January 18/19, 2014
Jason Meyer | Mark 9:14-29
And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, 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.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 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.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”—Mark 9:14–29
Eagle Story Update
I would like to update you on the Ethiopian Eagle story that I told back on December 1st. You may remember how I speculated that the story could grow over time as a family tale? Well, it just got better. More information has come to light.
You may remember that a group (Pastor John, Marshall Segal, myself, and two of our global partners in Ethiopia) were sitting down to eat our lunch at a place that is sometimes called Debre Libanos. We saw these Ethiopian eagles that were soaring above us. Suddenly, much to our surprise, they began to swoop down on us to try and get our food. I didn’t know what to do, so I picked up a rock to scare them away. Pastor John kind of laughed and said, “I’ll give you a dollar—no, I will give you a hundred dollars if you can hit one.”
First shot. Wham. I hit one hard. He kind of flapped to the side, and then eventually they all flew away. I reported the fact that I never received a hundred dollars, but it didn’t matter because the story was priceless.
Now, as Paul Harvey used to say, for the rest of the story. It turns out that Pastor John had deputized Marshall Segal with the job of getting me an envelope that contained a poem and a hundred dollars. We were not able to connect again at the airport after we went to different ticket counters, so the transfer was never made, and I never knew anything about it. About three weeks later, Marshall delivered the letter to me. Here is what it said:
“Consider pledge or flying stone. Consider vow or diving bird. Let it be marked, let it be known: John Piper keeps his every word.”
So I thought about what to do with the hundred dollars. My wife and I discussed it, and we decided we would put it into a baby bottle. Let me explain. Every year we pass out these baby bottles, and we fill them with our loose change to help support New Life Family Services. We decided it was a great way to honor Pastor John, who for years has taken a bold and uncompromising stand against the culture of death from this very pulpit. I join him and thank him for the contribution he has made to the cause of life—which has been much more extensive than this hundred dollars (of course), but I pray that the symbolic value in this action will honor him for his labors in the cause of life and will stir you up to join this cause with us.
You need to know at the outset that our commitment to the Sanctity of Life is not going to waver. The elders agree that this is part of what makes Bethlehem Bethlehem. Here is how we say it in our IPOD document:
Priority 11: Caring for the Most Vulnerable
Bethlehem Baptist Church has taken a strong stand on the sanctity of human life. We aim to guard against the culture of death through the preaching of the gospel of life and promoting the cause of caring for the most vulnerable. We live in a culture that denigrates the value of life by defining personhood in terms of a person’s potential or actual contribution to society. The world values self-sufficiency and thus despises the dependency of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly. The church cherishes the truth that all people have value because they are made in the image of God. The world uses a sliding scale that esteems the strong and scorns the weak, but the church values the weak because the church consists of the weak made strong. We hear the call to rescue the perishing in Scripture: “rescue those who are being taken away to death” (Proverbs 24:11). This call lands on us with great weight because we cherish the fact that Jesus came to rescue us when we were perishing.
You may wonder why we would take such a strong stand for life when so much of our world takes abortion for granted or just looks the other way because it is so controversial. I would like to take the rest of the sermon to unpack the reasons for our uncompromising stand for life. The way that I want to address this question is to once again give the microphone to Jesus as we see how he addressed the culture of death in his day.
Mark tells us about a boy that has an unclean spirit. The author skillfully allows us to feel the horror of what this spirit does to the boy. The spirit’s assault on the boy is three-pronged: (1) take away the ability to speak and hear (always), (2) take away the ability to control the rest of his body (repeatedly), and (3) total destruction through burning or drowning (repeatedly).
First, verse 17 says the spirit’s evil work attacked the boy’s ability to speak.
And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute."
Verse 25 goes further in showing that the spirit also takes away the ability to hear. Jesus calls the spirit “a mute and deaf spirit.”
Second, the spirit also takes away self-control. The boy, at times, loses any ability to control his body. Look at verse 18:
"And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid."
