Watch Now

JESUS – His Life. His Mission. Hope in Hopeless Situations, Mark 9:14-29

Hope In Hopeless Situations

Mark 9:14-29


In his book Waiting: Finding Hope Where God Seems Silent (InterVarsity, 1991), Ben Patterson, tells a story from his personal life:


“In the summer of 1988, three friends and I climbed Mount Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park. Two of us were experienced mountaineers; two of us were not. I was not one of the experienced two. … The climb to the top and back was to take the better part of a day due, in large part, to the difficulty of the glacier that one must cross to get to the top. … As the hours passed, and we trudged up the glacier, the two mountaineers opened up a wide gap between me and my less-experienced companion. Being competitive by nature, I began to look for short cuts I might be able to take to beat them to the top. I thought I saw one to the right of an outcropping of rock – so I went up, deaf to the protests of my companions. …


Thirty minutes later I was trapped in a cul-de-sac of rock atop the Lyell Glacier, looking down several hundred feet of a sheer slope of ice, pitched at a forty-five degree angle. … I was only ten feet from the safety of a rock. But one little slip and I wouldn’t stop sliding until I had landed in the valley floor about fifty miles away! … I was stuck and I was scared” (pp. 100-101).


Ever felt like that? Stuck. Like completely and totally stuck. Can’t move forward. Or backward. Or to either side. Just … stuck. Not necessarily on a literal mountain. But life itself is full of things that feel like mountains to us, isn’t it? Giant obstacles that loom over us. Maybe it’s a serious illness, or a disability, or a chronic condition. Or an addiction. Maybe it’s crippling anxiety or depression, or the effects of the severe trauma you’ve experienced. Or a moral failure. Or something from your past. Maybe it’s a failed relationship, or a failing relationship, or a broken relationship with your children or your parents. Or crippling grief. Truth is, life leaves all of us feeling stuck at some point. Like, really, truly, hopelessly and dangerously stuck. Maybe it’s your own fault you’re stuck. Maybe it’s someone else’s fault – something someone did to you. Maybe you’re stuck because life just has you stuck. Confused. Uncertain where to turn or how to get unstuck.


Back to Ben Patterson, who was stuck and scared: “It took an hour for my experienced climbing friends to find me. Standing on the rock I wanted to reach, one of them leaned out and used an ice axe to chip two little footsteps in the glacier. Then he gave me the following instructions: ‘Ben, you must step out from where you are and put your foot where the first foothold is. … Without a moment’s hesitation swing your other foot across and land it in the next step. [Then] … reach out and I will take your hand, and I will pull you to safety. … But listen carefully: As you step across, don’t lean into the mountain! If anything, lean out a bit. Otherwise, your feet could fly out from under you, and you will start sliding down.’”


Patterson says, “When I’m on the edge of a cliff, my instinct is to lie down and hug the mountain, to become one with it, not lean away from it! But that was what my good friend was telling me to do as I stood trembling on that glacier. I looked at him real hard. … For a moment, based solely on what I believed to be true about the good will and good sense of my friend, I decided to say no to what I felt … to lean out, step out, and traverse the ice to safety. It took less than two seconds to find out if my faith was well founded. It was” (pp. 101-102).[i]


Where is God in our stuckness? In our hopeless situation? On our glacier on the mountain? How are we as followers of Jesus supposed to handle the mountains we face in life. As we return to our sermon series from the Gospel of Mark called “JESUS – His Life. His Mission, turn with me to Mark 9:14-29.


Jesus and three of his disciples – Peter, James, and John – are coming back down a mountain. This isn’t a figurative mountain. It’s a literal one – 9,232’ Mt. Hermon in the far northern reaches of Israel. Jesus had taken them up there, and while up on this mountain, he was transfigured before them and they saw – with their own eyes –  Jesus in his heavenly glory, talking with Moses and Elijah. It was an incredible, awe-inspiring experience. It is both literally and figuratively a mountaintop experience. And now they’ve come back down the mountain, excited to join the rest of the disciples, walking on a spiritual high, and reality immediately slaps them in the face.


Kind of like spending an incredible spring break in the warmth and sunshine of Cabo, or Cancun, or the Bahamas, or Clearwater Beach, and then your plan lands back here in Traverse City and it’s cloudy and windy and still snowing. Coming back to reality can be a real slap in the face, can’t it?


So Jesus, Peter, James, and John come back down the mountain, and when they come back to the disciples, reality slaps them in the face. Really hard. They come back to an argument happening between some scribes and the rest of Jesus’ disciples. The scribes were religious leaders, mostly based in Jerusalem, who carefully copied the Jewish scriptures – what we know as the Old Testament – word for word. They were highly educated and able to interpret the Word of God for the uneducated masses. They’d probably gone this far north in Israel to gather evidence against Jesus, looking for some way to get rid of him. That had been their goal for quite a while now.


And these scribes are arguing with the rest of Jesus’ disciples. So, like a parent coming home to his kids arguing, Jesus asks what’s going on. And a man from the crowd that had gathered around this argument answered. He had brought his son to the disciples in desperation, hoping they could deliver him from the demonic spirit that threatened to destroy him. But they couldn’t do it. Jesus’ disciples tried, but they were unable to help.


