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I have to be honest with you this morning…I can’t even begin my message without first making a confession, an admission of guilt. I’m confronted this morning with the realization that if I don’t throw something onto the table, if I don’t lay my cards down, if I don’t reveal a level of transparency, a degree of humility, then I’ll never be able to proceed any further.
What I’m about to say may shock some of you. It may distress some of you. Some of you will tell others, “I knew it!” “I knew it all along!” Some of you may be baffled by what I’m about to say. Some of you won’t be able to believe it no matter how hard you try. Are you ready for this?
Believe it or not- and I’m being dead honest when I tell you this…I did some pretty stupid stuff when I was younger. I confess! I was an idiot! Now please, please- keep your shock to yourselves! And for you skeptics in the crowd, and I know that’s the majority of you, I can prove it!
The year was 1999, and I was seventeen at the time. I have a brother who’s 14 months older than me- Jerry, and it was him, a friend of ours named Tim, and myself riding to Tim’s house in Jerry’s car. On the way to Tim’s house the alternator decided to die in my brother’s 1986 Chrysler LeBaron- don’t hate, K-cars are awesome! Oh, who am I kidding…?
So we’re a couple miles out from Tim’s house and the engine just dies on us, leaving us to drift to a stop. Here’s when the problem really begins, because my gears are turning, and it dawns on me…I bet it’d be easier to push this car if I don’t wait for it to come to a stop. After all, objects at rest remain at rest, right? Let’s add some momentum while the car is rolling.
So as soon as we had slowed down to a snail’s pace, I threw open the back door and hopped out effortlessly. Well- that’s what I had planned to do. Went right in my head, at least. What ended up happening was this: when I put my foot out on the ground, my brain got a little busy thinking “hey, the ground is moving. This is weird.” Meanwhile I’m still trying to get the rest of myself out of the car, but by this point the car (which was going a little faster than I realized) had thrown me off balance and the back tire found my foot.
Yeah. Next thing I know I’m being thrown to the ground while this stupid LeBaron is rolling over my foot. All Jerry knows is that I hopped out of his moving car and there’s a thunk from my body-to-car contact, so he jams on the brake…which of course stops the dead car. So great. My foot hurts, I’m an idiot, and the car came to a stop anyways. I tell ya- intelligence like that has “church-planting” all over it!
My attempts to fix a big problem in my own strength is something to laugh about now, but doesn’t this happen to all of us? Granted, few of us are dumb enough to leap from a moving car (I hope!), but today we’re going to find some disciples of Jesus who are clueless as to why their performance as a Christ-follower was lacking in power- and that’s something I think we can all relate to. We resonate with Paul, who said “the things I want to do, I don’t do, and the things I know I shouldn’t do is exactly what I do!”
But does it have to be that way? Can we experience supernatural victory over the problems that plague our walk with Christ? Can we recapture our joy, or are we stuck experiencing failure after failure? Can we put to death the sin that wages war against our souls? Can we really be this new creation that Jesus died to make?
The question we should ask ourselves this morning is this: How do the people of God experience the power of God? ‘Cause I’ll throw out this hint early: without God’s power, you’re powerless. Powerless.
Let’s go ahead and jump into our text. We’re in Mark chapter nine today. Mark chapter nine. As you turn there, let me quickly give the setting for today’s passage. We’ve just come off of a four-part sermon series on seeing God clearly that culminated in Peter, James, and John enjoying a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.
They saw Moses. They saw Elijah. And they saw Jesus in His full glory. And then as they watched, Moses and Elijah disappeared, leaving only Jesus. And God the Father said “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.”
No more trying to justify ourselves by deeds of the Law. No more anticipating the coming Messiah. He’s here! Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Change your mind, and believe the Gospel!”
Peter, James, John, and Jesus are now making their way back down the mountain where they’ve seen with their own eyes the invisible realm of God. This wasn’t the first time this had ever happened. Nor the last.
Elisha saw it. Stephen saw it. Paul saw it. John saw it. Jesus’ three disciples saw it. We see glimpses of it in Scripture. The kingdom of God is among us, and the extent to which we see that will determine the extent to which we can live in light of that reality.
And so this heavenly mountaintop experience changes quickly when this group of men come back down into the valley to find all hell breaking loose. Isn’t that how it goes in the life of a Christian? Life is good, communion with God is amazing, sin is being put to death in the flesh, angels are singing in your ipod, and out of nowhere you find yourself falling flat on your face, getting beat up spiritually and wondering what in the world just happened! Where’d the power go?
These disciples come down from one of the greatest experiences in their life, and then reality smacks them in the face and they find that things in the valley aren’t going so hot. Jesus and His boys come down and find the other disciples surrounding by a large crowd, and within this crowd are scribes, Jewish lawyers, arguing with the disciples.
Turns out that within this crowd was a man whose son was demon-possessed. It was known that Jesus was in the area, this man came looking for help…Jesus was on the mountain, so it befell the disciples to remove this demon. No big deal, right? Back in Mark six Jesus had given his disciples authority to cast out demons…but it seems that now the disciples were unable to do so.
