Topical Scripture: Mark 9:14-29
Delivered March 22, 2020
There is so much we don’t know about the COVID-19 pandemic.
We don’t know when cases in the US will peak or how long they will last afterwards. We don’t know if surviving a COVID-19 infection means we gain long-lasting immunity or if we can become re-infected. We don’t know if the virus will be affected by warmer temperatures in the spring and summer or, if it is, whether we will see a second onslaught of infections in the fall. We don’t know if measures to keep us from infecting each other will work. We don’t know if vaccine and therapy trials now underway will work.
At a time like this, it’s easy to wonder if prayer does much good. We pray for our leaders, for our healthcare providers, for our friends and families and ourselves. But if you’re like most of us, there’s an unstated, perhaps unadmitted doubt in the back of your mind—will my prayers really make any difference? They can fall into the “why not?” category: something that doesn’t cost us anything but a little time and might make a difference. But who really knows?
In my spring sermon series, we are following Jesus to Easter and watching him change lives along the way. Last week, we saw him save Peter from drowning on the stormy Sea of Galilee in response to the fisherman’s prayer, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30). The Greek is really just two words: “Lord, save!”
It’s the shortest prayer in the Bible, and one we can pray any time in any storm.
Today we’ll shift from the shortest prayer in Scripture to my favorite prayer in Scripture. It’s one that I’ve prayed many times over the years. It’s one that you may need to learn to pray in these hard days.
Before we learn it, let me ask you: What questions or doubts or struggles are most on your heart today? They may be about the coronavirus pandemic, but they may be about something else. One tragedy about disease epidemics is that other diseases don’t stop being diseases. People don’t stop having heart attacks and cancer and strokes. People don’t stop having car accidents and marital problems and financial fears.
So, name your fear, your doubt, your worry. Now, let’s learn how to pray my favorite prayer in response.
The plight of a desperate father
Our story follows Jesus’ transfiguration, when he, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain to the people below. Here, “when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them” (Mark 9:14). These “scribes” were religious leaders, the authorities of the day.
When the crowd saw Jesus, they “were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him” (v. 15). With his usual compassion, he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” (v. 16).
A man in the crowd explained, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able” (vv. 17–18).
Imagine this man in our context, with a son with coronavirus. He has brought him to the doctors, but they cannot help him. His son is getting sicker, and he is getting more desperate.
Jesus said to this grieving father, “Bring him to me” (v. 19). The spirit then convulsed the boy, so that he fell on the ground, foaming at the mouth (v. 20). Jesus asked his father how long this had been happening; the father said, “From childhood” (v. 21). He added, “It has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him” (v. 22a).
Now comes the part we will focus upon today. The father added, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (v. 22b). Jesus replied, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes” (v. 23). Notice that he did not say, “All things are guaranteed,” but “all things are possible.” Our faith does not obligate God, as we will see shortly.
Here is the prayer I am recommending to us today: “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!'” (v. 24).
Why doubts are normal
Doubts are a normal and expected part of the human experience. It is natural to doubt anything we cannot know with certainty. And the more urgently we need to know what we do not, the more deeply we will feel our doubts.
I can doubt that the universe is ninety-three billion light years in size as scientists currently estimate, but my doubts don’t affect my life unless I’m an astrophysicist. I can doubt that Brexit will move forward as planned in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but my doubts don’t affect me unless I live in the UK or Europe or work in a field directly affected by them.
But if I doubt that God can protect me and my family from coronavirus or heal us if we are infected, my doubts become very real and very personal.
Faith in God is like faith in anyone else in that it is a relationship rather than a scientific experiment. All relationships require a commitment that transcends the evidence and becomes self-validating.
I cannot prove to you that I love my wife or that she loves me. You would have to experience our relationship to know its reality. You cannot prove you should take a job before you take it. You examine the evidence, of course, but then you step beyond the evidence into a commitment that validates itself.
It is the same with our Lord. There will always be dimensions of our relationship with him that transcend certainty and require faith. At such times, doubts are natural and normal.
What should we do with such doubts today?
One: Remember what we know about God.
This father said to Jesus, “I believe” (v. 24a). The Greek word is pisteuo, meaning to trust in, to have confidence in, to rely upon. His faith was not merely intellectual but personal. He had enough faith to bring his suffering son to Jesus’ disciples in the hope that they could help. Even though they had been unable to heal his son, he had enough faith to turn to their master now.
When we face what we don’t know, let’s remember what we do.
Nothing about this boy’s suffering or the coronavirus pandemic changes anything about the nature of God. He is as powerful today as when he created the universe. He is as omniscient today as when he led his people into the Promised Land.
He hears our prayers as fully today as when he heard the Christians praying for Peter in prison and freed the apostle from Herod. He loves us as much today as when he sent his Son to die for us at Calvary.
What have you experienced about God in the past that is relevant today? What prayers has he answered? What needs has he met? What sins has he forgiven? In what way can you say, “I believe”?
Two: Trust God with what we don’t know.
The second part of the father’s prayer is one that may surprise many believers: “Help my unbelief!” (v. 24b). “Unbelief” translates apistia, the opposite of pisteuo. Just as an “atheist” is one who denies theism, so this man’s “unbelief” contradicted his belief.
When we have such doubts, we may think God won’t hear us or help us. But the opposite is true.
Remember Thomas, the disciple who did not meet the risen Christ along with the other apostles and said, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). When the risen Christ met with them again the next week, Thomas was in their midst.
Did Jesus criticize Thomas for his doubts? Did he condemn or judge him? “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (v. 27). Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). And according to early tradition, he took the gospel as far east as India.
Thomas was not the only apostle to harbor doubts about the resurrection. In Matthew 28, we read that “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (vv. 16–17).
Did Jesus reject them? Did he expel them from his movement? To the contrary, he commissioned them to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (v. 19). And they did.
The preeminent example of doubting faith is that of our Lord who cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1). Of course, we know that Jesus was “without sin” in every dimension of his life (Hebrews 4:15). And we know that his Father met him in his doubts, so that Jesus would soon say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
Like Thomas and the other apostles and our Savior, we can bring our doubts to God. We can tell him where we are struggling and ask for his help. If we don’t have faith, we can ask for faith. We can pray, “Lord, give me the faith to have faith.”
And we can know that he hears us in grace. In our text, Jesus then cast out the demon and healed the boy (Mark 8:25–27). He answered his father’s doubts with a demonstration of his power and love.
He will do the same for us in whatever way is best for us.
This text does not promise that when we bring God our doubts, he will always meet them as we want him to. Our Lord healed this boy on this day, but he did not heal Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as the apostle prayed he would (2 Corinthians 12:7–8). To the contrary, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9a).
And Paul could say as a result, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9b). And he could add, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).
It’s been said that God sometimes calms the storm, but he sometimes lets the storm rage and calms his child.
What’s important today is that we know we can bring God our doubts in these days and know that he hears us and loves us. We can trust that he will give us what we ask or whatever is best. We may not understand his answer on this side of heaven, but we will one day (1 Corinthians 13:12).
And we can know that we are loved.
One of my favorite movie lines of all time is in The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond Dontes has been unfairly imprisoned. He meets a priest who is suffering the same. At one point the priest says to him, “Here is your final lesson—do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence. God said, ‘Vengeance is mine.'”
Edmond responds, “I don’t believe in God.”
The priest replies, “It doesn’t matter. He believes in you.”