Proper 19 – Series B
This week marks the beginning of a series of readings in Mark that will revolve around children. As we hear these words, we are unable to escape the horrific context of what recent reports have revealed about the abuse of children by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania. I know, they are Catholic and we are Lutheran, but we cannot really say that this is their problem and not ours. First of all, Lutherans have had their share of abusers. I know of more than one LCMS rostered preacher or teacher who has been carted off in handcuffs or who shot himself as the State Patrol was circling in to make an arrest. We may have even covered up a few of those things up in our day, moving men who could not control their impulses onto another congregation on the promise that “I will never do it again.”
But this goes further. Just walk through a major city today with your clerical collar on. Even more so, do that in Pennsylvania. You may find that you and that collar are not entirely welcome. Explain that you are not Catholic and it will make little difference. People are not distinguishing the nuanced difference between Lutheran and Catholic. This is a Christian problem and it is also being attached to us.
Luther’s morning and evening prayer needs to be repeated regularly by us. Its final line enjoins God to send his holy angels to watch us lest the evil foe have power over us. The evil foe is working hard right now and we need God’s help to defend us from temptation, sin, and all that he would work against us.
On to the texts: I must say, the children in the texts are not really the focus as much as they are lens by which Jesus will focus the hearer’s faith and our attention on the fear of Mark’s audience. But the presence of the children helps us and may present us with a really helpful thread for the next several weeks. In those weeks we will see Jesus do and say a number of really interesting things, made even more interesting when you take them in aggregate. Here is the schedule for the next several weeks, starting this Sunday.
Pentecost 17, Proper 19, Sept 16 – Jesus heals the demon possessed son of a man – even though the disciples could not help him. The child is helpless before the problem without Christ, but Christ helps and the child is saved.
Pentecost 18, Proper 20, Sept 23 – Jesus confronts his disciples about what they were talking about on the road and they all look at the floor silent – just like my adolescent sons used to do when I confronted them about who left a mess in the kitchen. They look like children here. Then he takes a child in his arms and declares that at the top of God’s kingdom are the helpless little people whom the world considers to be at the very bottom – like this child. Being a servant to these helpless people is the highest position.
Pentecost 19, Proper 21, Sept. 30 – Jesus delves into the problem of sin – if it was in your hand or eye or foot, you could cut it out and be rid of it and it would be a small price to pay to get to heaven. But sin is not in your hand or foot or eye, it is in your heart. You can’t cut 2
that off. What can we do? The pericope leaves this question hanging, exhorting us to saltiness, but giving us no clue about what that means. I am going to say that the reader is left in a child-like helpless state before sin.
Pentecost 20, Proper 22, Oct 7 – Jesus on divorce – following up the prior Sunday’s Gospel, Mark has Jesus address one of the most painful and difficult sins – a family broken by divorce. He accepts no excuses here, it is adultery, a first class ticket to hell! When the disciples question him, he makes it worse, there is no excuse, no exception, it is sin, and a bad one at that. Building on last week’s message, the helplessness of the sinner before sin is only intensified. The divorcee is trapped, helpless. But again, remember, the ancients saw children as helpless.
Pentecost 21, Proper 23, Oct 14 – Jesus welcomes the little children into his arms, even though the disciples are getting in the way. Having made us all helpless before our sins in the pericopes prior to these words, Jesus action is more than simply a saccharine love of children. He welcomes all those rendered helpless before their sins. And is it not the case that the people who often stand in the way of that are the very disciples themselves? Ask any divorcee, their first reason for not attending Church is usually that they fear what their fellow congregants will say/think about them.
There were several other instances of children in the Bible which we might want to remember. The slaughter of the innocents at Jesus’ birth. The attempt to kill all he baby boys in the days of the Exodus, but also the Canaanite woman’s daughter in last week’s lesson. Our enemy has a bullseye on kids. They are vulnerable and are an important target for him.
You may have already noticed it and this is critical to remember in this interpretation of these chapters: The ancient culture in which Mark wrote did not see children as innocent! They saw children as helpless and unable to care for themselves. A child was not innocent. He was weak. Clearly, it seems to me, Jesus is making us all helpless before our sin on Pentecost 17 and 18. We are childlike in our inability to deal with this problem. Mark then sandwiches this between three (Triplet!) instances of children, and in each of these Jesus helps and holds up the child as important. The first one has Jesus helping a child (helpless one) whom only Jesus can help. The second one has Jesus asserting that children (helpless people) are really, really important to God. The last one, after the sin piece, has Jesus welcoming children (helpless people) into his arms.
You can see how understanding children as innocent would be exactly the opposite of what Mark means here. He means to say that we are all helpless before our own sinfulness. We cannot escape sin’s grim economy. The wages of sin is death. We are rendered helpless by our sins. The children are not welcomed into Christ’s arms because of their innocence, but that is how most folks understand it. If you preach that right after the divorce passage in Mark 10:1-11, is it any wonder that many divorcees don’t see Church as a place where they can be forgiven and loved on the day of profound hurt and pain? Is there any way to undo a divorce? No! You don’t go back to being a “pre-married” person, you are single, but you are a divorcee, a totally different 3
thing. Your “ex” doesn’t really go away; you just aren’t really married to them anymore. You cannot escape, you are helpless before this reality, all the more so if there are children involved. And Jesus makes sure you know that God doesn’t like this situation either. You are helpless. But Jesus alone helps the helpless, he declares their value in the kingdom, and he opens his arms to them, chiding the disciples (church members) who would get in the way of that.
