The Uncertainty of Faith

So, would you be crazy enough to get into the wheelbarrow? Not me! If social media has taught me anything, I am more than willing to watch “crazy people,” but only in the comfort of my own home in the safety of sitting in my chair! Ask me to participate in crazy stunts, and you can pretty much guess what my answer is going to be.

Now, why is that? If this tightrope walker has proven himself over and over again, why not trust in his athletic ability to get you across on a wheelbarrow? Because we like safety, security, certainty on our terms. We are Americans, after all! But if there is one thing this past year has taught us is that life is full of uncertainty: pandemics, the snow and ice storms, tornados, wildfires, power outages, etc. We have all been rocked out of our false sense of security, reliability, and certainty.

In our story today, we come across a man who is at his wit’s end. He has a son of which he is unable to help. As a parent, this is one of the biggest fears any of us can face. Bring on anything this world has to throw at me, but not my kids. Any parent wants to be the source of security, compassion, and hope for their kids.

In the context of our scripture, today, 3 of the disciples just had an extraordinary experience. Literally and spiritually, they had a mountaintop experience. They were witnesses to Jesus’ transfiguration. But as is with life, they came off of that incredible and inspiring experience just to be confronted head-on with life in the trenches. Let’s dive into the story.

A.  The Problem  – 14-18

14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

16 “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.

17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

Something was clearly wrong with this fathers’ child. What appears to be what we may think is a medical condition, Jesus is able to see something darker and more sinister behind it. The boy is spiritually oppressed and the father feels helpless.

If we look back into Mark’s Gospel, we would see that in chapter 3, all of Jesus’ disciples were commissioned to cast out demons and heal people just as he has done Himself. In chapter 6, we see that these disciples had success in doing just that, healing people from spiritual oppression.

Now Jesus comes across his disciples in a heated argument with religious leaders about a failed exorcism. What went wrong? Do the same methods and same techniques work every time? Apparently not. This leads to Jesus’ rebuke.

B.  The Rebuke                                       – v. 19

19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

Jesus’ disappointment is directed at his disciples, who were unable to help the boy. Before Jesus can deal with the disciples, he confronts the problem head-on.

C.  The Confrontation                            – v. 20-27

20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

23 ” ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

We see here that whatever was influencing the boy had a strong reaction to the presence of Jesus. Jesus assessed the problem by asking how long the boy has been this way. But then the father responded with one of the most honest responses. He says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” The man is open to any help he can receive from Jesus. Anything to make his hopeless and uncertain situation better.

Jesus responds to the man’s request by drawing out the doubt and uncertainty that the man is wrestling with by repeating, “If you can?” Jesus assures the father that “everything is possible for one who believes.” If we stop the story right here, it would appear that the problem in this story is the man’s lack of faith. If he just had the right amount of faith, his boy would be healed. This would be a very heavy burden to put on the father or even the disciples.

I once knew a woman who attended a church I served in that had a child suffering from cancer. During this season of her life, she attended another church. The whole church was praying for healing for the boy. Unfortunately, the boy ended up passing away from the dreaded disease. In her grief, the mother did not understand and had questions about the outcome of her son. She went to the pastor of the church and asked why her boy died of cancer when it was clear to her that everyone was praying for his healing. Why wasn’t he healed? The pastor’s response was horrible and could be considered spiritual abuse. He said to the grieving mom that she did not have enough faith for her son to be healed. This is terrible! This is not how the God I serve operates.

But let’s take a look at what Jesus does here. The man responds to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” This man exposes the tension within every single one of us between belief and unbelief.

As I have grown in the faith, I can say with pretty much certainty that one of the most insufferable kinds of people to be around are those who have absolute certainty about everything. No nuance. No ambiguity. No doubts. Just absolute certainty: in their beliefs and how anyone who disagrees with them is wrong and on the highway to hell. But I am here to tell you that this actually demonstrates an immature faith, not a mature faith. These types of people typically have not had enough life experiences or have honestly wrestled with their faith in a deep and meaningful way.

On the other hand, some people need certainty. They want everything to be very black and white. But when difficult times come along, this can rock the faith of those who depend on certainty, pushing them into agnosticism, atheism, or an even stronger fundamentalism.

The author of our devotional and sermon series for Lent, Magrey R. DeVega, states that “tension and ambiguity in life are not always bad things. Struggling with what we know and don’t know does not convey how weak we are but simply how human we are. Faith is not the absence of doubt, but the embrace of it and ultimately the transformation of it. Likewise, courage is not the elimination of fear, but the regular interaction with it and conscious choice against it. The truth of the matter is, we live in a time when there is more value in ambiguity and shades of gray than there is in rigid, dogmatic certainty. Our world will be made better not by the extremists on the fringes who think everyone else has it wrong, but by those in the center who believe there is value in dialogue. Uncertainty is a certain part of life, and with its embrace can come transformation.”

