Prayer is an interesting thing. It is something that most people do, to some degree or another. Every time there is a massive tragedy on the national level or personal tragedy that only a few close friends know about, people will offer you or the victims their prayers. And it’s not just your faithful church going devout grandmother who speaks of prayer. It is the long delinquent member, the willful and blatant sinner who hasn’t been to church in years. People who will never otherwise identify themselves as Christian publicly will still speak about “sending their prayers” or “having you in our prayers” or some sort of combination that makes them feel like their contributing to alleviate the suffering of another person. And I think the reason that people do this, if they actually offer up a prayer, is that they don’t really know what else to do. When faced with incredible grief they begin to plead with God because there is no other recourse available to them.
Our faith, whether we would say it is strong or weak, whether it is something we nourish and rely on every single day or it is something we only use when tragedy strikes, our faith is important to us. For when all else in life is stripped away, when our comforts are gone, when assurances crumble, it is usually our faith that remains our anchor. I’ve been to countless funerals where I’ve spoken to those who are mourning, to the new widow who seems to be in shock, or to the child that realizes that they will set out for the first time without their mother’s words of encouragement and guidance. And over and again I will hear people say to me that they don’t know how anyone can do this without faith. How can they carry on without trust in something greater than themselves, without confidence in the love and mercy of God? Though they suffer, though they have tears in their eyes they will confess a shocking confidence in the gifts of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yet, I have begun to realize that perhaps the greatest challenge to our faith isn’t necessarily our own struggles and sufferings in this life, but the sufferings of our rothers and sisters, or the sufferings that mark the life of our friends and family. It’s not so much the hardships that you struggle with internally but the helpless feeling that overcomes you when you are faced wit the suffering of those you love. When you want to help but you don’t know how. When you want to fix the problem, but you can’t. In other words, though it is difficult to struggle with my own fears and doubts it is much more problematic when someone I care about comes to me for help because of their own fears and doubts. Perhaps it’s just my own pride and arrogance that gets in the way, but when I can’t do anything to help I feel most shaken and discouraged. At least I can say that I’m keeping them in my prayers.
In Mark chapter 9 we find our Lord coming down from a mountaintop where Peter, James and John had just witnessed an amazing transfiguration. His clothes became white, his face gleamed and Moses and Elijah appeared next to him. In a scene that is straight out of the Old Testament a cloud of God’s glory descended upon that mountain and the Father himself spoke saying, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” And though Peter would have liked to stay there forever, Jesus led them back down. As they descended from that glorious moment they come back down into struggle and hardship of our world. They came from light and life down into confusion and misunderstanding. As they came back down to the rest of the disciples, they find that a crowd has gathered there. There appears to be an argument going on between some scribes and his disciples. And Jesus immediately wants to know what is going on.
The center of this dispute is a father who seems to be at his wits end. He is terrified and exhausted, he has nowhere else to turn. And I’m sure with many friends telling him that they will pray for him he has ventured out to find our Lord. He says, “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. So, I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” (Mark 9:17-18) He longs to save his son but at every turn there is no solution, no answer. Jesus then chastises them all for their issues of faithfulness. “O faithless generation,” he says, “how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” He has just come down from the clear proclamation of who he is, of God proclaiming this to be his son and they are to listen to him. Yet down the mountain, in the confusion of life, there is uncertainty and doubt.
The boy’s father wonders if Jesus can do anything about it. To which Jesus says, “All things are possible for one who believes.” Now the man takes this word and makes one last ditch effort to save his son. After all, he does believe. He believes that Jesus can do something, otherwise why would he have come in the first place? But he figures that perhaps the problem is just a matter of the degree of his belief. Perhaps his faith isn’t strong enough, or he doesn’t believe enough, or he is weak or shallow in his faith. So he says, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Help my unbelief. Make it strong enough to save my son. Guide me to do what is necessary so that I can do more than just pray from the sidelines as I watch him suffer.
How similar this is to our life today. Our desire to always look within ourselves for the solution to the problem is continually fed and nourished by preachers in churches great and small. When faced with suffering in the lives of those we love, when we feel there is nothing we can do but pray, why, we too cry out “I believe; help my unbelief!” Perhaps there is some defect in your faith that makes your ability to help those you love. So, there are those who might give you some program to strengthen your faith. There are many who will point out what is in the way of your belief, some moral failings that work as a blockage in the pipeline of God’s otherwise rich blessings. Fix those and then the blessings will come.
Yet the good news is that in our lives today, just as in the life of the father and this boy in our text, everything hinges on the merits of Christ alone. Not on the value of your faith. Not on how clean and presentable your life is. No, Christ speaks his Word and the demon is driven from the boy. He didn’t wait for the father to fix his faith. He simply speaks and changes everything by his gracious intervention. And so it is with you. Your salvation doesn’t hinge on the merits of your life. It doesn’t depend on how profound and deep your faith may or may not be. Your salvation hinges on the merits of Christ alone. His gifts are given in the speaking of his Word. A Word that calls you his brothers and sisters. A Word that declares you to be forgiven, the saints of God.
Now it is fascinating that after he performs this miracle and his disciples get some alone time with our Lord, they ask him, “Why could we not cast it out?” See, they had done such a thing before. But how come this time they had no luck? Our Lord’s response is that this one would only be driven out by prayer. Now, this doesn’t mean that there was some sort of magic incantation that they needed to recite. They didn’t need to pray the rosary or mutter the believer’s prayer or any such thing or enact a scene of an exorcism from a Hollywood movie. No, prayer is to confess that you cannot do it. Prayer is to not depend on your own faith but hold to the merits of Christ. Prayer is call upon another to come to your aid, to do what you cannot do.
This is where we look then for hope and assurance, this is where you find the strength to press on, this is how you find courage in the dark and stormy days of your lives. It is found in the works of Christ for you, it is located in his gifts freely and richly given to you. In the waters of your baptism, in the bread and wine of his supper, in the Words of absolution, he gives you his promises and blessings. Here he answers your prayer, “I believe, help my unbelief!”