Friday, September 18, 2009

What Fuels Faith After the Excitement Wears Off? (Mark 9:14-29)

In the Name of Jesus

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ our Savior:
Jesus finds himself at the height of his popularity in and around the sea of Galilee. He has come and, without reservation or wavering, picked up his unique call from his Father in heaven to reveal the signs of redemption through his itinerant healing and preaching. His unexpected presence in the lives of those burdened and crushed by the weight of sin and its consequences is as unexpected as his sudden word of healing and touch of mercy upon those who had despaired that they would ever see the light of day again. The blind are given their sight. The lame are healed. The hungry are miraculously fed. And as the people get the real sense that the long-awaited kingdom of God is now breaking in, amazement and excitement give way to more and more questions. Who is this man? What kind of prophet could he be? Could he even be the only-begotten Son of God — the divine Messiah?
The questions and possible explanations whirled around the crowds, those who had been healed, and even among the twelve disciples. And seemingly adding to the confusion we hear of Jesus' clear command to those he redeems: "Don't tell anyone about this."
Jesus knew what no one else knew, including the unclean spirits themselves. Word was getting out on its own that all indicators, all miracles, all signs pointed to Jesus as the promised Messiah who would usher in the Messianic age of salvation and the restoration of all things lost in the garden of Eden.
However, the discussions among the crowds and disciples and the Jewish religious leaders got ugly when it came to what kind of Messiah this carpenter's son from Nazareth could be. No one could deny that he was performing miracles — but as just another prophet? Or as someone completely different than Elijah or even Moses?
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Saint Mark puts before us the pattern within which our Gospel this morning is found. Take a look at the larger section that surrounds today's Gospel reading. The end of chapter eight consists of Jesus healing the blind man at Bethsaida, followed by Peter's God-inspired confession, followed by Jesus' first plain announcement about who he truly is and what he's come to do.
And [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. (Mark 8:31-32a ESV)
Jesus announces to the Twelve that being Messiah is all about the glorious redemption of the world through the sacrificial death of the only-begotten in the place of the spiritually blind and lame — those who were dead in sin.
That's the unexpected, jaw-dropping reality that the inner core of the Twelve were kicking around in their heads as Jesus lead them up the mountain, there to be transfigured before them — there to be strengthened for the grueling journey ahead. Jesus' glory would be his departure — his exodus. Jesus' triumph would be the cross. That's the God-pleasing revelation from heaven — and from Moses and from Elijah.
It is this context that frames Jesus healing of the boy with the unclean spirit. And it will give Jesus the second opportunity to tell the disciples again what kind of Messiah he has been sent to be.
The Holy Gospel According to saint Mark, the ninth chapter:
And when they [Jesus and Peter and James and John] came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. (Mark 9:14-15 ESV)
When Jesus is thought of as just another philosopher or spiritual guru or human miracle-worker or mere moral example to follow, things very quickly become muddled — to the point of confusion and uncertainty and doubt. We see it here in the Gospel according to Mark, and we see it in much of what calls itself Christian today: everyone seeking after a Jesus of prosperity, a Jesus that will justify the lifestyle or behavior or self-centered desires that have already been chosen.
The crowd in Mark chapter 9 knows of the amazing, miracle-working Jesus, but in their doubt and uncertainty they do not yet believe in Jesus as the Christ — the Messiah — of the cross.
And he [Jesus] asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “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." (Mark 9:16-18a ESV)
In desperation, the father has brought his son and gotten in line for his chance at getting some of the glories others in desperate straights have received. But is Jesus willing, or able to redeem this situation? A son — an only son — ravaged since childhood with an unclean spirit that throws him into the water as easily as he throws him into the fire. Will this "teacher" — can this "teacher" — rescue this boy from such a tight grip by the forces of oppression, darkness and evil? Can this Jesus save from these seemingly permanent effects of sin? The distraught father continues:
"So I asked your disciples to cast it out, [but] they were not able.” And [Jesus] 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.” (Mark 9:18b-19 ESV)
Even the empty-handed Twelve join in the desperation of the father. As the situation grows more hopeless, those gathered around our Lord wonder: "Has this Jesus met his match in this unclean spirit — this spirit that has tormented this boy to the precipice of death?"
