16 September 2018

“Lord, We Believe — Help, Thou, Our Unbelief!”

There are a number of similarities between this Holy Gospel and the story we heard from St. Mark last week.  In each case, a parent comes to Jesus seeking His help for a demon-possessed child; but this time it is a father seeking help for his son, instead of a mother seeking help for her daughter.

Again Jesus engages the parent in a bit of a dialogue, or even debate, instead of simply granting the request immediately.  The woman last week was thereby given the opportunity to confess and demonstrate the tenacity of her faith.  And today the father of the demon-possessed boy is led from his doubts and fears and his struggling faith to a greater confidence and stronger trust in Jesus.

Consider the progression of the story.  This poor, desperate man has come to Jesus on a whim, as more-or-less a last resort.  In desperate frustration, since Jesus was not around at first, the father all but orders the disciples to heal his son — something the disciples of Jesus had been given the authority to do in His Name — but the man’s request is hardly a prayer of faith; it is a demand.

When the Lord Jesus Himself draws near, the man’s desperation shifts from making demands of the disciples to wondering if Jesus might be willing and able to help.  And, upon hearing the Word of Jesus concerning what is possible for those who believe, he cries out in a kind of repentance.  He confesses his faith in the Lord Jesus, such as it is, but he also confesses the weakness of his faith; he acknowledges his unbelief, and so he throws himself upon the mercies of God in Christ.

Along with all that, aside from the similarities and differences between the Syrophoenician woman last week and the father today, there is here again the conflict between Christ and the demonic.  For He is God in the flesh, who has come to confront and cast out the devil and his evil minions.

In order to understand the nature of that strange and dreadful strife between Christ and the devil, it is helpful to know the context of the story at hand, which is indicative of the big picture and of the way that Christ will overcome Satan, sin, and death, for the salvation of the world.

The present story is bracketed, before and after, by the clear Word of Jesus foretelling His Cross and Passion, His suffering, dying, and rising.  And, paradoxically, it is precisely by that foolish divine wisdom of the Cross that God defies the so-called “wisdom” of the world and defeats the devil, all his works, and all his ways, beneath the wounded heal of the incarnate Son.  For it is by His Sacrifice upon the Cross, by His voluntary suffering and death, by the shedding of His holy and precious Blood for the Atonement of the world, that Satan is cast out and the Kingdom of heaven is open to all who believe and are baptized into the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Betwixt and between those Words of the Cross, the story unfolds at the foot of the Mountain, as the Lord Jesus returns from His glorious Transfiguration on His Way to the Cross in Jerusalem.

It was on the Mountain of Transfiguration that God the Father identified Jesus as His beloved Son, echoing the Word that He had previously spoken at the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan River.  And He admonished the disciples, not only then but now, to listen to Jesus — even as He made His way down the Mountain to the Cross.  For the glory of His Resurrection, briefly manifested in His Transfiguration on the Mountain, would be accomplished by His Cross and Passion.

The Word that Jesus speaks — which you are called to hear and heed — is the Word of His Cross.  And it is to His Sacrifice upon the Cross that both His Baptism and His Transfiguration point.

Down from the Mountain He came, therefore, with Peter, James, and John, making His way to the strange divine glory of His Cross and Crucifixion.  That is what awaited Him, and that is where He was heading, when He encountered the man whose son was possessed by the unclean spirit.

The difficult and dismal circumstances under which that boy had lived most of his life, from his early childhood, vividly and graphically demonstrate the circumstances of the entire world — and of each and every child of Adam — apart from the Lord Jesus Christ.  That is to say, one and all (apart from Christ) are subject to the power of the devil, whether possessed by demons in violent and obvious ways, or deceived and misled by more subtle manipulations.

So it is that the old evil foe, Satan the accuser, renders the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve deaf to the Word of God, and mute to the confession of the faith, so they neither hear nor speak rightly.  Drowning out the Word and promises of God, and pummeling you with falsehoods, the devil and his minions seize you by the heart and toss you about in many and various sins, gnashing your teeth in fear, clenching your fists in anger, and arching your back in stubborn pride.

Such are the fruits of unbelief and sin, outwardly manifested in the body and life of this poor boy.

But not only do his circumstances demonstrate the sinful condition of the world apart from Christ.  Beyond that, the trauma involved in the boy’s affliction, and the struggle involved in His cleansing by Jesus — to the point that he appeared to be a corpse! — also demonstrate the conflict, again, between Christ and the devil, and the way that He defeats the devil by and with His Cross.  For He conquers the foe, not by an outward display of power and might, but by sacrificing Himself, laying down His life and submitting Himself to suffering and death, in the confidence, faith, and prayer that His Father will raise Him from death to life.  He approaches His Cross and Passion in prayer to His God and Father, and He teaches you to pray in His Name by faith in His Resurrection.

It is likewise the case that, when the Lord Jesus here raises that poor boy back up from his corpse-like state, He thereby anticipates His own triumphant Resurrection from the dead!  That is the sure and certain outcome of His innocent suffering and death, because it is precisely by and with and through His Cross and Passion that He triumphs over Satan.  Sin, death, and hell dog-pile the Lord Jesus, and they all do their worst to possess Him in their wickedness.  But in that combat stupendous, it is the devil and his forces that are routed and driven out, never to return again.

