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Help for our Half-Belief

 

Mark 9:14-29

1] The recent controversies in Canada’s largest Protestant denomination have generated sharp disagreements and more than a little anguish. For Christians such controversy is unavoidable. Peter tells us in his first letter that we should always be ready to articulate our gospel-convictions when those convictions are challenged. Time after time, on his missionary journeys, Paul went to the marketplace or a church-hall and argued for the truth and substance of Jesus Christ. This isn’t to say that he argued nastily, that he became bad-tempered or contemptuous or sarcastic. But it is to say that he was prepared to argue on behalf of the one who had seized him and now shone so brightly for him as never to be denied. In other words, he was ready to speak for, speak up for, the gospel of God whenever this gospel was maligned or distorted or simply misunderstood. As the gospel has been contradicted in our own denomination some of us have known what we had to do: we had to speak up, argue, dispute, and do all of this in a manner which adorned the gospel itself. As we have done this a crowd has gathered. Because of the controversy I have addressed crowds larger than any I had addressed before. In addition, news reporters and magazine writers have ensured that there was always a crowd to read if not to hear.

God has ordained that there be a place for this. DIALOGIZOMAI is a rich NT word; it means to dialogue, to discuss, to argue, to reason, to question, to contend. Yet while there is certainly a God-ordained place for this, it isn’t ultimate. Arguing and reasoning with respect to the gospel are never ends in themselves. Paul didn’t argue in the marketplace because he was argumentative or prickly; never because he relished arguing and enjoyed defeating someone in a verbal joust. He argued only for the sake of the gospel. We do as much today only in order to dispel misunderstandings of the gospel, to clear away any obscurities which might be impeding faith in our hearers. Ultimately our purpose in arguing on behalf of the gospel is to get beyond argumentation and have others embrace the gospel itself; that is, have them cling to Jesus Christ in the strength and desire which his grip on them lends them.

When we find the disciples of Jesus arguing with the scribes (according to Mark) we understand why they argue, why they have to. We understand too why a crowd gathered: crowds love controversies. Yet as soon as Jesus shows up the crowds forget the arguing and flock around him. They do so, Mark tells us, insofar as they are amazed at him; as soon as they see him they are startled at the authority he exudes. As soon as they see him they recognize that he can do for them what no one else can.

One of the crowd has brought his ill son to the disciples. This man assumes that where there are disciples of Jesus there is also the power of Jesus. He wants help for his disordered son. As soon as Jesus appears the parent recognizes that this man is the one he is really looking for.

People from “the crowd” come to our services. Recently several of them have come inasmuch as they have heard that there is argument, controversy here. At the same time some have come inasmuch as they have recently become parents and are sobered by their new responsibility; or they have lost someone dear to them and they have questions they cannot answer and a heartache they cannot assuage; they come after any one of life’s countless jarrings have left them wondering profoundly or wobbling drunkenly. In coming here; in coming into the midst of us who are disciples of Jesus, they assume they are drawing near to Jesus himself. They assume that from the midst of Christ’s people there will be given them what they need, or at least what they are looking for and what our Lord alone can supply.

Sometimes they come only to go, feeling that what they expected to find here isn’t here. Some, however, remain long enough that Our Lord himself appears to them . In that instant, like the crowd of old, they recognize that he is the one with authority. They are startled as they recognize what they cannot put words to, yet they know. Whether they have been attracted by the argumentativeness of this congregation or put off by it, they now know that the disputes were never ends in themselves but were always for the sake of the one who has loomed before them and whom they know to love them.

 

2] The anguished parent in our gospel story brings his son to Jesus. The boy goes rigid; he convulses; he foams. Plainly he is epileptic.

The ailments which were brought to Jesus in the days of his earthly ministry were certainly distressing ailments in themselves. At the same time they were signs of a deeper, more difficult spiritual problem besetting humankind. Think for a minute of the blind people who are brought to Jesus. Blindness is a dreadful affliction. To be deprived of sight is certainly to be victimized by evil. Since Jesus resists evil wherever he comes upon it, he restores sight to those who are blind.

But blindness is also symbolic of humankind’s spiritual condition, as the NT stories point out starkly. We are blind to the nature and purpose and truth of God. We are blind to the signs of God’s presence. We are blind to the truth about ourselves, blind to the nature of our own depravity and blind to our situation before God, the just judge.

At the same that Jesus restores sight to the physically blind, then, he expands the meaning of his action to include the spiritual blindness which afflicts us all. You must have noticed that in the account of our Lord’s meeting with Nicodemus Jesus says to him, “Truly, unless one is born anew (born of God) one cannot even see the kingdom of God, much less enter it.” In other words, only as the truth and power of God penetrate us do we become spiritually perceptive and discerning.

An epileptic boy is brought to Jesus. His epilepsy needs attention and is given attention. At the same time, the symptoms of the boy’s epilepsy point to the symptoms of humankind’s spiritual condition.

First, the boy is dumb; mute; can’t speak at all. Which is to say, humankind does not praise God. This is startling, since we are commanded to praise God. As a matter of fact the command to praise God is the most frequently repeated command in scripture. The characteristic of God is that God speaks. God speaks to us in expectation of eliciting speech from us. The absence of heartfelt and heartmeant exclamation to God is spiritual dumbness; as such it is a sign of our spiritual disorder, for it is first a consequence of our spiritual disorder. Only as there is a restorative work of God within us are we freed to praise God from our heart.