The spirit does the same thing to the boy in the very presence of Jesus in verse 20.
And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.
The boy is more like an animal foaming at the mouth and grinding his teeth than a human being reflecting the image of God at these points. That is a big clue.
Third, the evil spirit’s attack on the boy is aimed at total destruction. Look at verses 21-22:
And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
This text reveals the demonic agenda—how they are dead set on death. We see how they seek to distort and destroy what God has made good. We see it in Mark 5 with the degradation of the man with a legion of demons—the systematic destruction of the image of God. He was more like an animal than a man. He would fiercely attack others that tried to chain him like an animal at the circus. He would even attack himself; Mark says the man used to cut himself. But he was healed by Jesus and was in his right mind. The image of God could be seen in clearer colors than before. Even after the legion of demons are cast out of the man and they are permitted to enter the pigs, they show their thirst for death and destruction by driving the pigs over a cliff and drowning them.
Mark 9 shows the same deadly agenda: attack the image of God. They try to disable and distort the image of God by making the boy mute or stiff and lifeless. Or they try to destroy the image of God through burning or drowning the boy.
This was the key to explaining why the demons are so blood-thirsty for humanity. They want to destroy all of God’s creation, but especially humanity because we are made in the image of God. They hate God. So they hate the image of God. There is no way that they can destroy God, so they make it their unholy ambition to destroy the image of God.
What can humanity do to defend ourselves from this horrible evil? To quote Martin Luther, “did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.” When we come face to face with the demonic, we also have to face our weakness and inability to do anything about it.
Go back with me to the beginning of the story for a moment. The story opens by introducing us to a great crowd and a heated argument in verse 14.
And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them.
Then the crowd sees Jesus, and they respond with great amazement, and they greet him in verse 15. In verse 16, Jesus inquires into the argument that is happening:
And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”
At this point, in verse 17, someone emerges from the crowd to explain the situation. It is the father of the demon-possessed boy. The problem is that he brought his son to Jesus’ disciples, and they failed to do anything for the boy. You can see his charge at the end of verse 18:
“So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”
The story ends with a focus on the inability of the disciples. They ask Jesus in verse 29 why they were unable to do what they had done so many times before.
And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
Jesus gives an answer that highlights their lack of prayer. They have begun to trust their techniques. Remember that Jesus had given them authority or power to cast out demons in Mark 6:7. And they did—they cast out “many demons” (Mark 6:13).
This lack of prayer is linked to a lack of faith in verse 19:
And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”
It was not simply the crowd or the scribes that were manifesting unbelief; it was his own disciples. Did you catch that? The beginning, middle, and end of the story highlight the disciples' unbelief—an argument over their failure to cast out the demon, Jesus’ charge of unbelief, and Jesus’ charge of failing to pray.
Consider the stark contrast between what happened at the foot of the mountain and what happened in the scene before at the top of the mountain. All of this mess down below was happening while Jesus was transfigured up high on a mountain. While on the mountain, Jesus appears in all of his shining divine glory, but the world below is a mess. We do not see the earth filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. We see a world filled with what is ungodly. We see the presence of demons, dead set on destroying the image of God. We see false teachers (that were called children of Satan) mocking the disciples for their failure to cast the demon out (even though they couldn’t do anything either).
Even the disciples are blind to their remaining unbelief manifested in them simply going through the motions. They are trusting in their techniques (we’ve done this lots of times now). They have ceased to be conscious of their need to depend upon him in prayer. In this world filled with ungodliness and unbelief, we see Jesus’ response. He was vexed and grieved. He lamented the presence of evil in God’s good world. It will vex our souls as well. But here is the question. Will it lead us to doubt whether God can really do anything about it? This is the question we see Jesus raise and then respond to in verses 22-27. We are going to sing about this at the end of the service. “Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing. You ask who that may be Christ Jesus, it is He. The Lord of hosts his name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.”
