By Paul Koch –
Mark 9:14-29 finds our Lord along with Peter, James, and John being reunited with the rest of the disciples. Now where they’ve been is important to what is about to unfold. They’ve been up on a nearby mountain, a mountain made famous by what took place there; we call it the Mount of Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John went up that mountain where our Lord was transfigured before them, his clothes became white as lightening, and appearing next to him was Moses and Elijah. And if that wasn’t enough a cloud descended upon the scene enveloping them all, and out of the cloud the God the Father speaks declaring, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
So it is this amazing scene of God’s activity and presence resting in his beloved Son that is the backdrop for what unfolds. As they come down from the Mount of Transfiguration and draw near the rest of their group they hear an argument between some scribes and the disciples of Jesus. When Jesus asks them what all the commotion is about, an unknown man tells him that he has brought his son to our Lord because he has a spirit that makes him mute. In fact it is more than just making him mute, it seizes him and throws him to the ground causing seizures and foaming at the mouth. This father is at the end of his rope and he has come for help. Since Jesus wasn’t there (he was up on a mountain turning all white and chatting it up with ancient prophets and teachers) this man asked the disciples for help. But they were not able to do it.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, well of course they couldn’t do it; they’re not Jesus, after all. But they can do it! In fact earlier in Mark’s Gospel Jesus sends out these twelve apostles to do just that. And they were successful; they preached repentance and cast out demons and healed many who were sick. So Jesus responds with what appears to be a great amount of frustration. He says to them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” So they bring the boy to our Lord. When the demon sees the one who was just transfigured on the mountain it throws the boy to the ground and begins to seize him. The father says it has been this way from childhood. Then he says, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus turns the whole matter back to that father and says, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.” In response to our Lord the father speaks what I think is one of the boldest confessions a believer has ever uttered, “I believe; help my unbelief.” I believe, help my unbelief. He believes, but he also believes that it is not enough. He believes, and in that belief he confesses that he needs help to believe completely, to trust without wavering, to rely entirely upon our Lord. His belief does not rest upon his own understanding, his own grasp of things, or his own strength.
His belief itself flows from the one who is transfigured on the mountain. So he cries out, “Help my unbelief!”
Now all of this begs the question of why the disciples couldn’t do it. Why couldn’t they do what they had done before? Why couldn’t they cast out this demon? I mean, we are not shocked or at least we shouldn’t be shocked when Jesus does it. After all, this is the beloved Son of God to whom we are to listen. But the disciples struggle and even they are confused as to why they couldn’t do it. To which Jesus answers, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
So we have our clue – prayer. Prayer is the answer to their dilemma. But what is it about prayer? Is it like some sort of magical incantation: if they only said the right words they could have done this great work? No, I don’t think that’s it. That would amount to having the disciples just dig a little deeper within their own hearts and minds to find the answer. Rather, I think the key to prayer is that prayer is the language of a relationship with our God. Prayer is the way we are invited to speak to our Father in heaven: to petition him, to give thanks, to lament, to cry out. Prayer is an action of man where we are put in a position of complete reliance and dependence on another. We pray to God because we need him. We pray out of joy and out of frustration and out of complete and total reliance on God.
This demon is not driven out then by our strength or effort. He is not sent running for the hills because of man’s creativity and ingenuity or even bravery. The demon is sent out in the confession that we can’t do it. Though we may want to, though we may hope to, it is the language of prayer, of reliance upon God that is needed. The problem is that the disciples have stopped crying out with the father in our text saying, “I believe; help my unbelief.” And their track record shows it. From their great success when Jesus first sent them out, they’ve followed a downward spiral of fear and failure to trust and rely upon our Lord. They doubted him when he told them to feed 5000 with five loaves and two fish, they feared him when he walked out to them on water, and even after Peter confesses that he is the Christ he then ends up rebuking our Lord when he speaks of Calvary’s cross.
Like us all they began to trust on their own reasoning and skills. They had begun to distance themselves from that early trust in the words and promises of our Lord, and so they find themselves mired in failure. It is fitting that at this point in the unfolding of the Gospel story, our Lord has goes up the Mount of Transfiguration. For we are reminded yet again of where true authority and power over the evil spirits of this present darkness is found. We are reminded of the one to whom even Moses and Elijah loved to find counsel in. We are reminded of the voice from heaven declaring, “This is my beloved son, listen to him!” This whole event turns us all from the works of our own hands, from our own knowledge and cleverness to rely on the one born of Mary, the one who has died and risen for us all.
Now at the center of this whole story, framed by our Lord’s transfiguration on the one side and the disciple’s failure on the other, is this boy. A boy whose battle serves not only as a testimony to the power of our Lord’s Word but as a sort of example for us of what it is to be a believer. Here he is, silent and terrorized, unable to save himself, unable to better his situation, unable to overcome the evil within. How similar are we? How often are we consumed by the evil still at work within us? That which we do not want to do we still do. That which we know we ought to do we never seem to get done.
But the Word of Christ changes everything. The Word of Christ drives the spirit out of the boy, commanding him to never return, declaring this child as his own dear possession. And what happened? The boy convulsed terribly and wept and when the spirit left him. He was left lying on the ground like a corpse. People nearby even declared him to be dead. And so it is with you and me. Perhaps not so dramatic and fearful to watch, but in the waters of your baptism, in the washing of the Word of Christ, you were met with death. Your sin was buried in the tomb of Christ, judged and condemned graciously in the flesh of our Lord himself. But Jesus resurrects the child and so he does with you. Rising from baptism’s holy washing, rising from the place of confession and repentance, he gives freely the gift of life.
The whole of our life of faith is a life lived in complete dependence upon such mercy and grace. Our daily victories and struggles, our challenges and frustrations, are endured by a faith that clings to promises of death and life in the Word and work of Christ alone. He alone is the way and the truth and the life. He is the one who declares that you are free and forgiven and loved. And when that Word is difficult to hear, when everything else in life seems to overwhelm his mercy, cry out with me. Cry out with all the faithful. Cry out with the father losing his son. Cry out to our only hope. “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”