How many of you have ever packed for a short trip somewhere and discovered that you have brought way, way too much? Perhaps you’ve been headed somewhere for a 3 day trip and you realize that you have enough in your suitcase to stay for a week? Or you’re packing the car for the weekend and can’t quite figure out why the trunk is packed and there is stuff bursting out the windows? I think this happens to all of us – I’ll get home from a trip and be unpacking my suitcase and realize that I didn’t wear 2/3 of the things that I packed.
How does this happen?
It’s a natural human tendency. We want to prepare for every eventuality. We want to be ready, in case the unexpected happens. We want to be prepared for any and all situations. It’s like the doctor I went to see – every time I left, he’d offer me a prescription for antibiotics, even if it didn’t seem like I needed it. ‘Just in case,’ he would say. I often didn’t take them, but I was comforted to have them, just in case. If plan A falls through, we want to be ready for plan B.
While that’s certainly helpful in some situations, it’s dangerous when it comes to faith, because what happens is that we don’t end up trusting fully in Jesus Christ. We proclaim that we believe in God and trust him for everything on Sunday, but then we spend Monday through Friday living as though we don’t really believe this claim, and Saturday is often a recovery from our exhaustion that piles up through the week. By Sunday morning, we recognize the folly of trying to make it on our own, but come Monday morning, we’re ready to try once more.
Here in Mark 9, we come to one of the most honest professions in the Bible, and it’s on the heels of one of the most dramatic events of Jesus’ ministry.
Mark 9:2-13 is the story of the Transfiguration. Peter, James and John ascend a high mountain with Jesus, where they see him transfigured before their very eyes, watching him converse with Elijah and Moses. The divinity of Jesus is striking, and Peter is ready to stay in this moment forever. Imagine what it must have been like, seeing Jesus with two of the giants of Judaism, hearing the voice of God proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God. All doubts would have been erased, and every thought would have been centered around awe of Jesus Christ.
From this holy moment, we descend the mountain and are thrust directly back into the humanity in which Jesus Christ lives. The dichotomy of Christ’s ministry is clear – the holiness of God collides with the messiness of human reality.
The disciples have apparently been trying to cast a demon out of a boy, but we can gather that they haven’t been doing this through prayer, apparently trying their own hands at seeing if they are powerful enough to heal this boy. The boy has a spirit that seizes him and thrashes him about, and when Jesus hears about the whole situation, his exasperation becomes clear. Imagine it from his perspective – he has been with Elijah and Moses, and now he’s in the midst of an argument between the scribes and the disciples and there’s a sick boy who needs his help.
In the midst of all of this, the father looks at Jesus and says, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
To this, Jesus replies with shock, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.”
Here, the man gives an incredibly honest reply: “I believe, help my unbelief.”
From this man’s perspective, his answer makes sense. He’s surely heard the stories about Jesus and his power. He wants to believe, but he also looks around and sees his son, who has been tortured by this spirit since childhood. He’s certainly prayed over this before, but for many years nothing has changed. Is it any wonder that there is some doubt that lingers in his mind about whether anyone, even God, can or will help him now?
Friends, if we’re honest, we’re all in this man’s shoes.
We know the story of the Transfiguration. We know the true identity of Jesus Christ, son of God, fully God and fully human. We believe what Scripture has to say about him.
But we also look at the world around us. We see the imperfections, the brokenness, the hurt and the pain. We see the constant violence, the wars that never seem to cease, the suffering that grips so much of humanity. We see poverty that is unimaginable. We see sickness and conflict. We see divides in our own neighborhoods, we see inequality and hunger and hopelessness and drug use. We see greed and envy. We see brokenness in ourselves, and we have hurt and pains that we hide, or that we sometimes cannot hide. Our lives are far from perfect.
So we believe in God, but at times we wonder if that belief makes a difference. At times we wonder if God pays attention to us, if God notices, and if God is truly going to intervene for us. We have big questions, and often it feels as if no one is listening. We have Transfiguration moments, but so often the reality of life comes crashing into us with such velocity that we depart the holiness of the mountaintop and find ourselves in the valley, reeling from life’s blows.
So when we do pray, we do so with questions in our hearts, wondering if there is still grace and mercy enough for us.
I get it. I’m there, too. We all are, in some ways. We believe, but we can’t help but have unbelief, too. That’s what we spend so much of our lives working on – trying to provide for ourselves in case God doesn’t come through, because there are times and places in which it seems like God doesn’t. We pray for healing, but we know that healing may not look like we want it to look.
And so what happens in this Biblical story?
Jesus doesn’t really answer the man. When the crowd is coming running, he rebukes the demon, and the boy cries out, terribly, and lays there as though he is dead. Only then does Jesus take him by the hand and lift him up. Then, the disciples and Jesus retreat to a private room, when the disciples wonder why they could not intervene. Jesus tells them that this particular demon could be rebuked only by prayer.
Friends, we are often in the same boat. The things that stalk us, that threaten us, that worry us, can be driven out only by offering ourselves fully to God. This is hard, and I don’t have a prescription for it, other than to dedicate ourselves fully to the task of living single-minded. I believe that Jesus can cast these demons from us, and I am struggling with the part of me that wonders if he will.
As we go about our lives, we must consistently remember that the God who dwells in holiness, which seems so far from us at times, is the same God who intervenes in our lives, who is constantly reaching down, reaching out, to demonstrate his love. This God is the one who comes in the person of Christ Jesus and doesn’t simply dwell on the mountaintop. He descends from the mountain and enters our everyday lives, offering us the peace we so dearly desire. He does not shy away from our uncertainty, but rather encounters us as we are, pointing to a different way, a better way, and inviting us to lay down our burdens and trust fully in him.
I do believe, and am certain, that at one point I will be cleansed of all my struggles. At that time, many may look upon me and say that I am dead. But in reality, this is the moment when Jesus takes me by the hand and lifts me up, offering me the healing that can come only when we pass through the veil of death. At that time, we will find true life, life that is only available through faith in Christ Jesus, our Lord. To that end, let us trust that we are in his hands.
Let us pray