Believing Prayer and Persisting Problems
Whether you’re here or online, in Taylors or around the world, we are so excited to be back in our study of Mark 9, if you will turn there. Mark 9 is moving us from the mountain top to the mess. Jesus comes down off the Mount of Transfiguration into the harsh realities of daily life. So, let’s pray together.
Father, we again are asking for a filling of your Spirit so that our confidence rests in your power and not in our wisdom, our ability to execute, but in your Spirit’s power. Bring the power that was so evident last week on the mountain top right down into the persistent problems we face. Because Jesus, whenever you are near, things change. And we pray this in your name, amen.
J. Gresham Machen was the founder of Westminster Seminary. He also loved mountain climbing. The memories of reaching the top of a peak and experiencing the exhilaration of the view ministered to Machen in difficult times. He wrote this:
“In hours of darkness and discouragement, I loved to think of the sharp summit ridge of the Matterhorn piercing the blue [sky] or the majesty and the beauty of the world spread out at my feet when I stood at the summit of the Dent Blanche.”
In the early 1900s, Machen had climbed a lot of academic peaks as well. He studied The Classics at Johns Hopkins, International Law and Banking at the University of Chicago, Philosophy at Princeton University, Theology at Princeton Seminary. And as he was working on his doctorate in Europe, studying under Wilhelm Herrmann, he experienced a time of spiritual turmoil. It didn’t start then, but it expanded then.
Herrmann was a confusing professor for him. Now, this will mean something to a few of you. Herrmann was the professor of Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, many other influential German theologians. But Herrmann united two things that really confused Machen. And those two were, he denied most of what Christianity affirms — denied the virgin birth, denied the sinlessness of Christ, the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ — denied all those things, and yet in word and life seemed as if he were a devoted Christian. Extremely confusing to Machen, sent him into somewhat of a turmoil. And during this period, apparently in a letter to, or a few letters to his parents, his mother became, in Machen’s view, became concerned. And he assumed that his mother wanted him to quit his doctoral studies and return to the States. So, he … and this shows you what a different time this was. Think of the contrast between tweets, and he wrote his mother a 25-page letter. And then his mother responded. I want to show you a snippet of this, because you get a glimpse of supermom. She writes this to Machen during his struggle:
“My son, my whole life has been a protest against the very position which you suppose me to take. When I was 16, I rebelled against the trampling of the intellect. I could not have a blind faith. This required some boldness and independence, for I was little more than a child, and I lived in in an environment that discouraged freedom of thought. All my life long I have held that free investigation is the only way to climb to the mountain-top of intelligent faith …. I do not and never have looked at free probing for truth as anything to be afraid of. I am [an] apostle of the opposite position. Certainly, if a man is to be a scholar and a teacher, he cannot investigate too much.”
What a letter from mom! So, when Machen finished and returned to become a professor at Princeton, over time he resolved his doubts. But he gave his life to fighting this notion that you can have the benefits of Christianity in a culture without the beliefs of Christianity. You can reject the core tenets of Christianity and still sustain these humanitarian benefits.
In Gresham’s day, many were arguing for this, and he articulated their position in a radio address in 1935 that went out to our country. He said this:
“We shall first [So, he’s quoting the culture] deal with the political and social emergency and then afterward deal with the unseen things.”
In other words, the unseen things — like our sin problem, our need of a Savior, the resurrection of Christ — those are unseen things, and those are secondary and those are irrelevant, essentially. We’ll get to those if we have time, but we need (this was the cultural view) a practical Christianity. We need a Christianity that doesn’t worry about theology but that focuses on the benefits of today. And Machen argued this:
“It is impossible to deal successfully even with these political and social problems, until we have come right with God. No emergency can possibly be so pressing as to permit us to postpone attention to the unseen things.”
We see something similar going on in Mark 9. Jesus, Peter, James and John come off of this mountain of transfiguration where Jesus has revealed the unseen things. They saw what is unseen — the glory of Christ manifested on the mountain. Yet, they are immediately when they came off the mountain, confronted with the harsh realities of daily life. They came off the mountain. Notice here in 9:14, the disciples and the scribes are arguing, the crowd is gawking, and the boy is suffering. This is where the mountain meets the mess, where believing prayer confronts persistent problems.