You can see that for the next several weeks we have an interesting challenge. Some days we will have the purest Gospel to proclaim, but it will be devoid of meaning if it is preached out of its stern Law context of the pericope before or after it. Such preaching does not end up being the proclamation of the Gospel but a terrible and insidious form of the Law. Jesus welcomes children, but in the back of our mind we realize that we are not innocent and we have not ever really been innocent. Our goodness is always a façade this side of the grave. On the other hand, we will also encounter Sundays which have profoundly difficult words of Law for us. They will crush us and if we don’t have the next pericope with Jesus welcoming the children, we will leave our people in terrible despair (or more likely we will simply punt and preach the easier Epistle lesson that day.) But that is a terrible because when done together, these passages are exactly what the broken generation in which we live needs to hear. God loves really broken people, people who are helpless before their sins, who are in a condition which they cannot change, who have tried every program under the sun to get their life together and have failed. He loves them all, even the crabby old self-righteous fellow who sits in the front row on Sunday and frowns at the kid with tattoos who slips into the pew as the service starts.
The wise and thoughtful preacher must look ahead, plan his sermons carefully, and as a result the preacher will perhaps combine a few pericopes. There is no law which says we cannot read the same passage two weeks in a row. He will want to incorporate material from the prior and following lessons. The preacher must also be the gentle shepherd. Some of the themes and messages in here are going to touch raw nerves and deeply buried pain. But he cannot shy away from such preaching or he will soon be irrelevant. The preacher also will want to anticipate marvelous fruit because he is planting a seriously potent message. (Remember the LCMS was founded in the crucible of a bishop whose “hands on ministry” was exposed by a preacher preaching a sermon series on the Ten Commandments and addressing the sin of Adultery. It hurt a lot, but good things came from that sermon series.)
Collect of the Day
Lord Jesus Christ, our support and defense in every need, continue to preserve Your Church in safety, govern her by Your goodness, and bless her with your peace; for You live and reign with the Father the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Our support and defense in every need…this will sound bitter and sour to the person who is going through a personal tragedy this Sunday. God’s idea of what constitutes support and defense may not be our own. First he tends to have a very long term view of things. He does not promise “comfortable” to us, indeed sometimes the promise is simply that after they have 4
stomped on you, tortured you, killed you, desecrated your grave, and pilloried your memory, he will raise you to an eternal life which is good. When you are going through all the stuff leading up to such a death, it is not hard to think that God is letting you down on the “support and defense” side of the equation. But God is thinking in terms of eternal life while our lives are often too focused on the temporally bound realities we suffer in right now.
The prayer then takes this past the individual and into the whole Church. We ask him to continue to preserve the church in safety. That also might be a stretch for some folks who have seen their congregations shrink and most denominations in full retreat. What does safety mean? What can it mean when our ranks are growing older and greyer by the day? What does it mean when a walk through the synodical headquarters is like walking through the abandoned shell of a building as you walk past whole suites of offices which stand empty? What is safety in that situation? Being Lutherans we love to talk about this safety in terms of a doctrinal safety from the poisonous errors of the heretics. So the last faithful Lutheran should remember to shut the lights out when he checks into the hospital for the last time? That we died doctrinally pure is a good thing?
We then ask God to govern the church (her) by His goodness. I am acquainted with two parishes in the immediate area of my home who have been ravaged by the sexual infidelity of pastors. Worse still, the word in the pews is that the perpetrators were simply moved to another congregation within the district. I don’t know exactly what happened in the offices of that District President and Circuit Counselor as they dealt with these situations, but I know what people think and this prayer might sound very hollow to them. I bet you can name two situations like that in your area too. Goodness seems in short supply sometimes in the governance of the Church.
Then we ask God to bless the Church with His peace. Forgive the cynical parishioner when he snorts at this point. If he is an elderly sort of person, he probably remembers a day when he was young and his church seemed to be in relative peace. That was before nasty conventions in the late 60’s and 70’s when we destroyed our institutions in a spasm of doctrinal purity. The purity was good, the conduct of the purifiers was reprehensible. In the name of such purity we screamed and shouted, we destroyed good things, and we sowed the seeds of mistrust that continue to plague our fellowship. If he or she is a little younger, perhaps they remember a peaceful time in an individual parish. But as the venom of denominational politics worked its way into the seminaries and through the seminaries into the ministerium, the peace of congregations was often shattered as well.
And still we pray this prayer and still it is a good thing we do. For God calls us to remember that denominations are just a tool, a structure which aids His kingdom goals or it doesn’t, but His kingdom remains and it grows and it flourishes. The LCMS Lutheran who bemoans the demographic trends of the Synod has his or her head firmly planted in the sands of self-absorption. The Gospel is proclaimed and people are drawn to Christ all over the world, even 5
here. Sometimes it even happens under the three-fold cross of LCMS congregations. In places like India and Pakistan, God is there defending his people against real enemies, and the blood of martyrs is still the seed of the Church.
God’s goodness does indeed assert itself in the lives of God’s people, in the faithful, decent, and honorable service of countless pastors and teachers, far more than the scoundrels who will be present in any group of people. An NPR article some time ago highlighted the one thing that was actually working along the gulf coast after Katrina devastated that area. The government was not getting much done, but the churches were. God’s goodness, His love for people, His gentle care, His integrity and honesty and beauty, shows up again and again.
Even peace can be said to break out amidst the warring of personalities and powers. Perhaps it is just too private of a thing when we forgive someone of their sins. I am often wondering if we don’t need to do more public sorts of penance and absolutions, not because we need to shame the penitent but because the whole community needs to participate in the forgiveness. When someone stands up and shouts within a voters meeting, should that then involve a date with the whole assembly to speak a word of apology and for the whole assembly to forgive him or her? Forgiveness in the Pastor’s study is good, could it be better? God still unites quarreling people in His Son, making the two into one, bringing those who are far away and those who are near into one household.
