1st in the series “Embracing the Uncertain”
Life is full of uncertainties. Watching the news this week proved that, when 17 students and faculty who went to their high school as they did every day, were gunned down by someone who acquired an assault weapon legally and may have boasted online that his goal was to become a professional school shooter. Some of the students who survived have shared how uncertain their daily lives have become – now unable to sleep or eat, fearful at every moment, afraid to be alone. And we who observe from afar are uncertain how much longer these senseless acts of violence will be allowed to go on, if there is a way to prevent them, or how to make a difference.
Uncertainty also comes with the markets’ recent wild ride down and up, with political struggles to find solutions that actually work, with natural disasters and the long-road to rebuilding afterward. Uncertainty strikes us at a societal level.
But it also affects us personally: relationships can strain and break; plans fall apart; confidence and hope fade away.
We’d prefer life to be more predictable, stable, certain. We want to know we are in control of our lives and our future.
This season of Lent we will explore some of the uncertainties of life in our sermon series and through small group dialogue led by Pastor Becky on Sundays at 4 p.m. and Thursdays at 2 p.m. We’ll be invited to “Embrace the Uncertain” with Jesus, rather than ignoring it.
Let us pray. God, we come to you in the midst of the uncertainties of life, hoping to hear a reassuring word from you. Give us ears to hear and hearts to know, as well as the resolve to go and do as you lead. In Christ we pray. Amen.
Our Gospel story unfolds immediately after an amazing event. Jesus and three of his disciples – Peter, James and John – went up a mountain. While Jesus prayed there, his appearance was changed and the glory of God shone around him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Then, as suddenly as it happened, it ended. They descended from the mountaintop back into the valley.
Meanwhile, a father brought his suffering son to the nine disciples who had remained down in the valley. With a crowd gathered round, they apparently tried to heal the boy, but were unsuccessful. The religious leaders and the disciples began arguing with one another over why it hadn’t worked, while the anguished dad and his stricken boy stood by.
Isn’t that a sad commentary on the human condition, including the condition among Christians? We debate who is right and who is wrong, insist that our opinion and preferences should be followed, and argue whether the Gospel even means what it says. And all the while, hurting, broken, sorrowing people who need to know the compassion and peace of God in their lives stand by waiting for us to get done fussing and fighting so we can actually help them. Is it any wonder that the world largely disregards the Church as offering any real hope or help for the world’s problems?
Into this scene walked Jesus, and the crowds were greeted him with wonder. The father explained what was happening: “Teacher, I brought you my son,” he said. “I asked your disciples to help him, but they could not.”
Finding himself in the middle of the argument, Jesus didn’t take sides or mediate to resolve the dispute. Instead, he expressed frustration with them all: “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” His frustration was directed at the crowd and at his disciples who have failed to learn from him. He knows that his time among them is drawing toward a close, and despite his efforts, they still haven’t gotten it.
But does the description “faithless” really apply to the disciples? After all, they had left everything to travel with Jesus. They listened to his words day in and day out; they witnessed the miracles he had done; they had even been sent out on mission by him and successfully preached, healed the sick and cast out demons. So how were they faithless?
If we skip ahead to the end of the passage, after the crowd departed, the disciples asked Jesus privately why they were unsuccessful in healing the boy. Was their technique off? Did they say the wrong “magic words?” What had they missed from their earlier successes? Jesus said they lacked prayer. What did he mean? His response suggests that the disciples, relying on their earlier success, thought they could heal this boy out of their own knowledge, experience and strength. They didn’t need to rely on anyone or anything else. They had it all figured out. While they might have had the form, they lacked the power. They could go through the motions, but they were missing a vital relationship with God. The disciples were faithless because they were depending solely on themselves, rather than trusting God.
We are often like them. Because we have a bias for action, prayer looks like inaction – sitting or kneeling quietly to talk with and listen to God seems too passive. So we relegate prayer to a spot in our worship, a perfunctory item on our meeting agenda, and we delegate it to a prayer team who will pray on our behalf. There’s nothing wrong with having a group of people faithfully committed to prayer; the problem is when we let them do the praying for us, so the rest of us can get busy doing what we know how to do ourselves. We end up trusting and relying on ourselves, rather than on God.
Prayer connects us to God who knows us and our situation better than we do. It puts us in a position to listen to the One who has wisdom for this and every moment. Prayer expresses our total dependence on God to know what to do, to find the words to say, and to have the power to do anything we do.
After he expressed his frustration, Jesus told the father to bring his son to him. After the boy’s condition was put on full display before Jesus and the crowd, the father, running out of hope, said, “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”
Then Jesus said, “If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes.” What does this mean? Unfortunately, I think we have often misunderstood “all things can be done for the one who believes.” Some have told those who are suffering or praying for others who need healing, “If you believe enough, then God would help you,” as though God is withholding mercy, healing or strength until the person has proven they deserve it. By that logic, when I went to sleep last night believing that more hair would grow on the bald parts of my head, then why didn’t I wake up with a full head of hair? If I believe that we have $10 million in our bank account, then I can write a check for that amount and the bank will surely cash it, if I have enough faith.
That kind of thinking turns God into a genie in a lamp. If we just rub the lamp right, we’ll get three wishes. But that’s not the God of the Bible. In the pages of scripture, we learn that God is unfailingly good, unwaveringly faithful, unendingly loving. So God can be trusted, but that doesn’t mean we get what we want. You see, when we pray and try to dictate the answer God will give, we have stepped into unbelief.
What Jesus seems to mean is that, when we put our trust in God completely and not limit what God can do, then all things are possible. It doesn’t mean they will happen.
The father, now more desperate than ever, responded to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” He professes his faith and at the same time, confesses and asks for help with his doubt. What are we to make of this?
Belief and unbelief seem like contradictions. Faith and doubt are mutually exclusive. If I have doubt, I don’t really believe, and if I believe, that means I don’t doubt. Many of us go through life and we learn how to function when life is smooth, calm, predictable. We trust that life will always be like that. And then something unexpected, something that doesn’t fit our cozy world happens, and we are shaken. Sometimes even our faith is shaken, and we question. That can cause us to feel guilty and ashamed, and at just the moment we need to be close to Christ, a wall of separation forms.
But what if rather than a contradiction, we have a paradox of faith that says that belief and unbelief actually go together? Then struggling with faith and doubt doesn’t mean we’re failures, but that we are simply human, that we live in world that is not so certain as black-and-white, but colored with the grays of uncertainty.
In any case, while the father’s response puzzles and perhaps bothers us, it did not seem to disturb Jesus. His response was to enter into the man’s anguish and bring healing for the son and for the father. At our weakest point, when we acknowledge our need, we don’t need to be condemned or praised. We can be transformed, and that transformation comes not in finding and settling for easy answers, but in engaging with Christ in the uncertainties of life. The God we worship and serve is big enough for our convictions and our questions, for our certainties and our uncertainties. Our faithful response then is to acknowledge both our faith and our doubts, seek to know God personally through prayer, mature our faith and follow Christ in the direction we are called to go.