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Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer: Faith and Prayer

August 12, 2007

Mark 9:1-32; Matthew 17:1-22

I want to thank you for your response to this series on Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer. Your comments have greatly encouraged me in this journey we are taking together. I have been quite autobiographical in this series, and this sermon will continue in that vein. Sharing with you some of my own experience with prayer and my struggles may be helpful to you. We are far more alike than we are different.

Today, we come to the topic of faith and prayer, perhaps one area of great misunderstanding. People have all kinds of ideas about the connection between the two. The passages of scripture before us can give us good insight into the way our Lord talked about this difficult issue.

The Eastern and Western Christian churches usually observe August 6 as the Day of Transfiguration. I know that as Baptists, we pay little attention to this day. While that designation may be somewhat random, it certainly fits well with today’s sermon. The prelude to the transformation in the life of Jesus is very significant.

You remember that at Caesura, Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples, “Whom do you say that I am?” This pivotal question appears at the center of Jesus’ ministry, at the center of his training of his disciples. Perhaps you remember, too, that Simon Peter almost inadvertently blurts out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” I remind you that when Simon Peter says that, he has absolutely no knowledge of the crucifixion or the resurrection. Simon Peter makes that affirmation of faith based solely on what he had seen to that point in the life of Jesus. He had seen how Jesus related to people, how he could touch them and bring healing to their bodies, how he could speak to them and bring comfort and healing to their spirits. Simon Peter had seen how Jesus talked in a manner that was so different from the scribes because, as the Sermon on the Mount reminds us, he taught as one who had special authority. Simon Peter makes that affirmation based only on his limited observations.

As is true of Simon Peter so many times, the very moment he makes such a profound statement, he sticks his foot in his mouth. He is up and down and all over the map. About the time they think they had it all figured out, Jesus begins to teach them about the crucifixion and resurrection. He tells them about those events that we identify as the Passion of Christ. Simon Peter rebukes Jesus, “Lord, I am not going to allow that.” It is then that Jesus turns and says to Simon Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Of course, Jesus is saying, “I cannot be led into a temptation that would cause me to veer from my appointed purpose, the purpose God has set out before me.”

After that confession at Caesarea, Philippi, Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples – Peter, James, and John – to a mountaintop. Some say Jesus took them to Mount Herman, which is close to Caesarea, Philippi. That mountain, over 9,000 feet tall, is the only snow-capped peak in the Holy Land. Others think that perhaps the Mount of Transfiguration was Mount Tabor, a little to the south at the head of the Valley of Jezreel. Regardless of the name of the mountain, a strange, wonderful, mysterious experience happens to Jesus. He is radiant, transformed before their eyes. A voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Very strange indeed is the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Perhaps it was God’s way of saying, “As Moses was the lawgiver and Elijah was the first of the prophets, so my Son has come to fulfill the law and the prophets.” The experience affects the disciples, particularly Simon Peter who wants to stay there and preserve the memory.

If Jesus’ ministry was anything, it was a ministry of interruption. Consider for a moment passages in Matthew that tell of a woman with an issue of blood; a little girl, the daughter of a Jewish official, who dies; and two blind men. Jesus ministers to each of these people in turn. He heals a woman because she reaches out and touches his garment. He goes with an official to his home and raises a child from death. He also restores sight to two blind men. That passage illustrates so well Jesus’ ministry of interruption.

Following the transformation, Jesus’ ultimate purpose is to descend the mountain and travel to Jerusalem. As he attempts to accomplish this goal, however, he is interrupted once again. He comes upon the scene of a buzzing crowd, intense arguments, and helpless disciples. A troubled father in the crowd approaches Jesus, claiming, “Something is wrong with my child.” Again, Jesus allows others to interrupt his route, and he takes the time to minister to someone in need.

Both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew include this account. You will notice that the two versions are somewhat similar, but differences also occur. The question from the baffled disciples is the same in both gospel accounts: “Why couldn’t we handle this situation? Why couldn’t we deal with this crisis?” In Mark’s gospel, Jesus answers them, “This can only be dealt with by prayer.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus answers their questions with, “It is because you did not have enough faith.” Mark’s version provides instruction about prayer while Matthew’s version provides instruction about faith. You can see here the link between faith and prayer.

