14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” 19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 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.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. 28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
Sermon for Life In The City on November 15, 2015 by Chansin Esparza
Thank you for reading for us, Jason. I just love you so much, you know that right? So you wouldn’t mind me talking a little about you, would you? Let me tell all of you about Jason. We have a pretty good symbiotic relationship. We’re partners in ministry and life. But as in many marriages, one of the spouses tends to end up doing the bulk of the housework. You know what I’m talking about? And let’s just say that cleanliness is not Jason’s strong suit. On occasion, I leave for work early and I ask him to please put his dishes away or please pick up his briefcase and its contents that have spilled across the kitchen counter because we have guests coming over in the afternoon. Sometimes – I even give him a list of things to clean before I get home. I love my husband. I already mentioned that, right? And he loves me, and so on those days when I’m at work and I’m counting on him to leave our house in a good condition … I believe he will do what I’ve asked. Mostly. I think. But then I’m not so sure. But I hope he will. I mean, surely, he will remember what I said. Right? I’m inwardly divided. We can have both faith and doubt within us – all at one time.
Faith and doubt seem to be contradictions. In the book of James, we’re even told, “ask in faith, never doubting… for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” Yikes. You may have grown up being warned not to doubt.
But then we read the story in Mark. And we hear about a father who was in a desperate situation, who came to Jesus, and who had some doubts.
Jesus was asked to heal the man’s son from demon possession. Today we might look at the boy’s symptoms and call it epilepsy. For his entire life, wherever the boy happened to be, he would get thrown into violent fits. He lost control of his body at the most terrible times. This kid needed Jesus to heal him. And we read that Jesus did. But the focus of the story is less on the exorcism – as amazing as it was – and more about the intersection of faith, doubt, and prayer.
This story teaches us that at times, when it seems our doubt outweighs our faith, the best solution is to turn to Jesus. Write that down. Remember that. When it seems our doubt outweighs our faith, the best solution is to turn to Jesus.
This is hardest to do when life gets hard. But in times of struggle, we must turn to Jesus for our faith.
The father in the story had a hard life. He loved his child. The son’s struggle was his struggle. He must have tried everything he could in order to find a cure. His son had been suffering for years. He asked Jesus, “Have pity on us and help us!” – the father identified with his son’s fate. It can be hard to have faith when your circumstances are so painful.
Consider John the Baptist. John was a prophet in his own day. He was a herald, the one who prepared the way for Jesus. His spiritual influence stretched across the country. Jesus even told his disciples that “of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist.”
But at the end of his life, things were not going well for John. Because he took a moral and spiritual stand, the immoral leader of the time threw him into prison. And he was stuck there – month upon month. After languishing for 2 years in prison – John began having doubts. He sent a message through his friends to Jesus and asked a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” He was asking Jesus if Jesus really was who he said he was. John felt like he didn’t know anymore! Whereas once John proclaimed Jesus the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world, now John – in the midst of his suffering – felt doubts. It’s amazing that John – who grew up hearing about Jesus’ miraculous birth, who baptized Jesus, who was called by God to proclaim the ministry of Jesus – could falter in faith, finding himself inwardly struggling between faith and doubt.
It shows us that it’s okay that none of us are immune to doubts. At some point in our lives – especially when life is hard and we’re in pain, or we feel like we’re in limbo, waiting on God to move, to answer prayer, to come to our aid – there are times we may wonder if God is really there. If God really cares. We should let the trials in life encourage us to hold even tighter to Jesus. We should understand when we are at the end of ourselves and rely even more on God’s love. This is how some people respond, but this is not everyone’s story. The rest of us turn to fear and doubt.
Our lack of faith may make us feel like Jesus is not the answer for us, that he does not have the power to help us. But remember what we’ve heard today:
Jesus can heal even the most hopeless of circumstances and strongest of doubters.
Our story today reveals that the father and son’s situation seemed hopeless.
- The disciples couldn’t exorcise that demon,
- The illness had been inflicting the boy for a long time,
- The demon was extremely violent and resistant,
- The result was the boy’s consistent near self-destruction
- There was no natural cure
Sound familiar? Have you found yourself in a place where
- An expert who has helped others with a a situation similar to yours couldn’t bring a cure to you?
- An illness has been affecting your family member for a long time?
- You feel like you’re under duress of violence and resistance?
- The result of your situation was near self-destruction?
- For you there was no known cure?
Our faith/doubt struggle is not aided by the fact that we, too, live in a generation that encourages faithlessness. Take Clay, a man who lives in Houston and who was an atheist. He considered himself very rational and always told his wife – who was a Christian – that he needed evidence. If there wasn’t proof then he believed God was just something people made up. His wife bugged him for a long time to go with her to church, and he agreed because he wanted to be nice. One thing led to another, and when asked, he volunteered his services for a youth camp.