These are stark contrasts. Which one will we see? They are both true, they are both real. The prayer surfaces a great deal of tension, a cognitive dissonance, just as the readings for the next couple of weeks do for us. Mark is about to take us into the deepest problems we face so that he can demonstrate the most profound solutions in Christ.
Thus says the LORD: “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away? Or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away. 2 Why, when I came, was there no man; why, when I called, was there no one to answer? Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver? Behold, by my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a desert; their fish stink for lack of water and die of thirst. 6
3 I clothe the heavens with blackness and make sackcloth their covering.”
4 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. 5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. 6 I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.
7 But the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. 8 He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. 9 Behold, the Lord GOD helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
10 Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.
Who is the “I” of this passage? At first it sounds like the writer, but then it seems clearer and clearer that this is in fact Jesus. 7
The writers of the pericope system seem to be aware that we are heading into some pretty significant material here in Mark and they have elected to introduce us to this through the preaching of one of the servant songs found in the second part of Isaiah. I do wish they had let us hear the first verses, though. The bit about the servant with a word drying up the sea and the fish stinking is just too graphic I guess.
These theologically loaded passages are core to the Christian reading of the Old Testament. Isaiah saw the servant of God. Did he see himself in that role? Did he see Cyrus, the liberator of God’s people in that role? Did he see the whole nation of Israel in that role? Did he see Jesus from a prophetic height in that role? Yes to all of these.
In the servant songs Isaiah proclaims a suffering servant, as he gives meaning to the suffering of God’s ancient people under Babylonian oppression. But he also gives them hope. The servant of Yahweh is much more. He is the light to the nations, the sacrifice which removes our sins, the One by whose stripes we are healed.
There are several servant songs in Isaiah, we are most familiar with chapter 53 which is read every Good Friday.
Watch out in here, the translators are playing with us a little bit and their Calvinism is coming out. The Hebrew does not have “sovereign Lord” in this section, it actually reads “The lord Yahweh.” Out of deference to Jewish sensibilities we have always translated YHWH or the tetragrammaton as “LORD” but here that would read “The Lord LORD” which just sounds too goofy to put into our Bibles. The Calvinists suggested “Sovereign Lord” because that is how they understand him. But they are all hung up on power. A more faithful translation seems to me to be “the Lord of the Covenant” because YHWH really is the covenantal name that was given to Moses as part of the promise. But even that has a strong Calvinist bent to it. This is a very difficult concept to translate accurately, but not one to understand. It is the combination of power and mercy that we have often discussed within these notes.
The preacher will want to focus much more on that YHWH has instructed the tongue of the servant to speak and opened the ears of the servant to hear. But it is really interesting that we really don’t get the content of what he says or hears. We get the result of listening and speaking, the obedience of faith. Instead of a message proclaimed, the very life of the servant becomes the message. We get a rendition of what happens to the poor servant. He offers his back to be beaten and his beard to be plucked. He is mocked and spat upon. This sounds so much like Jesus at his Passion, indeed many a commentator has wondered if the Gospel writers don’t have this very passage in mind as they frame the suffering of Christ.
You cannot but be struck by the resolute and almost obstinate persistence of the servant – the prophet/Jesus. His relationship to God will guarantee that he is not put to shame, but that is apparently all he has. But that is enough. His face is set like flint, hard as a stone, he will not be deterred. This is clearly the passage which Paul has in mind when he writes those famous words 8
at the end of Romans 8. If you are preaching this text, you really want to use that NT exegesis of this passage for within Romans 8 Paul very appropriately applies this to the individual Christian through Christ. Isaiah is not only describing the Israelite people enduring their exilic shame, but he is looking through them to the face of Christ on the cross, enduring its scorn and shame and laying down his life as a sacrifice. But even through the face of Jesus, he now also sees us, harassed and harried on every side, like sheep to be slaughtered. He sees us surrounded by enemies with thousands slain on either side, but still hoping in Christ, depending on God, with faces set like flint as we are led to arenas and wild beasts, or lead to conventions and voters meetings. Shall we show up on the evening news trying to explain the behavior of some psychotic parishioner or worse a psychotic pastor? The wolves will gather around us and look to destroy us and were it not for God, we would be utterly lost. As we mentioned in the earlier essay, this is not just metaphor anymore in a context of priestly misbehavior.
It is in these darkest of moments, when all seems lost, that we have nothing other than God as our refuge and strength. This is faith at full strength, 100 proof, a Spirit which lives in us and connects us to God in a way which transcends our human understanding. Isaiah preaches a word for people in great darkness. But what is our darkness? Jesus will address a man today whose son is consumed by a demon, a demon who is stubbornly hanging onto his son. The Disciples cannot help, no one can help, only Jesus can help.
But what if you do not feel the grip of Satan so firmly on us? Satan is not a real thing for many folks, but simply the superstitious holdover from our pre-enlightenment past. Read on in Mark and he will address another of the unholy trinity who are arrayed against us – Sin, the sin which infects our very nature. But again, the father of lies has attacked that reality as well. Many see sin as little more than a cold, a temporary ailment, not a soul devouring cancer. But there is one reality he cannot explain away: Death. The preacher will want to remember these three: Sin, Death, and Devil. They are fearsome and terrible and there only one escape from their power: Jesus.
The last couplet within this pericope is very interesting. One could say that this is the very definition of the word “faith” as a verb. Remember that in the NT and the OT as well, they have a verbal form of faith. One does not “have faith” one simply “faiths” in the Biblical languages.