In the second place, the boy’s behaviour renders him unsightly and self-destructive. No one pretends that an epileptic seizure is pretty or pleasant to behold. A seizure never yet made anyone beautiful. Neither does our sin render us attractive. Our condition of sinnership, of course, is what underlies those unsightly outcroppings which we call sins. We don’t pretend for a minute that the outcroppings produced themselves. The outcroppings which disfigure us are outcroppings of a spiritual condition which is so deep in us as to be hidden to all except those with Spirit-quickened understanding. Still, it is the outcroppings which everyone sees, whether believer or unbeliever.

No list of sins could ever be complete, since our underlying sinnership effervesces inexhaustibly. Nevertheless, here and there in scripture we come upon partial lists. When Jesus speaks of our root condition of sinnership and refers to its outcroppings he speaks off the top of his head of “evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. He stops there only because he assumes he has made his point. In the same way Paul rattles off “covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, gossip, slander, hatred of God, insolence, abuse of parents, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness.” He stops there only because he has run out of breath. Any one of us could add another fifty.

The point is this. As we soberly look over the partial lists none of us would say that these outcroppings are other than unsightly. Blemishes, in fact. And in view of what God created us for they are hideous disfigurements. And these disfigurements, insists Jesus, are a consequence of the root human spiritual condition.

The boy’s behaviour also renders him self-destructive: his affliction has often thrown him into water and fire. Sin is humanly destructive. Sin slays, to be sure, and it issues ultimately in spiritual annihilation. This too is part of the human condition.

In the third place, when the boy’s father is asked for how long his son has been afflicted, the father blurts out, “From childhood; he’s been like this from childhood!”   I know for how long I have been afflicted with my sinnership, and I know for how long you have been afflicted with yours: from childhood. Several years ago someone asked me for a sermon on original sin. I preached it, and it is ready-to-hand in my little book, MAKING SENSE OF CHRISTIAN FAITH. I won’t repeat the sermon now. Suffice it to say that “from childhood” is no exaggeration.

Our Lord’s depiction of the human condition is accurate. Few people, however, believe him. They believe that education, the welfare state, improved recreational facilities, better health care will together transmute the human condition. It won’t. Only the touch of our Lord does this.

 

3] The father brings his boy to Jesus and says, “If you can do something, anything, have pity on us and do it.” “Do you believe that I can?”, asks Jesus, “or are you simply giving utterance to a bit of wistful thinking?” “I do believe that you can”, the man says, “but I can’t seem to believe enough! Do something about my unbelief!” Whereupon Jesus restores the boy to health. You and I are no different. We do believe that our Lord is saviour. We are not dabbling in wistful thinking. We do believe that he alone can deal with that sinnership which is the root spiritual condition of every last human being. Yet when we search our hearts, look out onto the world and note what awaits us there, look back into our hearts — why, it’s like Peter getting out of the boat with a modicum of confidence, only to look at the waves around him, and finding himself going under. In other words, every time we say, “I believe”, we are also driven to cry, “but I can’t seem to believe enough”.

To say this, however, is to admit that we cannot generate faith ourselves. We cannot come to be possessed of greater faith by fostering or facilitating something inside our psyches. There is no incantation or meditative technique or guru-gimmick or mystical magic by which we can generate faith out of our own resources. We come to be possessed of greater faith only by looking away from ourselves, away from our half-believing hearts, to the God who has promised to enlarge even mustard-seed faith. God alone can do this. Then we must keep on looking to him, for only as we look away from ourselves to him will we be fully assured that our Lord can restore us and will restore others.

 

The disciples have witnessed the restoration of the boy. They are taken aback at their own spiritual impotence. The boy’s father had brought the boy to them (as we mentioned several minutes ago) assuming that disciples of Jesus are themselves possessed of the very thing which their master exemplifies in himself and lends to his followers. Now the disciples are sobered. They cannot deny their own spiritual poverty. “Why do we appear ineffective in the face of humankind’s condition and need?”, they ask. Jesus replies tersely, “It’s a matter of prayer; always a matter of prayer.”

In saying it is a matter of prayer our Lord does not mean it is a matter of muttering a religious formula; not a matter of pious abbracadabbra. It is, however, a matter of petitioning God morning and night to magnify the faith he has given us. It is a matter of exercising the faith we have by concentrating more on the risen one who stands in our midst than on the turbulence which forever laps our lives. It is a matter of contending for the truth of the gospel (as we must) without crushing ourselves by thinking that the future of God’s kingdom hinges on the success of our argumentation. It is a matter of acknowledging that we share in Christ’s victory only as we participate in his sufferings. And prayer is always a matter of not fleeing or cluttering the wilderness-episodes of our lives but rather recognizing that we are led into wilderness-episodes in order that we, like Jesus before us, might hear our Father speaking to us with new clarity. All of this is gathered up as Jesus says to the disciples, “Spiritual authenticity is found in those who pray.”

 

 

It’s an old account of a disordered, disfigured fellow who has been afflicted from childhood. He typifies the root human condition. He typifies as well, however, that work of grace by which our Lord renders you and me all believing people creatures who redound to the praise of God’s mercy — even as the selfsame grace renders our insufficient belief sufficient; sufficient unto that day when faith will give way to sight and we shall behold our blessed Lord face-to-face, forever and ever.

 

                                                                                                    Victor A. Shepherd
November, 1991