Well, the scribes took this opportunity to question and accuse the disciples. Mark doesn’t tell us specifically what the argument was about, but it wouldn’t be a far stretch of the imagination to think that the scribes were using the disciples’ failure to attack their leader Jesus.
Come on guys, I thought you were good at this sort of thing. Really just a bunch of talk, aren’t you. Powerless. Impotent. Just like your leader. Where’s he at, anyways? He hiding ‘cause He knows He has no power over this demon?
And with impeccable timing, here is Jesus. I say impeccable, because when the crowd saw Him, they were greatly amazed and ran to greet him. Some would say that the amazement was caused over residual effects of the transfiguration, but I’d have to disagree.
If Jesus had come down bearing evidence of the transfiguration, it wouldn’t have made much sense for His admonishing His disciples to keep what they had seen to themselves. I think what we’re seeing here is the crowd’s amazement that Jesus seemed to have come out of nowhere to defend Himself and His disciples right when He was most needed. That, or they were simply happy to see a celebrity.
So then Jesus asks, “What are you arguing about with them?” I believe the question is directed to His disciples. I suppose the question could have been directed to the scribes, yet still there is no response from either of them. It’s like the Scribes were scared to engage Jesus in debate…and His disciples were ashamed at their inability to perform this exorcism and put the scribes in their place.
So finally a response from the crowd is heard as the man who’d brought his boy spoke up. “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams, and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. [You weren’t here] So I asked your disciples to cast it out…and they were not able.”
I know that God is longsuffering, but if ever there was a place in Scripture where Jesus’ patience is tested, it’s here. Peter saw Him as He was…and wanted to build shelters for Him, Moses, and Elijah. Now the rest of His disciples are incapable of doing something Jesus has empowered them to do. So here’s His response- not to the crowd, not to the man, not to the scribes, but to His disciples:
“O” It’s not a word so much as an interjection. “O! Faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”
Jesus’ disciples still don’t get it. For years now, they’d been following Jesus, listening to His teachings, watching His miracles…and still Jesus chastises them for their lack of faith.
So they brought the boy to Jesus, and the situation went from awkward to terrifying, because when this spirit saw Jesus, he recognized him. I used to think that what happened next happened because this demon was scared of Jesus…but if the demon recognized Jesus and was afraid of Him, don’t you think the demon would have either departed the boy, or at least chosen not to manifest itself?
This demon didn’t fear Jesus, it hated Him. And it hated this boy. Mark tells us that when the demon saw Jesus it immediately launched a brutal attack- not on Jesus, but on the boy. The boy went into convulsions. Not shakes, not tremors, convulsions. This verb is found only four times in the Bible, all four in reference to demonic activity. It’s not a natural convulsion, it’s a supernatural, body damaging, panic-inducing, terror-creating spasming that is beyond this world.
Mark says this boy fell to the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. I mean, put yourself into the scene here. Imagine this is your child. You think seizures are scary? This boy is so entrenched by this demon that he can’t speak, he can’t hear, he’s convulsing so violently there wasn’t a word for it, flopping on the ground, foaming at the mouth, suffering unimaginable pain because of the demon within.
And then, in an almost surreal moment, Jesus asks this boy’s dad, “How long has this been happening to him?” Jesus knew. He wanted the crowd to know. “From childhood. The word means from infancy. His whole, young life. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him.” For years this dad has watched his little boy get burned, almost drown, fall, convulse, suffer. Does this not break your heart as a dad?
We dads like to be fixers, don’t we? Would kill me if my little boy was suffering like this and I couldn’t do anything. Yet this boy’s dad had spent so many years watching his son suffer like this, it was almost old hat.
The boy’s dad continued, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Help us. The word means to run to the aid of someone. Picture this! On the one hand is Jesus, calm, collected. And over here is this boy writhing on the ground, convulsing, foaming at the mouth, and it’s like the fight has finally gone out of the boy’s father. Why isn’t he holding his boy? Why isn’t he trying to protect him?
He’s done. He’s done. Jesus. Jesus, if you can do anything please, please help me.
And then Jesus drops a bombshell: “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” If you’re willing to trust me for it, I can do anything. And immediately dad says “I believe! Help my unbelief!” Matthew tells us this man was on his knees. “I believe, Jesus! If I didn’t believe, I wouldn’t have come to you for healing. But Jesus, if my belief in you isn’t strong enough for you to heal my boy, if there’s some element of my faith that is missing, if I’m lacking in a perfect faith in who you are, what you can do, help my unbelief!” Create in me what I’m lacking…
At this point Jesus saw another crowd coming their way, and He wasn’t interested in performing for the crowds anymore. This boy’s dad has exercised what little faith he had, he rightly recognized Jesus as the source for all faith, asked Him in desperation to help him trust Jesus rightly, and now Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
I found myself wondering what went through dad’s mind when he heard this. I would have held my breath, thinking it too good to be true. “And 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 arose.”
Jesus’ power wasn’t the problem. This dad’s lack of faith was. “If you can?” “If I can??” Wrong “if” there, buddy. It’s not “If I can,” it’s “If you can believe.” Do you have faith in who I am? Dad’s faithlessness was the problem.