Which is weird, because they’d been able to cast out demons before. Earlier in his ministry, Jesus had sent them out in pairs to spread his message and to heal and cast out demons. Mark tells us in 6:7 that Jesus “gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” And then in v. 13 we read that they “cast out MANY demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” This is something they had done before. They had cast out demons before. Why couldn’t they do it here? And what were they arguing with the scribes about anyway? Probably the reasons for their failure and where they supposed they got the authority to cast out demons. Remember, the scribes are on a mission to gather evidence against Jesus, and the disciples of a rabbi were supposed to be able to do what a rabbi did. Were the scribes accusing the disciples, and therefore Jesus, of not having the authority to cast out demons? Were they pointing out that their failure to help was evidence that Jesus was a fake?


What we sometimes forget about in this chaotic scene is the desperate father whose last gasp effort to save his son had just failed miserably. Jesus AND HIS DISCIPLES had helped hundreds, maybe thousands, of desperate people just like him. Why didn’t, or couldn’t, they help him? If the disciples of this incredibly powerful man couldn’t help him, who could? The answer in his mind was, simply, “no one.” If Jesus couldn’t help, no one could.


Look at the words he uses to describe his son’s condition to Jesus. Look at V. 18. And then down at Vv. 21 – the first part of V. 22. Scholars from all over the theological spectrum actually agree that this boy probably had epilepsy. And he was also deaf and mute. He could neither hear nor speak. It must have been a terrifying life for this boy to be so tormented, and also unable to share his fears, his terror, or hear the comforting words of his family. And terrifying for his family, who could do nothing to stop the seizures and couldn’t offer words of comfort to their son.


But this was more than just a case of epilepsy. Mixed into all of this was demonic oppression, and the demon inside the boy constantly sought to destroy him. We don’t know how he came into the boy. We do know that those who follow Christ are filled with the Holy Spirit and cannot be possessed in this way. The attempts to destroy the boy point to more than just a case of epilepsy. It was epilepsy with a demonic power present too. You see, the demonic always seeks to destroy the image of God in humanity.

This father and his son have made one last ditch effort to receive healing and deliverance, and the effort has failed. Now, there’s something we need to notice here. This failure was happening AT THE SAME TIME that Jesus was being revealed in all of his power and might and heavenly glory, alongside Moses and Elijah, before the eyes of Peter, James, and John. As the power and glory of Jesus is being revealed in fullness, his disciples are failing to overcome the powers of darkness at the base of the very mountain on which Jesus stood. What in the world is going on?!?!


That’s what Jesus thought, actually. Look at V. 19. Jesus is frustrated! He’s frustrated with the scribes. He’s frustrated with his disciples failure. He’s frustrated with the powers of darkness. And in frustration he yells. “O faithless generation. How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you.” And yet, in his frustration, Jesus is also still infinitely patient and knows he must continue to teach his disciples. They still have a long way to go and he doesn’t have much time left to get them there and that reality hits home with him. And he still has compassion on the tormented son and his father. And this son is likely a young adult or an adult, because the father’s answer when Jesus asks him how long this has been going on says, “From childhood.”


Notice that what Jesus has accused his disciples of, and everyone else around them too, is a lack of faith. It isn’t the power of Jesus that is the issue here. It is the faith of his people. Now, be careful. No one has perfect faith. And everyone, even an atheist, puts their faith in something. We all have faith. The issue is, where do we place our faith?


John Lennox, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, says that the word faith isn’t just a religious word. It comes from the Latin word fides, which means “trust” or “reliance.” Lennox writes, “The irony is that atheism is a ‘faith position,’ and science itself cannot do without faith.”


Lennox backs up his case by quoting the famous 20th century scientist Albert Einstein who once said, “I cannot imagine a scientist without that profound faith [that the universe is comprehensible to our reason].” The contemporary atheist Richard Dawkins once wrote, “An atheist … is someone who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe …”


Notice that the atheist believes there is nothing beyond the natural world because he or she can’t actually prove it. The physicist Paul Davies, who is not a Christian, says, “Even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of law-like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us.” The physicist John Polkinghorne agrees, arguing that the entire study of physics depends on “its faith in the mathematical intelligibility of the universe.”[ii]


The question isn’t “Do you have faith?” The question is, “In what, or in whom, do you place your faith?” This desperate father, whose son is convulsing on the ground, rolling around and foaming at the mouth, looks at Jesus and says, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” V. 22. Not exactly the most faith-filled sentence, is it? IF you can do anything for us, please, help us. And Jesus is indignant. Look at V. 23. “IF you can!” He actually quotes the man, and then he declares, “All things are possible for one who believes.”


Now, remember, faith – belief – isn’t an intellectual thing. Faith is trust in and reliance on something or someone. It isn’t thinking that Jesus can or will do something. It is trusting his goodness and mercy and grace and power and asking him to do something. It does involve thinking the right things ABOUT Jesus, that he is the Son of God and savior of the world, that he loves unconditionally and that all power and all glory belong to him. But it’s more than that. It’s actually placing your life, and your hopeless situation, in his hands, and then letting him do what he in his sovereignty chooses to do.