Jesus had sent his disciples out on previous occasions, giving them power to heal the sick, cast out demons, and preach the Word. They had successfully healed many individuals of their illness, relieved people of demon possession, and preached the gospel news. On this occasion, however, they find themselves powerless, unable to help this troubled father. They wonder, “What has happened? What went wrong? Why have we lost our edge? Why could we not perform this miracle?”

Mark’s version emphasizes that the disciples have gotten behind on their praying. When you are working for the Lord and everything seems to be successful and effective, it is a great temptation to think that the accomplishments come from your own strength. The point here is that you cannot do anything without the life of prayer. Jesus said it so beautifully in Chapter 15 of John, Verse 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in me, I will abide in you and you will bear much fruit.” What is this abiding? It is the life of prayer. Jesus continues, “…apart from me, you can do nothing.” The disciples experienced a lack of power, preventing them from doing what they had done previously. When they ask about their powerlessness, Jesus explains, “It is because you do not have enough faith.” That is an indictment.

Do any of us think that we have enough faith? I certainly do not. Trying to muster enough faith has always been a part of my struggle with my spiritual life. Jesus talks about mustard seed faith. Do you know how big a mustard seed is? Maybe I should ask, “Do you know how tiny a mustard seed is?” One time when I was leading a seminar, I decided to give everyone there a mustard seed. I bought a quarter of a pound of those seeds for about a quarter. I had enough mustard seeds to give to everyone in the church they are so tiny. Jesus said, “If you have just that much faith, just a little bit, you have enough faith to move a mountain.”

If you have crossed the Tennessee/Kentucky line on Interstate 75, you know that off in the distance, strip mining has literally moved a mountain. Over the years, a coal company has devastated the landscape by taking off layer after layer after layer of that mountain by pulling coal from the ground. Huge earth-moving equipment, working for years, has brought down that mountain. That process provides an example of just how much effort it requires to move a mountain. Jesus’ statement that a mustard seed faith will move a mountain sounds like one of those hyperboles we sometimes find in Jesus’ Aramaic sense of humor.

The tradition of the rabbis knows the term mountain-mover well. This term described a rabbi who was a good teacher, a teacher who had the ability to help a hardheaded, stubborn, and recalcitrant student overcome his doubts and grow in faith. A rabbi who had that skill was said to be able to move mountains. Jesus is not talking about literally moving a mountain from one place to another. He is using figurative language to say, “If you have a little bit of faith, as much as a mustard seed, you can overcome enormous doubt.” His response emphasizes the fact that the disciples have lost their power to perform a miracle because their faith is waning. They often request, “Lord, increase our faith.” Their faith was on the decline because they are not actively involved in the life of prayer.

Matthew’s version of the story places more emphasis on the father who asks for help. The father comes, expecting to receive the help he needs; but Jesus is not there. He is on the Mount of Transfiguration. The father then turns to the disciples who have helped others recently. They have cast out other demons, yet they can do nothing in this instance. Maybe they are enamored with their own power. Sometimes that happens to disciples of Jesus. We become so impressed with ourselves that we forget who is in charge. Can you imagine this father’s frustration and disappointment? He comes to the people he thinks can help him, and they can give nothing.

This same experience happens to many people. They come to a church, thinking the church will satisfy the need in their lives. They are sometimes disappointed. They feel let down, disappointed, at the way church leadership responds. Those individuals quit, turn away from the church, and even turn away from the Lord.

This father will not accept the fact that the disciples are unable to help his son. He says, “I want to see Jesus.” He knows where the true power lies. He knows that if the disciples do not have the ability, Jesus does. Jesus surprises these people by coming down the mountain at just the right time. He startles everyone there.

Several weeks ago, two mothers called me, asking about the possibility of starting a support group for parents of epileptic children. I told them that I would meet with them at their first meeting if they had the energy to start a group. We plan to meet at Westminster Presbyterian Church on the first Tuesday of October. These two mothers know that they need help dealing with a child who has epilepsy.

