Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 9:14–9:29
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 12, 2021
In the community around us, St. John’s is known as “the church of the three crosses” because of the large 3-cross tower that is clearly visible on Franconia Road. There are lots of churches up and down Franconia Road, and if you tell someone, “I’m a member at St. John’s Lutheran Church,” they probably won’t know where that is. But if you way, St. John’s is “the church of the three crosses,” the likely response will be: “Oh, now I know where this is!” For more than sixty years, this has been a landmark in our community; a sign of Christ who gave his life on the cross, flanked by the two criminals crucified with him on either side. This landmark is a sign of hope and help in Christ’s name for all people. For all who are feeling hopeless, helpless, or powerless, we point them to Christ. There are many examples of being powerless in life, but one that stands out for lots of people goes like this: “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.” This is the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other Twelve-Step recovery groups. If I were to ask how many of you know a family member, friend, or neighbor, or maybe you yourself, who has struggled with addiction, many hands would go up. Long before the COVID pandemic there was the addiction pandemic. Those in recovery will quickly tell you that that they are recovering, but not recovered. It’s never over; you are always recovering. It is an ongoing, daily process that begins by admitting the terrible but freeing truth that you are powerless. We see what it is to be powerless in today’s Gospel lesson as Jesus heals the boy with an unclean spirit. Both the boy and his father, as well as the disciples, were powerless over this malevolent being. It is only Jesus who had the power to change things and redeem the situation. On this Homecoming Sunday at the start of a new year of learning and growing in our faith, we focus on that Gospel lesson under the theme, “Powerless.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
The account of Jesus’ healing the boy with an unclean spirit is found in Matthew as well as Luke (Matthew 17:14-20; Luke 9:37-43), but Mark’s version is far more detailed – almost twice the length of the others. What comes immediately before this is the pinnacle midpoint of Mark’s Gospel: Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13). Flanked by Moses and Elijah, those towering figures of the Old Testament representing the Law and the Prophets, Jesus’ appearance on the mountaintop is transformed for a fleeting moment as his heavenly glory is revealed. Peter’s request to stay up there on the mountain is eclipsed by the Father’s voice, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7). And in listening to Jesus, we must also follow him. Jesus, who came “not to be served, but to serve, and to offer his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), did not stay up there on the mountain, but came down the mountain into the valley of human need, sin and suffering. Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem where he will give his life on the cross as the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. And what’s the first thing that confronts Jesus as he, together with Peter, James, and John, come down? This crazy, chaotic scene that was all about the disciples’ powerlessness. Not only couldn’t they help this poor boy, but they were arguing with the scribes and religious leaders. It may be that their failure to help the boy provided an open door for the scribes to attack Jesus and his authority. And so the disciples’ failure reflected badly not only on them, but on Jesus as well. It was a hot mess. So what is there for us to learn here? The truth is we never sin in a vacuum. Our own spiritual failures have spiritual fallout. Like anyone suffering with an addiction, when we miss the mark for the life God intended for us, we don’t just hurt ourselves. We hurt those around us, including those we love. And we hurt the Lord Jesus, whose Name we bear.
To our modern ears, the boy’s condition sounds a lot like epilepsy, but there is an underlying condition that goes beyond the physical and enters into the spiritual. If there is a Holy Spirit, there is also an unholy spirit, against whose powers we ourselves are powerless. That is what’s going on as Jesus witnessed first-hand the boy’s affliction and the spiritual forces of evil bent on his destruction. Those same forces of evil are also bent on our destruction – that is the sober truth. In desperation, the father of the boy sought out help and came to Jesus. We don’t know where else he had gone seeking help, but he was now in front of Jesus with all his need. Isn’t that how it is with us also? Sometimes in our powerlessness we go seeking help from all kinds of different people and places. Only as a last resort do we finally turn to Jesus. The man’s faith is weak and small, but he was right where he needed to be; with Jesus. He said: “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22). The father believed Jesus would help, but could Jesus help? Divine ability is not the problem; human unbelief is the issue. Jesus confronts the man head-on: “’If you can’! All things are possible for the one who believes” (Mark 9:23). And then the man confesses what every believer must also confess: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). In his powerlessness, that man was saying: “I know my faith is puny, weak, and inadequate. But, I trust you, Jesus. I have nowhere else to turn. Help me in spite of me!” And that is our cry to Jesus also: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!”
With Jesus, there is deliverance. There is grace to help in time of need. After Jesus had cast out the evil spirit, everyone thought the poor boy was dead. But in lifting him up, Jesus pointed ahead to his own death and resurrection. The original text for verse 27 can be read: “Jesus raised him, and he was resurrected” (άνέστη). The word here for “he arose” is the same root word Scripture uses for resurrection (ανίστημι). The boy was set free and given new life in Jesus, and so have we been set free and given new life in Jesus. We may not know the utter powerlessness that the boy and his father knew, but the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection is power for us today. Jesus willingly gave up his heavenly power and glory; he laid all of that aside to enter into our broken world filled with the sin and pain of our powerlessness and our abuse of power. Jesus became powerless to offer his life as the atoning sacrifice for our sins; to break the power of evil; to buy us back for God through his cleansing blood. The disciples still had much to learn about relying on Jesus’ power through faith and coming to him in prayer. It is no different for you and me. We, too, still have much to learn about coming to Jesus in all our need, in all our powerlessness. The new year of learning and growing in Jesus stretches out before us. Let’s learn and grow together in the power of our risen, reigning, and returning Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.