Friday, March 27, 2009

Yes We Can

Mark 9:14-32

by Daniel Harrell

Coming down off of mountaintops can be hard――whether it’s the first day back at work after a long-awaited vacation, or a return to America after an inspiring mission trip overseas, or literally leaving a spectacular vista for the hike back to reality. If you’ve ever had a mountaintop experience, you never want it to end. Perhaps this is why Peter tried to set up three tents on top of that mountain last Sunday. He wanted to prolong the experience. Along with James and John, Peter got a glimpse of Jesus transfigured, unveiled and resplendent with the light of God’s glory. Moses and Elijah, two Old Testament superheroes, showed up as witnesses to the fact, as God himself God thundered his loving affirmation of his Son. The experience left no doubt that the long-expected Christ, or Messiah, had arrived in Jesus. The only problem was that Jesus hadn’t arrived as expected. He didn’t come as a Moses-like Messiah, brandishing plagues with which to smite his enemies. He didn’t come as an Elijah-like Messiah brandishing fire to chastise his foes. True, Jesus did do some very cool stuff—from walking on water to telling a storm to calm down. But Jesus still came as a suffering Messiah, doomed to die at the hands of his enemies and foes, after which he would somehow rise from the dead, something that the disciples found very confusing. Messiahs don’t rise from the dead because Messiahs don’t die in the first place.

The confusion may have been another reason Peter wanted to stay on the summit. The flashes of glory, clouds of witnesses and thunderous approval were more like what he had in mind for Jesus. But in a flash the flash was over and Jesus was back to being that poor and scandalized carpenter from Nazareth, standing all by himself. Heading down the mountain, Jesus told the dazed disciples to forget about what they had seen until they saw him risen from the dead, which got the whole debate going again amongst themselves about what “rising from the dead” meant. Once at the bottom, their private debate gave way to a more furious public one in which the rest of their motley crew was embroiled. Seems the other disciples had been trying to drive a demon out of a sick little boy, something they should have been able to do since they’d done it already before. Back in chapter 6, Jesus gave them demon-busting power which they deployed with some success. But when they tried to do it this time, they flailed. The religious authorities, who hounded Jesus and his disciples everywhere they went, took the opportunity to jump all over the disciples’ failure as evidence they were posers. A crowd joined in on the fray, loving it when people who think they know what they’re doing are made to look like fools.

I feel their shame. As a hoops junkie during every March Madness, I love getting in on bracket pools. We got one going here amongst the ministers and I got one going at home too. I do all the hoops homework necessary to generate the winning bracket, confident in my astute basketball acumen and leaving nothing to chance. I can get a little obsessed. Dawn, on the other hand, designed this method whereby Violet, our 17-month-old daughter, could fill out her NCAA bracket by repeating back the names of the team she wanted after Dawn recited each match up. It was cute. Cute, that is, until today when Violet’s bracket started beating mine. I’m not too worried though. Violet’s got Siena picked to win it all. She is so going down. Still, I feel pretty stupid.

I’m guessing that the disciples felt pretty stupid too. Granted, you read the sick boy’s symptoms in verse 18 and you realize his was one tough demon: it robbed the boy of speech, threw him to the ground, made him foam at the mouth, gnash his teeth and go rigid. Many recognize the symptoms as an epileptic seizure for which there remains no cure. Jesus said that “this kind can come out only by prayer,” implying that the disciples had forgotten to say theirs. Had they taken their previous successes for granted? Did they think their ability to heal was attributable to them? Had they neglected to pray? I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking that even if they had prayed, there’s no guarantee that the boy would have been OK. How many prayers get prayed for healing only to have nothing happen? A recent study of 1,800 coronary patients from six hospitals (including Beth Israel Deaconness in Boston) concluded that prayer for cardiac patients has no significant effect on reducing their complications. Worse, patients who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse. Such findings are always disappointing. Jesus says “ask and you shall receive” which I know doesn’t mean ask for whatever I want, but for proper things like curing disease, repairing a marriage or finding a job. I’ve asked for all these things, for myself and for others, but have not always received them. Mark offers little by way of explaining why aside from reminding us how Jesus himself didn’t heal everybody. Jesus never got married or held down a steady job.

Jesus didn’t get everything he prayed for either. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for God to let him off the hook. He asked to bypass God’s cup of wrath against human evil and sin. He wanted the Father to find some other way to save the world. Yet rather than express disappointment with God’s answer, Jesus responded with submissive obedience, praying what he taught us all to pray: “Thy will be done.” In the end, prayer is not about getting God to do what you want as much as it is about getting yourself to do what God wants, as hard as that may sometimes be. Does this mean that God wants disease and divorce and unemployment and unjust suffering? No, but clearly these are all things God allows for reasons we cannot always comprehend as we endure them. But once we’ve gone through them, there is, looking back, oftentimes evidence of God’s presence in our lives in ways we would not have otherwise experienced it. A world where disease and disaster and suffering never occur is a world Jesus would never have had to die for. A perfect world is a world he would never have come to in the first place.

