We alluded to the fact last week that life often feels like a roller coaster. We move from dizzying heights to devastating lows and sometimes it all happens in just a few days . . . or even hours. One minute we are planning a dream vacation, the next we are planning a funeral. One moment we are celebrating a new job and the next minute we are reeling from downsizing. Life is filled with ups and downs and some of these are drastic.
Last week we looked at one of those “highs” in the life of the disciples. Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John and talked with Moses and Elijah. This must have been a great experience for Jesus (even though, as God, he was well acquainted with Moses and Elijah). It was an even greater experience for the three disciples.
As we continue in Luke 9 we see the harsh reality that faced these men when they came down from the mountain. They came down the mountain to controversy and failure. It is the same kind of contrast we see between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. On Palm Sunday, Jesus was cheered by the crowds, but on Friday, He was executed like a criminal.
To get the full story we will put Mark 9 and Luke 9 next to each other. Mark gives us a number of details that Luke left out of his account.
The Contrast with the Mountain
The painter Raphael has a famous painting of the Transfiguration that shows Jesus on the top of the mountain during the transfiguration and just below them are all the people talking to the remaining disciples about the demon possessed boy. It is a picture that conveys the sense of contrast and chaos that was taking place.
Imagine coming home from a mission trip in which you felt the Lord’s presence very acutely. You saw God work in an astounding way. As soon as you get out of your car you see that a tree has fallen on your home and has done extensive damage. The joy of the trip is suddenly extinguished.
This is what must have been what it felt like to Jesus, Peter, James and John. They came down from the mountain after the incredible experience of seeing Jesus transfigured with Moses and Elijah and they walked right into the middle of a crisis.
Luke tells us,
37 The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. 38 A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. 39 A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. 40 I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.”
We have already encountered a couple of desperate parents in our study of Luke. We saw the widow of Nain who mourned the death of her son (Luke 7:11ff), and the synagogue leader who had the dying daughter (Luke 8:40ff). This parent is just as desperate. He told Jesus that the boy is “seized by a spirit” and begins screaming, thrashing around, and foaming at the mouth. Mark adds even more details,
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.” (9:21-22)
Mark adds, “He rebuked the evil spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” [Mark 9:25] This makes us think the boy may have been unable to hear or speak. (The fact that this boy had something like epileptic seizures does not mean that all epilepsy is demon possession.)
We can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to be the child. It must have been a terrifying world in which he was living. We can begin to imagine the horror of the father. We don’t know how old the boy is but we have the impression that childhood was a while ago. For years he had been caring for his son. This is an extremely difficult job and much more difficult if you cannot communicate with each other. I picture the man as exhausted because he could never sleep deeply because he was always listening for hints of distress from his son.
Let’s imagine the scene. This father, desperate to help his son hears about a man who has performed great miracles. He packs up his boy and heads out. When he arrives he discovers that Jesus is “not available” (since he is up on the mountain). The disciples offer to help and perhaps present their qualifications from their latest internship. I imagine they laid hands on the boy, they prayed . . . but nothing happened. The more the disciples try to do some good the more frustrating this father was becoming.
When Jesus came down the mountain I imagine this man was as frustrated as a person who is sent for test after test but never gets to see the Doctor. We are told the man “called out”. The word indicates that he shouted out to Jesus.
Surprisingly, Jesus rebuked the disciples and the people for their shallow faith. Was Jesus frustrated also. If so, he was frustrated as much by sinful human nature as much as anything else. As human beings we continually put our trust in ourselves rather than in Him.
Jesus called for the boy. We read in verse 42 that “the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion.” William Barclay says the word for “threw him to the ground” is the word used of a boxer dealing a knock-out blow to someone or of a wrestler throwing someone.”
Mark recorded that the man said, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus understood that the man was frustrated and responded, “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.” (Mark 9:22-23) Even in this desperate situation the goal of Jesus was the same. He did not come simply to take away people’s burdens; He came to call us to true and deep faith. Jesus came to address the most important problems. He was an expert in spiritual triage. In the case of this man he quickly responded, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)
Your situation may be different, but many of you know how this guy feels, don’t you? In your case it may be a crushing financial mountain that you feel like you are attacking with a teaspoon; a relationship that seems to get continually worse rather than better; health problems that have resulted in a shelf full of medicine but no real change in your condition; or maybe a legacy of failure that has left you feeling worthless. In these times we tend to look at our circumstances and conclude that there is no one that can help us. We must do what the man needed to do: stop focusing on the circumstances and instead put our focus on Jesus.
In all honesty maybe you can only say, like this man, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’ These words reveal a battle going on. This is not a battle that is taking place in your surroundings or your circumstances; it is a battle going on in your mind. You want to believe but you are so weary that defeat and doubt are your constant companions. You have spent so much time living “under the circumstances” that you don’t believe there is anything else. Draw strength from this account. This man confessed his struggle and asked for help. Jesus willingly gave His assistance. I believe He will do the same for you.
Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. 43 And they were all amazed at the greatness of God. (42-43)
These are such simple words that convey such a profound transformation. The boy was healed. The boy who could not hear now heard the love of his father expressed. The boy who could not speak now was able to speak to his Father and all who were willing to listen. How precious those sounds must have been! The torment was replaced by peace. Joy swallowed anxiety. The crowd should have been amazed.
