparent, friend or coworker to Jesus, at that very moment all hell is probably going to break loose. That is true because the demonic, the diseases of this world, and death itself, do not like to surrender to Jesus. Demons, death, and disease all try to function on their own as if they are their own gods. And when they are brought before Jesus they have to relinquish, they have to surrender, they have to recognize that they do not belong to themselves, but that a greater king is here.
We have a marvelous demonstration here of what Jesus says in John 10:10,
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
The thief, that is Satan, wanted to kill this boy, but Jesus had other plans. We have a marvelous display of the compassion of Jesus in this passage. Out of his compassion, out of his desire to identify with us in our pain, Jesus asks the father of the boy, “How long has this been happening to him.”
I doubt this question, or the answer, made any difference as to how Jesus was going to heal this boy. Therefore, the only thing I can figure is that Jesus asked this question simply because he cared.
Jesus cares about you. He cares about your problems. In fact, he knows everything about you and your problems. Even the hairs of your head are numbered. He cares more for you than many sparrows. That is why you can be confident, when you bring your problem to Jesus, whatever that problem is, he will meet your need in the best way, because he loves you.
However, we must have faith when we approach Jesus, or else we may miss the miracle he wants to give us.
Now do not misunderstand. It is not as though faith is more important than Jesus. The object of our faith is what is most important. If your faith is in the wrong thing, or the wrong person, it will produce nothing of value in the end. However, if your faith is in Jesus then you will receive great blessings.
I often hear people say, “Thank God for your faith,” or they say, “I admire your faith,” as if faith in and of itself could do anything. It cannot. Faith is just a conduit. If that conduit is directed to the right object, to the Lord Jesus Christ, then we will receive much. “Everything is possible for the one who believes.”
There are no “ifs” with Jesus. Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. He has been given authority over demons, authority over disease, and authority over death itself.
It does not take a lot of faith to receive what Jesus wants to give. Jesus does not even require complete faith. Even faith as tiny as a grain of mustard seed will do for starters.
It is a wonderful prayer that this father prays in this account: “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”
I have heard people say, “I wish I had your faith.” Well, wishing that you had the faith that someone else has in Jesus is good enough to begin with, if you are willing to pray the prayer this father prayed to Jesus: “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”
This one statement, this one simple prayer, became the turning point for an agnostic named Sheldon Vanauken. His wife, Davy, had recently come to faith in Jesus Christ, but he was struggling with making the same commitment. Here is what he wrote about it:
Davy and I, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, were reading Dorothy Sayers’s tremendous series of short plays on the life of Jesus. In one of them, I was forcibly struck by the reply of a man to Jesus’s inquiry about his faith: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” Wasn’t that just my position? Believing and not believing? A paradox, like that other paradox: one must have faith to believe but must believe in order to have faith. A paradox to unlock a paradox? I felt that it was.
One day later there came the second intellectual breakthrough: it was the rather chilling realization that I could not go back. In my old easy-going theism, I had regarded Christianity as a sort of fairy tale; and I had neither accepted nor rejected Jesus, since I had never, in fact, encountered Him. Now I had. The position was not, as I had been comfortably thinking all these months, merely a question of whether I was to accept the Messiah or not. It was a question of whether I was to accept Him—or reject. My God! There was a gap behind me, too. Perhaps the leap to acceptance was a horrifying gamble—but what of the leap to rejection? There might be no certainty that Christ was God—but, by God, there was no certainty that He was not. If I were to accept, I might and probably would face the thought through the years: “Perhaps, after all, it’s a lie; I’ve been had!” But if I were to reject, I would certainly face the haunting, terrible thought: “Perhaps it’s true—and I have rejected my God!”
This was not to be borne. I could not reject Jesus. There was only one thing to do, once I had seen the gap behind me. I turned away from it and flung myself over the gap towards Jesus.
Some are probably troubled by the references to the demonic in this story. You might be wondering: “Must we believe that demons are responsible for every disease?”
No, believing this story is true does not commit us to believe that demons are responsible for every disease. We have certainly seen accounts of Jesus’ healing in Mark’s Gospel where demons do not enter into the equation at all. However, one thing is clear: Belief in the existence of demons on the part of Jesus and others is so much a part of the warp and woof of the Gospels that if we were to remove this element from the Gospels these works of literature would no longer be the same.
Allow me to conclude with a few words about Jesus’ final words in this passage. The disciples asked Jesus why they could not drive the demon out of the boy. Then Jesus responded: “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
Apparently the father in this story was not the only one who lacked faith, the disciples seemed to lack faith as well. They seem to have simply forgotten that the only way to drive out the devil is to ask God the Father to do it by the power of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name.
We are not unlike those disciples are we? If we are honest, we must admit that sometimes, when we are facing problems in life, prayer is our last resort, if we think of praying at all. On the contrary, prayer should be our first resort. The Lord should be the first one that we turn to for answers, the first one we turn to, in order to solve our problems. Prayer is the last word in our text for today, but it should have been the first word, the watchword, in the disciples’ minds as they encountered this father and his demon-possessed son.
Why is it that we don’t pray first when we face problems in life, when we are walking through the valley of the shadow? I think it is because our reflex response is to depend upon ourselves, rather than God. Our natural reflex is to think we should be able to solve the problem, or at least some human being ought to be able to solve the problem.
Madeleine L’Engle once said,
We live under the illusion that if we can acquire complete control, we can understand God, or we can write the great American novel. But the only way we can brush against the hem of the Lord, or hope to be part of the creative process, is to have the courage, the faith, to abandon control. For the opposite of sin is faith, and never virtue, and we live in a world which believes that self-control can make us virtuous. But that’s not how it works.
Prayer involves a recognition at some level that we are not in control. When we recognize that, and turn to God in faith, seeking his help, that is when miracles can begin to happen.