How Long?

How Long? | Mark 9:14-29

When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and scribes disputing with them. All of a sudden, when the whole crowd saw Him, they were amazed and ran to greet Him. Then He asked them, “What are you arguing with them about? ” Out of the crowd, one man answered Him, “Teacher, I brought my son to You. He has a spirit that makes him unable to speak. Wherever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I asked Your disciples to drive it out, but they couldn’t.” He replied to them, “You unbelieving generation! How long will I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring him to Me.” So they brought him to Him. When the spirit saw Him, it immediately convulsed the boy. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. “How long has this been happening to him? ” Jesus asked his father. “From childhood,” he said. “And many times it has thrown him into fire or water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Then Jesus said to him, “ ‘If You can ’? Everything is possible to the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe! Help my unbelief.” When Jesus saw that a crowd was rapidly coming 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! ” Then it came out, shrieking and convulsing him violently. The boy became like a corpse, so that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus, taking him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up. After He went into a house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out? ” And He told them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:14-29 HCSB)

Faith – many in our culture think it is the easy way out of complex questions and difficult circumstances. One that Christians often fall back on but one that doesn’t have the ability to support or sustain They seem to think that believing in something or someone is simple and relatively easy. Just invoke faith and all the issues and questions disappear. Truth be told, It isn’t easy. NOT at all. In fact, faith in God and, more specifically, faith in in Jesus as God’s unique and only Son is far from easy and never simple. In this week’s focal passage, Jesus addresses this when He references “this unbelieving generation” and His limited time with them and His personal frustration with them.

However, if we are honest with ourselves, this question of faith is not an easy one and doesn’t cause all of our questions, concerns and struggles to just melt away. This is especially true as historic Christian beliefs become increasingly unpopular and at odds with our culture. In a world of growing rejection of and hostility towards Christian faith, the need for a bedrock foundation of belief is desperately needed. Faith is often associated with the idea of belief and while they are closely related they are not synonymous. Faith is more closely aligned with trust. It is possible to believe without trust but it is impossible to trust without belief. So, to be able to trust or have faith in someone you must have a solid foundation of belief on which to stand.

This week’s focal passage deals directly with this issue of belief, faith and trust. As you’ll recall, Jesus has been up on the mountain with Peter, James and John where His glory was revealed and His identity affirmed by God’s voice from an overshadowing cloud of God’s presence. Peter wanted to remain on the mountain and build a place of honor and worship for Jesus as well as Moses and Elijah, who appeared and spoke with Him. However, you can’t stay on the mountain when your mission is in the valley with the struggling, hurting crowds. So Jesus leads them down the mountain and right into a mess filled with ministry opportunities.

When the four of them joined the other disciples, they found them in the midst of a crowd and engaged in a dispute with a group of scribes. The crowd took notice of Jesus and ran to greet Him. He asked the disciples, “what are you arguing with them about?” Without waiting for a response from the disciples, a man in the crowd replies, “Teacher, I brought my son to You. He has a spirit that makes him unable to speak. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him down and he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they couldn’t.”

We don’t get details regarding the dispute, but it seems clear that it is related to the boy’s circumstances and the disciples’ inability to drive out the unclean spirit. Notice Jesus’ scathing response, “You unbelieving generation! How long will I be with you? How long must I put up with you?” The question is, just who is He reprimanding? Is it the disciples? The crowd? The scribes? All of them? It would seem, from His use of the term “unbelieving generation”, He is directing His words at all of them.

Does it sound a bit harsh? Well, you can certainly hear the frustration in Jesus’ words. It is easy for us to look at others and clearly see their failures while conveniently overlooking our own. We see the failures of the disciples, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes, and the self-centeredness of the crowd even as we overlook or ignore these same tendencies in ourselves. However, don’t overlook the dispute that was occurring when Jesus came upon the scene. I think that might be a clue regarding the source and strength of His rebuke.

