The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.
Helpless and hopeless. Those are just two of the words I’d use to describe the scene in our gospel lesson for today. Jesus and three disciples come down from the Mount of Transfiguration – from an unveiled glimpse at the glory of the Son of God, down into the muck of sin and its curse – they happened upon a hopeless and helpless situation. The doctors hadn’t been any use, but even worse, the disciples hadn’t helped either. A loving father sought out help from those who were uniquely qualified and had a proven track record. After all, even the demons submit to them in Jesus’ name – but not this one, it seems. Humanly speaking this man’s situation looked helpless and his son would remain possessed by a cowardly demon who robbed him of speech, made him foam at the mouth, gnash his teeth, and become rigid. This father had done all he could for his son, but it wasn’t enough.
It’s frustrating when no one can help, isn’t it? It’s especially so when the one you’re trying to help is your child and the people you’re seeking help from are supposedly uniquely qualified to give that help you’re after. Maybe you’ve lived it – the doctors have no answers, and not even a Google search of your symptoms can give a satisfying result. Maybe you’ve been there, watching and waiting, hoping and praying and…crickets. Does it ever seem like God isn’t answering, and maybe not even listening to, your prayers? When it looks like you’re all alone, your help is exhausted, your hope is dried up, and there you sit all by yourself, just you and your problems? It’s frustrating – mentally, emotionally, physically. You’re at your wit’s end, and it’s enough to make you wonder whether God really does care. It seems that’s where the father in our gospel lesson found himself – helpless, hopeless, and alone…but then, Jesus showed up.
What marvelous grace Jesus shows in dealing with this father and son in their desperation! Seeing this tragedy of a young boy being ravaged by a demon, Jesus asked, “How long has he been like this?” and, as is always the case in the gospels, Jesus doesn’t ask questions to obtain information. So what is he doing here? In love, Jesus is letting this man see all the more clearly his desperation and total dependence - so that Jesus can show him the fullness of his deliverance and demonstrate that in this, and every situation, Jesus is everything. So the father answers, “From childhood…it has often thrown him into the fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” The one who has received God’s gift of faith doesn’t set any limits on what God can do for him. If this man didn’t have any faith, he wouldn’t have bothered coming first to the disciples and then to Jesus for help. He believed in Jesus’ power to do exactly what needed to be done, but struggled to apply that to this moment in his and his son’s life. He grasped Jesus’ ability, but not his love in this moment. That struggle is real, and you can hear it in his exasperated and beautiful prayer – I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!
From the lips of this father, we hear probably the most honest prayer in the entire Bible, because true faith is always acutely aware of its own weakness. In modern usage, the word “faith” has been abused and mangled into meaning little more than blind optimism – everybody loves an underdog story; I have faith that my last place team will make it to the championship; all you’ve gotta do is have faith; and magically wish it to be so! A faith which boasts and takes pride in faith is nothing more than optimistic superstition. True faith is always acutely aware of its own weakness because true faith does not rest on faith for faith’s sake. In other words, faith doesn’t look to me and how much or how strongly I believe as the object of my faith. True faith lays hold of the promises of God in Christ, and is aware of the weakness my sinful flesh brings to the table. And those are always in tension.
Within each one of us lives a new person, given by the Spirit of God who wants only and always what God wants; who looks at God’s law and joyfully proclaims, “I want that, too!” Alongside that new person, given by the Holy Spirit, remains the sinful nature – the one we were born with and we’ll have with us until the day we die. The sinful nature wants nothing to do with God – who he is, what he says, what he wants. The sinful nature wants only to serve self, and it’s good at it, too. So, does it make some sense how that boy’s father could pray, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! Can you relate with where he’s coming from? I think so, because if we’re honest with ourselves, it rings true.
That’s the most honest prayer in the Bible because it puts on full display what’s going on inside each one of us. I believe! But I also struggle. Lord, I trust in your promises, but frankly, I don’t see how you’re going to pull it off this time. I hear you declare that in Christ my sins are forgiven, forgotten, forever, but my past still haunts me and those people around me don’t know the half of it. I love you, Lord. But I also love myself. I give all glory to you, the God of my salvation. But I don’t mind it when people tell me what a picture of virtue I am or what a committed Christian I must be – in fact, I kind of like when people praise me. Lord, I know what you say about regularly being in your word and receiving your sacraments, but I’ve got plans this weekend, and the next. Lord, I remember how you promise that your word will always accomplish what you desire, but I’d rather keep quiet, especially when what you have to say is so counter-cultural. Lord, I believe, but I am just a walking contradiction – in tension between the saint you’ve declared me to be and the sinner I’ve been since birth. Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!