But notice first, the alternatives to believing prayer. Verse 14, the three groups — the disciples, the crowd, and the scribes. These three groups, I believe, represent human responses to crises, real crises. Notice the different responses. And all of us fall into one of these three groups or the alternative we’ll see after this.
First, notice the scribes, the ones who critique. Second part of verse 14, they’re arguing with the disciples. Possibly ridiculing their failure to deliver this boy, possibly reminding them of their lack of credentials. Who are you guys? You’re a bunch of ex-fishermen. You can’t even fish properly anymore. What are you doing trying to help this boy with a sophisticated problem that is way above your pay grade, way above your credentials? Leave the big stuff to us. You go back to doing what you know how to do.
The scribes may be an ancient version of what happens often on social media. We post, we tweet, we blog about problems, and then we feel better because we’ve done something. As if persistent problems like racism, poverty, family breakdown, the devaluing of human life, can be solved with an argument, with a word. And if you’re a hardcore scribe, you go beyond that; you publicly shame those who take on a position different from yours in trying to solve these persistent problems. In the book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” by John Ronson, he dissects this online phenomenon.
“So what you get is a kind of mutual grooming. One person sends on information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways. And then, in return, those others will like the person who gave them that piece of information. So information becomes currency through which you buy friends and become accepted into the system. That makes it very difficult for bits of information that challenge the accepted views to get in. They tend to get squeezed out. When someone says something or does something that disturbs the agreed protocols of the system, the other parts react furiously and try to eject that destabilizing fragment and regain stability. And so the idea that there is another world of other people who have other ideas is marginalized in our lives.”
That attempt to eject the “destabilizing fragment and regain stability” seems to be what the scribes are doing here. They’re way more concerned about rejecting this destabilizing fragment, regaining stability, retaining authority than they are in helping the boy who is suffering. Posting, arguing, critiquing can be alternatives to believing prayer in crisis.
Second group is the crowd. These are the ones who watch. They pop popcorn, watch the scribes verbally take down the disciples. But when Jesus arrives in verse 15, “They saw him, [and they] were greatly amazed and [they] ran up to him and greeted him.” That’s the only time that expression is used of the crowd toward Jesus, the running up and greeting him. There’s something different going on here. One second they’re watching the scribes take down the disciples, “Oh! Jesus!” They seem to be enamored with his celebrity status, and so they run up to him. It’s almost like the crowd in a public high school hallway when a fight breaks out, and everybody surrounds, and the cameras come out — way more interested in their own entertainment than in helping someone. And so it is with this crowd. They’re not really concerned about the boy who is suffering. They’re concerned about their own entertainment, being enamored, watching. They’re similar to the crowd in Jerusalem who one day was crying, “Hosanna,” and the next day, “Crucify him.” They wander around, looking for something exciting to watch.
The third group is the disciples. And these are the ones who try, or at least they attempt to help the boy. When Jesus asked what the argument was about, verse 17,
“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.’”
They were not able. The disciples were sincere but unable. Do you ever feel that way? I want to help people. This group represents the prayerless, powerless church when we are busy trying to help but lack the power to make a difference. We are like Theoden in “The Lord of the Rings,”
“What can men do against such reckless hate?”
Now, most likely you typically fall into one of these three groups. Either you like to argue and critique, and you definitely can post about what everyone’s doing wrong. Or you spectate, watch, stand aloof. Or you try to get in and help but feel like you’re not able to make much of a difference. I often feel that way. But then Jesus comes. Jesus identifies the primary problem in verse 19.
“O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”
What a word to every parent, “Bring him to me.” To every friend, “Bring him to me. Bring him to me.” Jesus is saying to all of us, “Your primary problem is your faithlessness, O faithless generation.” Look at verse 20. Your primary problem is your unwillingness to see that there’s more going on than what is seen. Verse 20,
“They brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him [Jesus], immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. [This is what we mean, a persistent problem.] And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, [Have “splagchnizomai.” We’ve seen that word in Mark.] have compassion on us and help us.’”
