A sermon by Bob Smith
Many of you will remember former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s comment about ‘life not being meant to be easy.’ He received a lot of criticism for that from people who thought a wealthy man like he had no idea what life was like for poor people. But around the same time, Scott Peck published his world best seller The Road Less Travelled and its opening words were: ‘Life is difficult; this is the great truth.’ But when he said it, everyone agreed.
The fact is life is difficult; for some unbearably so, while for others it becomes difficult at certain times. The things that make it difficult vary considerably – finances, relationships, natural disasters, conflicts, physical illness, mental illness – the list goes on. When loved ones are involved, the load can seem unbearable and we find ourselves sinking into despair. It’s then that many of us, in desperation, turn to Jesus.
There’s a story that appears in all three synoptic gospels of a man whose anxieties about his troubled son had brought him to the point of despair. The Bible says that his little son was possessed by a demon that constantly threw him into violent convulsions—sometimes causing him to fall into water and fire as though it wanted to destroy him.
We today would probably say that the child was suffering from severe epilepsy. Whether it was this or whether there was some deeper spiritual evil behind it, the point is that this man had reached the end of his tether and didn’t know what else he could do. But he’d heard about a prophet who had come out of Galilee and was said to be able to heal the sick. It was reported that this man, named Jesus, was in the vicinity. So, along with many others, he took his boy to see him.
But Jesus wasn’t there. He’d gone off with three of his disciples up into a mountain. However, the rest of his disciples were there, so the man took his boy to them, because there were reports that his disciples had also cured people and cast out evil spirits. But try as they may, the disciples were unable to do anything for this poor child.
Their failure, though devastating to him, delighted at least one group of people present. They belonged to a group known as the Scribes or Teachers of the Law. They represented the religious establishment of that society, and saw Jesus and his teaching as a heresy and challenge to their authority. The failure of Jesus’ disciples to do anything to help this tortured child caused them to gloat and ridicule the disciples unmercifully, accusing them of peddling superstition and preying on people’s fears and lack of education.
That scene, as the gospels present it, reminds me very much of what we frequently see today as the Church finds itself constantly under attack and subject to the ridicule of those who are sometimes referred to as the sneering cynics – people who reject the concept of faith in a supreme being, and especially one who gets involved in our lives.
Sometimes, the sneering cynics are justified in ridiculing the impotence and failures of believers, because often the people of God do a pretty poor job of carrying out what God wills. But none of this helps those who have reached the point of despair. For them, there’s only one hope left – to go directly to the one who brings the presence of God to us – Jesus. And that’s what this man did.
Jesus, together with his three closest disciples, eventually returned from the mountain, where his companions had witnessed his true glory in a way that defied human description and caused one of them, many years later, to say: ‘We beheld his glory, … full of grace and truth.’ And as soon as he arrived he saw the ruckus taking place and asked what it was all about.
The person who explained it all to him was the father of that tormented child, and Jesus’ response seems to indicate he himself was almost despairing. ‘O faithless generation,’ he said. ‘How long will I have to put up with you?’ I imagine he was referring both to those 1st Century sneering cynics who were determined not to believe and to ridicule anyone who did, and also to his own disciples to whom he had previously given power to heal and cast out demons, and who now seemed so impotent without him.
But then he told the boy’s father to bring his son to him. The man did so and the child immediately went into another violent convulsion. His distraught father turned to Jesus and said: ‘If you can do anything, help us.’ It was then that Jesus made a statement that goes to the very heart of the way God intervenes in our lives. ‘It’s not a matter of if I can do anything,’ he said. ‘It’s a matter of if you can believe. If you can believe, all things are possible to those who believe.’
The boy’s father then responded with a statement that I think expresses exactly what most of us feel in our hearts when we confront our own despairing cries to God for help: ‘Lord I do believe; help my unbelief.’ It’s almost like he was saying: ‘I want to believe; but there’s something inside me that holds me back, and I’m scared it won’t work. Please help me to believe the way I should.
And the wonderful thing about this story is that that honest admission, coupled with the speck of faith he did have, brought its reward. The boy was healed. As Jesus said on another occasion, even faith as small as a mustard seed can overcome a mountain of despair.
‘If you can believe,’ Jesus said, ‘All things are possible to those who believe.’ Now what exactly did he mean by that? Was he saying that if I were to lose a leg and believed hard enough it would grow back? Obviously not. So we need to look behind the statement and compare it with other things he said about faith and prayer in order to understand more fully.
You may remember that one of his great statements was that he had come that we might have life and have it abundantly. The crux of Jesus’ teaching is that God wills good for us. But the wear and tear of life, the evil in humankind and our own capacity to foul things up conspire to rob us of that good. Yet even so, God, as the Apostle Paul said, ‘Is at work in all things for the good of those who love him.’ And even on our darkest nights there are stars that guide us to a new day.
The way we express our faith in God’s goodness is prayer. And prayer, Jesus said, if it is to be of any value, has to be believing prayer. But once again we have to understand what that really means; and the only sense I can make of it is that underneath it there has to be a trust that God is at work in all things for our ultimate good, and a commitment to doing God’s will, whatever that may turn out to be.
I remember sitting outside a cafe next to the Sydney Town Hall, many years ago, confronting the fact that everything I’d hoped for and worked for seemed to have gone – marriage, family, savings and ministry. Like the man in the story, I looked to Christ’s representative – my church – for help and, apart from a few friends who understood what I was going through, I found it decidedly unhelpful.
During those dark months I’d prayed many desperate prayers for God to intervene and do what seemed so clearly to me to be what needed to be done. But now it had all gone – irretrievably. So I sat there with a cup of coffee, and on a small notepad I began to list what I still had left and how I might start to rebuild my life.
But today, I look back in amazement at the way God guided me through those troubled times and the way He has led and blessed me beyond anything I could have imagined as I sat there sipping my coffee. And as I look at my own situation today I realise that, for all the mistakes that were made, God has been at work for my good, and my family’s in a way I could never have planned.
The point I’m wanting to make is that whatever it may be that brings us to the point of despair, even when his representatives on earth seem unable or unwilling to help, Jesus doesn’t turn us away when we come to him with even a mustard sized seed of faith and say ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief.’
Tony Campolo once received a telephone call from a woman who, in despair, had asked him, a week earlier, to pray in church for her husband, who had cancer. The call was to tell him her husband had died. Tony didn’t know what to say, but she quickly put him at ease when she said; “Don’t feel bad. When he came to church that Sunday he knew he was going to die soon, and he hated God. He would lie in bed and curse God. The more his anger grew, the more miserable he made everybody around him. It was an awful thing to be in his presence. But after you prayed for him, a peace came over him and a joy came into him, and the last three days have been the best days of our lives. He wasn’t cured, but he was healed.”
‘If you can believe’ Jesus says, whether or not the cure you are looking for comes in the form you expect, there will be healing. Jesus still brings an end to despair.