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Just a Miracle

'We all at times reach points in our lives where our faith just doesn’t seem up to the challenge'


MARK 9:14-29

This is a strange story in some respects, as it contains not only a healing miracle - as Jesus offers restored hearing and speech to a young boy - but also what seems to be an admission of failure on the part of some of the disciples. We don’t know exactly who was involved here - other than the fact that Peter, James and John seem to have stayed with Jesus, arriving later on the scene.

‘I asked your disciples to drive out the evil spirit, but they couldn’t’

‘After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why couldn’t we drive it out?’

And this only a short while after Jesus had felt confident enough of his disciples to send them out, two by two and with authority over evil spirits. We read in chapter 6 that ‘they went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many people with oil and healed them.’

This is a success story. Jesus picking his disciples, teaching them, building up their faith and confidence, and then delegating the spreading of the gospel into their safe hands.

We can perhaps imagine the disciples, fired up with enthusiasm for the task, with their new-found faith in the One for whom they had given up their jobs to follow, heard speak some amazing statements - challenging both the religious leaders of that time and the ordinary man or woman to reassess their relationship with their God - and watched as the miraculous happened before their very eyes. They had proudly received their commissioning from Jesus and boldly gone out and followed his commands - and no doubt watched with amazement as all that had been promised happened just as Jesus had said it would. These were men apparently brimming over with confidence, full of faith and filled with power.

Now this...... a simple case of healing - at least that’s what it must have seemed. They say the words, make the necessary actions..... and nothing happens.

What must they have been feeling? Certainly embarrassment, because there was a large crowd gathered to watch them, including teachers of the law. In fact we read that an argument had started just before Jesus turned up at the scene with Peter, James and John. A sense of failure - possibly. Bewilderment almost certainly, as the people around them challenged their faith.

So what had gone wrong? One minute success and the next failure.

How does Jesus deal with the situation? In his usual calm and peaceful manner?

Hardly!

‘O unbelieving generation,’ he replies. ‘How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.’

Strong words, and ones likely to have made the disciples want to dig an even bigger hole and jump into, I would think. Surely Jesus wasn’t saying that the very disciples that he’d put so much confidence in were guilty of unbelief ? These were men who’d seen so much and given so much. And yet just a few verses further on we have Jesus saying ‘Everything is possible for him who believes.’

So what are we to make of these disciples, who one moment seemed to be able to preach and demonstrate the power of Jesus with confidence, and now were left seemingly powerless and at their wits end.

We have a clue in that response of Jesus to the father of the boy at the centre of this incident.

‘Everything is possible for him who believes’

Immediately the boy’s father said. ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’ To the disciples he told them that prayer - which is surely the spoken expression of our faith - was the one essential.

Faith was the vital ingredient, and I get the impression that the disciples and the boy’s father were very similar in this respect. Faced with a difficult situation they forgot just how powerful a God they served. Their faith suddenly seems less strong than they thought it was. It wasn’t that they were guilty of losing their faith - that’s not what the father meant when he used the word ‘unbelief’ - simply that there was a moment when the faith that he had was not strong enough to cope with the crisis that he faced.

Even men we would have thought of as being capable of anything that Jesus had asked them to do, could at times be faced with times in their life where their faith was seemingly not up to the task.

I would imagine of course they’re in good company, if we only stop to think about our own lives - at least speaking from my own experience.

Listen to this description of a person faced with a not dissimilar moment in their life, and perhaps try and guess who it might be. Returning to this country by boat after a time away in America on a mission to the native Indians, he found himself depressed, frightened by the storms through which the boat passed and prone to periods of despondency. He tried to share the gospel with others on board, but found that he just couldn’t find the words to say. He wondered if it was God’s will that he should remain silent or whether it was the work of the devil.

As the storms got worse he found to his dismay that he was still afraid of dying. Quoting the poet John Donne he cried

my last thread, I shall perish on the shore.

And though he could usually say with confidence ‘Verily, if the gospel be true, I am safe.’

In the storm he began to think ‘What if the gospel be not true?’ What if he’d surrendered all - friends, repute, country, life - for a mere dream?

‘I have a fair summer religion’ he wrote in bitter self-criticism, and convicted himself ‘of unbelief... of pride.... of levity and luxuriancy of spirit.’

I could go on, but we’d probably end up as depressed as John Wesley was in that difficult period of his life. ‘Oh!’ he groaned with despair, ‘I went to America to convert the Indians; but who shall convert me?’

Yes, this is John Wesley I’m talking about. It’s maybe not the picture of John Wesley that comes to mind when we think about the origins of our denomination. We would prefer to think of the powerful and charismatic preacher travelling the byways of this country on horseback and sharing an uncompromising gospel message to the crowds that flocked to hear him.

But is John Wesley’s experience any different to that of the disciples in our gospel reading? Yes, here was an educated and enthusiastic follower of Jesus, empowered for a mission and suffering a moment when faith somehow seemed weak. Fortunately for Wesley and for us, he was able to come to terms with the situation he found himself in, to rise above it with the help of others, and to continue his work for the Lord.

