Help My Unbelief
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 9:14–9:29
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 15-16, 2018
“Help My Unbelief”
“It had started as a joyful day. Joy Veron, 30, Texan schoolteacher, was on vacation with her family in the Colorado mountains [in 1999]. The trip had been idyllic, and they were preparing for one last swim before driving home to Texas. Then disaster struck. Her three small children, then aged between two and seven, ran ahead and got into the family SUV, which had its engine running and was parked next to a cliff leading down to a deep canyon. In seconds, the car slipped into gear and started to roll… Without thinking, she rushed over and threw herself between the vehicle and the canyon, refusing to let her children die. She continued to struggle with the car even as she found herself being dragged under the wheels. ‘I remember thinking, "I didn't make it in time and I'm getting run over. I'm going to hear a crash pretty soon.' 'I tried to stop it with my hands, which, of course, I couldn't…’ 'And I remember feeling it begin to run over me. I fell backwards, and the front of the car caught me by the heels. ‘I did like a somersault under the car and the third time it hit I knew that it broke my back. I was 30-years-old and the whole life I knew was gone.' But she had already done enough. Her sacrifice had slowed the car’s momentum just enough to allow her father to rush over and activate the brake. Her children were safe… After the accident, Joy Veron travelled to Portugal to undergo intensive rehabilitation. She had a stem cell transplant and surgery in an effort to walk again… she eventually had to accept that she would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life… Joy Veron… says ‘I could learn to walk again. Maybe not walk in the physical sense, but walk in life’” (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2992959/How-one-mother-s-heroism-saved-children-s-lives-ruined-marriage-Brave-mom-stopped-runaway-SUV-BODY-tells-remarkable-story-11-years-never-walk-again.html). A desperate parent will do desperate things for his or her child. We know that to be true in our own lives. There are countless stories, like Joy Veron, of parents who have gone to amazing lengths and done heroic things for the sake of their children in time of need. When backed into a corner and pushed up against the wall, moms and dads do whatever they need to do to get the help their child needs. That is what we see before us in today’s Gospel lesson. A desperate father comes to Jesus seeking help for his son who is afflicted with a terrible condition. The father’s words to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24), form the basis for today’s message. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Jesus and the inner circle of disciples – Peter, James, and John – were coming down from the mountain after Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9:1-13). From this point on, Jesus steadily makes his way to Jerusalem and what awaits him there: rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection. Jesus’ transfiguration is the literal high point that everything in the first half of Mark’s Gospel leads toward, and everything from that point on leads toward another mountain: Mount Calvary where Jesus would give his life for you and for me. And now, a crowd has come together around the rest of the disciples. There’s a big commotion with arguing going on. At the center of this is a desperate dad who asked the disciples, as messengers of Jesus himself, to help his son by casting out the spirit that so afflicted the boy. The description of the boy’s condition: foaming, grinding his teeth, becoming rigid (Mark 9:18) sound like an epileptic seizure. But it was more than this: “The violence of the seizures, and the reference to repeated attempts to destroy the youth by hurling him into a fire or water… indicate that the purpose of demonic possession is to distort and destroy the image of God in man. That this destruction should be heaped upon a child only serves to indicate how radical the issue is between demonic power and Jesus, the bestower of life… (The Gospel of Mark, F.F. Bruce. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974; p. 331). As Jesus tells us, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have lift and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That is the mission of Jesus still.
What comes through here is how utterly powerless the disciples were against the enemy. In Jesus’ absence, everything seemed to be falling apart. The man addressed Jesus respectfully, calling him “Teacher,” but also says, “I brought my son to you” (Mark 9:17), fully expecting the help and deliverance he sought for his son. So what happened? Time and again in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples have full faith and trust in Jesus as long as he is with them, but when he is absent, when his presence is removed, they lapse into unbelief because they are relying on themselves, rather than Jesus. Isn’t that true for you and me as well? Like those disciples, we are prone to relying on ourselves rather than Jesus. And then we wonder why God can do no great work in our lives; we wonder why we are so powerless over sin and evil. Instead of looking to Jesus and his righteousness, his strength, we look to ourselves. The desperate dad’s trust in Jesus and his power to help in time of need is crumbling: “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22). Jesus immediately corrects him: “’If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23). What is being tested here is not Jesus’ ability to help, but the father’s faith in Jesus’ ability to help; that help which can accomplish anything through the power of God. Jesus himself tells us: “For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27), but we put limitations on this. We doubt what is possible, and so faith that can move mountains (Matthew 17:17; 21:21; Mark 11:23) is reduced to faith that can move mole hills. Recognizing that his faith is stumbling and imperfect, the father cries out in desperation – and we cry out with him: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
The disciples had much to learn, and so do we. The more we go along in life, the more convinced we become of the reality of evil in the world; evil that manifests itself in twisting and perverting God’s design and purpose for life in whatever form that may take. This can happen on the individual level as well as the collective level as entire systems and institutions exploit people, often those most vulnerable, for selfish purposes. “Jesus explained to the disciples that such malign evil spirits can be expelled only by a full reliance upon the unlimited power of God expressed through prayer” (Ibid, p. 335). “The disciples are powerless before the demon’s tenacious grip upon the child and Jesus is successful only by the costly means of death and resurrection” (Ibid). The good news is that we have a Father who would stop at nothing to rescue his children who were headed for certain destruction. God our Father intervened in a powerful way to save us, and he did so through his only Son, Jesus. The breaking of evil powers bent on death and destruction comes about through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The risen Lord Jesus Christ has dethroned Satan and the power of evil has been broken. Through our Baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are “under new management.” No longer are we bound by the ways of sin and death, but we are a new creation in Christ. Each and every day becomes an opportunity for us to leave behind what is not life-giving; to die to everything that is not of Jesus. Each and every day becomes an opportunity for us to rise to new life in Jesus and through his power that comes to us in Word and Sacrament, to become more like him. With all boldness and confidence we can say with Paul the apostle: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). That is good news for you and for me; for everyone who has ever prayed: “I believe; help my unbelief!” Amen.