1 I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. 2 Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. 3 The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. 9
4 Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”
5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; our God is merciful. 6 The LORD preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. 7 Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.
8 For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; 9 I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living.
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
James is talking to a group of people who seem to be using their faith as a license to moral indifference. It doesn’t really matter what they say or do, after all, Jesus has forgiven all the sins, our relationship with God is secure. Some have suggested that they have read Paul and used his salvation by grace as a license.
In this passage James reminded them and us of the power of the human tongue. Scientists tell us that ounce for ounce, it is the strongest muscle in the human body. 10
Do we not sometimes hold to the idea that words cannot really hurt? In a materialist world, words seem almost immaterial. I think the psychologists and therapists of this and prior generations have done our culture a great favor in highlighting the destructive power of words. I have seen young people almost destroyed because of the negativism of a single teacher in a junior high situation. The scars left by words are often far deeper and longer lasting than any physical abuse.
The first line of this text is a bit of a warning for us as well. Those who would presume to teach should be aware that we are held to a higher standard, that we are judged more strictly for our use of words. If we would be the bearer of God’s good news, we must be extra vigilant with our tongues. But that does not mean that forgiveness is not ours, but it means that we have in mind that those who are listening to our good news, are also listening to our casual conversations as well and they may not be able to distinguish them as readily as we do.
The tongue, according to James, is like a wild beast, one which cannot be tamed. The body follows it, much like a horse follows the bit which is placed in its mouth. The tongue is likened to a rudder which steers the whole ship.
The trick for the preacher who chooses this text will be to find illustrations of a tongue actually doing these things. It should not be that hard. Within your own life you can probably remember times when you have spoken evilly of someone and found that in the next moment it was much easier to act that way toward the person. You should try it sometime, do the other way. Take an enemy, speak well of them, speak kindly and gently of them. Compliment them. You will find it much more difficult in the near future to harm them in any way. In this way our hands really do follow our tongue and heart. Our speech is not just ephemeral words but it is the very rudder of our life.
The Christian who is aware of this is given to control it. Don’t forget that James admits we stumble often. This is not about getting it right all the time or about becoming perfect, but it is about living in a penitential reality and striving toward the life which Christ has given us and won for us. Our striving is not what gives or wins that life, but our striving is the natural outgrowth of that gift and victory. Indifference to that reality is a form of a denial of the gift and the victory.
James brings up, in the last paragraph, the reality that we are given to speak on God’s behalf. Every baptized Christian can speak for God. We all can forgive and God assures us that he speaks with us, forgiving those sins with us. We can join with angels and archangels in the song of heaven, God mingles our words with the perfectly pitched songs of his heavenly hosts. Hallelujah! That truth, that fact of our speech is then a motivator to speak carefully in the horizontal relationships we enjoy with our fellow human beings. The same fruit tree that bears the good fruit of praise and forgiveness should not also bear the bitter fruit of strife, gossip, and slander. 11
This sermon is a moralizing sermon. That should not scare us. There is plenty of Gospel in here, but it is a sermon in which we preach to a sanctification goal. The words we say in meetings, in the narthex after church, over a cup of coffee with a friend merit examination. Are they words which build and encourage and heal? Or are they the words of destruction, bile, gossip, and negativism? The preacher who ventures into this text will want to apply lots of Gospel here, because when you open this discussion up, we all need a great deal. Our culture of information has not always been a healthy thing. We hear lots of words today, are they good words? This might be an occasion to talk about what sort of media we let into our lives. Do we let God’s word shape our discussions or what we read on Reddit, Twitter, or Buzzfeed?
14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 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.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, 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.” 26 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.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
When they came…the text starts us in the middle of things. Jesus and Peter, James and John have just come down the mountain of transfiguration. Because we had that story at the end of the Epiphany season, the pericopes don’t include it again here, but the preacher might just want to read it again, if only for himself. It has been a long time since Epiphany.
Mark’s brief gospel is carefully organized. Ancient writers were often writing to a very specific word limit. They charted out their documents with great care. The middle was often predetermined as a point of some significance. The exact middle of Mark’s Gospel is the 12
Transfiguration scene. After this point, the Gospel turns toward Jerusalem and the passion much more deliberately. Immediately before and now two more times, once in chapter 9 and again in chapter 10, Jesus predicts his own death on the cross. The disciples don’t understand this, but the reader clearly is supposed to. Jesus knew he would suffer and he went boldly to that cross. For Mark’s persecuted audience, it is a frightening message. They are exhorted to take up a cross and follow Jesus, follow him to the same place he went, a sacrificial and suffering death. But they are also given a promise. This is the mechanism of God’s salvation.
Jesus and the disciples come down the mountain into the middle of a situation. There is a man there with a demon possessed son. The Scribes and disciples are arguing and Jesus wonders what they are arguing about when the man with the demoniac son approaches him. It is not entirely clear if the child and his condition are the reason for the argument or not, or are they just a parallel set of events. The boy is demon possessed, but one wonders if the Scribes and Disciples are any better as they argue. Are any of them in control of themselves? It would seem not. Possession by its very nature suggests that I am not in control of myself.
The scribes and the crowd and the disciples are in conflict. They are in conflict because they failed? That is what Mark points out next. The father had brought the young demoniac to Jesus but they disciples could not help him. That seems to have been an occasion for the scribes to jump in and attack. How does our failure often reduce us to arguing?