No specifics but we do know several things about it. It appears to be directly tied to the inability of the disciples to drive out the unclean spirit from the boy, as related by his father. We also know the scribes continue to question Jesus’ authority and the source of His power in previous instances of driving out unclean spirits. I think it is safe to assume that the dispute probably included some of these things and may have focused specifically on the disciples lack of authority to act as displayed in their inability to drive out the unclean spirit. In other words, the scribes believe the disciples failed because they lacked authority and this reflects back on their teacher, Jesus. It causes His authority and identity to be questioned.

Yeah, let that thought sink in a bit. How often do our actions, our faith failures reflect poorly on our teacher, our Lord? How often does the world look at us and our actions and question the truth of God’s Word and the authority of Jesus. Jesus responds with hard words, you are an unbelieving generation. Unbelief results in a lack of faith and a loss of trust and that significantly impacts your actions.

Just what did they refuse to believe? They refused to believe that what they heard in Jesus’ words and saw in His life was reflective of God’s will and Word. Their religious presuppositions and their misunderstandings of scripture coupled with their cultural biases blinded them to the truth of what their eyes saw and their ears heard and left them with a heart of unbelief.

How can I be so sure of that? He says, “How long will I be with you? How long must I put up with you?” While I believe His words are directed at the crowd, the scribes and the disciples, I think His frustration is primarily directed at the disciples. I think He expected this kind of response from the scribes and His words were certainly having an impact on a few people in the crowd, but it would seem His frustration is primarily with the disciples. They had been with Him, walked with Him, seen the miracles, heard His teaching and yet their unbelief persisted and impacted their ability to fulfill the mission He had given them.

How is our unbelief impacting our ability to fulfill the mission He has given us?

Now, He speaks to the boy’s father: “Bring him to Me.” So, they brought the boy and when the unclean spirit saw Jesus, it immediately convulsed the boy and he fell to the ground, rolled around and foamed at the mouth. Jesus asks, “How long has this been happening to him?” The father replied, “From childhood and many times it has thrown him into fire or water trying to destroy him. If you can, have compassion on us and help us.”

“If you can?” That’s not a question of will or desire but of power and authority. The boy’s father doesn’t question Jesus’ willingness to help but does question His ability to help. This goes to the very heart of unbelief – doubt regarding His power, His authority, His ability to make a difference. Our culture doesn’t often question Jesus’ compassion and love, but it OFTEN questions His authority and power.

This seems to be the very issue that lies at the heart of the modern church’s impact on our culture. We seek personal power and authority over our culture while lacking compassion, humility and love. We get this backwards. We don’t need power and authority over culture, that belongs to Jesus, alone. We need compassion, humility and love and then HIS power and authority will flow through us. More on this in a bit…

Jesus responds to the father, “If you can? Everything is possible to the one who believes.” IF is such a big word. Listen to the father’s reply: “I do believe! Help my unbelief.” I think there’s help for us in his words. We get stuck on the amount of faith we have, as if it can be measured. I need more faith. No, you need to place what faith you have in the right person. We tend to have faith in ourselves and our abilities, not in God. In Matthew’s version of this same story, Jesus says: “Faith the size of a mustard seed is effective in moving mountains when it is properly placed in Me (see Matt. 17:20-21).

So, if the amount of faith I have isn’t the issue then how does the father’s response help? Listen to him, “I do believe, help my unbelief.” His faith was not in himself, it was in God the Father and God’s power, authority and will flowing through Jesus, the Son. How can I be so sure of that? Because he confesses his own weakness even as he declares his faith. A man who is depending upon his own power would never declare his weakness in the same breath and I think that is a clue as to our own spiritual weakness of faith.