If you can do anything.
By the way, what is going on with the boy? If we look purely through natural medical eyes, we would say maybe he’s having some kind of epileptic seizure. And please know that the people in Jesus’ day, many of them recognized real physical physiological conditions. They obviously didn’t have the kind of medical understanding we have today. But the word used in Matthew 17:15 of this same boy could be translated “epileptic seizure.” There’s clearly something physiological going on. And obviously not all medical conditions (thank you, Lord) are directly, demonically produced.
But what Jesus seems to be saying is, in this case, there’s something more going on here than meets the eye. Look at the symptoms: (17) mute, (18) it seizes and throws him down, he foams and grinds his teeth, becomes rigid, and then (20) the demon reacts violently at the sight of Jesus, (22) often casting him into fire and into water to destroy him. So, there’s a constellation of causes that are driven primarily by demonic possession. As you know, we human beings are biological. We’re, in one sense, sacks of chemicals. But we are more than that as embodied souls. And so, our problems, if they’re going to be addressed, need holistic solutions. The alternatives to believing prayer.
Number 2, the expression of believing prayer. Verse 23, “And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can!’” I wonder if there was a lot of sarcasm in that. If you can? What are you saying, if you can? So, Jesus repeats the man’s qualification and then adds, “All things are possible for the one who believes.” In other words, my abilities are not the limiting factor here. And then he promises all things are possible for the one who believes. Now, this promise is not meant to be received by those who would say, “If I can muster up enough faith, I’m going to always get straight As, score the winning touchdown, and marry a model. If I can only believe.” It’s not the point. What is Jesus saying here? The point is, Jesus is saying, our greatest limitation in addressing things that really matter is not God’s helplessness, but our faithlessness.
Verse 24, “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” Now I view this as one of the most beautiful prayers in the Bible. Because what this father is saying, as much as he wants a healthy son, he is acknowledging, “I need a healthy soul to have a healthy son.” Do something in me before you even do something in my son. Help my unbelief. I can’t even ask or pray without failing. I need help asking for help. Do you ever feel that way? When you feel that way, you’re being honest about our true condition. Lord, I believe, but even my faith is going to need your help to be faith. I doubt even when I pray. I doubt even when I ask in faith. My faith is so limited and convoluted. What a beautiful prayer. And Jesus doesn’t say, “Go home and come back when you have enough faith.” Jesus seems to love this prayer, “I believe, help my unbelief.”
And so, what does Jesus do? Verse 25,
“When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together [He realized this was going to turn into a spectacle. Notice, Jesus isn’t concerned about marketing. He wants to help the boy], 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, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.”
By the way, that word “he arose” is the word for resurrection. He appeared to the eye as dead. Jesus lifted him up.
Well, the scene changes at the end here to a home. Look at the priority of believing prayer. The priority of believing prayer. Verse 28,
“And when he entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’”
And you can understand their confusion, because back in 6:13 they had the ability to cast out demons and were seeing success. What’s going on here?
And Jesus [verse 29] said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.’” Now, some of you who have a King James Bible, notice “and fasting” is added on that. The best, oldest manuscripts don’t have “fasting.” I wish we had time to dive into fasting, because it plays a vital role in prayer. I’m not going to have time to talk about it today. The best manuscripts just say “hear and prayer.” This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.
So, I want to apply this story to those three groups. Imagine yourself; which one of those three groups would you tend to generally occupy? The critiquers, the watchers, the tryers. Let’s talk about each of those.
Number 1, the ones who critique, the scribes. This story undermines our perfectionism. And it does so in several ways. The scribes seem to be so busy correcting and critiquing, they don’t have time to help the boy. They’re not really interested in the condition of the boy. They’re interested in getting their position right and getting everyone else in line. Perfectionism is a craving for control. We want to control circumstances and eliminate variables and manage people. We long for certainty and react when a destabilizing element comes along, and we lose that certainty. We must eject the destabilizing fragment.