The man begs Jesus to heal his son. The preacher will want to notice the love the man has for his son. It is the father’s love for a son undergoing terrible torment. Demoniacs are very hard to love, but this paternal love is deep. Today this child would be institutionalized and likely drugged into some sort of submission. That love should echo for us to another day when a father watches in a self imposed helplessness as his son endures unspeakable agony. We cannot but see a picture, however out of focus, of the Father’s love for his Son. Notice in the OT lesson how the speaker gives his beard to those who pull it out and his back to the lash. That sounds like Jesus in his passion.
The disciples tried with this child, but failed. Jesus upbraids them for a lack of faith. He seems genuinely angry with them, and demands that they bring the child to him. Why is Jesus so hard on them? He calls them a faithless generation and wonders how long he has to put up with them? What is faithless about them? Is it because they did not bring the boy to Jesus at the beginning? Did they think that they had an exorcism formula that forgot that Jesus was the only one who could cast out demons, he just was doing it through me? Formulae often become a sort of way to manipulate God. Jesus later tells them that prayer is the answer, but that can become a formula as well. Prayer is not a magic button by which we manipulate God. Prayer, real prayer, puts us into the hands of God. He takes control of the situation, he is in charge of the answers and the way this happens. We are not. Formulaic prayer assumes that I am pushing the button. Real prayer is admitting Jesus is the One who changes things. 13
The demon sees the Lord and immediately convulses the child. You can imagine Jesus stooping down as they hold the child in the midst of his convulsions and asking the father, “How long has been like this?” If you have ever been around someone undergoing a convulsive seizure you realize just how helpless it makes you feel. The person is thrashing around, with manic strength, and you can do nothing.
Up to this point, the discussion has all been focused on adults and the conflicts they bring on. But when the child seizes and convulses, Jesus is immediately focused on the child. That says something about Jesus. He is not helpless before this demon.
The father answers Jesus with desperation. “Since he was a child, if you can help us…” Jesus picks up on this statement, “If you can…” Is Jesus throwing the question right back him or is he quoting the question? Is the question asked by the man a statement of disbelief? Everything is possible for the one who has faith. (Here we have to remember that annoying English deficiency. We don’t have a verb for faith but must use the verb “believe” or “have faith” which actually mean something different than what Jesus says here. Jesus is using the much stronger relational term “faithing” here.)
Notice how the Gospel here plays with “can” and “could not” in vss 23-4 and 28. The Disciples are somehow disconnected from the ability. Earlier Jesus calls them “a faithless generation.” That is pretty harsh. What makes them faithless? They had driven out demons and healed earlier. That’s why the father brought his son to them. Have they gotten complacent in their faith? Jesus’ answers later in the text about what such an exorcism takes speak of prayer, yet, Jesus speaks no prayer here. Have they grown complacent or too self-confident that they forgot to pray? But isn’t prayer another way of speaking of our relationship to God? We pray to him because we love, because he has what we need, because we hang on his every word. Have they forgotten that?
When we think about the man, does Jesus ask the man if he can or is he actually casting the question back to the man as a challenge. Does Jesus ask the poor man with the demoniac child if he can? Remember, Greek has no punctuation. The punctuation you see in in the text is conjectural on the part of the translators. He follows it up with a statement of possibility through faith. Does the man believe/faith?
I read this to mean that the father’s desperation renders him a little senseless, much like Peter had been senseless upon the mountain at the beginning of the chapter when he offered to make tents for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Mark even tells us that he did not know what he was saying. Here the father says, “I believe, help my unbelief.” His love makes him illogical, but beautiful at the same time. This exclamation by the father was one of Luther’s most cherished passages in the Bible. He felt like he was uttering it all the time. “I believe, help my unbelief” could be our own theme verse as well. It could make a marvelous sermon all by itself. Formula of Concord, VII, (look at the material around paragraph 71) makes extensive use of this verse in its discussion of the Lord’s Supper and the faith required of the communicant. You might find that whole article interesting reading. 14
Jesus sees a crowd running to the scene. This is starting to get to circus like for him. He rebukes the demon, it leaves the child but the poor boy lies on the ground like a corpse. If you have ever had occasion to see a corpse lying on the ground, or even seen the brutal pictures from the Civil War, you know that they lie very differently than the living do. “He’s dead!” someone exclaims, but Jesus is not deterred, he takes the child by the hand and stands him up and returns him, whole, to his father. Was this an exorcism and a resurrection? The NT portrays Jesus almost as not seeing death. The little girl of the end of Mark 5 is clearly dead, but Jesus says she is sleeping. He takes the young man by the hand and raises him up. The word for “stand him up” and resurrection are rather interchangeable.
The Disciples then, when opportunity presents itself, ask Jesus why he was able to succeed and they were not. Jesus says that this kind come out only by prayer. What a marvelously enigmatic verse! Does this mean that there is a sort of hierarchy of demonic possession and how stubbornly they adhere to the person possessed? Jesus answer also is interesting because he says it takes prayer, but he apparently did not pray over this child. Does that mean that prayer is something different than we are thinking sometimes? I think a worthy sermon could perhaps address the misconception that prayer is the token we put into the divine vending machine here. Jesus seems to be talking about a whole lifetime of prayer, a relationship in which the human being is in constant conversation with the Creator, Redeemer, and Master of his/her life.
Mark tells this story very fully, rich in details. He places it immediately after the Transfiguration, in which he has presented us with a picture of the glorified Jesus, as he is right now. Descending back into the poisoned atmosphere of our reality, he is immediately confronted by a lack of faith, the disciples don’t have enough to expel this demon, the father wonders if Jesus can do this.