Verse 22 is a passionate cry for Jesus to have compassion on them. This is a shared struggle. Notice that he does not say, “Have compassion on him and help him.” He says, “Have compassion on us and help us” (v. 22). The father has suffered with his son. I didn’t understand this point until I became a father. I would rather suffer than have to watch my children suffer. So this father is strung out on one disappointment after another. He is at the end of his rope. He struggles with doubt. His hopes were dashed by the failure of the disciples. He does not doubt Jesus’ willingness to help—he doubts Jesus’ ability to help. He is probably cynical about anyone’s ability to help. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us (v. 22).
Jesus now interacts with the man like a skillful surgeon. He immediately puts his finger on the problem in verse 23: And Jesus said to him, “If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”
Do you see what Jesus is doing? The man assumes the problem is probably with Jesus, not with himself. Just like in my last sermon in John 6, Jesus points people away from locating the problem with him—his words (as was the case in John 6) or his ability (as is the case here in Mark 9). The problem is not Jesus’ ability, but the man’s faith.
The father takes this word to heart. He sees that the problem is with him. He also recognizes that the solution lies with Jesus in verse 24:
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
In other words, I believe and I confess that I see part of my heart that is lacking in belief, but you can help! Ironically, this confession of unbelief is actually an example of belief. He believes—by faith—that Jesus can help him with his lack of faith. Exposing our doubts is no problem for Jesus, and it is good for us. He already sees what is in our heart. Confessing it will help us ask for Jesus to do what only he can do. Watch what Jesus can do now when the father asks him to go to work:
And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 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.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.—Mark 9:25-27
These three verses show us three things about Jesus’ power. First, he has incomparable authority. He makes dark spirits flee, just like he calms the raging sea. No one can resist his power. He commands, and it happens. He is a king like no other. His words have the power to create what he calls for. Second, what Jesus does cannot be reversed. He acts with permanent decisiveness. What Jesus does cannot be undone: “come out of him and never enter him again.” Third, Jesus has power over death. Mark does not want us to miss this point. The boy was “like a corpse.” Some of them said, “He is dead.” And just like Jairus’ dead daughter, Jesus took this boy by the hand and “lifted him up,” and “he arose.” Mark sees a foreshadowing between this miracle and the miracle that will end Mark: the resurrection of Jesus.
It is all too easy to look at flesh and blood as the enemy when we think of the evil of abortion. We can think too simplistically in terms of legislation or raising money. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesian 6:12). The demonic are always going to carry out a bloodthirsty assault against the image of God. In some cultures, Satan determines that the best type of warfare is a full frontal assault. People can live in constant fear of demonic expressions to keep them chained in lifelong bondage because of fear of death. In other cultures, it makes more sense to hide in the shadows in stealth mode. Strike without being seen. Abortion is the worst type of this attack. Satan has succeeded making these murders out of sight and out of mind in two ways.
A cloaking device is in use here. It is hidden and out of the sight of crowds. Satan orchestrates death in a hidden place—he does not have to even do it in a dirty back alley. These murders are being performed in a place devoted to saving lives. Under the cloak of a clinic, trained professionals become like trained killers who murder under the guise of medicine as if they are performing a health function. They are not foaming at the mouth and grinding their teeth. Everything is out of sight. Clean, white, safe, behind closed doors, in the privacy of a hospital. Just clean up the blood and don’t check the trash. The presence of an agenda of death on the tiniest image bearers is a strange twist within the confines of a place committed to rescuing people from death and to healing hurts.
In the past, they could be even moments from birth or even partially born, and people would still murder them. Many who were horrified at the barbarity of partial birth abortion saw the lie of their logic as they were forced to say, “Well if it is wrong in that trimester, then how could it be right at seven months? Or six months, or five months, or, or, or?" The children are hidden in their mother’s womb for safety, but Satan uses that hiddenness to cloak the killing and muffle the crying. If our battle is not against flesh and blood, then we better heed Paul’s command in the previous verse to “put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11).
