The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
I Believe—Help My Unbelief!
Proper  B
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
13 September 2009
Immanuel Lutheran Church
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We all have those moments when our faith is put to the test. You remember those kind of times well. Something happened at work or school, and your jaw dropped in amazement. You lay awake at night, wondering why the day went the way it did. Bad news from around the world is a distraction—especially if loved ones are in harm’s way.
Every day, your faith is put to the test. There are good days and bad days, and both come and go—neither kind lasts. Yet, on the worst days, the temptation is there to give in to the advice given to Job: Curse God and die. We pray that the Lord would keep us steadfast in the one, true faith until life everlasting, but the danger of unbelief is always around the corner.
A man in the Gospel according to St. Mark was having more than a bad hair day. His son was demon-possessed. He thought the disciples could help, because of the amazing, hopeful accounts he had heard about Jesus. That’s where we first hear the story:
14When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to [Jesus] and greeted him. 16And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18And 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.” 19And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
The man brings his son, possessed by a demon—a real demon—and the disciples could not exorcise it. This is not just a case of mental illness misunderstood in a first-century way. Demonic possession and mental illness can exist side by side or separately, even in the 21st Century.
Scribes and disciples are in the middle of an argument—possibly about whether the disciples have the authority to cast out demons. Meanwhile, the son of this man is still suffering under demonic influence.
And what does Jesus talk about? Authority? Who’s right in the argument? Does He give a medical or psychological diagnosis? No. Jesus diagnoses the spiritual problem: unbelief, lack of faith, trust, and hope in God above all things, and especially in His servant standing right there—Jesus. The man explains the situation, Jesus responds, and the argument is over.
“O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” How long has this been happening? His whole life. Please do something if you can.
If. If? If! Jesus’ diagnosis was correct across the board. The disciples didn’t get the job done—a lack of faith. The scribes questioned the credentials of Jesus and the disciples, testing them, often trying to trip them up. Unfaith. They saw the signs before and still doubted who Jesus was. And here the man says, “if.”
Faith and miracles go hand in hand. Sometimes faith precedes the miracle. Sometimes God grants it during or after the miracle. A sign, a miracle all by itself is just entertainment. Without Jesus’ teaching, the feeding of the five thousand is just dinner and a show.
“If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
The man heard and felt the stern rebuke of the law. What a wonderful response: “I believe; help my unbelief!” If only we could remember that prayer to Jesus in our day of trial.
And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.
This is a different situation than what we overheard last week. We also encountered a mute and deaf person. There was a physical cause for that affliction. Here, with the son, there are additional symptoms, including “it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.” Even the father knew a demon was at work.
Jesus demonstrated His authority over creation as the creator when He used fingers, spit, and prayer to heal the man last week. This week, He demonstrates His divine authority over the devil and death. The demon left the boy and, at Jesus’ word, the boy arose.
The miracles of Jesus teach us that in the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the power of Resurrection Day is present. Jesus gives us more than just a description of what the Last Day, the day of Resurrection will be like—He shows us. The Word of Jesus, miracles, and faith go together!
Do you have a good and gracious God, or not? (pause) Don’t hesitate so long to answer. Don’t over-think the question. Don’t let your emotions distract you. What does Holy Scripture say?
Yes. Yes. A trillion times, Yes!
Are we tempted to doubt the goodness of God? Yes. That’s the devil’s work—and the influence of the world—and the weakness of your own human flesh, too.
Why do we hesitate? Why are we tempted to doubt? Why do some fall away from faith? It’s because we’re from Missouri. That’s right—and I don’t mean the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. I mean Missouri.
Wyoming is the Cowboy State and the Equality State. Nebraska used to be called the Beef State as well as the Cornhusker State. Missouri is the… “Show Me” State.
Our preferred way of living in the world, according to our human nature, is called “Living by sight.” Show me, we say. I won’t believe it until you show me the cold, hard facts. Show me the money! People fall away from Christ, and are tempted to doubt God’s goodness because we see bad things going on in the world. Bad things happen to good people. Wars and rumors of wars. Tragic accidents. Painful experiences. Dreadful diseases. Things like Nine-Eleven.
