Monday, September 17, 2012

Proper 19 of Series B (Mark 9:14-29)

“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, when Jesus descended the mountain of Transfiguration that day, having shown forth His glory to Peter, James, and John, He descended into a crisis. The other nine had been serving in their stead; trying and failing. One man stepped out of the crowd and said, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute… So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” This father is desperate; he has watched his beloved child live in torment for most of his life, and now the disciples of Jesus, the great Teacher Himself, cannot heal him! Can even Jesus bring relief? “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” He is ready to despair, and having seen the dismal performance of the students, he wonders if the Teacher can do any better. But Jesus replies, “If you can! All things are possible for the one who believes.” Jesus requires faith. To the one who believes, nothing is impossible. Mountains will be moved, the sick will be healed, demons will be cast out. But the unbeliever will get exactly what he expects—nothing. Faith is the key, faith is the requirement, the only test question. It sounds so easy: just believe, and it will happen!

But that’s exactly the problem. “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” Belief isn’t as easy as it sounds, not for that father, not for you or me. Not when we have seen the ravages of sin in our lives, not when we afflicted with suffering. Can Jesus help us? We’re not so sure. We aren’t convinced that He is capable of healing, of delivering. We’re not sure if He truly is who He says He is, if He can do what He says He can do. “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” That ‘if’ comes from our lips, challenging Christ, daring Him to prove Himself. We will believe, after we see the miracle, after He demonstrates that He is real by some sign. Until then, we wonder if He is capable of healing, of delivering. Is Jesus really who He says He is? Can He heal my family? Can He heal this disease? Is He capable of forgiving this great sin? Did He really defeat death?

“I believe; help my unbelief!” The father has understood the situation perfectly. This isn’t doubt, this isn’t innocent speculation, this is unbelief. When we don’t think that Christ can help us, we don’t believe in what He has said about Himself. This is nothing else than unbelief. Does God even exist? Does He care for me at all? Can I trust any of His promises? When we call it ‘doubt,’ it sounds excusable, it sounds benign, a part of life. But we should call things what they are, as this father does; when we don’t think Jesus is capable of delivering us from our afflictions, we are living in unbelief. And Jesus has strong words to speak about unbelief at the end of the Gospel. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Faith is the requirement. Without it, you have nothing.

That is where we find ourselves—living in unbelief. “I believe; help my unbelief!” These are words of unbelief; our faith seems so weak, it feels like it has disappeared. In the quiet hours of the night, we wonder whether God even exists. We speculate whether Jesus actually said or did any of the things that the New Testament says He did. And even if we can convince ourselves that God exists, we wonder whether He truly loves us. We are envious of those who seem to live without fear of sin and death, who walk with confidence in Christ. Our lives are not so easy; we struggle with unbelief. “I believe; help my unbelief!” It’s a wrestling match—faith against unbelief, and unbelief has an entire world cheering it on, while the crowd is sparse in faith’s corner. Our faith is tried by tragedy, by suffering, by all the struggles of living in this world. Our faith is assaulted by others, both near and far, and it doesn’t seem to have much of a leg to stand on. “I believe; help my unbelief!” is our cry, but it may not be long before the strength of unbelief proves stronger than faith, and even the desire to believe will be gone.

At the foot of the mountain of Transfiguration, Jesus comes face to face with such unbelief. His disciples have it; they cannot drive out the demon. The scribes have it; they greedily capitalize on the show of weakness. The crowd has it; they are quick to abandon Jesus once the miracles run out. Even the boy’s father has it; he wonders whether Jesus is capable of healing his son. In exasperation, Jesus says, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” Jesus is weary of bearing the burden of our unbelief; it seems that He is ready to cast us off.

