This sermon is part of a series entitled, “The Shadow of a Doubt.” It was preached on February 9, 2014 at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.
Here’s an introductory video that helps explain the premise of this series.
I did a little experiment in getting ready for this series: I took an online poll. In that poll, I asked people what kind of doubts their faith brought up. For those people who are Christians and those who are not Christians, I asked what doubts did they harbor about God, Jesus, the bible, faith, themselves. I knew that I would get a lot of responses and I did.
But the reason I did that survey, the reason I’m doing this series, is that I have them too. Doubts. I live in doubt’s shadow. Is God real or am I perpetuating some kind of heavenly pyramid scheme on the poor people here? And if he’s real, is he real for me? If I can struggle to believe that he exists and all those smart atheists are wrong, what’s it like to believe that he exists for me? Or: what happens to the souls of people who’ve never heard of Jesus? Why did blood have to be shed for sins to be forgiven? What do we do with the reality of same sex attracted people and what the Bible says about it? What about dinosaurs & Genesis? Why did he allow acne & male pattern baldness? And I bet I’m not the only one who has ever considered these and other issues and through it all, in it all, you’ve wondered if it wouldn’t just be easier to stop believing (no matter what Journey sang). Yeah, sometimes the distance between the kind of faith and confidence we have and the kind we wish we had is so great, has such a gap. And in that gap, the shadow of doubt makes its home.
Which is so much where this father we’re going to look at in Mark 9 makes his home. This is one of my favorite stories with one of the greatest lines in the whole library. Look at how it starts in 9:14-15:
When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.
Who is “they” here? Jesus, Peter, James, and John. Where have they been? Up on a mountain where Jesus was, as church people say, transfigured. He turned inside out, revealed the brilliant, blinding light residing inside him, and through a series of events up there demonstrates to the awestruck Peter, James, and John that he is not godly; he is God. And so they descend from that literal mountaintop experience and it’s apparent from the “overwhelmed with wonder” that some of that radiant glory is still resting on him. But circle back to 9:14; what does he find his followers doing?
When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them.
Arguing. So while the A Team of Peter, James, and John went up on the mountain for the light show, the B Team (what else would you call the one that includes Judas?) stay back and get in a religious fight. About what? Look at 9:17-18 where a man, the dad we’re looking at today, jumps up and tells Jesus the source of the fight:
A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
Note all the violent verbs here: seizes, throws, foams, gnashes. Mark knows what he is doing here; he is consciously setting up this incredible conflict between the forces of light & life and the force of darkness & death. The verbs clue us into it. And the man’s son is the victim of the violence – it sounds to modern ears like epilepsy though Mark and the crowd attribute it to demonic powers. Whatever, we KNOW it stems from a life-stealing force.
And for years, Dad has had a front row seat to his son’s trauma. He has sat and watched helplessly as seizure after seizure has ripped at the little boy. Violent, body crushing, soul quenching seizures. That’s where dad’s been living for a long time. Some of you know a least a little bit of what that’s like. You have felt the sheer powerlessness of watching a child suffer when there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. Or you’ve seen a spouse or a parent waste slowly but surely away. It’s a place you’ve lived. And this dad in Mark 9, in an act of great faith, brings his son to Jesus for healing. Except when he arrives, where’s Jesus? On the mountain with the A team. And so the B team attempts to heal the boy . . . with B team results.
That’s when Jesus, in one of his harshest statements anywhere in the gospels, gives this rebuke:
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me” (Mark 9:19).
His frustration here is both with his disciples and with the simple fact that his time left on earth is limited and it’s an urgent task to get everyone up to speed on who he is and what he is about. So look at 9:20:
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
Violent verbs all over again: threw, fell, rolled, foamed, convulsing. All that serves to heighten the conflict between the kingdoms; there is a battle raging between the Life Giver and the life stealer, and poor dad is stuck in the middle of the war zone. These words are not by accident! They elevate the contest between the radiant and the repugnant. And Jesus asks: “how long?” and the answer is so sad: “From childhood.” Father & son have been living for years at Ground Zero! And again, some of you know what that’s like. You’ve watched children suffer or at the other end of life you’ve been there when parents slowly, slowly slid away and even if it wasn’t painful, it was traumatic. And get this: whether it’s a violent battleground or a more subtle one, these are the arenas where doubt and its shadows so easily dwell. And you can sit right there with it. If God is, why am I? Or if God is GOOD, why are we? It’s a place where some of you are living now and a lot of you have lived before.
Then, in 9:22, dad meekly asks Jesus to help “if” he can. And that sets Jesus off again to the point that what he says next appears to put a lot of power & authority in dad’s hands:
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23).