‘I do believe,’ said the boy’s father. ‘Help me overcome my unbelief!’

And what does Jesus do - he meets the father where he is, accepts him as he is and offers the touch of healing.

Let me also share with you a moment in the life of another great man, and this time I’ll tell you who it was - Martin Luther. He was born in Germany in 1483 and after gaining a brilliant degree in Law realised that his true vocation was within the cloisters of an Augustinian monastery. He was more than enthusiastic in the way he followed the monastic life, and in following all the ways taught to a monk to find God: the mystic way of prayer, the practical discipline of good works, the intellectual path of reason. But Martin Luther went through agonies of stress when he found that the more diligently he pursued the known methods of spiritual growth, the further God seemed away from him.

It was at this moment of spiritual weakness that the great and basic truth of Christianity was shown to him: that it wasn’t God that was far off and men and women had to do everything they possibly could to gain his favour, but more importantly and simply that it was man that had distanced himself from God, through sin and being self-centred, and that God had, through Jesus come all the way to find us. As Luther expressed it, ‘the doors of paradise were flung open to me, and I entered.’

What Luther did was to put the spotlight back onto Jesus, to set him in the centre rather than self. And where is Jesus if not at the centre of our faith?

Luther’s circumstances were different than those of John Wesley. He was finding his faith within a system which, to put it mildly had lost its way. And came to the inevitable conclusion that at the heart of Christianity is Christ. All the other parafinalia and ritual with which his life was surrounded was a distraction which had dragged him into despair. The faith that he undoubtedly had was seemingly unable to deal with the situation that he found himself in, and it was only when his anguished prayer was met with the love of Jesus that he was able to literally see the light.

‘I do believe,’ said the boy’s father, ‘help me overcome my unbelief’

And Jesus reached out and met him at the point where his faith was weak.

Faith is not a word that sits easily within our modern world. So often in a post-Thatcher world man would rather put his trust in his own abilities. Faith, it has been said, is simply believing something you know isn’t true.

But even this secular world couldn’t get along without faith. If you lend a fiver to someone at work, presumably you do so secure in the knowledge that they’ll pay you back - if not then I’d like to see you later. That is faith. You buy a new washing machine and send back the completed guarantee form believing that it will be upheld in the case of a complaint. That is faith.

In the bible there is hardly a word richer in meaning than the word ‘faith’. If you have faith in someone then you trust in that person’s character, and it’s exactly the same in the bible - faith rests in the character of God; he keeps his promises, and can be trusted.

The basis of New Testament faith is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. If people ‘believe’ in Jesus then that belief is based on what Jesus has done for them. Which of course means that our faith is response - what comes first is God’s steadfast and enduring love for his creation.

Faith, then, is our response of trust to what God has done, and that response is one of commitment, trusting ourselves to him in the light of what he has revealed. A real faith will always result in a changed life.

Faith means ‘seeing’ the world in a particular way, from God’s viewpoint rather than ours. To those who refuse to see, the miracles might appear to tricks, coincidences. To the eye of faith they were signs. The man born blind has faith in that he ‘sees’ who Jesus really is. The Jewish leaders had their sight and yet couldn’t see that they were in the presence of the Messiah. At the empty tomb John sees the empty grave-clothes and ‘believes’

For the apostle Paul, faith is the encounter of every part of our life with Jesus himself. It has little to do with a set of beliefs or doctrines - ticking off a list of things you happen to believe in - but rather more to do with coming to the end of your own resources and crying out to God to save you. It is trusting him with your life, the ‘yes’ of your whole personality to Christ.

The deaf and dumb boy’s father saw Jesus and believed, but at a moment of crisis was humble enough to admit that his faith was not strong enough to cope. The disciples were made to understand by Jesus that the reason that they couldn’t help this little boy was that they were not totally dependant on God. They had performed all the outward signs of laying on of hands, and words had been said, but Jesus tells them that they had forgotten prayer - that spoken expression of faith and more importantly for them an active appeal for faith to God.

The message I want to get across is a simple one. We all at times reach points in our lives where our faith just doesn’t seem up to the challenge. And what do we do when that happens - do we give up, persuade ourselves that God isn’t interested in little old me and sink into despair? Or are we like the father in our story, who humbly admitted that the faith he had was weak. Because where faith is weak, Jesus draws near and helps those who call out to him.

I know it’s a well-worn and well-used story, but I can think of no better way of summing up the message of this story by reading again the words of ‘footprints’

One night a man had a dream. He dreamt that he was walking along the beach with his Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to him, the other to the Lord. When the last scene in his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints on the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times of his life. This really bothered him, and he questioned the Lord about it. ‘Lord, you said that, once I’d decided to follow you, you would walk with me all the way. But I’ve noticed that during the most difficult times in my life there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, in times when I needed you most, you would leave me.’ The lord replied, ‘My precious child, I love you and would never leave you during your trials and sufferings; when you only see one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.’

‘I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.’

May we never be too proud to make that cry our prayer.

© John Birch Top of Page