Many have heralded before that life is not about us but about God. And it is true that the Lord and not any of us is at the center of the world, for he is the creator and sustainer of all that is and the redeemer of any who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. But the truth of that statement does not mean that there is no occasion on which we should take time to consider ourselves and think long and hard about our own actions. In fact, the gospel itself is a message of good news that demands a response from man. We do not faithfully proclaim the good news without making man aware that he must respond in repentance and faith. Thus, it was an entirely right and appropriate question for the people to ask Peter on the day of Pentecost, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). They rightly understood that Peter was directing his preaching at moving them to respond, and the right response was repentance and faith.
In the same way, then, much of Mark’s gospel (especially this second half, or act, of Mark’s gospel) involves Jesus teaching his disciples how they need to act, think, and live. Jesus is not unaware that after he dies, rises, and ascends back to the Father’s right hand, it is these, his followers, through whom he will fulfill his mission. Therefore, he teaches them how they must live.
But just consider that for a second. After the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead as the triumphant Lord and King over all the earth – as the one who had all authority – he didn’t say, “Now sit back and watch me go to work.” Rather, he told us that he was sending us (in the power of the Holy Spirit) to go and make disciples of all nations.
When we consider our weaknesses, incompetence, and rebellion against Christ himself at times, this is probably not how we would have carried out the mission. Yet the Lord in his mercy and grace has granted us the rich opportunity of living our lives as ambassadors for Christ. But again, he has not left us in our own wisdom. He took time to instruct his disciples, teach them, and prepare them for how they would need to think and live. And one place he does that in Mark’s gospel is in the section we’re looking at this morning.
The fact that this section is about Jesus instructing his disciples is shown in the way this miracle story ends. Up to this point in Mark’s gospel, miracles always end with the crowds being astounded by Jesus or the disciples wandering what kind of man he is. This one ends quite differently, however. It ends with the disciples asking a question and Jesus answering them (vv. 28-29). This is indicative of an additional element that is going to be found in this second half of Mark’s gospel (Act 2, as we noted last week) – Jesus spending time instructing his disciples. Therefore, if this section was to instruct Jesus’ disciples in what it looks like to follow him faithfully, I want us to consider how this text instructs us in what it looks like to follow Christ. First, we see that . . .
Following Christ means having faith in Christ and not being distracted by lesser things
When Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down from the mountain where Jesus had been transfigured, they walk up on a scene where the other disciples are in an argument with the scribes. And the reason there was an argument is because while Jesus and the others were gone, the nine had been at work (or at least trying to be at work). There was a man whose son had a demon, and he’d tried to bring him to Jesus in order to have Jesus cast the demon out. But Jesus was not to be found.
The disciples didn’t stand idly by, however. After all, you’ll remember in Mark 6 that Jesus had sent out the twelve earlier, and they had cast out many demons and healed the sick. So, they knew what they were doing. They’d done this before. The problem was that this time, it didn’t work. They couldn’t cast out the demon.
So this left a chance for the scribes to pounce on them. We don’t know the nature of the argument. Maybe the scribes said that Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah if his disciples weren’t able to cast out demons. Maybe they were simply saying that the disciples were doing something wrong or had been taught wrongly by Jesus. Whatever the nature of the argument, Mark tells us that the scribes were arguing with them.
As Jesus arrives, then, and asks what they’re arguing about, a man from the crowd provides Jesus the answer, saying, “Teaching, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able” (vv. 17-18). And Jesus’ answer shows his frustration, seemingly with all involved, as he responds, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me” (v. 19).
You see, everyone thought they had a problem. And they were right that they had a problem. What they were wrong about was what their problem was. The scribes had a problem with the disciples – certain they were wrong in what they were doing and wrong to follow Jesus. The man whose son was sick had a problem – Jesus wasn’t there when he brought his son, and his disciples were unable to cast the demon out of his son. And the disciples had a problem – they weren’t able to perform the miracle they had done in the past. But Jesus comes onto the scene and pronounces a bigger problem. He proclaims that they lack faith. They are a faithless generation. And I think by this he means everyone present.
