"It's Possible, for God Does It"
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
St. Mark 9:14-29
September 17, 2006
IN NOMINE JESU
The notion of acquiring faith is one of the least understood articles of Christian doctrine, along with the articles on the Holy Spirit and justification. Too many within Christendom consider faith to be a work of man, that somehow man can acquire faith for himself. But even then this becomes confusing…faith in what? or in whom? Does man seek to have faith in God or in himself? The answer is yes, for man does indeed seek both, as he has perverted Christian doctrine in most denominations, making it synergistic, that is to say, that God and man cooperate in the faith "process," a process that all too like the so-called Middle East peace process, something which is all process and no peace. Likewise, true faith is not present in the heart of man, for he will not allow God to work His work in the hearts and minds of man…alone. True Christian faith is monergistic. In other words, only one agent does the work of bringing a person to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and that Agent, fellow redeemed, is the Holy Spirit. In our look at John chapter six a number of weeks ago, after the Lord had fed the 5,000, the crowds asked Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" (Jn. 6:28). Remember the Lord's answer: "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent" (Jn. 6:29). Note also the words of St. Paul: "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). In both of these instances the Holy Spirit is at work in the heart of man, seeking to create, sustain, and strengthen in man's heart his saving faith in Jesus Christ. Note well what the Lutheran Confessions state, that which we believe, teach, confess, and practice:
So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of the teaching of the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given (John 20:22). He works faith, when and where it pleases God (John 3:8), in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ's sake.
Our churches condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that through their own preparations and works the Holy Spirit comes to them without the external Word. [AC V]
The disciples in our text were lacking this faith—nine of the Twelve, for Peter, James, and John were coming down with the Lord from the Mount of Transfiguration. A man had brought to the nine his demon-possessed son, and they were not able to drive the demon from the boy. This gave the scribes great joy, ridiculing these nine followers of the Lord, for they could not do what He had at one time sent them out to do, to cast out demons. They needed true faith, a faith that would not wither or wobble, to drive out this determined demon. They lacked this faith, for it both withered and wobbled, and they were unable to cure the boy. No wonder the boy's father was distraught! No wonder he doubted whether the Lord Himself could cure the boy. No wonder he said to the Lord, "But IF you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us" (v. 22b). The Lord threw an "if-then" sentence back at him: "If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes" (v. 23). At that moment the father stood convicted before the Lord, for his faith in God was not perfect, as it was supposed to be, for he cried out, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" (v. 24b). The Lord exorcised the demon from the boy, and the disciples asked Him, "Why could we not cast it out?" So He said to them, "This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting" (vv. 28b-29). Some early manuscripts of St. Mark's Gospel mention fasting in the last verse of our text, while others do not. What is of greatest importance here is not fasting but prayer—and prayer not because it is something man does but because prayer is the speech of faith. To drive out a demon of that magnitude a perfect prayer would have to be offered because perfect faith was required, and the disciples lacked this faith, trusting rather in their own ability (or, in this case, inability) to cure him, forgetting that it was the Lord who would send them out to drive out demons, for He would tell them, "Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven" (Lk. 10:20). Perfect faith rejoices in the comfort that one's name is written in the Lamb's Book of Life, in what God has done, not in what one can, or thinks he can, do. The disciples lacked this faith, trusting in themselves. We too lack this perfect faith, as we are conceived and born sinful and unclean. Our faith in Christ is not perfect, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. Our faith is not perfect, for, if it was perfect, we would use our tongues to cut down others, as James brother of our Lord writes in our Epistle, "But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude [image] of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not be so" (Jas. 3:8-10). We live imperfect lives because they are sinful. Our lives are sinful because we are sinful. We are sinful for our faith is not perfect. We lack that proper, First Commandment relationship before God, where we would fear, love, and trust in Him before all things. Alas, where God belongs we put our wants, needs, desires, and troubles. We think it is impossible for things to work out right, doubting even God. Our Lord says to us in our text, "IF you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes" (v. 23).
The Holy Spirit moved the boy's father to cry, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" The Spirit moved him to respond in faith. His faith was not perfect, but it was there. He had enough faith to ask the Lord's help for the boy and for his own faith. If he had no faith whatsoever, he would not have asked to have it strengthened, for he would not have cared one iota. If we had no faith, we would not be here, asking God to strengthen it—to help our unbelief—through His Word and Sacraments, the means by which He creates, sustains, and strengthens saving faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. Through Baptism and Absolution, preaching and Communion, our Lord drives out the evil spirits that seek to harm us greatly. He calls the demons out as He has called us by name at our Baptism and calls us His own again and again in our daily living our Baptism in the forgiveness of sins, driving out the demons that plague us. In Martin Luther's baptismal rite the pastor, acting in the stead and by the command of Christ, exorcises the demon, exhorting thus, "Therefore, depart, you unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit in the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit." The pastor then makes the sign of the cross upon the forehead and heart of the candidate while saying, "Receive the sign of the holy cross both upon your + forehead and upon your + heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified." These are great words for us to remember even as we are still in the shadow of Holy Cross Day, for we are marked with the sign of the cross upon which our Lord bled and died for us. There on the cross the Lord took all the unclean spirits of the world upon Himself and took them to His death. Our Lord says to us in our text, "IF you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes" (v. 23). The crucified Lord makes all things possible by virtue of His crucifixion and death, "for it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins" (Heb. 10:4). In the Garden of Gethsemane our Lord prayed on the eve of Good Friday, "Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will" (14:36). What was possible was the Father's will, which was the will of the Son of God, that He should die to take away our sins, the gift He gives us yet again this Lord's Day in His body and blood, for the devil cannot possess us, for the Lord has redeemed us, "lost and condemned person[s], purchased and won [us] from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that [we] may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true" (Second Article).
Are we going to fumble and falter, wither and wobble in our faith? Absolutely, because our faith is not perfect on account of our sin. But we are not without hope, for our heavenly Father has given us His Son, who makes all things possible and who strengthens our faith by His Means of Grace and will do so in a few moments when He gives us His body and blood. Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief! Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison! Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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