We all like happy endings. We love to see the couple fall in love, the hero win the victory, the bad guys punished. Sometimes we don’t feel that we are given happy endings. People die. Jobs are eliminated. Bodies decay. Bad people sometimes seem to get away with their wrongs.
We are not yet at the end of life’s story. I believe when we get to Heaven we will see that every story in the believers life (yes every story) will have a happy ending. We will see what God was doing in and through the hard things. Confusion will give way to understanding. Defeat will be swallowed by victory. Those who put their faith in Him will find Him wholly faithful. When the story seems to end without a happy ending these are the times we must cry, “I believe, help me overcome my unbelief”.
An Important Footnote
The crowd was abuzz with excitement. And in the excitement Jesus warned his disciples about the roller coaster of life. Jesus told his disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” The crowd was cheering now but soon those cheers would turn to jeers. Jesus warned his followers not to crave the applause of men, for it is fleeting.
Athletes face this all the time. One day they are a hero the next day someone is calling them a bum. The crowds are fickle. We remember the disciples walking into Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday. It felt like a victory parade. Those disciples had no idea how quickly life was going to change. Jesus was warning them ahead of time.
We need to heed the warning. We must not anchor our security in life to our reputation, our savings account, our job security, or our “life-plan”. Life can change in an instant. Life is unpredictable. Sometimes it is hard. The only constant is the Lord. We must put our hope and our trust in Him.
Understanding What Happened
There is a second story running through this account. Mark records,
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.”
Luke did not report this part of the story perhaps because his purpose in telling the story was to show that Jesus who was Lord on the mountain was also Lord in the valley. Mark however addressed the question we may have: why were the disciples unable to drive out the demon? Notice three things: First, the disciples wanted to help. They had compassion for the father and for his tormented son. This is a good thing.
Second, the disciples believed they could help. Not long ago they had been out on a mission trip. They saw miracles happen. They had seen demons depart. They were confident. They knew the boy could be healed.
Third, the disciples were unable to help. What happened? This is what the disciples wanted to know. I believe the disciples forgot a very important principle: with God all things are possible; apart from Him we can do nothing. It would be very natural for the disciples, based on their past experience, to believe that they could heal. They knew the right formula. They had the expertise. They were looking in the wrong direction.
Jesus said, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” He was reminding the disciples that they only way to do what needed to be done was to earnestly seek God’s help. They were no match for the demons in their own strength. They needed to rely on His strength.
This is a common problem. Think about how we govern the church. We look for experienced leaders, we check out promising programs, and we rely on past experience. These things are good things but they are insufficient to meet the deepest needs of a human heart. These battles are won on our knees.
We look at our relationship problems and we try to “make things happen”. We push, we nag, we withdraw and we hope that our actions will bring about change. It’s like a stain on your clothes. You rub and you rub but all you do is make the stain bigger. The stain needs to be soaked in the right liquid before it can come out. Trying to force things only makes it worse. It is the same in our lives. Tough problems must be bathed in prayer. God is the One who brings about change, not us.
Look around. The person who will not believe will not be persuaded by our assaults. Beating them up will not bring them to Jesus. It is the same with our frustrations with the government. Things don’t change by calling people names. Hearts change….countries change . . . when people spend much time in prayer.
Let me give you three applications. First we learn what we should all do when we feel that life have overwhelmed us and when things seem hopeless: we should run to Jesus. Jesus said, “all things are possible if we believe”. Before you can see God do great things you have to believe that God can do great things! He is the one who can redeem any situation. Rather than despair we should turn to Jesus. Rather than give up, we should surrender to His wisdom, power, and love.
Second, we should be encouraged to be honest in our praying. I love the fact that this dad was honest enough to say, “I believe” but I also “Don’t believe”. We can’t get help from the Lord if we aren’t honest about the problem. It’s OK to say to the Lord, “I don’t like what is happening and I am finding it really hard to trust you. Please help me” or “I know you tell me to forgive but I don‘t seem to be able to entrust you with my hurt. I can’t let it go because I want to fix things. Help me to lay these things in your hands. Help me to forgive as you have forgiven me.”
There may be times when you need to be honest enough to say, “Lord, I know I am supposed to love everyone but . . . I just don’t like this person. Help me, O Lord, to see them through your eyes. Help me to see the pain and the fear they carry. Help me to stop focusing on how annoying the person is and start focusing on what You can make of this person by your mercy and grace.” We can be and we need to be honest about our struggle.
Finally, we must remind ourselves that we must rely on His strength rather than our own. Think of it like a corded power tool. As long as the tool is plugged in you can do many things. If the plug comes out even the most skilled of carpenters is going to struggle. When we put our trust in our ability we unplug from our source of power. When we trust formulas we lose connection to the source of power. When we try to copy people we admire we pull out the plug. We will be successful only by staying plugged in. Ask yourself: Is it possible that I am experiencing defeat in my life because I have become unplugged from the source of power? Your first step may need to be to become reacquainted with the One who loves you more than you know.
Life will have many ups and downs. There will be good days and bad days. There will be times people cheer for you and there will be days when they revile you. The only reliable anchor in the storms of life is Jesus Christ. If you remain connected to Him the storms will still rage but you stand . . . not by your strength; but by His.