By the same token, this whole Gospel-story — and the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, to which it directs you — likewise portrays the content and significance of your own Holy Baptism.

In the first place, it is your Holy Baptism that has given you life with God through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.  It thereby also delivers you from Satan, from sin, death, and hell — and, in doing so, it puts you at odds with the entire demonic world!  That is to say, the life that you are given in Christ Jesus brings even more and greater wrath and opposition from the demonic world against you.  For the devil in his jealous rage is all the more rabid and desperate to destroy you.

Your Baptism thereby also puts you at odds with your own sinful heart, perverse mind, and fallen flesh!  It has begun a war within you, not so different from the struggle that ensued within that boy in this Holy Gospel when Jesus drove the demon out. Indeed, the Cross of Christ in your Baptism crucifies you and puts you to death to yourself, to your sin, and to the world, so that you become a kind of corpse in the perception of this body and life.  All that you fear, love, and trust, aside from the one true God, and all that you have attempted, desired, and pursued apart from His Word, is laid waste and put down, so that you should live no longer in yourself and for yourself, but that Christ should raise you up to a brand new life in Himself, conformed to the Image of His Cross.

Instead of chasing down the addictions, habits, idolatries, and lusts which have characterized your life in the world apart from Christ, and which drive you from the Lord your God into eternal death, you are taught the humility of repentance and the confidence of faith, to pray and intercede in the hope and promise of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to pursue love for your neighbors in the world.

The true, spiritual reality is that the Cross and Crucifixion of Christ Jesus mark your entire life as a baptized Christian, as a beloved child of His Father.  Who you are and how you live are defined by His Sacrifice.  So, in this world you live under the Cross, engaged in constant spiritual warfare.

And yet, for all of that, although you often appear on the surface to be dead and utterly defeated — and I suspect there are plenty of times when you also feel within yourself that you are dead and defeated — still you are raised up, alive and victorious, by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.

The persistent problem, of course, is that, while you do believe the Gospel by the grace of God in Christ, you also wrestle and struggle with your sinful unbelief and native idolatry.  And as such, especially as you must live under the Cross, and as you are daily engaged in conflict with the devil, the world, and your own heart, mind, and flesh, it is often so hard to believe and trust in Christ.

After all, to believe in a Crucified God, to fear, love, and trust in a Crucified Messiah, and to hear and heed His Word of the Cross, is an utter contradiction of everything the world calls wisdom.

Consequently, it is a constant and difficult struggle to believe and confess the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.  It is the battle of faith and unbelief, of true and false worship, of God and the devil, waged within your own body and life, and always hidden and mysterious under the Cross.

That can be so discouraging and exhausting, and downright disheartening, because it can seem so pointless and ultimately hopeless.  Does it not seem as though your own sins and failings, and the sins of others against you, will never end?  I fully expect that poor father felt just like that!

But now take heart.  As also in the case of that Syrophoenician woman and her prayer last Sunday, the striving and the struggles in your life are neither pointless nor forever.  It is rather in the midst of the struggle, and by means of that struggle under the Cross, that the Lord Jesus teaches you and leads you to faith and hope and confident trust in Him.  It is by His Cross, and so also by the ways and means of His Word and Holy Spirit.  Not struggle in and of itself, and not for its own sake, but as it brings you to the Gospel of Christ, to His forgiveness of your sins, and to the ongoing, daily significance of your Holy Baptism, by which you die and rise with Him unto newness of life.

So, for example, you have heard how Jesus led the father in this Holy Gospel — along with His own disciples — from doubt and skepticism and unbelief to repentance and faith.  To the sort of faith that prays to God in Christ, clinging to His Word, listening to the Lord Jesus and trusting Him — against all odds, living under the Cross — confessing confidence in Him, yet also praying for help against the doubts and fears of unbelief that always linger and lurk within your fallen flesh.

The Lord Jesus Himself, the incarnate Son of God, as your Substitute under the Law, under the curse of sin and death, called upon His God and Father on His Way to the Cross, trusting that He would rescue Him from out of death; and though He was a Son, He learned the obedience of faith by that which He suffered in your place.  So does He teach you by His Cross to trust and to pray.

Thanks be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that He has answered your every prayer and provided for your every need of body and soul in the Person of His incarnate Son.  So does He also continue to answer your prayers and provide for all your needs in the same Son, Jesus Christ, who has taught you and commanded you to pray, and has promised to hear and answer.  For the same Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified for your sins and raised for your justification, is also seated at the right hand of His God and Father in heaven, where He ever lives to intercede for you.

As He has obtained the victory for you over Satan, sin, death, and hell, by His Cross and Passion, by His atoning Sacrifice and glorious Resurrection — so has He shared that victory of His Cross and Resurrection with you in the waters of your Holy Baptism.  Not only once upon a time, but as He calls you daily back to the significance of your Baptism through repentance and faith in His Word, He thereby forgives all your sins; He drives out the devil from your heart and life; He gives to you His own divine, eternal life in place of death; and He calls you to live unto God in Him.

So does He feed and nourish, guard and keep, your faith and life in Him — against all unbelief — by His Word of the Gospel.  And so does He feed and nurture you in the one true faith, unto life everlasting, with the fruits of His Cross and Passion, with His own holy Body and precious Blood.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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