While Matthew focuses on the disciples’ lack of prayer, Mark focuses on this father’s faith and provides a more detailed account of Jesus’ encounter with the father. The boy in this passage clearly has epilepsy. You do not have to read this passage but once to see that the symptoms described here are those of a grand-mal seizure. In the first century, people talked about any medical condition they did not understand as demon-possession. Jesus meets them on their own terms. The boy’s father does not know how to help his son. He could have used a support group, but he had found something better. Finally, Jesus is here before him.

When the disciples could do nothing, the father begs, pleads, Jesus, “Lord, if you can do anything, please help us.” Jesus gives him a kind of mild rebuke, “‘If you can…’ All things are possible to those who believe.” The father then makes one of my favorite affirmations of faith in the entire Bible, an outstanding affirmation that is at the same time a desperate prayer, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

I am right there between belief and unbelief myself much of the time. Many of us are there. None of us has perfect faith, but Jesus does not require perfect faith. He requires mustard seed faith. Just a little bit goes a long way. What is odd is that exercising just that little bit, that mustard seed faith, causes it to begin to grow stronger and stronger and stronger.

Do you think of faith and doubt as opposites? Do you remember the story I told a few weeks ago about Kathleen Norris entering a convent? Kathleen told the Mother Superior, “I do not belong here. I have so many doubts.” The Mother Superior laughed and said, “That is good. Those doubts are the seeds of faith.” Faith and doubt are not opposites. They certainly are not mutually exclusive.

This father’s statement, “I believe. Help my unbelief,” is an honest prayer. This expression of faith is enough for Jesus to heal this boy of epilepsy. Once again, Jesus takes the time to spend with a desperate parent.

A mother told me several years ago that her son had epilepsy. She monitored his medication as long as he lived at home with her. When he went away to college, he became involved with a religious group that told him that if he had enough faith, he would not have to take his epilepsy medicine. They assured the son that Jesus wanted to heal him. Thinking he would be fine, he discontinued taking his medication. About two weeks later, he had a seizure in the bathtub and drowned. When his mother went to the college town to arrange the funeral, she met with some of the members in that group. They told her, “He just did not have enough faith.” Do not believe that. That is not true.

As this story in the gospels illustrates, Jesus does not require loads of faith. Jesus requires whatever faith we have, even mustard seed faith, even an ambivalent mixture of faith and unbelief. He just wants us to be honest, just as the father was. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Jesus will take the faith we have. That is enough for him.

All four of our boys had chicken pox at the same time. Bless Clare’s heart! We were in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time. Our son Erik had chicken pox in spades, in the palms of his hands, the bottoms of his feet. The second child in a family to contract chicken pox usually has a more severe case. He did. Doctors diagnosed Erik with epilepsy when he was six years old. We believe that a chicken pox lesion on the sylvian cortex of his brain triggered seizure activity. I remember holding Erik in my arms when he first started having seizures. I remember counting somewhere between forty and fifty seizures, just one after another one night. I know how the father in this passage feels. I have prayed the same prayer, “Lord, if you can do anything, please help us.” Of course, I believed, but I still had my doubts.

Erik lived a long time with his epilepsy, but it grew worse as the years passed. Erik was a big guy who played football at Spartanburg High School and briefly at Furman. His epilepsy never slowed him down. About the only thing postponed because of epilepsy was his driving a car, which he was finally able to do. Having faith does not necessarily mean that whatever is wrong will disappear. Having faith means that you are able to deal with life. The boy’s epilepsy disappeared in the scripture. Though Erik’s epilepsy did not disappear, he was able to live with the condition.

Sometimes we need faith to know that no matter what happens, God is going to help us through it. Out Highway 176 past USC Upstate, Hogback Mountain appears off in the distance. On a cloudy day, it is impossible to see that mountain, but I have never doubted its presence. Faith is the same way. Sometimes, we see so clearly that God is at work in our lives. At other times, the clouds roll in; and God seems absent. The very same God that was there when we could see so clearly is still there. It is as if the faith we need does not move a mountain; it holds the mountain in place. God is with us. He has made a promise, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.” In your life of prayer, bring the faith you have. Your faith will grow. It will never be perfect, but it will grow and grow and grow.

If you have never accepted Christ as Savior, we invite you to do so today. Maybe you need to make a decision about church membership. You are already a Christian, but you need a church home. If that is your desire, we invite you to become a part of this fellowship as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Trusting Jesus.” We invite your response.

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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