He has uttered a requirement that seems impossible to those wrestling with unbelief: “All things are possible for one who believes.” What is there to do? We can arrogantly pretend to have such faith, putting on a good show for Jesus and those around us, or we can humbly confess our unbelief and cry out Jesus for stronger faith, following the example given in our text: “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” We cry out for stronger faith; we cry out for help. We cannot do this on our own; our efforts are doomed to fail, for if left by ourselves, unbelief is the result. We call on Jesus to help us in the struggle, to fight for faith against the unbelief that attacks us. We cry out for strengthening of faith, we cry out for help for our afflictions, calling on Jesus to “have compassion on us and help us.”

And Jesus answers. He hears our cries, He knows our struggles, He knows how we have been afflicted in this world of sin and death. He comes down from the mountain of glory to do battle with unbelief, to do battle with Satan himself. “He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again!’” The father cried out for help—for his son, and for his faith—and Jesus answers. He answers decisively, driving Satan away. We cried out for help—for our afflictions, and for our faith—and Jesus answers. He answers decisively, crushing Satan’s head. The greatest and final exorcism is at the cross. The greatest and ultimate help is at the cross. There Jesus has compassion upon you, coming to your assistance in your hour of dire need. At the cross, Satan is driven away from you and defeated; he has no more power over you to accuse and condemn. It is at the cross and empty tomb that faith takes its stand. Do we believe that Christ truly has died for us, that His death atones for our sin? Do we believe in the resurrection, that His life is our own? With the father in our text we answer, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

These are words of faith; we confess our weakness; we don’t try to hide it under pious words or boasting. We detest the unbelief that is within us, that attacks us each and every day. We cries out to Jesus and to those around us, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Unbelief and faith still war within you; the new man, brought forth from the waters of Holy Baptism, believes firmly, clinging to Christ alone for salvation. But the old man still remains, and he is an unbeliever, and always will be, until he is finally destroyed with your last breath. But it is to you, the weak in faith, who struggle each day with unbelief, that Jesus gives His gifts. He gives His gifts to you because you need them; the sick have need of a doctor, not the healthy. The Word of Absolution, the remembrance of your Baptism into His name, and the Holy Supper of His Body and Blood are for those who confess, “I believe; help my unbelief!” It is those who need strengthening of faith that are called to this altar to eat Christ’s Body and drink His Blood. It is those who fight unbelief who need to be reminded of their Baptism and have their sins forgiven here in this place. The Sacraments are for those with troubled consciences and weak faith, because through these gifts Christ has compassion upon you and me and He condescends to help us.

When He sees our unbelief, Jesus cries out, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” The answer? All the way to the cross. Jesus bears with your weakness, your lack of faith; indeed He carried it upon His shoulders, along with all your other sins, and took them to the cross, doing away with them there. He bears all things perfectly, from the blows of His enemies to the burdens of His people, indeed all their sin. We disbelieving humans are difficult to put up with, but Christ still bears with us. Anyone else would long since have given up on us, but Christ does not. He bears with our weakness, He forgives it, and He helps our unbelief. How long is He to be with you? For eternity—strengthening faith and preserving you until He gives you the promised reward.

For Jesus has declared, “All things are possible for the one who believes.” To the one who believes in Christ, even though it be a weak and struggling faith, fighting each and every day with unbelief, all things are possible, even eternal salvation. Faith doesn’t have this power because it’s so strong, nor does it lose this power because it is weak and struggling. Faith has this power because the object of that faith is the One with the power to heal the sick, drive away demons, and even give forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Faith has this power because its focus is Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one. Faith has this power because it is rooted in the cross and empty tomb. Faith is never alone; it always has an object. All things are possible for the one who believes because Christ has made all things possible; He has delivered you from the oppression of Satan, He has born all of your afflictions to the cross, and He has even defeated death itself. “I believe; help my unbelief!” is our cry as we live in this world of sin, but on the Last Day, the time of faith and unbelief will be no more, for we will see the object of our faith face to face forever. In the Name of Jesus, the object and sustainer of our faith, who had compassion upon us and helped us, Amen.

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