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.—2 Corinthians 10:3
The weapons of our warfare cannot rely on the pea-shooter power of the flesh. Faith and prayer are always powerful weapons for a Christian because they lay hold of God’s power. Here is the way I would say it as clearly as I can. We are weak, so what can we do? What is our game-plan? What kind of strategy can weak people have?
His Strength is our strategy. How do weak people gain access to his strength? Through faith and prayer. These weapons are like arrows that need to point at the right target. If you aim at the ground, you will hit it. What should you be aiming at with faith and prayer? Two targets in our Sanctity of Life Struggle. We could call them (1) justice, and (2) mercy.
Pray your kingdom come. What does that look like? When Jesus the King comes, the kingdom of darkness must retreat. He came to destroy the works of the devil. Abortion is a work of the devil. King Jesus is going to put an end to abortion. We know that he will at his second coming. He is going to make all things new. No more sin, or death, or tears. But the burning burden I have is to see him put an end to it before he comes again. Do you believe that he can? If an unrighteous judge in Luke 18:6 grants justice, how much more will The Righteous Judge?
And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night. Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.—Luke 18:7-8
How many people doubted that the institution of slavery would ever come toppling down in this country? Jesus has the power to do just that. Placing the ethnic harmony sermon next to the sanctity of life sermon has created a well-known battle cry for us: we want abortion in this country to be as unthinkable as slavery is now.
But our call is not to simply sit back and wait. Jesus gives gifts. He gave the disciples authority to cast out demons. He gives gifts of the Spirit so that the saints can do the work of the ministry.
So let’s get practical here at our church. How can people get involved? If you think about a pyramid, let’s work our way down from the top to the bottom.
At the top, the smallest part of the pyramid are going to be those involved at the most specific level. This is the smallest and sharpest part of the pyramid. Few people will be involved at this level, but those that are will be sharply focused. I think they would include people who give much of their time (work or volunteer) to this one cause. They are more specialized than others, and their work will take on a more public, upfront type of work. I think of our Sanctity of Life Task Force here or those at Bethlehem who are involved in politics as a vocation.
The middle of the pyramid would be those that participate as they can. You don’t have to be on the task force, but we should be responsive to their recommendations and join in wherever possible. Middle tier people may volunteer as sidewalk counselors.
The foundation of the pyramid is every Christian at Bethlehem. You should not feel paralyzed by what you can’t do. You may not be able to attend the Sanctity of Life task force meetings. You may not be able to volunteer or become a sidewalk counselor, but you can pray. You can vote in an informed way at State Primary election, State General Election, National elections. You can join the March for Life on January 22 at the State Capitol. Pray for all of these endeavors because apart from him, we can do nothing of eternal good.
We must not be like the disciples who began to trust in their techniques. We do not trust in sidewalk counseling or marches for life or other pieces of legislation. We do these things prayerfully, asking for God to show up in power. It should not be do these things or pray. It should be do these things in prayer. Pray in faith as you hold a sign. Pray in faith as you do sidewalk counseling. Pray in faith as you talk to a coworker. Pray in faith as you sign a petition. Pray in faith as you vote in an informed way. Pray in faith from your prayer closet that history belongs to the intercessors.
Where do we start? The story is often told of an old man who was down by the sea throwing starfish that had washed ashore and would die back in the sea. People mocked him and said, “Look at all of those starfish—you can’t possibly make a difference.” He just ignored the taunt, leaned down, picked up a starfish, threw it back in the sea, and said, “Made a difference for that one, didn’t I?”
It is overwhelming to know that one million babies are aborted in this country every year. What do we do? We start with the 70 babies that die each week just down four blocks from this pulpit (825 South 8th Street). Whole Women’s Health Clinic at the Parkside Professional Building is the second largest abortion clinic in Minnesota. Let us focus our faith-filled cries against that clinic that it may close in 2014 just like the abortion unit at Regions Hospital closed in 2011. Jesus can close it and keep it closed. Hear him say to the demon, “Come out of him and never enter him again” (Mark 9:25).
