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We Believe; Help Our Unbelief
Good morning, church. Please go with me to Matthew, chapter 17. If you want a Bible, we have some you can use this morning; just raise your hand, and we’ll get one to you. Matthew, chapter 17.
Usually this is where I do a little bit of review, but not this morning. I’m tired of repetition! Do you ever get frustrated with how everything repeats all the time? All of the mistakes we make as individuals, as a society, there’s nothing new under the sun, and yet we’re so limited in our knowledge, our lives are so short, we just repeat our own human history, mostly without even realizing what we’re doing until we’re in the middle of it.
In every aspect of life, too. Fashion. We’ve made it just about through the 1980’s with our repetition, which you know what that means—it means the dark days of the early nineties will soon be upon us. I saw someone the other day wearing legit jeancos; if you’re not familiar, jeancos are basically hoop skirts for men. For women, apparently pants are out entirely, tights and pantyhose are back in. Which, I was very close to becoming a fashion icon on that trend, because I often don’t wear pants. Apparently all I needed to do was go outside. May the Lord return soon, preferably before these trends become predominant.
History repeats. Music. Both Taylor Swift and Switchfoot released new albums this month, which you would think would be a good month for me, but no. They were the same albums they released when I was in high school. Stories, too, repeat. Disney has really figured this out. Early Disney is just Grimm’s fairy tales, but less, you know…German. Current Disney is just the actual same movies as my childhood. The Lion King is Hamlet. I saw a billboard recently boasting that Lion King was the longest running play on broadway, and I thought to myself, well yeah, sixteenth century, that’s a good run.
Technology even; I know we like to think we’re on an ever rising arc of progress, but in the news this month, legitimately I was reading about a new technology they are thinking is about to transform the global shipping industry. Did anyone else read this? Does anyone want to take a guess at what this incredible new technology is? Sails. In the article I read, it was talking about how scientists are now realizing there is a near-endless supply of renewable wind industry on the oceans, and I’m thinking tights, Hamlet, and sailboats—we may live in the sixteenth century. Since Shakespeare, five hundred years of supposed progress, and we’ve managed to make the sails bigger, switch hoop skirts to the men and tights to the women. Congratulations, everyone.
But I say all of this to agree with the common phrase, history repeats. Mistakes repeat. We don’t learn from our histories. I’m still young, but old enough now to see many of the atrocities of our world repeating; the same rhetoric, the same twisted philosophies, the same wars, the same cowardice, the same injustices, and from a deep place in my soul, I say exactly what we’ll hear Jesus say in this passage, to quote the psalms: how long, O God? How long will people’s minds be twisted and misled? How long will faith wait for fulfillment? Will you wait forever?
In our passage today, Jesus comes down from the mountain of transfiguration to his disciples arguing with the scribes, the people of Israel having completely lost focus on what God was trying to do in their time and place during the brief time Christ was on the mountain. Are we in the book of Matthew or Exodus? Christ, yet again in Matthew’s conception, is the new and better Moses come to do what Moses could not: bring the people of God out of every slavery, even sin and death, into a land and a world of peace with the glory of God in their midst.
Dostoevsky talks about, and I always think about this I think he’s right: in our world of ever repeating narratives and mistakes, what would it take to speak a new word into the chaos, all of the shouting, war, and argument of our world? Even one new word, he says, would change everything. And here in our passage we find Christ come to make all things new. Praise God for his new mercies in the midst of the centuries of humanity’s repetition. Let’s read it. Matthew, chapter 17, and I’m going to start reading in v.14. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
Just as Moses did when he received the law from God on the mountain, so Jesus descends from the mountain of glory, and he comes down to a people in chaos. You half expect to see a golden calf. It’s clearer in some of the other gospels, Mark 9, especially—I’m relying upon that account to understand this passage in many ways, and piecing the whole story together from the two helpfully different perspectives. Mark tells us the scribes were arguing with the disciples, the disciples are arguing with the scribes, and apparently the argument has come to shouting and chaos while Jesus was away on the mount of transfiguration. When they see Jesus, immediately the crowd mobs him to settle the argument, and he asks his disciples frustratedly what’s going on.
I am familiar with this kind of frustration as a parent. I have lived this history on repeat. All the children are playing calmly, you walk out of the room for a period of about two minutes, you walk back in, and several injuries have occurred, someone is sobbing in the corner, and there’s a hole in the drywall, hypothetically. When Jesus asks what’s happening, and this is where Matthew’s account picks up, it all started somehow with a boy who’s sick, and a father who’s desperate for his son to be healed, but the disciples weren’t able to help. Neither, apparently were the scribes, and now they’re locked in an argument about it, the father and the child lost somewhere in the crowd.
