Help My Unbelief

16th Sunday after Pentecost 

Mark 9:14-29

Ya gotta love St. Mark and his Gospel!  He doesn’t soften or romanticize anything.  When the disciples mess up, he says so, bluntly.  When Jesus is angry, He is clearly angry.  Yes, ya gotta love St. Mark.  He gives it to you straight!

Especially here in our text today.  The setting here is immediately after the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Jesus, together with Peter, James and John, has just come back down from the mountaintop and that strange experience of metamorphosis.

On the way down, Jesus had told His three disciples to keep it to themselves until the Son of Man had been raised from the dead.  First a mystical experience.  Now talk of death and resurrection.  Their minds were likely having a very hard time absorbing it all!

Well, now here, the four of them have arrived back at the base of the mountain, and, on coming back down to earth, they find chaos.  The other nine disciples are arguing with some scribes, and there’s a big crowd gathered around them. 

It is so very reminiscent of that Old Testament episode at Mt. Sinai, when Moses comes back down from the mountaintop after 40 days and nights with God.  He’s carrying the newly carved stone tablets with the 10 Commandments.  And what did Moses find?  He finds that while he’s been away the Israelites have gotten themselves into an orgy of excess, partying like there’s no tomorrow around a golden statue of a bull calf.  And there’s Moses’ brother, Aaron, acting as DJ.  What happened next was not pretty!

So here in St. Mark, Jesus comes down from the mountain, but He doesn’t have any tablets of stone to smash on the ground in His anger.  And clearly, as St. Mark writes, Jesus is not happy at all.  “Oh faithless generation, how long am I to be with you?  How long am I to bear with you?”  Why do I have to put up with the likes of you?!  Woof!

We’ve seen this before in Mark’s Gospel.  Those flashes of Jesus’ anger.  Yes, it is very human…and yet when Jesus is angry there is something very divine, something very wrath-of-God in those flashes of Jesus’ anger.  And usually, people give Him lots of space when it happens.  Not so much here…

The crowd quickly abandons the hapless 9 arguing with the scribes, and they rush Jesus.  Then we get to the point of the story from a father of a boy who has this epileptic-sounding demon possession.  You can picture Peter, James and John (being the insiders) standing by themselves, shaking their heads and rolling their eyes and tsk-tsking the other 9.  Meanwhile the 9 are likely huddling together in self-defense, knowing full well that the other shoe is going to drop and that after this is all over they are in for some major time in the doghouse! 

But suddenly it’s no longer about the disciples.  Yes, the shoe will drop at the end, but the spotlight narrows to focus only on Jesus, this father and his son.  And we get a remarkable—remark-ably brief, yet remarkably profound—discussion about faith… a discussion which reminds me of a story about Sven and Ole.

Ya, Ole had decided vunce dat he vanted to try raising some chickens…even though he didn’t know a ting about them.  But he vent to town to see Sven at de old feed store.  “I vant to buy 300 chicks,” he said.  “Yoo don’t anyting about raising chickens,” Sven replied.  “Ya, vell, I learn.” And he took da 300 baby chicks home.  Tree days later he vas back at da feed store and vanted another 300 chicks. “Uff da!” Sven replied, “vat happened to da first 300?”  “Oh, dey died,” Ole replied.  Sven thought to himself, “Ya, well, little epidemics do haf a vay of happening,” so he sold Ole another set of 300 chicks. Ya sure, yoo betcha, tree days later Ole is right back vanting to buy yet another 300 chicks. “Dos last 300 chicks yoo sold me died too,” he said. Sven yust stared at him puzzled. He shook his head, “Yoo don’t seem to haf much luck vit chickens!  Vat are yoo doing wrong?”  Ole scratched his head for a vile. “I, I don’t really know,” he said. “I tink…I tink maybe I’m planting dem too deep.”  Ya, Ole’s knowledge is for da birds!  But…it’s the chickens who have to suffer his ignorance!

And that’s what is going on here in St. Mark.  Yes, at the end when Jesus and His disciples are alone, the other shoe does drop.  The 9 approach Jesus to ask Him why they failed.  After all, they had previously done this very thing at Jesus’ command, when Jesus had sent out the 12 to cast out demons and to anoint the sick and heal them.  Why could they do it then and not now?

Jesus replies to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”  The old King James adds, “fasting.”  Ya, and yust like Ole with his chickens, folks will seize upon Jesus’ words here and more than chickens, it’s many a soul that gets buried!

Such folks conclude that if things aren’t going right or well in life, then a person just needs to do something to make it right.  Gotta pray more or pray harder…maybe throw in some fasting too.  If you aren’t getting healthy, wealthy, or wise, it’s because of weakness and poor faith on your part.  You just need a swift kick in the behind to get going.  And with that sort of knowledge many a soul dies a thousand deaths at their hands.

But it’s in Jesus’ conversation with that hapless father that we hear the wonder. The man explains what has happened to his boy, and then he concludes, “But if You can do anything…help us.”

St. Mark’s set-up is priceless.  Jesus is already angry with the whole situation because of the mess His disciples have gotten themselves into.  Now He gets slapped with this insult on top of it?  “What do you mean ‘If’ I can do anything?!  All things are possible for one who believes.”  Sounds like more of the same.  “Just believe harder.  Get out there and believe, believe, believe.”  But you can plant those chickens deep or shallow, wide or narrow, and you’re not gonna grow any chickens.  The man blurts out, “I do believe, but…help my unbelief!”

It’s not in what the man could do…believe…it’s all about what he couldn’t do.  The poor man could not bring himself to believe the very impossibility of what he had asked.  He couldn’t do it.  It wasn’t in him!  So he cries, “Help my unbelief!”  And in that helpless cry…there is a world of faith!

In that cry we hear why Jesus is so edgy.  We hear why the disciples couldn’t get it, because they thought it was about them!  Why all the Oles and Svens who mishandle this passage don’t get any chickens.  The cross stands at the heart of it all.

Here in this chapter Jesus is now setting His face to go up Jerusalem to His cross.  The cross is where Jesus goes for a world that lacks the faith to believe it.  The cross is where Jesus goes to cast out the prince of demons once and for all, to heal a world that leaps and lurches and destroys itself in its epileptic fits.  The cross, where there is help for the helpless, faith for the faithless.

All things are possible at the cross, because Jesus makes all things new and whole and complete at the cross…even us.  And where is that cross?  Out there?  If so, where?  In here?  No, there’s nothing in here but us chickens.  So where is the cross?  Right now it’s in your ears by these words I speak.  Soon it will be upon your tongue in the Sacrament you will eat.  That’s where we find the cross; that’s where we find all things are possible!

When life gives us fits, as it has this man in our text, and the world is pelting us with its useless advice…“do this, do that, hang in there, pray harder, believe more…”  When the world is burying us in its advice about what we should be doing, Jesus says “Don’t just do something, stand there…and listen to Me.  Listen.  Now, eat this.  Drink this.  It’s Me for you.”

Our salvation…whether at the end, or living day by day in faith…our salvation does NOT rest upon what we believe…what sort of salvation is that if it depends on something we must do?!  No, our salvation comes in the midst of what we do not believe, sometimes cannot, sometimes even will not believe.  Our salvation comes by Him and His gifts.  It comes in our being moved to cry out, “Lord…help my unbelief!”  Because our salvation is not buried in here…our salvation is always and only in Christ.