It’s clear the scribes don’t have faith. They’re trying to attack Jesus at every point. The man doesn’t have faith at this point. He’ll even go on to acknowledge he’s not certain Jesus can do anything about his son. The crowds probably lack faith. Jesus seems to be more of a celebrity healer than the object of faith at this point. And the disciples lack faith. This is especially clear in Matthew’s account of this story where Jesus answers the disciples’ question, “Why could we not cast it out?” by saying, “Because of your little faith” (Matthew 17:19-20).
This is lesson number one in what it means to be a follower of Christ. We must have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the demand of the gospel. The good news that God sent his Son to take on flesh, live a perfect life of obedience, die on the cross to pay for sinners, and rise from the dead on the third day must be responded to in faith. We are justified (declared righteous) through faith in the crucified and risen Lord. If you are not a believer, this must be your response to the gospel.
And for believers, this must be our continued response to Christ. It is the one who holds fast in faith who will stand on that final day. And just let me add that just as with those in this text, there will always be a temptation to focus on lesser things. There is always a temptation to think that something is more important. There is always a temptation to miss that faith is our greater need and to think our deepest needs lie elsewhere. But, let us first note that following Christ means having faith in Christ and not being distracted by lesser things.
Second, . . .
Following Christ means obeying in faith even when doubts are present
After noting the faithlessness of those around him, Jesus demands that the boy be brought to him. And as the boy is brought to him, immediately the demon convulsed the boy so that he fell on the ground, rolled around, and started foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening?” So the Father answered, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (vv. 21-22).
Perhaps in conversation with most people, that response is appropriate. I mean, we go to the doctor, describe our symptoms, tell him how long this has been happening, answer his questions, and ask him if he can do anything about it. That is a natural way to talk to your doctor. After all, the answer is sometimes, “No, there’s nothing we’re able to do about that.” But that’s not an appropriate way to speak to God the Son.
So, Jesus responds, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.” That is, the problem is not with Jesus’ ability. The question is, does the man believe. And the man answers honestly, as a father who longs for his son to be healed and yet is struggling with doubts, “I believe; help my unbelief” (v. 24). That’s a sincere answer. He believes, but he still has doubts.
So notice Jesus’ response. He rebukes the demon, and casts him out of the boy. That is, the man’s doubt didn’t stop him from crying out and asking Jesus to deliver his boy. Nor did his admission of having doubts stop Jesus from responding to his faith and delivering his boy.
This is a good reminder for us that we do not wait until all doubt is removed before we obey Christ in faith. Perhaps we have some kind of idea in our minds that every missionary goes out on the field completely confident not having a doubt in his or her mind, but I would bet that at some point they stopped and asked themselves, “What are we doing?” I know a thousand times in my own life I’ve questioned what’s going on and wondered if I was in the right place. Every Monday morning pastors across the world may be faced with doubts if they’re doing the right thing. Simply put, not having doubts is simply not reality. Our faith is almost always mixed with doubts.
And you know what we must do then? We obey in faith. We keep pressing forward in what the Lord has commanded. We keep pressing forward in what we believe he’s called us to do. Lili and I often turn to one another and say, “The Lord has not called us to live an easy life.” And I can say for myself that one reason I say that to her is so that I can address my doubts. Often my life just doesn’t look like what I thought it would look like. And my faith is challenged. Doubts that are always there get a little bigger. And I just need to say out loud that what we’re facing is okay because I want to continue to walk in obedience despite all the lingering doubts that are there.
And I don’t think I’m unique here. So, let me just remind you (and remind myself as I say it), our faith and our faithful obedience are almost always done with lingering doubts – and that’s okay. The Lord doesn’t reject our act of obedience because of that. Nor should we stand still and not obey because of those doubts.
One reason there are always lingering doubts in the midst of our obedience is because things rarely turn out as we expect. This side of Genesis 3, the glorious picture you imagine hardly ever becomes a reality. People you think will applaud you often doubt, and some even provide opposition. The glorious response you think you’ll receive is often rejection instead. The provision the Lord gives is often accompanied with costs that are more than you thought possible. And our doubts are always there and always ready to rise higher. But we keep walking in faith and obedience.