In this story, the anxious father shows us that faith and doubt co-exist. They are held in tension. It is not an “either/or” proposition but instead a “both/and”. And it is in this tension that he looks to Jesus for help. Jesus proceeds to confront the spirit and bring healing to the boy.

Now let’s get back to the disciples. Imagine what they are thinking and feeling. Jesus commissioned them to heal people, they have gone out and did just that, but then they come to this situation where it just didn’t work the way they thought it should have. Obviously, they have questions for Jesus.

What happened?

What went wrong?

What did we do differently? The passage continues:

D.  The Explanation                               – v. 28-29 

28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

Jesus explains to his disciples that in their faith, they needed to depend on God through prayer. He didn’t shame them. He just showed how our faith and prayer demonstrates our dependence on God to help and intervene in our uncertain times. Now we may not get the answers we want, but prayer and faith help us to rely on God to walk with us through whatever life throws at us. And Jesus isn’t asking us for perfect, 100% faith. In fact, in Matthew 17:20-21, Jesus says that:

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Is Jesus talking about literal mountains here? Maybe, maybe not. I tend to think that he is telling us that when we face major issues in our lives, we need to put our faith in God that He is good and just and will be with us through anything. And if we have just the littlest bit of faith, as small as a mustard seed, we will be able to see how God moves in our lives through these uncertain times.

Also, our prayers do make a difference. It helps us to rely more on God to work through our lives.

In America, we like to have a plan, order, and structure for our lives. We like to have everything figured out according to our own understanding. But as we can tell from this past year, that just has not been possible. One of the most useless things in 2020 was a planning calendar!

A passage that has helped me out A LOT in life comes from Proverbs 3:5-6, which says,

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

Our own understanding can be faulty. We have a very limited view of things going on in our life. We are incapable of seeing the bigger picture in the way that God is able to understand. That is why the proverbial writer tells us to not lean on our own understanding but to trust in God. This is the way we move the mountains in front of us as our paths are made straight. It is in our reliance and dependence on God.

So, my question to you is, are you ready to get into the wheelbarrow? Are you willing to embrace the tension between belief and unbelief, between faith and doubt, between certainty and uncertainty? When you let go of your own ability to try and understand it all and learn to live in that tension, this is the sweet-spot for spiritual growth and development. When we look back on our past, we understand things better in hindsight, where we see how God helped us through situations. Let’s rely on those experiences in our past as we look forward to an uncertain future, trusting that God is with us every step of the way and will bring about the best of outcomes as we continue to put our faith in Him and trust that He has our best interests in mind. God does not expect us to have PERFECT faith, PERFECT belief, and ABSOLUTE certainty. He just asks that we put our trust in Him and live in the tension. And as a church, let’s continue to take our prayer concerns to Him in a child-like spirit of dependence upon Him.

Moving Mountains – Mark 11:12-25

pexels-photo-976917.jpeg          Ever wonder about that passage where Jesus tells his disciples that if they pray with enough faith they can tell a mountain to throw itself in the sea. Pretty strange, huh? This scripture passage suggests on the surface that if we pray with enough faith for a mountain to be moved and thrown into the sea, it will be done!

Now, if you choose to stay home on any particular Sunday you can turn on your TV and see multiple so-called-preachers who will twist this passage to turn God into a cosmic Santa Claus who, if we just pray with enough faith, will give us all we want. Make no mistake, these are NOT biblical teachers. Many of them can be categorized as prosperity preachers. I believe that the Bible refers to them as false prophets. They teach that God wants you to materially prosper and give you everything you want if you just name it and claim it!

I knew a lady at a previous church who had a husband who was dying of cancer. She attended a church with similar teachings who told her that if she prayed with enough faith, God would heal her husband. Well, in a short amount of time her husband lost his battle with cancer. The wife was perplexed. She prayed with faith for her husbands’ healing and he passed away from the cancer. What happened? She went back to the preacher and asked him why God allowed her husband to die of cancer when she earnestly prayed with faith for his healing. The pastor had the audacity to tell the grieving wife that it was her fault because she did not have enough faith! She then walked away from the faith for years.

In order for us to best understand this passage we need to back the lens up and see the bigger picture of what is going on. If we look at the beginning of Mark 11 we see that Jesus has just entered into Jerusalem on a donkey as his followers praised him. This is the triumphal entry that we celebrate on Palm Sunday. Let’s pick up the story at v. 12.

Mark 11:12-14

12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

Now on the surface, this appears to be a scene in which Jesus is having a bad day and in this one instance uses his power to curse a tree! Very, very strange. But we need to keep on reading to understand the context. So let’s continue with v. 15

 Mark 11:15-19

15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

Jesus entered into the temple and saw people who have turned it into a marketplace which he called a “den of robbers”. He called out those who were financially taking advantage of those who wanted to come to the temple to offer sacrifices. These people were being hustled for their cash. Jesus also made two points here that we need to highlight.