But when the situation comes to a head, the child, the precipitator of all this is convulsing on the ground and Jesus will not leave him thus. The crowds are converging, this is turning into something that Jesus does not want. He rebukes the demon, commanding him never to return. The demon must obey but apparently his life is closely intertwined with the boy’s and he falls to the ground. Does it hurt when your demon is exorcised? Does it hurt the person from whom the demon is cast? Is it like ripping part of your personality right out of you?
The child has a condition which no one can help. The father is desperate, there is only one hope for this child, and that is Jesus. The sinner to whom Jesus descends in the incarnation is firmly in the clutches of Satan. Look no further than the brutal reality of the grave to see it. Death is not God’s creation, but the unmaking of God’s creation. It is the work of our enemy, it is the mark of our subjection to him. Look at sin. If I am disciplined and energetic, perhaps I can control one of my vices, but underneath it I find another, perhaps it is pride, perhaps it is idolatrous self-centeredness, but every time I lift one out of my life, I am only finding another under there. Like a farmer removing stones from his field, they just keep getting bigger and deeper and harder. I am trapped. 15
The preacher may want to preach prayer with this text. Jesus, after all, suggests that prayer is essential to casting this demon out. What is prayer? I think too often we see prayer as some sort of religious duty or obligation which we must perform, or at least for which we feel some guilt when we don’t perform. But I am not sure this is really what Jesus is talking about.
What does Jesus mean by this? Does he suggest that we should pray? Obviously, but is he also saying something else? Prayer is intimate relationship with the very Word of God whose presence drove out the demon. Is prayer really and simply the expression of the relationship with God? And is not that relationship called “Faith?” Jesus hammers them earlier for a lack of faith. We are told we need to “pray more” when the day of darkness comes. But that exhortation is really an exhortation to the relationship which God establishes. That relationship simply prays. The silent treatment is not really being in relationship, it is the opposite of that relationship. That understanding of prayer suggests that prayer is not somehow a manipulation of the relationship, but an expression of the relationship. I am not paying God something when I pray, fulfilling an obligation. I am simply “faithing.” Do we not in fact break relationship with God regularly through our own sinful selfishness? And is not that relationship restored one in which we pray.
Have you heard the expression “prayer warrior?” It is hard to miss in certain Christian circles. Do we turn the prayer warrior into a hero of some sort, instead of noting that there is only one hero in prayer – God/Jesus? Do we imagine that God doesn’t know what we are doing until we tell him? Or do we get so scared of being a “step above” or perceived as a “super-Christian” that we refuse to acknowledge the posture and place that God has given us. Do we not pray as we ought because we are afraid to claim the authority which Christ has given us? Do we shirk our duty to pray for the world sometimes? God has given us a holy promise that our words are all mingled up with the voice of Jesus because he has united himself with us. Our prayers are important.
Of course we also know that we speak with Jesus voice when we forgive. The message goes up to God and out from us from God. But I wonder if we also forget the authority we have as the voice of God’s son to a benighted and sometimes demonically oppressed world. Is this what the disciples neglected in the Gospel?
Prayer is easy for us to own. It is open to a terrible hubristic pride on our part, as if God was somehow blessed because I prayed or that my prayers somehow make me a better Christian. It is very easy to fall into this trap. But prayer is not me manipulating God, it is me being lost, or given up into God. Prayer is not where I gain control, but where God exercises control. I think a lot of folks miss that.
Last week the reading showed us how close Jesus was to the man whose deafness and muteness was healed and today we see Jesus close to the demoniac. But when asked why he can do it, Jesus notes that he is close to God, His ability to cast out this demon rests in God’s hands, granted they are his own too, but this power is God’s. Remember Paul when he speaks in 16
Romans will highlight the faith of Jesus. We as Christians participate in Jesus’ faith, the faith in which he prayed fervently to the Father. Prayer is not so much when I pay attention to God, as if that was somehow something that he sought, but when I realize and acknowledge that I am in God’s eyes, he is paying intense attention to me.
1. It all boils down to faith, and I am not sure I have any. What does it feel like to have faith? How would one know? How do I know that I am not just kidding myself? I know that I am not supposed to feel this way. I am a theologian, after all, but I cannot help it. Am I lost? Are the problems which beset my life simply the result of my own failures? Worse, is God fed up with my lack of faith and just letting my own sin run its course?
2. If I am asking these questions, what are the folks in the pews asking? Unaware of these things, do they merrily go about their faithful lives in sort of an ignorant bliss? Or in their moments of fear and doubt and shame are they perhaps more troubled about this than even I am?
3. I cannot even control my own tongue very well. This marvelous tool which should be used to praise God and spread his word becomes a poisonous serpent, spreading bile, gossip, and criticism. (James)
4. But say I have faith, I am the servant of YHWH who listens and obeys. My beard is pulled, my back is scourged, my life is smashed. Being a Christian is not for sissies, and frankly, I am something of a sissy.
5. I am helpless here. I don’t believe, I don’t do, I cannot be the person whom God wants me to be, who is fit for His heaven. I am lost. My church is a wreck, I swear my children are demon possessed on occasion, and I just got word from my doc that the test results are not very good.
1. I know the Bible says it, but in truth, Faith does not save me. The thoughtful reader of Scripture realizes that it is Jesus who saves. He uses faith, but that relationship is simply his tool, it is not the Savior itself. Relax about the faith thing; it is Jesus who has your salvation in his hands, not you. He has come, he saves. It is his own self-imposed job description. He jumps into the cesspools of life and pulls drowning sinners out.
2. That applies to all of us. With the poor man who struggles to believe, we find ourselves before Christ uttering nonsense most of the time, but the demon is still expelled, the child restored to the father. He is the Savior of us all.