And they brought the boy to [Jesus]. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him." (Mark 9:20-22a ESV)
The effects of sin are as oppressive today as they were the day after Jesus and Peter, James and John came down off the mount of transfiguration. We see it not only in physical weakness, disease and suffering, not only in the demonic acts on the evening news and in the local newspaper. We even get a glimpse of sin's oppressive consequences in our own lives — in the effects of sin that cause us to doubt in the goodness of our heavenly Father and cause us to fall into the temptation to believe that my situation — my sin — is all too much for even the Word of Christ to overcome.
"But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” [the father says.] And Jesus said to him, “‘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!” (Mark 9:22b-24 ESV)
A cry of mercy and faith and hope that clings to the invitation of the Lord to put trust in him. Here Jesus is doing his proper work — his life-giving work — of bestowing on poor, nothing-to-offer sinners the gift of faith that grabs hold of the savior's work in our place. Jesus calls forth faith in this most desperate of men, and God-given faith responds "Amen. In spite of my doubt, let it be so for me, Jesus."
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. (Mark 9:25-27 ESV)
Jesus rebukes, that he might then forgive. Jesus condemns, that he might then show abundant mercy. Jesus exposes sin as sin, that he might then take our sin, and the deadly consequences of sin and rid us of it — forever.
And when [Jesus] had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:28-29 ESV)
It seems more and more apparent that the beginning of the Christian life seems to go along just fine fueled with the excitement and adrenaline of the glories of one's new life in Christ. We see it often in the newly-baptized, the young Christian, the just-born congregation. Everything is, for a time, so alive and fresh and new.
Remember the glories of those days when you first believed — as an individual Christian, as a Christian family, as a Christian congregation.
Here at Redeemer the newly-formed congregation met in a simple, modest real estate office. Members were excited — to the point of energetically mowing the lawn and sweeping the floors and setting up the metal folding chairs week after week after week. Members would volunteer without being asked to bring flowers cut from their backyards to be placed before the little make-shift altar.
But the joys of those first glorious days usually don't last forever. We see that here — in our own lives, and in the lives of those presented to us in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The disciples in this morning's Gospel are beginning to realize that they've run out of gas. Their excitement is waning as doubt gets the best of them. In their increased confusion about Jesus and his Word and his work, the Twelve stumble, as we stumble, when we put our trust in anything other than the true object of saving faith: Jesus Christ, son of God and Mary's son, given up — lifted up — for you and for the world. The Christ who calls his prophetic and apostolic Church to recklessly sow the seed of his Word wherever the Lord opens a door.
The ninth chapter of Saint Mark is the turing point — for Jesus, for the crowds, for the Twelve. It is the turning point for you, for me and this congregation as we wonder what will sustain us when the newness of being redeemed finally wears off, when the honeymoon seems to be all but over.
This morning God announces that our resolve can only be based on the resolve of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit to save us from the oppressive forces of this sinful and fallen world.
Where will we find hope when we discover that we cannot free ourselves from the demands of God's holy will? From the demands of the Law, the commandments touched upon in this morning's epistle? Where will we find hope when we realize we have trampled the eighth commandment and made an irreparable mess as a result of our sins of the tongue?
We look to the Christ of the Scriptures — the Christ revealed to us through the prophets and apostles. We look to our savior who journeyed to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to God's heavenly altar — sustained not by the excitement of the disciples or the thrill of performing miracles for the crowds.
We dare not put our trust and enthusiasm in a new discipleship program, a new spiritual method, a new worship experience, a new charismatic pastor or teacher or religious guide, even when they give us goosebumps.
We put our trust in Christ, in his journey into the darkness of our sin, his journey into the darkness of an entire rebel race, his prayer for us, his sacrifice for us — that you and all who believe might be delivered from sin and it's deadly consequences — forever.
May God in his mercy deliver us from the confusion of the world, the faith-destroying effects of sin, and the desire to motivate the Church with anything other than the Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
May it be so, for his glory, for our salvation and the salvation of many. In the Name of Christ.