First of all, he said that “My house will be called a house of PRAYER”. He is emphasizing that this is supposed to be a sacred space for people to come and communicate with God through prayer. This is a spiritual discipline that is repeatedly taught all throughout the gospels and the teachings of Paul. We are to be a people of PRAYER.

The next point is that this sacred space is to be a house of prayer FOR ALL NATIONS. The nation of Israel had a way of feeling exclusive and exceptional when compared to the other nations. We know that many of the religious leaders were looking for a political messiah to overthrow Rome and establish his kingdom with power. They did not expect Jesus and his revolution to be of a spiritual nature. Jesus came to establish salvation not only for the nation of Israel but also for ALL THE NATIONS. Jesus had a much bigger agenda of inclusion and love that would involve all people.

So let’s pick up our story and see what happens with Jesus and his disciples after the temple incident.

Mark 11:20-21

20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

Now we have to ask, “What’s the deal with the stinking tree?!?” We need to look at the tree event as book ends to the temple incident. Jesus saw a tree that looked good on the outside. It was healthy and was full of leaves. But as he got closer up to it, it had no fruit. Then he addresses the Israelites at the temple who, on the outside looked like a beautiful temple, but on closer inspection, they were not producing the fruit that they ought to, which is being a house of prayer. The tree was a type of symbolic parable of Israel. If they were not going to be producing spiritual fruit like they were supposed to be doing, then judgment was coming. I believe that Jesus was foreshadowing the coming destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 by the Romans. So instead of being a house of prayer for all the nations, they took an Israel First stance and to hell with everyone else, especially Rome. The tree represented the nation of Israel who would be judged for not bearing the fruit that God intended for them.

Now, this is not just about Israel. We need to realize that Jesus has established the church to be that very house of prayer for all the nations. And this is how Jesus tells his disciples to pray. Let’s continue reading from Mark:

 Mark 11:22-25

22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Is Jesus saying that we can literally move mountains if we just pray hard enough? Well, being that Jesus never actually carried out that type of miracle, I don’t think so. But the tree representing Israel became an obstacle to Jesus because it did not produce the fruit it was supposed to. Therefore Jesus removed the tree and instead, empowered his disciples to carry out the task of taking his message out to all the nations!

Now Jesus does say we can remove mountains if we pray correctly. What exactly does he mean by this? I believe that he is telling us that if we want to be a part of God’s program of being a blessing to all the nations we need to overcome the metaphorical mountains that stand in the way. The mountains that prohibited Israel from being a blessing was pride, arrogance, nationalism and an attitude of exclusion. As a church we must be aware of the mountains that prevent us from seeing the “other” as an enemy and learn to be a blessing for all people, for all nations, and even for those whom our government would consider enemies. We have a responsibility to pray to remove these mountains and to be a blessing to everyone. Even if it also means forgiving others.

So how does this apply to us?

The first thing related to our IDENTITY. The most important thing that you must understand is that if you have put your faith in Jesus then you are a child of God. This trumps all other ways that we try to find identity. You are a child of God!

The second application relates to PRAYER. And as a child of God we have a responsibility to be in conversation with God through prayer. Our prayers cannot be self-serving, looking to take advantage of people, and about our own materialism and our own ego. We must pray for all people to come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ and that His Spirit would remove any and all boundaries that are holding back people from coming to know Christ as their Lord and Savior. Our salvation is not a private, exclusive deal between you and God. It is more of an opportunity for us to invite others to be a part of this awesome family of God. We are to pray that God would remove those mountains, those barriers that prevent us from inviting others in to the church of Christ, and prevent others from seeing the blessings that are connected to being a child of God.

And the final application is that we need to be producing SPIRITUAL FRUIT. One day we as believers are going to have to give an account for our lives before Jesus. And if we learn anything from the fig tree, it’s that a true follower of Christ is one who is producing spiritual fruit with their lives. That would involve what Paul talks about in Galatians 5 as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. But in the context of this passage, it also would include that we are a people of prayer who want to take the message of Jesus Christ to all the nations. That we love others. We care for others. We reach out to the hurting. We pray for our enemies.

So find your primary identity in Jesus. Yes you are a son and daughter, brother or sister, a student, an athlete, a performer, a musician but all those thing pale in comparison to the fact that you are a child of God who loves you. And He wants to be in conversation with you through prayer, and He wants you to be a blessing to all the people you can: those who are easy to love and those who are hard to love. And we are to smash down barriers through prayer that stand in the way of reaching others for Christ.

So knowing this should help you to look at your school differently. Your job. Your sports team. Your show choir. Your band. Be the light in the world that God has called us to be which is supposed to be attracting people out of the darkness and into the light.

Are you ready now to claim your identity in Christ and take ownership of your faith that your parents and the church have raised you in?

Are you ready to begin your own journey of being in conversation with God through prayer and Bible study?

Are you ready to open yourself up to God to use you to be a blessing to others and help remove barriers that prevent others from knowing him?

If so, then let’s do this!