And this reality really brings us to a third lesson from the story.
Following Christ means enduring terrible things we don’t understand
I’ve already said a bit about this, but I want to paint it a bit darker as well. After Jesus cast out the demon, Mark tells us, “And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead’” (v. 26).
So, in case we missed it, Jesus speaks, the boy cries out and convulses terribly, and then falls down so that everyone thinks he is dead.
Now, imagine you’re the boy’s dad at this moment. You think your boy’s dead. You are probably thinking a hundred thoughts. Maybe he’s thinking, “Why didn’t I just say I didn’t have doubts? Has my doubt cost me my son?” Maybe he’s thinking, “It wasn’t worth it. I never should have brought him to Jesus. At least my son was alive before, and now he’s dead.” And if he had been thinking those things, none of it would be true. But I wouldn’t imagine anyone would think rationally if you feel like you’ve just sat and watched your child die right in front of you.
And yes, we read in the very next verse that all was made right. Jesus took the boy by the hand, raised him up, and he was alive and well. But it doesn’t change that moment where all looked terrible, does it?
In our lives, there are going to be times we do everything in obedience to the Lord. We’re going where we need to be going, doing what we need to be doing, and living like we need to be living. And we’re going to encounter terrible tragedies. And we can know in the midst of it that all will end well. In this lifetime the Lord will work it together for our good so that we are made more like Christ. And in the resurrection all things will be perfected. But it won’t change the fact that what lay before us is a terrible reality that is common is our world post-Genesis 3. And in those moments, we’re called to continue to have faith, to continue to trust in the Lord, and to continue to follow him. We may only have a small glimpse of the big picture. But he sees the whole thing, and we must simply trust and follow. That’s what following Christ demands.
And finally, we’re reminded that . . .
Following Christ means constantly acknowledging our need for the Lord in prayer
After the boy is healed, the disciples are curious about why they couldn’t cast out the demon. After all, they’d done it before. Why couldn’t they do it this time? So Jesus answers, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (v. 29).
Now, that’s an interesting answer. Why would they need prayer? What’s magical about prayer? What about them praying would make this demon able to be driven out?
Well, I believe what we’re supposed to see here is that Jesus is condemning self-reliance. That is, the reason they should have been praying (and specifically needed to be praying concerning this instance) is because they were called to do tasks beyond their ability.
You see, prayer is our way of expressing our need for God and asking him to meet our need. Perhaps then the disciples walked into this thinking, “Yeah, we’re good for this.” And this was a chance for them to see that they’re actually not. In fact, the only reason they’d been able to do it before was by the power and authority of the Lord. The power wasn’t theirs.
And this is a chance for us to examine ourselves. Are we a people who pray? Are we characterized by prayer? If not, we may have a hundred different reasons why not. But the reason ultimately is that we do not feel that we desperately need God. Now, it might not feel like that. We might not want to say that. But, whatever we decide to do instead of praying is something we feel that we need more than we need to pray. And that’s a scary place for us to find ourselves.
Following Christ – living the Christian life – means walking in continual reliance on the Lord, desperate for his power and provision because you know you desperately need him. That’s the stance and walk of a believer.
This means that each day I must be desperately aware of my need for Christ’s strength and pray that he’ll empower to do things I’ve done a thousand times before. And it doesn’t only apply in times like when you’re getting ready to step behind the pulpit and preach (though it certainly does apply then). It applies when you’re living life. We are a Christ-dependent people. And if we aren’t willing to recognize ourselves as such, then we cannot be followers of Christ.
To follow Christ means that we have faith in him and aren’t distracted by lesser things, that we walk forward in obedience even in the presence of doubts, that we endure terribly painful realities, and that we continually acknowledge our need for the Lord in prayer. As we come to the table this morning, let our eating of the bread and drinking from the cup by our proclamation that we are indeed responding to this word and following our crucified and risen Lord. Amen.