3. And so he calls forth from us another word. Forgiven, restored, cleansed, and filled with the Spirit of God, my tongue is empowered to something different. Try it, the devil hates it, but try the honest compliment, the blessing, the praise, perhaps the silence. God will help.
4. No, Christianity is not for sissies, but this is not yours to bear by yourself. Find Christ’s arm supporting you in the community of Faith in which you find yourself. Find God’s strength coursing through your muscles and sinews as you consume this meal. Open your eyes and discover that God is supplying you with the courage, the energy, and the desire which you lack.
5. Jesus saves the helpless child, he saves the helpless human, he came to raise the dead, not buy drinks for the marginally alive.1 My utter failure is the preparation for Christ’s good work in my life. No, I have not got life right, Yes, I have a date with a grave which I must keep. It is true, my church is not what it should be, but that is exactly why Jesus came, and exactly why he is at work here today. Because I need him, we need him and he is the only one who can help us.
1 I love this line, but must admit I am stealing it from Robert Capon’s treatment of the Parables. You can read it in his book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. It was published by Eerdman’s in 2002
1. “I asked your disciples but they could not.” (That the hearer would firmly trust that Jesus can solve every problem, including the problems which are inside of themselves, the intractable problems of sin and death and their evil master Satan.)
Today we begin a five week series of messages which have children as their lens but which focus us upon our deepest problems. Children are the illustration here, and along the way we get to hear just how important they are to Jesus, so we will do well to pay attention to them. For Mark and his ancient readers they were helpless. Look at the child in today’s lesson. He says no words. His fate is completely determined by the adults in this story. He is possessed by an evil spirit, a demon who seizes control of his body, casting him into water or fire in a flurry of self-destructive convulsions. His own father must stand helplessly by and watch these things transpire. The child is helpless. We are not even given any sort of a clue of what he thought of being brought to Jesus; although, if you had asked the demon it would not likely have thought much of the idea. 18
The quote in the title might be really interesting to develop. Since the spirit is deaf and mute, we wondered if these words were the first words the child had ever heard. Has Jesus’ creative word pushed its way into that child’s life so he heard for the first time as Jesus cast out this demon? He is the one who said “let there be light” and it sprang into being at his Word.
We make the radical assertion that all humanity, ourselves included, resemble that child. Helpless before our suffering and sin, we can do little or nothing about it. Death cannot be avoided and all attempts to reform our own life stand as much chance as that little boy had of expelling his demon by himself. Even when it comes to faith we are helpless. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were always reading and thinking about God’s Word, but they certainly did not believe. The cross ever looms large over Mark’s portrayal of Jesus, these men will kill Jesus. The disciples who were with Jesus all the time could not get this right. Jesus labels them as part of the wicked and perverse generation. The father of the boy is completely messed up about this. There is only one way for us to turn: Jesus.
When we think really hard about what we are facing as human beings, and as humanity itself, we have to admit our own incapacity. No one wants to be a demoniac child, but no one wants to be a corpse either, no one wants to be sick, no one wants to be a slave, no one wants to be a sinner. Yet we all are those things too. Our enemy Satan does not want us to say that, because it is disastrous for his plans. He likes to keep us in an uncomfortable complacency, deceived into thinking that we are strong and capable people. He says, “Don’t think too much about just how serious this situation really is.” He will afflict us with just enough angst that we always are willing grumble, he likes grumbling and what it does to us. But he will never let it get to the point that we really take a good hard look at things. If it does get there, he is really quite afraid. That is what this sermon is trying to do to us. We are all like this child – a frightening thing to say, but honest. In the coming weeks, Jesus asks us to take that good hard look at things. To our horror we will discover that we really are as helpless as this child.
But Jesus has great things to say for helpless children. Today he casts out the demon. The Devil who torments us and the death which we suffer at his hands are no match for his good work or the power of his salvation. The world and our sinful flesh will betray us time again, even within the walls of this church, perhaps especially in the walls of this church, but Jesus is always there to save. We proclaim the rescuer today, the Savior! He has come to rescue the weak and helpless.
How will we illustrate this? How will we make this Jesus come alive? Will we show a person whom he has rescued? Will we tell the story of depravity and redemption? Jesus did himself, we call it the parable of the prodigal. What will be our rescue story?
2. “I believe, help my unbelief!” (That the hearer would be relieved of the self-imposed burden of having proper faith, and rejoice that God has even done that for us!)
It is interesting that Jesus ends this little pericope on prayer. This is the only prayer spoken in this whole passage.
This is really a teaching sermon about faith and its proper role in the life of the Christian. Our culture has a perverse tendency to speak flippantly and erroneously about faith. It is objectified and treated as if it is simply another part of the human being, instead of the very action of life itself. We act as if we have a faith switch we can will to turn on and off, when in fact faith is much more akin to living, not a switch but part of our very essence and being. We can no more turn it off than we can turn off life itself.
The world also has equated faith with belief, they are close but they are not the same either. Belief is propositional. Someone says something to me, I can believe it or disbelieve it. If you tell me that this plane will take off from Portland and land in Kansas City, I can either believe you or not believe you. It becomes faith when I entrust my life to the pilot, buy the ticket, take my seat, and watch the ground rapidly recede below me as we make our ascent to cruising altitude. Faith is a verb in Greek, but not in English. Too often we imagine that the faithful person has learned the catechism and is ready therefore to check off the faith box.