Prayer is the opposite. It is the releasing of control. It is the acknowledgment that, Father, you are Lord of this universe, my micro-universe. As perfectionists, we can even make prayer about control. Did I pray enough? Did I pray the right words? Was I sincere enough? Perfectionism has a lot of “enoughs.” And this example is so encouraging to me. And by the way, this is one of the reasons I wanted to introduce you to Machen earlier in the message is because, as I mentioned, he faced huge doubts. At one point he said that there are times when the whole unseen world recedes in the dim distance. But in a book he wrote titled, “What is Faith,” he said this:
“Even very imperfect and very weak faith is sufficient for salvation; [Just let that sink in. The “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” faith is sufficient for salvation.] salvation does not depend upon the strength of our faith, but it depends on Christ. When you want assurance of salvation, think not about your faith, but about the Person who is the object of your faith …. He will not desert those who are committed to Him, but he will keep them safe both in this world and in that which is to come.”
Bring him to me. Bring the boy to me. It is not the perfectionism of our faith that saves our souls or transforms our situations. We look to our Savior, Jesus. And when we are believing, trusting him with our imperfect faith, it changes the way we relate to other people. Let me show you one example of this in Philippians 4:5. Paul says,
“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is that hand.”
That word “reasonableness” means willing to yield, deferring to others, not in compromise, but in being courteous, gentle, responding to injustice with grace. Notice the relationship between our reasonableness and his nearness. If you’re like the scribes who aren’t convinced he is near, you are going to have to try to manipulate and manage everyone around you, because you’re going to act as if God is not near. And when we start critiquing and managing and thinking we have to fix everyone, it’s a faith problem not first and foremost, a relational problem. It manifests itself as a relational problem, but it starts as a faith problem. “The Lord is near, so let your reasonableness be known to everyone,” even people who don’t agree with you. And notice the very next verse.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
There’s a direct correlation with our ability to be reasonable, courteous, gentle, kind with our neighbor and our habit of prayer. Prayer transforms our relationships with one another. It doesn’t make us a recluse; it empowers us to love our neighbors. So, this story undermines perfectionism both in our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.
Secondly, let’s talk about the group who was watching, the ones who watch. This story undermines our pietism. I’m using the word pietism in a negative way; a spiritual pietism that is so focused on my relationship with God, the unseen that we forget about the seen, the problems around us. It’s the spiritual passivity, a refusal to engage. These crowds were spectators, bystanders — not really bad, not really good. And I believe at this time, it is very important for us to intentionally refuse to be a bystander. There’s so much happening around us. And I think COVID has put a lot of us into the balcony of life, for good reason — good medical reasons and relational reasons. But we can end up staying there and thinking that’s permanent. No, as we come out stronger, as we continue to increase our ministry engagement, let me encourage you to push yourself out of the stands into the game.
Let me just give you one example of this. Every Sunday, just to minister to the people God has given us to minister to, we need hundreds of volunteers in myriads of places — everything from Cafe to tech to worship to greeting. And I’m just talking about ministries here and not even mentioning all the ministry going on throughout the week, scattering in the community. Ruthie, who is over our children’s ministry, could use 100 volunteers right now (between now and September) for nursery, Kidstuff, World View, pouring into the boys and girls of the next generation. What a call.
Please consider stepping into the action. I would encourage you… Wouldn’t it be amazing if today we had 100 people send emails? So much so that our staff didn’t even know what to do with them all. Let’s do that. Make their job so hard that we don’t know how are we going to plug in these people. What are we going to do with them all? We have so many people that want to be in the action ministering to people, we’ll have to invent new ministries. Yes! They’re going to hate me.
And do you see the contrast? Contrast the scribes. Let’s keep fighting over masks. Let’s do that for another year or two, whether you’re for them or against them. Let’s skip worrying about the boy who desperately needs deliverance and let’s fight over stuff, because that really helps people, right? Sorry, a moment of sarcasm. Prayer is not a substitute for serving; it is the energy source of it. A praying church will be a serving church because prayer fills us up. We’ve got to do something with that. We’ve got to get it out.
