Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 19)
September 16, 2018
Text: Mark 9:14-29
“I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:25; ESV). It is the constant struggle every Christian must endure. It is the fervent prayer on the lips of every one of us. Faith and doubt. Believing the Word and Promises of God and doubting them in the midst of circumstances that seem to contradict those Words and Promises. And we… we are simul justus et peccator, at the same time saint and sinner. We are of the Spirit, born anew of water and the Word, yet in the flesh of Old Adam and in a fallen world until the Lord sees fit to deliver us. We are walking contradictions. We believe, but we don’t. We love God, but we don’t. We are wholly righteous in Christ. We are wholly sinners in ourselves. “Wretched man that I am!” we exclaim with St. Paul. “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25).
This is the mistake we make when we talk about believing, about faith. We think that faith is our part, that faith depends on us! Oh, how blind we are. Do you really want faith to depend on you? Do you really want to believe that you have to have enough faith to be saved or to make all things possible for you? Do you really want to believe that faith is the one good work you get to do in order to be saved by “grace alone, apart from works”? No, beloved. Repent of that thinking. That’s you trying to weasel your way in on God’s territory. No, you did not make your decision for Jesus. You did not choose Him, He chose you. You did not give your heart to Him until He first gave His heart for you in death for your forgiveness, and gave you a new heart, a clean heart, a forgiven and believing heart by His Spirit in your Baptism into Him. To say you gave your heart to Jesus is like saying you chose to have your mother give birth to you. It’s silliness. Stop it. You believe by grace, by God’s gift of faith to you, by the Spirit’s work, by Jesus giving Himself for you and to you. Your unbelief… Well, now. THAT is your part. “I believe,” we say with the distraught father in our text. “By your own gift, O Lord, I see that you are my help and salvation.” But “help my unbelief!” Get rid of all that is me in the equation, for that is all I bring to the table in this, my doubt, my lack, my sin, my unbelief. You have given me to believe, Lord Jesus. But if I am to go on believing, it must all come from You.”
What is the source of the man’s doubts? You can understand where he’s coming from, can’t you? His son… his own beloved son is afflicted by a demon, by an evil spirit that makes him mute, that causes him to seize and convulse, foam at the mouth and grind his teeth and become rigid, an evil spirit that is always trying to kill the boy, throw him into fire or water so as to destroy him. Well, how do you confess God’s love for you and for your son, and His willingness and ability to save you, in the face of that? It’s a miracle he believes at all! It’s a gift of God! It is no less than the Holy Spirit who has given the man to hear about Jesus and believe in Jesus so that he brings his son to the disciples of Jesus for exorcism, for healing and relief, for restoration and wholeness. But he knows, even as he stands before the Lord of life, that he has his doubts. He believes, but he doesn’t. He knows Jesus can help, and yet he’s not so sure. “(I)f you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22). If you can. If you are even willing. I just don’t know. But I’m hoping anyway. I believe; help my unbelief!
And what about the disciples? They bungle the whole thing up. Really, their disease is the same as that of the man, unbelief, but the symptoms manifest in a different way. The disciples believe… in themselves! They’d been given authority over unclean spirits, after all! But they forgot that this authority does not have its source from within them. It is not an indelible character stamped upon their person. The authority belongs to Jesus. The authority is Jesus Himself. The disciples can only cast out demons because when they speak, it is Jesus speaking. They can only cast out demons because they hold the Preaching Office. Their authority begins and ends with the speaking of Jesus. By grace, because they themselves have heard the Word of Jesus, they believe. But God help their unbelief, which is to say, their belief in themselves. It won’t get them anywhere with the devil but deeper and deeper. It won’t get them anywhere with Jesus but His exasperated lament: “O faithless generation… How long am I to be bear with you?” (v. 19).
“Faithless generation,” He calls His disciples. “Faithless generation.” That is you. Faith must not and cannot depend on you. It must not and cannot be something that comes from within you, or me, or we’re all lost. Faith must come from the outside. Faith must be from no other source than Almighty God. Faith is a gift. You know the verse: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this,” namely, faith, “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). So writes St. Paul in Ephesians 2. Faith is not your part of the deal. It is not the one good work you do to acquire salvation. Faith is still God’s part of the totally one-sided deal of your salvation. God gives faith. Faith receives God’s gifts. You’ve heard me say this many times, but we always forget it: Faith is like your hands. You did nothing to earn your hands. You didn’t decide to have hands. Your hands didn’t come from the deepest stirrings of your heart. No, God gave you your hands. And by your hands you receive all of His physical blessings. What is your part in that? Nothing! Nothing, except to sit there and receive what God gives with what God gave you to receive what He gives. And that is faith. God gives it by grace, on account of Christ. And He gives it to receive all that He gives you in Christ.
But even more than that, faith is not a gift of God given apart from Christ. Faith is Christ. You see, all that is you is unbelief, rebellion against God, unfaith. In the simul justus et peccator, at the same time saint and sinner, your part is the sinner. So what must Jesus do for you so that you believe, to help your unbelief, to make the saint of the simul a reality? He must be your faith! Jesus is your substitute. That means that, not only does He step into your place to bear your sin and receive your punishment on the cross so that you are forgiven, He also does what you cannot do, what God demands of you. He fulfills the Law for you. And He believes for you. This explains what our Lord says this morning in our text, that “All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23). This is one of those “faith can move mountains” type of verses. It’s a beautiful Promise, but… I mean, have you ever tried it out? I believe, I think. So I try to move the mountain, or walk on the water, or cure my friend’s cancer, or just find my stupid keys. No dice. But beloved, who is the One who believes? Who is the One for whom all things are possible? It is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Faithful One. He is the One who believes. And all that He does, His fulfilling the Commandments, His death and resurrection, and His believing... all of that counts for us! It is credited to our account, as if we did it, because Jesus did it, and He gives His doing it to us in His Word and Sacraments, by grace.
So you see, Jesus is the end of all doubt. He is the end of unbelief. He is your faith. And that is why your faith is enough. Because Jesus is enough. When it comes to saving faith, we don’t quantify it. This saves us from the great spiritual crisis of whether I have enough faith. Of course, if I’m asking about me, the answer is no, I don’t. But the real question is whether I have Jesus. For if I have Jesus (and I do, not because of anything I’ve done, but because He has given Himself to me)… If I have Jesus, it is enough. That is saving faith. That is belief. That is the end of unbelief.
Now, I know this confounds you. To be sure, it is hard to bear. It is hard to give up that last little shred of something I get to do to make my salvation a reality. I have to believe. I have to have faith. That’s my part. Nope. No more of that. Jesus does it all. Jesus is your salvation start to finish. Beloved, this confounded the disciples, too. Why couldn’t we cast the demon out? What went wrong? You gave us authority, Jesus. We thought we had this one in the bag. “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (v. 29). Now, this probably means that there are different tactics for different types of demons. They are not all the same. But whatever it means, it certainly means this: All things are not possible for you in yourself. That is what the disciples thought, but it is not the case, and when you read the text that way, you are reading it wrong. All things are possible for Jesus, the One who believes, the One who is your faith. So do you want to drive out that demon? You ask Him. You pray. And the demons must obey. Not because of you. They don’t have to obey you. Because of Jesus. They must obey Jesus.
Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Take away all that is me. Put it to death on Your cross. Give me all that is You. Raise me up with Your resurrection life and faith. So you pray, and His answer is yes. He is doing it right here and right now in preaching and in the Supper of His body and blood. He is giving you Himself. He is your faith. He is your life. He can and He will help. For all things are possible for Him. And you are in Him, and He is in you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.