I think most of us would agree, life would be easier if the issues and choices facing us day-in and day-out were more black and white, more binary in nature. If everything was a simple matter of good versus evil, or right and wrong, we could have more certainty as to the correct path forward. We could chart our course with a greater degree of confidence and peace of mind. When we were younger things seemed to work that way. We had no use for nuance or degrees of understanding the issues, we simply stood for what was right and denied what was wrong. It was simple and clear and decisive. But as we grow older, as we experience more of the world, we find life is far more complicated than we had assumed. While we still know there is good and evil, right and wrong, we know that discerning them, understanding them, and applying them to our lives is not always so cut and dry. It can get pretty messy, pretty confusing at times.
20 years ago, yesterday, is a day I will never forget. I was a vicar in Bremerton Washington at Peace Lutheran Church. It was a Tuesday morning and I drove down to the church for morning devotions with the teachers at the day school. On the radio I heard the news about an airplane having hit the World Trade Center. By the time I got to church they had announced that another one hit the second tower. By the time our prayers were over we gathered around a computer monitor in the office and watched in horror as the buildings began to collapse. I remember calling my wife and telling her to turn on the TV and told her I would check-in soon. The one thing we all knew in that proud, military town was we were going to war. There was anger and fear and yet somehow through all the confusion there was some real clarity. There was unity of purpose. We were going to go on the offensive. We were going to retaliate. We were never going to allow this to happen again. Right and wrong were established. We were right, the terrorists were wrong, and anyone who harbored the terrorist, aided the terrorists, had sympathy for the terrorist, they were wrong as well and deserved what they had coming to them.
And that carried us for a while as a nation. The clarity which came with anger and grief launched us into the great war against terror. But as time went on, as the emotions evened out, the tough nuances of life once again emerged. Things were not quite as clear as we once thought. Could we justify the cost? Were we even fighting the right enemy? Were we doing more harm than good? More questions arose than we had answers for, and the best path forward was suddenly very confusing. Now, as our nation retreats from Afghanistan and the Taliban once again take control, we see just how messy it has all become.
Our faith is not immune from this struggle for clarity in the midst of confusion. Usually when the Christian faith is spoken of, it is referred to in terms of assurance and confidence. It is a beacon of clarity like a light shining in the darkness. We all hear stories of the addict who turns their life around and gets clean or the elderly man at the end of his days who is no longer afraid to die all because of the confidence which comes with faith. Faith is presented as that certain thing in the face of all the uncertainty in our lives. While this is true, it is not always true. There are many times in which life, and even or especially a life of faith, is full of confusion and uncertainty. There are many days where the right path is anything but clear. Instead of being black and white, it is a whole big mess of gray where we can get turned around and lost.
Mark 9 tells us a story of a desperate father who brings his son to our Lord in hopes that He might free him from an evil spirit which torments him. This text contains a wonderful confession of the faith, a confession we all could use in the gray and uncertain times of our life. When the father first gets to the disciples, Jesus is not there. He had taken Peter, James, and John with Him up a mountain where He was transfigured before them. That is a story for a different day. Our text then picks up as Jesus returns and walks into the commotion going on. The disciples, who had previously been sent to drive out demons, find they cannot do anything to help this distraught father. They tried to help him. They tried to do the right thing, but they were unable to do anything about it. The father then says to Jesus, “If You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
And our Lord says, “If? If I can do anything! Of course, I can do something. After all, all things are possible for one who believes.” And here is the picture of triumphant faith. It is the certainty Christians love to talk about. Just believe and it will be done. Simply have faith and everything will turn out right in the end. But it is not so simple, it is not so easy. This father gives us permission to confess this truth. He gives us the words to express the difficulty of our life marked with doubts and uncertainty. He cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe in You, O Lord. I believe you can do all things. I believe there is life and healing and hope in You. But my belief is not enough. It is not without problems, without hesitations, without second guessing and confusion. Help my unbelief!
How often is this confession your confession? How frequently do you find this is precisely where you end up? In the mess of life, you long for the clarity, the certainty, the assurance of the faith but it remains elusive. Perhaps, at times, you are like the disciples of our Lord. You have had successes. You have had those moments of clarity and certainty but now, for whatever reason, your efforts are frustrated. The wonderful clarity of the faith which shows you the distinction between right and wrong, is waning. Perhaps you feel it in your relationships, the easy flow of love and compassion are now clogged with defensiveness and distrust, and you do not know how to get back. Maybe it is the eagerness with which you engage the gifts of our Lord, or your willingness to serve others. It is not as if you have no faith, as if you do not believe in the importance of these things but they are moved a little further away. They are not as defining as they once were.
You believe, but your belief is not enough… at least not all the time. So, when right and wrong do not seem so clearly divided, when the right path is difficult to discern, then what? Well, perhaps like this father, we go to the One who believes perfectly, the One who is not plagued by our doubts and fears and limitations. Jesus does not demand more faith from this man. He does not wait for more confidence before he acts. No, he does what the man’s shaky faith longs for, and the disciple’s shaky faith could not achieve. He commands the spirit to leave the child and what transpires is a scene of dying and rising. When the spirit comes out of the boy he is left like a corpse. Even the people gathered around think he is, in fact, dead. But Jesus simply takes him by the hand and raises him up to a new life. It is a life free from this demon, a life without this tormentor.
Now, the disciples are confused. Why could they not cast out this demon? Jesus simply says this demon can only be driven out by prayer. Some may think this means there are different demons, and some need different approaches to be driven out. Others see this as a call to focus on the right words which need to be uttered like some sort of magical incantation to drive out the demon. But perhaps, the most basic explanation is that prayer is to rely on Christ. It is to be connected to Him, bound to Him, if you will. For in this messy and uncertain life our own faith, our own belief is never going to be enough. But the promises and gifts of Christ will always be enough. They will bring death and new life as they create repentance in your heart and proclaim forgiveness in your ears. He washes you and clothes you in His holy garments. He feeds you the Bread of Life. He holds your hand when you are lost in the muck of life. He hears you when you cry out, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”