Such a world is not our world. In our world, Jesus confronts not only a lack of prayer but a lack of faith too. Surveying the ruckus as he comes down the mountain, Jesus throws up his arms in exasperation. Verse 19: “O unbelieving generation! How much longer do I have to stay here with you? How much longer do I have to put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” So they brought the possessed boy over and when the demon saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into another convulsion. The desperate father, willing to try anything, pleaded with Jesus: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus seemingly takes offense at the inference. He responds “If I can? Everything is possible for him who believes” which sounds a lot like “Ask and you shall receive.” There is a strong link between prayer and faith, but not always like we link it. I don’t think the point is to have enough faith to get your prayers answered. It’s never the amount of faith that matters as much as the direction in which it is pointed. Even weak faith is strong as long as it is faith in Christ. The point is not to have enough faith to get your prayers answered; but to pray enough for faith to accept whatever answer God gives. In the end, prayer is not about getting God to do what you want as much as it is about getting yourself to do what God wants, as hard as that may sometimes be. “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

Oftentimes when praying for others, I’ll tack on that caveat “Lord, if it be your will,” which makes some Christians mad. They’ll insist such an addendum only exhibits doubt; it’s like I’m managing my disappointment on the front end by giving God an out, which sometimes may be true. They’ll say if I want God to act, I have to ask boldly and believe without doubt, which ironically ends up putting most of my faith in me and my own ability to believe. It is interesting to note how the faith of the sick boy is never at issue here. Commentator Lamar Williamson observes how in Mark, no exorcism is ever contingent on the faith of the demon-possessed person. Indeed, the absence of faith (which he defines essentially as trust ) is the very nature of the possession. Demons do believe who Jesus is, but they cannot trust him.

I was recently counseling yet another casualty of our reckless economy in whom demons of despair had come home to roost. Fearful and despondent, this man believed in Jesus, but wasn’t sure how to trust Jesus, the job possibilities look so bleak. With my mind on this passage, I quoted Jesus’ own words as encouragement, “Everything is possible for the one who believes,” which unfortunately came off sounding somewhat glib. He shook his head sadly, such possibility felt too impossible to him, his faith was so wobbly. Like the desperate father, he believed, but he needed help for his unbelief. So before we prayed for a job, we prayed for his faith. We prayed for faith to trust Jesus knows what he’s doing, even when he’s not telling. Such faith is not some optimistic pipe dream that looks on the bright side and hopes for the best. If anything, Christian faith is essentially pessimistic. It refuses to naively minimize life’s tragedies and troubles with dismissive assurances along the lines of “don’t worry, it’ll be all right.” Instead, Biblical faith instills hope that sees the effects of evil and sin for what they are, but then translates them into what they really are by the power of the cross. Thus suffering, rather than meaningless pain or just desserts, translates through the cross into meaningful redemption and reinforced character. And evil, rather than the perpetual source of inhumanity and injustice, becomes the already vanquished foe, its energy exhausted at Easter. Our own fallible selves, doubtful and devious at times, by faith are nevertheless becoming who we already are in Christ: new creations raised with Christ from the dead.

Coming down from their mountaintop experience of Jesus, the disciples struggled to understand how this could be possible. What does “rising from the dead” mean? How is that possible? In verse 31, Jesus again teaches them how “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” Mark then adds, “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” This is the third time Jesus taught them this, and it won’t be the last. This is also the third time they have no idea what he’s talking about, and it won’t be their last. But they had learned enough to know not to ask him about it. The first time they brought it up Jesus called Peter Satan. The last time they brought it up in reference to a returning Elijah who was supposed to blaze the path for the Messiah. Jesus told them how Elijah had returned as John the Baptist only to lose his head. A suffering Elijah makes the way for a suffering Messiah who comes not as a conquering hero but as a crucified criminal who after three days would rise again. But how is that possible? People don’t rise from the dead. If “everything is possible for the one who believes,” does that include coming back to life?

The desperate father prays for help to believe. Jesus dramatically answers by commanding the demon to flee from the boy. Demons believe but do not trust Jesus. Except that’s not exactly true. Demons trust Jesus to do them in. So this demon obeys and departs, but not without convulsing the boy one last time so violently that he went limp like a dead man. The stunned crowd now gathered around concluded just that. A fearful murmur ran through the people. They said, “He’s dead.” But since “everything is possible for the one who believes,” Jesus reached out and took the boy by the hand and lifted him up, or better, Jesus took him by the hand and raised him up, the verb being the same as the verb resurrect. Throughout Scripture, healing and resurrection are always analogous. Healing is an image of the resurrection, it’s a picture in part of what new creation and our new bodies will be when we’re whole. Healing operates as a signpost pointing out the trail, it is not the final summit. Jesus didn’t heal everybody on earth because this life is not it. Even those whom Jesus did heal all got sick again and eventually died.

But those who eventually died will eventually rise. “Everything is possible for the one who believes” means “resurrection is possible for the one who believes.” “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said, “The one who believes in me will live, even though he dies; whoever lives and believes in me will never die” everyone who believes resurrects. Even Peter would eventually get it, and experience it too. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” he writes, “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade…. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer. This suffering comes come so that your faith――of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire――may prove itself to be genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed again.” Even weak faith is strong as long as it is faith in Christ who died and rose from the dead. Let us pray for the faith to believe in Him, that we may want what God wants, on earth as it is in heaven, no matter how hard as that may sometimes be.

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