September 16, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’”
Doubt and despair are pitfalls in the way of discipleship. As we who have been called to follow Jesus as Lord do so, we encounter the questions that cause us to rethink what we have been led to believe. Are the promises made to us really true? Can the Lord in whom we put our trust actually deliver? Is it possible for me to receive any benefits from this discipleship thing? These are the questions that rattle around our minds.
What sparks this doubt and despair? Primarily, it is seeing what takes place around us, but not having that line up with what we expect to experience. We have an idea of what should be. When that does not come to pass, then the doubt enters in. Enough doubting leads to despair. Then comes the resulting action of throwing in the towel or pulling the ripcord.
Doubt and despair are seen in the Gospel Reading for this day. You heard about what took place: “When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them.” Jesus and His Inner Circle—Peter, James, and John—had been away. Jesus had been transfigured on the mountain. But as they descend from that mountain, there is a major mess in front of them. Major discord is seen: the other nine disciples are arguing with teachers of the Divine Law, those who were not believers in Jesus. And what sparked this argument? The inability of Jesus’ disciples to help a man’s afflicted son: “Jesus asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ And someone from the crowd answered him, ‘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.’”
Note well what the father says. He had brought his son to Jesus for aid. He thought that Jesus could remove the spirit that afflicted his boy. But when he brought his boy to where Jesus was supposed to be found, Jesus is absent. And His disciples could not do anything to deal with the spirit that harmed the boy. You can imagine just what the scribes were saying at that moment: “See, we told you that Jesus and His disciples were frauds. They really haven’t been healing anyone. What you heard about them was untrue and made up. You should have stuck with us and the way of faith that we’ve been teaching. Your coming here was a waste of time. There wasn’t any help for you or your boy.”
So what has entered this man? Doubt and despair. Jesus alludes to it in His initial response: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” It is seen in the dialogue that he has with Jesus: “And Jesus asked [the boy’s] father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’” The father’s words reveal his doubt and despair. He relates the seriousness of his son’s affliction. He describes the length of his son’s suffering. He knows just how problematic the situation is. And the words of resignation flow from his lips: “But if You can do anything….”
Here the doubt and despair come tumbling out in front of Jesus. The father’s statement tells so much: “My son’s entire childhood has been full of harmful episodes. I know full well that I could not do anything to help him. If I could have done so, I would have tried. So when I heard that You, Jesus, had helped others like my boy, I came to You. But when I came, You weren’t there. I knew that Your disciples had also dealt with similar situations, but they could do nothing for my son. Obviously this wasn’t meant for us. So if You can do anything, then do so. But it sure doesn’t look like anything is going to come for us. Leave us alone; let us go away. We’ll seek help somewhere else.”
The father’s plight is evident. He is about to walk away without receiving anything good. So how does Jesus respond to this? “And Jesus said to him, ‘If You can! All things are possible for one who believes.’” Jesus’ words challenge the father’s doubt and despair. His words confront the man’s thinking. His response tells the man: “There’s no ‘if’ about it. What you desire to receive, I can give. The spirit that afflicts the boy is subject to Me. Turn around and receive the help that I bring. Leave now, and there will be no help given. But if you stay, your son will benefit from My goodness. It is possible.”
Seen in Jesus’ words is the fulfillment of what Isaiah prophesied concerning Him: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” Jesus’ statement—“If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.”—restores the faith of that doubting and despairing father. For what is the father’s reaction? “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” He knows the doubt and despair in him. He knows that Jesus must overcome it. But at that moment, he also knows that what he had believed concerning Jesus is true: his son can indeed be helped by Jesus; it was no mistake to come seeking Jesus’ aid. Jesus delivers the benefit sought: “And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out….”
Sustained by Jesus’ word, the father stays and receives what was needed for his son. This is the same pattern that frames Jesus’ actions for you who have been called to follow Him. You are no different than the father in the Gospel Reading. You desire to receive good things from Jesus. You believe that He is the Redeemer, the One who brings deliverance from sin, death, and Satan. You want the forgiveness, life, and salvation that He offers. But there are so many incidents and events that challenge that belief.
The incidents and events that spark doubt and despair are all around you. There are the challenges of physical illness. Trials in life arise. Households fall apart. Then the questions flow out of your mouths: “Is the Giver of Life actually with me who has been crippled or stricken with terminal disease? Where’s the daily bread going to come from when I haven’t had a paycheck in months? How is losing a spouse or not having my children around a good thing?” Then there is the other more spiritual incidents and events: the guilt that burdens your conscience; the habitual sin that always seems to beset you; the instructions and commands that are unbearable. These elicit the same statements of doubt and despair: “Where is the forgiveness that was promised? Why can’t I overcome this desire? Who is able to follow what Jesus demands?”
You may turn to Jesus’ disciples for help and they seem incompetent and unhelpful. What you believed that your Lord would supply and support appears to be lacking. So was it worth placing trust in Him and His promises? Were all the scribes of this world right all along? The confident statements of certainty and faith crumble; they are replaced by the words spoken by that father so many years ago: “If You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus’ response is the same: “If You can! All things are possible for one who believes.” You come to the same realization of the problem as the father did: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
The issue of your doubt and despair is not unknown to your Lord. But in the midst of it, Jesus reminds you again of what He has done for your sake: “I gave My back to those who strike, and My cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not My face from disgrace and spitting. But the Lord God helps Me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set My face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” Jesus tells you: “I suffered this for your sake. I encountered the same incidents and events. But where you doubt, I have full confidence. Where you think about turning back, I press on. It was for your benefit in times like this. Place your doubt and despair on Me, so that I carry it. Replace it with the certainty of hope in My death and resurrection.” Jesus speaks with His authority: “Believe and do not be fearful. I am present with you always. I command that your sins are forgiven. I give you My life.” You are given the invitation again to follow: “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of His Servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.”
These are the words that sustain you when you are weary. They are what Jesus speaks to you in the midst of your doubt and despair. With a taught tongue, Jesus addresses these sustaining statements to you. With ears opened to your plight, Jesus knows how to attend to you. It is His role for you: He is the Suffering Servant of the Lord who was victorious, so that He could aid His servants who suffer the same. This is what He desires you to know and trust. It is how He answers your plaintive words: “If You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” There is no “if” about it: your Lord has shown His mercy to you; He has given you aid.
Jesus is present now to deal graciously with your unbelief. Hear again how your Lord Jesus has suffered and died for you. Know again how He has risen from death, while His opponents have worn out and been devoured. This is how salvation has been won for you. Do not walk away despondent and empty-handed. Instead, receive His benefits again here at His altar. Deliverance is possible for you who believe. It is meant for you. You are saved by the authority that Jesus bears over your adversaries. So in the midst of your doubt and despair, you can truly say: “The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, He saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. For You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.