Have mercy on those that are broken-hearted over past choices. There is a deep-seated pain in this room right now in the hearts of some that seems to know no soothing. We dare not be smug and insensitive right now. Don’t let harsh rhetoric beat wounded souls like a club. The way we talk should be seasoned with salt to those that don’t see abortion as murder, but we should not rub salt on the wounds of those who now see that it was and have to live with it. Have compassion on those that live with a wounded conscience. Pray for them. Pray that they would feel accepted at Bethlehem.
You belong here. We will not look down on you, and we will not beat you up. We will try to help you stop beating yourself up. You can’t remove the guilty stain. No amount of beating yourself up or heaping further guilt on yourself will remove the stain.
Here is the good news: the same Jesus in Mark 9 that has authority to cast out demons in Mark 2 has authority to forgive sins. How can that forgiveness be accomplished? The payment for sin is fully on display at the end of Mark’s gospel through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Only the unblemished blood of Jesus could wash away our guilty stains. It is true for every sinner in this place and for every sinner listening from anywhere in the world. Jesus’ blood is stronger than any sin you have every committed. Do you believe that? If you see the strength of the Savior, run to him now. Do you believe but wonder if your faith is strong enough? Cry out like the father did in this story. By faith, ask Jesus to remove your lack of faith. Don’t trust the strength of your faith—trust the Savior’s strength. Don’t fall into Satan's most pernicious trap that keeps people from coming to Christ. Listen to the way that C. H. Spurgeon talks about Satan’s temptations:
That which comes from the devil will make you look at yourselves and not at Christ. You do not have the faith ... the joy ... the repentance ... the assurance that Christ requires. . . . The Holy Spirit's work is to turn our eyes from ourselves to Jesus Christ...it is not thy hold of Christ ... thy joy in Christ ... even thy faith in Christ or thy hope in Christ, but Christ's blood and merits. Do not look at thy hand which is grasping at Christ, but at him, the source of all these other things.
We need sidewalk counselors for justice, and we need living-room counselors for mercy. There are women at Bethlehem who have been comforted and now long to be comforters. They know what it is like to be where you are, and they know what it is like to live in the joy of forgiven sin.
I love Raphael’s last painting. It hangs in the Vatican Gallery. It is a painting entitled, The Transfiguration. R. Kent Hughes describes the painting very well:
The uppermost part pictures the transfigured form of Jesus, with Moses on the left and Elijah on his right. On the next level down there are three disciples, Peter, James, and John, recently awakened and shielding their eyes from Jesus’ blinding brilliance. Then, on the ground level is a poor demon-possessed boy, his mouth hideously gaping with wild ravings. At his side is his desperate father. Surrounding them are the rest of the disciples, some of whom are pointing upward to the glowing figure of Christ—who will be the boy’s only answer. Raphael has brilliantly captured something of the overwhelming contrast between the glorious Mount of Transfiguration and the troubled world waiting below.—R. Kent Hughes, Mark, vol. 2, p. 21
One day those two worlds will be one. There will be no more death, demons, and unbelief—sin’s dark night of terror will be cast into the lake of fire and never return. We do not see everything subjected to his power yet, but we see Jesus. We see his breathtaking glory and power. So by faith we pray, “Make your name great.” We praise you that we have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. We pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Enter into our world filled with unbelief and ungodliness. Rout the powers of the kingdom of darkness. Crush all attempts to distort, disable, and destroy the image of God. We have a shelter and a fortress here below. We run to him and are safe. Our striving will not be losing because we do not trust in our selves, but in him. You ask who that may be: Christ Jesus it is he. He must win the battle!
“And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure for, lo, his doom is sure. One little world shall fell him.”
God’s truth abides—his kingdom is forever.