The man “faiths” but begs Jesus help his unbelief. The other thing that the world often tells us about faith is that it must be pure and whole and strong. The truth is that we are always beset by that bugbear Satan and his evil handmaidens of sin and death. Jesus speaks of tiny faith being powerful, because it is not the faith that does, but the One who works through faith who moves the mountain and causes the mighty tree to be uprooted.
Are these three issues all part of your congregation’s experience? You might really want to develop the one that you think is more appropriate to the congregation you serve. Is there another misconception or problem on the faith front that we need to address?
Perhaps do we not make the connection between faith and the problem. That seems to be the Disciples problem which Jesus addressed with the line at the end of the text. This kind requires prayer, the exercising of the faith in relationship with God.
Best said, faith is a relationship, a relationship between God and his creation, a relationship which he established much as the adopting father makes the infant his own son. He does not wait for the relationship to be reciprocated before he showers that child with love and attention. The infant simply receives that gracious love. So too we call upon our God as dear children call upon their dear father. He has made us so in Christ. The child does not one day decide to be a child of the father, nor does he turn that on and off, but it is simply what he is, and God makes it so. Jesus helped the man’s unbelief, he gave him his son back. He loved him even more. God helps us in our unbelief as well, he gave us Jesus, he gives us the Spirit, he washes away our sins, and feeds us from his very table. He attends our every moment, sitting patiently by our beds as we sleep, never 20
taking his eyes off of us for even a moment. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, his rod and staff drive off the hateful foe and he calls us back to the path wof life when we stray. On the last day when our life finally expels its last breath and we can no long hold onto this life, we will fall into his gracious hands once more and he will carry us, as his children, to heaven’s glory and eternal life.
Illustration? If you have an adopted child in your congregation or if you are connected to an adoptive situation you can work with that. There is something really neat about adoption, there is never an accidental adoption.
A new child in the congregation. The child, especially a newborn, is hardly aware of his own needs, but the parents are there. He squawks when he is uncomfortable, that is a prayer of sorts. Watch out for this one, it will tend to paternalize the parishioner. They might insist that they are in fact not children and want to be treated like adults. You might have to remind them of the bickering Pharisees and Disciples whom Jesus upbraids at the beginning of the text.
The disciples themselves might be the best illustration of this. They believe and follow and yet so often they stumble and in the day of his need they will run away and abandon him. If they have a struggle, should we expect any less? If even Paul in Romans 7 can admit that he struggles with sin in his life, are we really thinking that we won’t? When Peter is released from prison in Acts, the gathered faithful won’t believe Rhoda.
3. The Bridled Tongue (Epistle: That the Holy Spirit would use the words of the hearer to build up neighbor and family to glory of Christ.)
We tend to think words are a reflection of ourselves. But in truth the words we speak shape us.
It would be fun to have someone come in and preach James’ sermon from memory for the reading.
This sermon is rooted in the fact that we have put on Christ in our baptism and that makes a difference in our lives right now. If you and your congregation are not able to have a conversation on that basis, this is really not the sermon for you.
James speaks of a tongue and likens it to needing the control of a bridle and bit in a horse’s mouth. But here is the funny thing. With a bit and bridle, a horse can do amazing things. James is quite clear about this. None of us can handle the words we speak. This is beyond us. But he implies that it is not beyond Jesus and His Holy Spirit.
The bridle which guides the horse or the rudder which steers the ship, another of James’ images, are small, but they can do much. But when something is powerful its misuse is commensurately destructive. The preacher won’t have to dig far for examples of how words can hurt. He needs to contain this urge, however. Your people will also have a 21
whole catalogue of these things in their past. Let them remember their own hurt more than focusing on the hurt of another. Let them remember the day when their own words were a cruel lash on the psyche of another.
We also will want to have those illustrations of when words did great good. That moment of encouragement which propelled you to standing up and enduring and succeeding. The words of our baptism which declared us a child of God. The words of absolution which pronounce us holy.
The upshot of the sermon will really revolve around the idea that this is beyond us, but it is not beyond the Jesus who lives in us and the Holy Spirit whom he has poured out on us. Our words really can be directed by Him and His Spirit as much as they are directed by popular culture in all its coarseness. His word can be found on our lips. He can open those lips and we can declare his praise. We can encourage one another with psalm, hymn, and spiritual song. Jesus really can do that and he has already done it in the lives we have lived and he continues to this through us.
4. The Lord Jesus sustains me with a word, when I am weary (OT: That the Lord would sustain the weary congregant with His Word.)
Here is the “punt” sermon if you want to avoid the sticky wicket of the Gospel reading ☺
This sermon is for the congregation which is simply weary. It sees financial concerns. It sees graying membership. This congregation is wondering what will happen to it, and it is weary, tired of bearing a burden which seems to bear no fruit, programs which don’t actually result in any growth. Recruiting for ushers, greeters, board members, trustees, and even council members is increasingly difficult. They have all served and are tired.
Jesus sustains the weary with a word. The first thing Jesus does to sustain us with a word is found right in this text. He does not turn his cheek away, but endures the shame and suffering of his death and crucifixion, bearing a cruel reality which ought to have been mine. A burden is lifted from my shoulders. I ought to receive God’s wrath, but he has born it for me.
What is more he gives me a promise of victory. I may have to wait for heaven to see it, I may not, but I have a promise.
And then he puts eternity in my heart. The enemy, even death itself, will wear out like a garment, a moth-eaten rag. But I will not wear out. I will prevail.
So now, I can enter this world with a strange serenity and confidence. The way is dark, there seems to be no light, it is true. But my trust is in God, my confidence is in the Lord. I will walk this dark valley, but he will go with me, even when this path descends to the very valley of the shadow of death. My cup overflows. I will remember that trip and see only his love and his support of me.