And so the father, who has just uttered one of the least faith-filled sentences in all of Scripture, now offers one of the most. “I believe; help my unbelief.” This is real, authentic faith. It is a faith that recognizes and admits its doubt, and asks Jesus for help with that too. It isn’t fake. It isn’t just positive thinking. It’s gritty and raw and real and honest. “I believe; help my unbelief.”


As long as you have faith, you will have doubts. Right now, I have a $20 in my hand. Raise your hand if you believe me. Now, I am about to destroy your faith. (Opens hand and reveals the $20 bill). The reason I can say I am destroying your faith is that now you know I hold the bill. You see the bill and don’t need faith anymore. Faith is required only when we have doubts, when we do not know for sure. When knowledge comes, faith is no more.


This is exactly the point Paul was making in his first letter to the church at Corinth: “Now we see [that’s a ‘knowing’ word] in a mirror dimly, [now we have confusion, misunderstanding, doubts, and questions] … but then face to face. [we don’t see face-to-face yet]. Now I know in part [with questions and doubts]; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known (13:12).[iii]


Disappointment and disillusionment don’t diminish Christ’s power. Doubt doesn’t diminish Christ’s power. Absolutely nothing has, can, or will diminish Christ’s power. The problem wasn’t Christ’s power. The problem wasn’t the power of the demon, which was obviously stronger than other demonic powers. The problem was who the disciples placed their faith in. Look at V. 29. “Why could WE not cast it out?” THEY were never supposed to. Even when they went out in pairs and cast out demons, THEY weren’t doing it. Jesus was. It was the power of Jesus at work through them. WE don’t do anything in our own strength. It is the power of Christ flowing through us that accomplishes the purpose of God around us.


They’d been so successful. The people were listening to them and responding. When they anointed the sick and handicapped with oil, they were healed. When they commanded demons to come out of a person, the demons came out. And somewhere along the way, they thought about how successful THEY were. They hadn’t yet realized that it was the power of Jesus flowing through them that did these things. And so, when THEY tried, depending on what they thought was their own power, they failed.


And then Jesus told them how that faith is built. Look at V. 29. It is built through prayer. Not one specific prayer – saying the right words in the right way. He isn’t talking about some class on deliverance ministry that people should take to learn how to pray to cast out demons. He’s talking about a real, honest, intimate relationship with Jesus forged through the habit, the discipline, of regular prayer. Not just praying for God to help the people around us and to work in our own stuckness – like God is a genie in a bottle and we have the lamp.


Oh, we can and should pray for those things. When we pray for others, we call that intercession, intercessory prayer. We are interceding before God on behalf of others. When we pray for ourselves, we call that petition. We should pray for ourselves and we should pray for others. But the kind of prayer Jesus is talking about here includes spending time with God in silence, with an open Bible and an open heart, letting God speak to us too. You see, the closer we draw to Christ, the more regularly his power flows through us, transforming us, our lives, our situations, and also the lives and situations of those we meet.


In 2010 a group of eight people from two churches felt called to the Detroit Boulevard neighborhood of Sacramento. It was known as one of the most notorious crime-ridden neighborhoods in all of Sacramento. Each house in that neighborhood was a place of danger. Nonetheless this group of eight decided to walk through the neighborhood praying over each home and praying for the presence of Christ to reign over violence, addiction, and satanic oppression. They began walking through the neighborhood, praying over each home and rebuking the demonic strongholds of addiction and violence.


One of the eight, former Sacramento police officer and gang detective Michael Xiong, reported that “each time we prayed over the houses, we felt the weight of oppression becoming lighter.” A woman from one of the houses confronted them. When she discovered they were praying for the community, she asked for healing, and God healed her.


The group soon physically moved into the neighborhood and started what they called Detroit Life Church. A couple years later a local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, reported that there were no homicides, robberies, or sex crimes, and only one assault in Detroit Boulevard between 2013 and 2014. Detroit Boulevard had been transformed by a small group of people who began their ministry in the neighborhood by praying around houses, streets, and parks for the power of Satan to be vanquished. Kingdom prayer in body is what it means to be faithfully present to his presence in the world.[iv]


We watch the news, we look at this world, we look at our neighborhood, and all we see are hopeless situations. We look at our lives, at our stuckness, and all we see are hopeless situations. We have to stop looking at ourselves, draw near to Christ, and let his power flow through us. HE will do what WE cannot. Jesus, we believe, help our unbelief. Let us pray.

[i] Gordon MacDonald, “Repentance,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 121.

[ii] Adapted from John Lennox, Gunning for God (Lion UK, 2011), pp. 37-48

[iii] John Ortberg, Faith & Doubt (Zondervan, 2008), pp. 139-140

  1. [iv] David E. Fitch, Seven Practices for the Church on Mission (IVP Press, 2018), pages 120-121