He wasn’t alone in it, though. Mark tells us “And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.’”
Come on, guys! Quit trying to accomplish the supernatural by means of your own power. Did you forget where your ability to cast out demons came from? You can’t do now what you could do then because you’re no longer believing me for it- you’re believing yourself.
Remember how I jumped out of the car thinking it’d be best for me to just add my own power to that of the car? Yeah…Jesus’ disciples were trying in their own might, apart from prayer, to cast this demon out. Fundamentally, the problem wasn’t in their lack of prayer. It was in their lack of faith, as evidenced in their lack of prayer.
And when the disciples in their own power were helpless against the demon, it’s as though prayer never crossed their minds! Prayer is an act of dying to self in humble submission to the will of God, and the disciples had no clue how to go about that.
The disciples are guilty of doing what all too often we ourselves try to do: they wanted to see a supernatural experience from the kingdom of God take place in this kingdom of darkness by means of their flesh- not through the power of God. And we do no less trying to experience the reality of the new creation by virtue of our own efforts.
Here’s what I mean. We find the disciples ineffective in their exorcism because they lacked proper prayer, so what do we instinctually want to do? We want to amp up our own prayer lives and therefore experience more power in our own lives. Having a hard time kicking a sin habit? Well, if you get up earlier and pray, it’ll magically go away, right?
Now I know I’m being sarcastic, but it’s what we do. We try to fix things. We look at commands in Scripture, we look at the life of Christ, we see the do’s and don’ts and take it upon ourselves to do, and don’t do, and for a time we can do it. But it doesn’t last, does it? And when we experience power failure and jump out to push the car, it rolls right over us.
We read this passage and want to zero in on the lack of prayer, but like i said, the lack of prayer isn’t the problem. The problem is their lack of faith, which was evidenced by their lack of prayer. Is prayer powerful? Absolutely. Does prayer impact the will of a sovereign God? In a mysterious way that I can’t understand, yes. I think it does.
But I don’t know that prayer in and of itself moves God to action. It’s not like you’re rubbing a lamp and boom- there’s God and now He’s obligated to grant your wishes. It’s not as much about the prayer as it is the faith in God behind the prayer. And this isn’t faith that God will do whatever we ask of Him- I’m talking about faith that God will do that which He has already promised.
Here’s a perfect example. James he says this: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”
Now that’s crazy, right? That Elijah could pray and cause it to rain or not rain- but what is Elijah doing? He’s exercising his faith that God will do what God promised to do in Deuteronomy chapter 11, where Moses said “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; 17 then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.”
Elijah saw God’s people straying and knew that famine could serve not just as a punishment, but as a means of God’s people returning to God. And in his belief, in his faith, he asked God to do what God said He would, and those prayers were answered.
Biblical prayer is faith in action. And while defeat in your spiritual life may be tied into a lackadaisical prayer life, a poor prayer life is merely symptomatic of a poor belief in what God has said.
I can’t beat this sin, Richard. Really? Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” The biggest tool in defeating sin is truly believing that you don’t have to sin. You’re no longer enslaved by your flesh.
I wonder sometimes how much energy we burn trying to push our spiritual cars, failing to realize that the source of our power was never us? Paul says in Phil. 2:13 that it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Do you know what that means? It means that any ability of yours to find victory over the flesh isn’t your own doing, but God working through you. It means that you wouldn’t even desire to do good were it not for God’s work in you.
Embracing grace means clinging to the realization that it’s not just grace that saves us- it’s also grace that changes us, both inwardly at conversion and outward as the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is manifest in our lives. Were it not for the inner work of the Holy Spirit, our faith would be as fleeting and fickle as that of the disciples. But now it doesn’t have to be.
Maybe this week you’re like these disciples of Jesus, and you find yourself unable to gain any victories in your battle against the flesh. I could encourage you to pray over it, I could create a do/don’t do list…but isn’t faith in the work of Christ what you need more?
The battle is over. Jesus defeated sin for you. The new man cannot be touched by it. There is no more condemnation for you. As we read in God’s word what has been done, what God has promised, when we believe God, we can act on it in faith. For some of us here this morning, the first step is saying, “I believe- help my unbelief!”
What I’m trying to say can be summarized in our JourneyMarker: “The power of God is displayed in the people of God through the indwelling presence of God.” Let me give you one last illustration and we’re done here.
This past week YahooNews revealed a Wendy’s employee who was photographed guzzling frosty’s from the frosty machine. Naturally, the guy was fired. One of the conversations that was spawned in the comments section had to do with preventing this type of action.
One recommended course of action was to put cameras all over the place, with TVs in the dining area so that diners could watch their food being made. That’ll stop ‘em! Well, it may alter their behavior, but only out of a sense of self-preservation. You won’t change them inwardly through threat of punishment for bad behavior.
But what if you put the spirit of Dave Thomas inside this guy? He’d never dream of gross behavior in the restaurant.” Lasting change, true transformation, comes through the indwelling Holy Spirit. As we soak in the promises of God and really believe that we are free from sin, that we are free to serve, that is when our prayers will become effective and we’ll be the fruit-bearing Christians that God has created us to be.
I believe! Help my unbelief.