There are several things at play in this situation: God’s desire, God’s power and a father’s faith. The boy’s father believes, but he acknowledges his fear and, in this moment, those are expressed as doubts – his unbelief. Be honest. Your doubts and fears aren’t often expressed out loud, are they? What’s more, I’d bet your doubts and fears aren’t often expressed to God. Not that they aren’t felt, just that they aren’t openly confessed to God. Especially in a humble way, like this father’s were. “God, I believe. Help my unbelief.” He expressed his faith but he also expressed his doubts and fears, confessionally. And, in doing so, he found God compassionate and receptive to his cry for help.

Jesus saw the crowd begin to rapidly gather, so He quickly rebuked the unclean spirit: “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: come out and never enter him again!” The father had no hope for his son except a compassionate Jesus and he placed what little faith he had in Him and cried out for help with his unbelief. The man had no power or authority over the spirit, but he placed what faith he had in someone who did – Jesus. The spirit was forced to obey the voice of authority, God commanded and the spirit was forced to comply. It came out of the boy, but not easily. It shrieked and convulsed the boy violently and left him like a corpse. In fact, the crowd thought the boy was dead and many said so, “He’s dead.”

When faith in God forces uncleanness from our lives, it often leaves us looking dead and lifeless before and unbelieving world.

But notice what Jesus does next. He takes the boy by the hand and raised him and the boy stood up. This is resurrection language and Mark uses it on purpose. He has emphasized that the boy appears dead before the crowd but Jesus raises him up, gives him life. This is intentional and simply highlights my previous statement: when faith forces uncleanness out of us, it often leaves us looking dead and lifeless to the world – but Jesus gives us LIFE! Real life. Resurrection life. Life that is radically different from what it was before. That which afflicted us has been driven out and the Living Word of God raises us up, transforms our hearts, changes our way of thinking and causes us to walk in a new way – His way. (See Rom. 8)

Finally, they go into the house and the disciples ask Jesus: “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Listen to His reply: “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” At first glance, He seems to imply that some spirits, like this one, require more effort to drive them out. I don’t really think that’s His point. I think He’s telling the disciples where their point of failure lies, they took it too lightly. Success often breeds pride and spiritual pride brings weakness and failure. “Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18 HCSB)

“Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world — what is viewed as nothing — to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 HCSB)

Prayer and fasting are spiritual disciplines we often neglect. We often misunderstand the very idea of prayer. Even as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, next Sunday on Christmas Day, we often treat prayer more like a Christmas wish list than an acknowledgement of our weakness and dependence upon an all powerful, all-knowing, compassionate and loving God. This father’s plea to Jesus resembled prayer more than our feeble efforts often do. Instead of trying to make your words sound eloquent, let them be an honest expression of your heart. “Father, I believe you and I trust you, but help my unbelief, my doubts and my fears.”

When it comes to fasting, we think more about food than we do about God. We lament the meal we are missing more than the presence of God that is missing from our lives. When we desire God’s presence the way we desire food, things will begin to change in us.

“Trust in the Lord and do what is good; dwell in the land and live securely. Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you your heart’s desires. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in Him, and He will act, making your righteousness shine like the dawn, your justice like the noonday. Be silent before the Lord and wait expectantly for Him; do not be agitated by one who prospers in his way, by the man who carries out evil plans. Refrain from anger and give up your rage; do not be agitated — it can only bring harm. For evildoers will be destroyed, but those who put their hope in the Lord will inherit the land.” (Psalms 37:3-9 HCSB)

In closing, consider Jesus’ questions: “How long will I be with you? How long must I put up with you?” The window of opportunity for you to respond in humble submission to Jesus love and experience His power and presence in changing your life is waning. It is quickly fading, like the evening sunset. You have one less day than you did yesterday and tomorrow is never guaranteed. Fall before Him like this father did and humbly declare your weak faith, your doubts and fears and ask Him to help your unbelief. Then watch in amazement as He reaches down, takes your hand and raises you up to new life – a NEW LIFE in Him. Your heart, your desires and your thoughts will all begin to change and reflect His heart, His desires and His thoughts. Then just lean into them and let go… by faith, trust Him and watch what He does. It will amaze you.

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