And he does. He did it for the desperate father. Jesus…rebuked the evil spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit…I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” When confronted with the Word of life himself, what other recourse does the devil have than to turn tail and run? 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. With the word of his mouth, Jesus leaves no room for doubt that he is who he says he is and he’ll do exactly what he’s promised to do. Jesus works miraculously to undo the damning effect of sin on the world…and a miracle is what it takes. Because our battle isn’t just a little skirmish – it’s all out spiritual warfare.
That’s what Paul was talking about in our second lesson. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Do you realize what that means? Every day, even right now, there is a continuous war going on between the Christian and the devil’s forces of evil – and the battle ground is your eternal soul. The devil is clever, and he allies himself with the world around you and even the sinful nature within you to try to pull you away. He’d like nothing more than to have you fix your attention squarely on your faith and how much you believe and how dedicated you are – and it might look good for a while, but it’s a guarantee that the walking contradiction that is this sinner/saint will catch up with me. When everything’s humming right along just like I think it should, there’s no problem. But what happens when the sick child isn’t getting better? What about when the marriage isn’t getting easier? When the job hunt remains fruitless? When the temptation doesn’t go away and the guilt wants to stay? Where will you go then? Where will you look? Everyone’s ready to say, “All you’ve gotta do is believe! Have a more positive outlook, and you’ll see, everything will get better!” Such advice, while well intentioned, is like throwing another shovelful of dirt onto a rotting corpse. It’s pointing the person on the brink of despair back to himself instead of pointing him to his Savior.
So look what Jesus did for that man at the end of his rope – hopeless and helpless, nothing’s working, everything’s wrong, but he cries out that heartfelt plea, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! And what does Jesus do? He helps. He heals. He keeps his promises – not because of the strength or weakness of this man’s faith – but because that’s what Jesus does. And that’s what Jesus does for you, too. He defeats the devil, gives us his victory, and prepares us for spiritual warfare. How does he do it? By constantly reminding you of who he’s declared you to be. Jesus doesn’t prepare us by gradually poking and prodding and teaching and training your sinful nature, because your sinful nature is incapable of any instruction. So he takes it a step further. In the waters of your baptism, and as you go back to your baptism every day, Jesus drowns your sinful nature with all its evil deeds and desires, and pulls you out of those waters as a new creation, set free to live for him. Through water and the word, you’ve been connected to Jesus – crucified with him, dead to sin, raised to new life. In the gospel, he calls you his child and in his love, he’s equipped you to live in this world of spiritual warfare by giving you his own armor.
Around your waist he’s fastened the belt of truth – his promise that he’ll never leave you nor forsake you. Shielding your heart is the breastplate of righteousness, but not your own righteousness – his righteousness freely given to you. He’s fitted your feet with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. Into your hands, he’s placed the shield of faith and the sword of the spirit. And adorning your head is the helmet of his salvation. Do you see? The strength to engage in this spiritual warfare isn’t in you. All three of our lessons make that point - Elijah didn’t start that fire on Mount Carmel any more than the father’s faith healed his son any more than the armor of God is something of my own invention. This is Christ preparing you for spiritual warfare with the comfort of his presence and the certainty of his promises. In him, you’ve been set free from sin. In Christ, you’ve been released from every accusation of the devil. In Christ, you’ve been armed and equipped for spiritual warfare – not with the weapons of this world, but with a word or release for the prisoner, freedom for the captive, and forgiveness for the sinner. Christ prepares you for war – not to hunker down and try to hide from the big scary world, but to reach out to those souls still captive and drag some more out of the fray and into the freedom of the gospel. With his death and resurrection, Jesus has defeated the devil. Through his gift of faith, Jesus has given you his victory forever. In the power of his gospel, Christ has prepared you for spiritual warfare.
And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.