While at youth camp, Clay was put on the spot and asked to pray – out loud – over several of the teenagers. He was inexperienced, but he’d he’d heard people pray before so he thought he’d just make things up. “Dear Almighty Creator … blah, blah, blah.” He could come up with something. Well, the first teen stepped forward, and he put his hands on the kid’s shoulders. Before Clay could open his mouth, words came into his head that were not from his own mind. He prayed those words. The image of big boulder fields like in Alaska appeared in his head, and on each were words – names of all the things the teenager was struggling with. Next up was a girl who, as he prayed, began sobbing because she was so moved by his prayer. She shared – for the first time in her life – about the sexual abuse she had suffered from her uncle. Clay knew that it was God’s words and not his own. Later, he prayed “God, if this happens when I get out of your way for 15 minutes, what would happen if I got out of your way for my whole life?” It was an epiphany, a thought that just didn’t sound like the old him. And the response he heard was, “Try me.” From that point on, Clay said he was a Christian. He saw that Jesus is real. God is relevant, and He really wants to do amazing things in our lives.
Clay became a pastor and now leads the most prominent Episcopalian church in Houston. He truly believes it when he says, “If God can change me, He can change anybody.”
And I believe it, too! God can heal even the strongest of doubters, even the toughest of circumstances. Jesus said in Matthew 7, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” So we have to ask.
As people who slide along the continuum of both faith and doubt, we must pray.
The boy needed to be healed, but the father needed to be healed, too – spiritually. Jesus could have easily healed the boy as soon as he learned of the boy’s condition. But he didn’t. He paused. He engaged the father. As the boy was thrown into convulsions, Jesus looked at the dad and asked, how long has this been happening to him? The father answered. And then said, “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus could have indeed expressed his pity and healed the boy right then. But he didn’t. He paused again. He engaged the father again – he challenged the father to become an active participant. “All things can be done for the one who believes.” Seeing that faith was essential, and knowing that he wanted to have faith but it was a struggle, the father cried out, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” And then Jesus healed the boy – while at the same time healing the father.
When we are somewhere on this continuum of faith and doubt, it helps to be reminded of the story of God in which we place our trust. That story – for which we find ourselves in today – is that God created the world. It was beautiful, and he loved the people he created. But we chose to rebel. We wanted control. We didn’t want to follow God’s ways. So sin entered the world. The relationship with God was broken. Relationships with each other and with creation were broken. It was a mess. Thankfully, God didn’t leave us at that. He made a plan. At just the right time, he stepped into human history – becoming one of us. Jesus came to lead us back to God. Out of love, Jesus lived a beautiful life – and then he died a terrible death, taking our place of punishment for all the sin we have committed. But being the perfect sacrifice – and being God himself – death did not keep him down. Jesus rose from the dead. And he says we all have an opportunity to live the abundant life, starting now and into eternity. If we would follow Jesus… If we would choose the side of faith over doubt.
The father’s prayer was: I believe, help my unbelief. I really love that prayer because it acknowledges what’s inside many of us… that we’ve been doing our best to have faith … but the best we have is a faltering faith … and we need God to come and fill in the gaps.
I believe; help my unbelief. The statement is paradoxical, but it’s not really contradictory. The father went to Jesus not because he had full faith but because he was willing to ask. What I love even more than the fact that the father gives voice to the faith and doubt many of us experience is the fact that Jesus responded to him. Jesus didn’t wait until the man had perfect faith. Just a little was enough. That small amount of faith – that honesty – was all it took, and Jesus healed the boy. Do you remember how – at the beginning – I read that Scripture from James that tells you not to doubt? How if you doubt, you shouldn’t expect anything from the Lord? Well, I’m telling you that that is not the end of the story. Thank goodness. When we look here – or when we read the Psalms, we see the mercy of Jesus. So many of the Psalms express great fear and pain and doubt but also great faith. The Holy Spirit will work with what we have. Our lives are messy, and it’s okay! I think doubters can cling to the psalms and to this story about Jesus. If you’ve ever been in a community that didn’t allow you to ask your questions or voice your doubts, then I am sorry. But you are safe here. Jesus – and we at Life in the City – will take you – faith and doubts and all. And then together, let’s take those doubts and go to God in prayer.
My inward trust and distrust in Jason – when it comes to doing chores – stems from a long history of him doing the work some of the time and forgetting other times. I know he intends to please me all the time, but he’s not perfect.
With Jesus, we’ve got a God who is reliable all the time. Our God is always looking out for our best interests. Sure, we don’t realize what is in our own best interests sometimes. Or God intervenes in ways that are hard to see or hard to understand. But our God does intervene when we turn to Jesus. With imperfect faith, we can go and ask for miracles. So let’s pray. Even right now, let’s pray.
“We believe, lord, help our unbelief. We want to see you move in our individual lives – and in our lives as a community. There are miracles to be done, Jesus.
Some of us are lonely. Some are sick. Some are looking for purpose. Some relationships are broken. Some futures uncertain. We are quickly approaching the holidays when our culture goes a little crazy and unhealthy obsessions rise. But we want to be people who live meaningful lives, who make an impact in our neighborhood.
We can’t do it without you. Our faith has gaps. Sometimes, we are inwardly divided. Our actions prove our faith is imperfect. So we turn to you. We pray. You say faith is essential, so we ask for more of it. And we believe – that out of all the prayers we could pray to you – this is one you definitely want to answer.
We trust in your power. Thank you for waiting on us. Help us to recognize it when you’re the one healing the world around us and in us. Help us with our doubts. Fill in the gaps. We turn to you, our savior. Amen.”