Now: you take that verse out of context and it’s like Jesus is saying “believe harder, pray longer, dig deeper and all your dreams will come true!” Except that’s not how the story works in context. Here’s 9:24, the heart of it all, the center of the story and this message:
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
I love it! I have faith and no faith. I trust and I don’t. I’m with Jesus and I’m not. All at the same time! I’m right handed and I’m left handed. I’m a Democrat and an Republican. Red state and blue state. Tea Party and progressive. ALL AT THE SAME TIME. Ambivalent, ambiguous, real. Double minded and so very human. So very me. Love it, love it, love it.
Remember where dad is. In the vortex of a battle between life giver and life stealer and life stealer is a lot more obvious in the moment. I honestly think dad has post-demonic stress syndrome. I believe in Jesus until I don’t anymore. It’s all a question of locale. I know he is good; I just don’t know he’s good to me. I believe in God; I disbelieve in me. You’re the same way. You know this dad. You’ve been this dad. Believe. And not.
Which is why Jesus’ response here is such a big deal. Now: he has just said in 9:23 that you gotta believe to get everything, right? So this believing-and-not-believing dad shouldn’t get anything, right? Except remember the scene: this is a battle for authority. Radiant vs. repugnant. Life giver vs. life stealer. Jesus has to show who is the true authority. So in 9:25-29 he heals the boy:
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
Look at that 9:26 – they thought the boy was dead. Why? So Jesus could demonstrate he has authority over death! So he could foreshadow the resurrection! Mark’s no dummy! Words matter! And so the dad – who is us, remember – doesn’t get punished for his doubts, he gets blessed for his honesty about them. That tells me: if you are honest about where you are, Jesus is faithful to show who he is.
See: dad here is like “I’m not going to pretend, not going to hide, not going to dress it up. I’m on the fence about you Jesus. Just putting it out there. I wish I believed more, but I’ve seen too much. Can you handle it?” And something in that resonates with Jesus. He takes the morsel of uncertain faith and blesses it. It’s clear he prefers honest doubt over pretend faith. His own followers – remember the fighting B teamers? – were doing a lot of pretending and not much truth telling. That’s why dad here gets the blessing and his disciples get the talking to.
Listen: if you’ve never doubted, you’ve only half believed. Your doubts are not your enemy. Pretending is. Think about it: what’s the name of the chosen people? Right! Israel. And what does that name mean? One who struggles with God. The chose ones are the wrestling ones! The Lord loves the struggler and has no patience with the pretender. He wants your honesty, your questions, your uncertainty. He can handle all of it. He’d much rather you question him than ignore him. I’m not recommending this doubt as a place to live permanently, but if you find yourself there from time to time, don’t be frightened. Remember your salvation depends on the cross and not your feeling. His declaration and not your emotion.
You know why I’m so OK with seasons of doubt? Because no doubt ever diminished Jesus’ authority. He didn’t need dad’s permission to heal the boy. He healed the boy despite dad’s uncertainty. Mark includes the story in his bio of Jesus and in doing so highlights dad’s uncertainty to elevate Jesus authority. His sovereignty. He really has that much authority over life. Over death. Over life after death. Believe it. And not.
So: can you? Will you? Will you be as honest as the guy who said to me in a text message “I’m pretty disappointed with God right now?” Will you be as honest as the Post It note out in our lobby that says “I remembered God when I had to give my son back to him?” Because there is something in that raw honesty, that refusal to pretend, that stirs something up in Jesus. It opens up the pathway for his authority to be known and made evident. He’d much rather the ambidextrous of I believe, help my unbelief! to the fake I’m good even when you’re not. It’s a new way to pray to him, a new level of honesty with him, but it’s a way we see people doing throughout the Psalms. Remember Israel? Strugglers with God?
Imagine what it would be like if we had a church full of people who were so close to God they could question him like that! Who were willing to say, this is where I am right now. But I’m going to keep bringing, keep praying, even keep trusting … til you show me who you are.
Sort of like this: Loy “An Unbelieving Generation”
He stood on the mount
Two sides of the same coin
Belief and doubt
In the valley below
Spinning and flipping
And thrashing about
The convulsions of the boy
Transfiguring in my mind
The father of the boy – is me!
And I am he at the same time
Oh if I could only believe
I say it with my tongue
And before it is out
I am tossed about
In my own self doubt
“Help me overcome my unbelief”
Before it turns again –
It’s not heads OR tails
I now understand
Its heads AND tails
That is part of the plan
To grow deeper in faith
By a doubting man
Not the actions of Him
But the reactions of me
Standing in the middle
Between doubt and belief
One side to fall
One side to stand
Getting stronger each time
I land on believe