I’ve heard so many encouraging (skip the sarcasm), I’ve heard so many encouraging stories lately. I want to share one of them. This last week, I got to pray with a man in our church who was really burdened as to how to live out the gospel in his company. It’s a big company, normal restrictions about not doing personal things. So, what can I do? And so, he was praying about this, and he decided to start, a few weeks ago, a prayer meeting. And people started coming. Coworkers started coming and praying. HR hears about this. He gets called in to HR. He thinks, “Oh no, that was the shortest prayer meeting in the history of the church.” And HR says, “We’re fine. Keep doing it. We have one prerequisite. You can’t say no to anyone. Anyone who wants to come to your prayer meeting.” And he’s like, “Oh, that’s terrible.” Already ministry is flowing. Here’s a man who just says, I just want to live out the gospel in the place God has called me to be in a humble, fruitful way. And so, they’re praying, and God’s moving. They’re moving out of the stands into the action.
One more group. The ones who try. This story undermines our pragmatism. And let me just tell you up front, this point is for me. The disciples were trying to help but were ineffective and unable. And Jesus highlights their primary problem; faithlessness, prayerlessness. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing what you do. If you ever get to the place where you think you can do it without prayer, you’re useless. You will fall into empty pragmatism. And for those of us who are wired as doers — the solution to every problem is to do something — we need to be able to distinguish the difference between busyness and fruitfulness. Prayer transforms busyness into fruitfulness. Let me say that again. Prayer transforms busyness into fruitfulness. The disciples were busy. You’ve got to love them. Jesus was up on the Mount of Transfiguration. They got left out of that club. So, what were they doing? They weren’t moping, they were trying. But it’s not enough to try. Prayer transforms trying into fruitfulness.
Let me give you an example of this from our culture. When George Floyd was killed last May, protests erupted throughout our nation. Most were peaceful. Some were violent. Some were deadly. Greenville did not experience violent protests. Why? Because we have a beautiful history of race relations? No. There are several reasons. Let me give you one. Shortly after Floyd was killed, a group of black pastors called a meeting outside the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in Nicholtown. I had the privilege of being there and watching as these remarkable leaders had invited leaders from the police department to come. And they were saying, essentially, “Before we do anything, we’re going to pray.” And they prayed over the leaders of the police department.
Now, don’t miss the point here. Their point was not, “So, we prayed and we’re not going to do anything.” No, they had a list of reforms. But how do you think conversations about reforms go when the foundation of those conversations is soaked in prayer? It changes everything. It changes everything. When you have these leaders praying over the police leaders, and they’re communicating with one another, and they’re crying out to God for help for our community.
“This kind can come forth by nothing but prayer.”
What Jesus is saying is, stop just trying in your own human strength. Come to me. Cry out to me. I am not reluctant; I am not holding back. I want to pour out. I want to make your activism fruitful. And this is what our nation desperately needs now. And church, will we lead the way? This kind … By the way, I didn’t hear any answer to that. Will we lead the way? Thank you.
For a couple decades, I’ve had a picture on the back of my study wall here at church. And then when we moved the office, I moved it home. I think it’s New King James. But it is a constant reminder to one who tends to be busy and longs to be fruitful. “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer.”
Father, forgive me when I make prayer a last resort. Forgive us when we argue and spectate and try, but we fail to persist in prayer. We grow weary, Lord. We give up. We think we tried that. We have no idea what you’re up to. So, today, Lord, we come. We come with our doubts, with our uncertainties, with our unanswered questions. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” We ask that some would be praying that prayer maybe for the first time, trusting Jesus to wash away their sin. We know you hear that prayer as you did for this desperate father.
And we know that some of us are asking, praying this prayer, just because we look at our lives so cluttered, so busy, so little fruitfulness. Thank you for your patience with the disciples, Lord. You didn’t humiliate them when they said, what are we missing? Why could we not cast it out? You don’t cast us out when we ask for help. Continue to disciple us. We want to know how to pray. We acknowledge we are weak. We need your help even asking for help. We thank you that you are a helper, a mighty Savior. You move near when we are weak, and we acknowledge we don’t have all the answers and we’re done critiquing and watching or just trying in our own effort. Lord, we beg you. Spirit, again, we pray that you would fill us with the Spirit and bear your fruit through us for the glory of God. In Jesus’ name, amen.