I Believe, Help Unbelief

Proper 19B, September 16th

Last week seemed so easy, this week oh so complicated. Last week was almost fun, wasn’t it? Jesus heals a deaf mute by sticking his fingers in his ears, spitting, grabbing his tongue, saying “ephphatha” and that was that. This week, it’s messy, it’s complicated, involving demon possession and the failure of the disciples and unbelief.

The boy has been like this since childhood. He has seizures in which he foams at the mouth and goes rigid; he frequently falls into fire and water. The man had brought his boy to Jesus‘ disciples while He and Peter, James, and John were gone, but they couldn’t do anything. So here’s this desperate man, his demon-possessed son, nine disciples who are looking like losers, a bunch of religious wonks arguing in the middle of a crowd. Messy.

And Jesus isn’t too happy either. “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” In other words, “How long to I have to put up with this unbelief?” And he orders the father to bring the boy to Him, and immediately the demon throws him into a convulsion. And the man in desperation cries out, “If you can do anything at all have compassion and help us.” And Jesus snaps at the man, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes!”

Jesus is not angry with the boy or his father. We need to be clear on that. He’s angry at the devil and his demons and the chaos they cause. He’s angry at the scribes for whom this is just another opportunity to argue against God’s Word. He’s angry at the unbelief that seems to hang like a cloud over this whole episodes – the clueless disciples, the uncertain father, the crowds. Just how many miracles does He have to do before people will believe? For every miracle in one city, there is unbelief in the next city.

And there’s the point. Miracles don’t create faith, they just create a market for more miracles, and when the miracles stop, the people stop believing and take their business elsewhere. Isn’t that the way it goes? If you don’t get what you want, you shop around until you do. If Jesus and His crew can’t take care of the problem, well maybe we best look for someone else.

“All things are possible for one who believes,” Jesus says to the man. It’s not “if you can” but “if you are willing.” God can do anything He wants. That’s not the issue. The only issue is if He’s willing. The man should have said, “If you are willing, have compassion on us,” just as we pray “thy will be done” because we don’t know what God’s will is for any particular circumstance other than our salvation. But it’s not a matter of whether Jesus can do something, but only if He is willing to do something. And faith is open to all possibilities.

Now we hear some honest faith talk. Lord, I believe; keep helping my unbelieving!

 

You can’t say it any better than this. This is no self-justifying, self-referencing “faith” or accomplishments. This is the real deal. This is how faith sounds – I believe Lord, and only you, the author of my faith, can deal with my unbelief.

Faith is not something to boast about. It’s not even something for us to talk about. You hear it far too often. “Oh, she has such great faith.” Or, “I have my faith.” The truth be told, we are a mixed bag of great faith and great unbelief. And when things get really messy and complicated and downright demonic, that’s when even the greatest faith wavers and doubts settle in and we find ourselves wondering, “Can Jesus do it or is this too great for Him?”

We do wrestle with the devil and our sinful nature after grace is received – after faith in Christ is given.  That’s when the ongoing struggle takes place.  This wrestling goes on in childhood – in teen and college years – in married and working years – in retirement – in every stage of life!  It is often intensely fierce on one’s deathbed.

So, if you have your doubts – your dark thoughts – your down-in-the doldrums times, do not despair of your standing before God because of these!  Good heavens God’s grace is not bottled up in your heart!  Grace is in the heart of God – it is His disposition toward you for the sake of Christ.  The faith it gives will lead to battles aplenty with your Old Adam.  He should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned – and that is uncomfortable and continuous work in this life.   Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.

Perhaps you’re dragging a bit even now, perhaps questions trouble you concerning God, perhaps you feel confused and sometimes anxious about your lack of the feeling of God’s grace.  The very longing to be more certain of God’s grace – to be more confident in the faith – to be more steady and sure in the daily struggle against sin – is God’s grace at work! You see the true joy of Christians does not consist in feelings, but in the assurance that in spite of the bitterest feelings imaginable you are forgiven, made right with God and in the hour of death will be received into heaven and raised to new life.  Lord I believe – keep helping my unbelieving!

Jesus is doing precisely that: helping the man’s unbelief. He wasn’t so sure Jesus was stronger than the demon. Now will he trust Jesus with his son’s apparent death?

It wasn’t long. Just a moment or so. No conversation. Just a silent moment where the boy simply laid there motionless and apparently lifeless. And as He had done on other occasions like this one, Jesus reaches out His hand, the hand of God in the Flesh, and lifts the boy up and he arose. He resurrected, life given.

For your unbelief, Jesus comes and is the believing one for you. The prophet Isaiah records the believing One, the suffering servant speaking in this way; “God has given me the tongue…to sustain the weary…The Lord has opened My ear and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward.  I gave my back to those who strike…I did not hide my face from disgrace and spitting…the Lord God helps me…therefore I have set my face like a flint…”

Jesus was the one pure believer in this world of unbelief and sin!  He is the Man of faith, the Second Adam! Tempted in every way as we are, yet He lived without sin. Not rebellious, giving grace and mercy to sinners who strike. He set His face like flint toward Jerusalem, the way of the cross! Amid His bloody sweat in Gethsemane, He meekly submitted to be led away to be sacrificed for us! Now He is risen from the grave to serve you – His child in the faith!  Lord I believe; keep helping my unbelieving!  And He does! The struggles that come with faith in Christ may sometimes cause you to feel like the boy whom they thought was a corpse, lifeless and helpless. But know this – Jesus continues to come to lift you up in life. His love for you is stronger than death!

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. That’s the daily prayer of a Christian, a baptized believer. By the grace of God we believe. But as sinner/saints there is still that unbelieving heart of old Adam in us. We are a strange mixture of faith and unbelief all wrapped together as one. Every day is a day for repentance, a change of mind, a turning from unbelief to faith. Every day, a baptismal dying and rising in Christ. Every day until the day we finally die and the hand of Jesus reaches down to our grave and raises us up to life.

All things are possible for one who believes. Sinners made right with God. The dead are raised. For Jesus has absorbed Sin and Death and devil into Himself and with a loud shout in the darkness of His death He casts out the devil and conquers humanity’s greatest and fiercest enemy, Death itself. He does it by dying and rising. He goes into the darkness. He becomes Sin for us. He takes on the demons. He dies. And in His death, He conquers. He baptizes you into His death, and in Him you conquer too. Nothing can harm you eternally. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

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