“Living by faith” is different. About as different as one could be. Faith trusts in what we do not see, but Who we know is there—a good and gracious God in Christ. We walk by faith and not by…sight. No one said it was easy. Jesus still calls you to faith.
Faith can die. The best evidence of this is our friend Peter. In order to avoid the appearance of “beating him up,” be reminded of the rest of his story. Sure enough, Peter didn’t want Jesus to go to the cross, and he denied Jesus three times, but Peter was forgiven by Jesus Himself and restored to his vocation of disciple, apostle, and pastor.
In Mark 8 and Matthew 16 Peter expresses faith, trust, and hope in God by declaring Jesus to be the Christ, the very Son of God. Jesus calls Him blessed. That means blessed—full of faith. Can one be a Christian and fall away? Yes. Can a fallen Christian be restored to faith and forgiveness? Yes. Peter teaches us a lot by counter-example. Faith is a gift from God, not something we generate in ourselves. As a gift, it can be resisted, as Stephen taught us in Acts 7.
Feeding your faith is important. Unfed, faith can die. Any parent would recoil at the idea of taking a newborn home and not feeding him. It’s barbaric, inhumane, uncivilized! So is Holy Baptism apart from teaching the baptized God’s Word in all of its articles.
How can we encourage the parents of all the baptized to bring them to church in their first years of life? The pastor has a microphone, so crying children aren’t a real problem. Not all crying is a joyful noise, but would you really want to discourage a parent bringing a fellow Christian to Church?
We still have needs in our Sunday School. More teachers are needed to prevent burnout in the ones we install this morning. We don’t want to lose them. Our biggest need, however, is children. What children, already part of our congregation are missing this morning? What children in this community could you bring next week? Children are more than the church of the future. In Holy Baptism, they are already joined to the body of Christ. They are an important part of the church now.
Are there others you know who should be added to the shut-in list? I get to visit our current shut-ins at home once or twice a month. Let me know how I can help.
Where are all the men? How can we encourage more men to see Jesus as He actually is? Our Lord Jesus is both loving and strong, merciful and powerful, the Lamb of God and a victorious warrior over sin, death, and Satan.
Bad things happen to good people. We don’t throw up our hands in despair. No, we fold them in prayer. Bad days don’t just bring us to our knees, for we willingly bend the knee in prayer. Remember Jesus’ last words in the text. They are mentioned last in the text and last in this sermon so that you remember them!
“Why could we not cast it out?” the disciples asked. Jesus answered, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
Prayer. Conversation with God. Praise. Petition. Thanksgiving. Recalling His goodness and graciousness to His people throughout salvation history.
It has been said that the Christian prays as if everything depends upon God, and works as if everything depends upon them. Properly understood, this can be a good saying, but only if we take prayer seriously.
Moses got into trouble when he involved himself in God’s provision for His people. The people needed water. God told Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock and a spring would burst forth. Instead, Moses and Aaron drew attention to what they were doing, and Moses struck the rock twice. Same spring of water, but they put the focus on acting as if everything depended upon them.
Prayer is an action of trust. Faith asks God to work in the situation. Do you play the game of asking, “If?” When tense situations arise, do you worry about what you are going to do? I’m guessing that the disciples did too—especially when the demon remained and the scribes came criticizing.
We continue to pray. That is part of the beauty of Matins. As forgiven sinners, we pray for ourselves, for the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the Church of God and for the unity of all, saying, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” That’s a pretty good prayer to keep in mind for all those bad days.
Then we pray the prayer Jesus taught us—both a prayer and a model of how to pray.
The Collect of the Day collects the teachings of the Scriptures for the Day and the prayers of the people with a common “Amen.”
Additional collects or the Prayer of the Church follow. Again the “Kyrie” of faith: Let us pray to the Lord: Lord have mercy.
Finally, the collect for grace thanks the Lord for His protection through the night and asks for His defense and guidance in the new day.
Every day, your faith is put to the test. There are good days and bad days, and both come and go—neither kind lasts. When “If” and “Why” torture you on the worst days, and although the danger of unbelief is always around the corner, remember that your Lord is even closer. And remember to pray: “I believe; help my unbelief!” Jesus, who dwells in highest heaven is in you by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is near enough to hear your prayer. He is good, loving, and powerful enough to take care of you. “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” Amen.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.