What do you think, in the midst of this conflict, Jesus is going to do? And, asking that question, let me ask, what do you think, in the midst of most of our conflicts as the Church universal, Jesus is going to do? Jesus turns his full attention, not to the argument, not to the scribes, and not to his disciples, but to the child and his father, he finds them in the crowd, which is my first point for this morning, as we look at faith and faithlessness in this passage. True faith is always focused on the person. So much of faith is about where you’re looking, where you’re focused. True faith is always focused on the person of Christ and the person in need of him today; and the person in your life in need of Christ today is usually the person in front of you today, because God in his sovereignty has ordained it to be so. In the passage, Christ, our savior, heals the child, miraculously, frees him from spiritual slavery, just as he longs to heal each of us and set us free.
We need to imitate Christ in his focus today. Notice, when your focus is on Christ, himself, and the person in front of you, you’re not focused on yourself. Think about your other relationships. In a healthy relationship, say a marriage or friendship, you aren’t worried so much about taking care of yourself in the relationship because you are able to trust the other person to care for you. That kind of loving care being given frees you up. Instead of always thinking about your own needs, you’re thinking about theirs, and they are caring for you. A good psychologist will tell you, this is how trust in general is built through the attachment cycle. It’s a mutual submission which we as Christians can recognize imitates God, himself, in his Trinity.
So it is in our faith. True faith is focused on him, and on the person in need of him today. Seek the kingdom first; everything else will be added to you. Faith is not a magic word to get us things we want—cars, blessings, and second jets. Faith is trust that God wants what’s best for us, too, which is ultimately life in him, abundant and restored. As in other healthy relationships, we are meant to be focused, not on ourselves, but on the person of Christ and the person in front of us today who needs Jesus today.
But history repeats. I want you to realize that this passage is another confession of Matthew’s, just like in chapter nine when he confesses that he spent the first months of Christ’s ministry in a tax booth. If you’re asking, who is Jesus talking about as twisted and faithless, Matthew answers, I am. Matthew isn’t one of the disciples on the mountain, he’s with the group who fails to heal this child, and then gets wrapped up in petty argument while the child and his father are there, waiting on the Lord.
We need to imitate Matthew in this confession, because history does repeat, and we again are a faithless and twisted generation. And we, like Matthew, are all wrapped up in it. The word “twisted” Jesus uses here means misguided; misguided and spiritually misshapen. We want to think of ourselves as the disciples on the mountain, but really we are more often the ones in the crowd, the ones in the argument. Tellingly, neither Mark nor Matthew tell us what the argument was even about. Matthew doesn’t even mention it. What a beautiful way to remind us that our arguments usually don’t matter so much as our focus on God, himself, and our mission to the people God brings us.
Usually. Some arguments are worth having, some battles worth fighting. Our forebears in the faith have passed down the creeds and the canon that we might know what every Christian in every place ought to believe. They’ve also passed down this beautiful teaching to help us wade through the murky waters and gray areas, a phrase which was born in antiquity and much repeated in the literal wars which followed the reformation: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Those beliefs went through a crucible to reach us: mere Christianity, the Church universal. This wisdom was refined like gold, but far more valuable, and far too often we in our age discard it. Every time we do discard the wisdom of the ages, history repeats.
In all the words, of all of the argument in our churches today, what would it sound like to speak a new word? Would would it look like to be made new in our faith on this point? Probably something like this: a newspaper in the UK in the time just before the first world war asked a number of people to submit editorials on what they thought was really the problem with the world: industrialization, modernity, moral collapse. G. K. Chesterton’s response was a mere four words. It read, “Dear sirs, I am.” We are not what people need to be healed and set free today—Christ is. Too often, we are in the way.
Faith is not found in petty arguments or second jets, posturing and church politics. True faith, the kind I hope you are here seeking this morning, the kind I want to encourage in our church, is focused on the person of Christ, and the person in front of you. I hope, in the midst of all the arguments of the world, as everyone is trying to assign blame, I hope you’ll choose instead to pray on the mountain and seek out the person who needs Jesus today. Who is that one in your life? Who will God bring to you this week to serve, humbly? Who will he bring to you to love with abandon?
True faith is focused on the person of Christ and the person in front of you, one. Two, true faith is also broken.
This passage teaches, if we have faith in God, anything will be possible for us. It talks about moving mountains, which was a common phrase back then, if you wanted to call someone a marvelous teacher you would say they can move mountains, kind of like we say a marvelous speaker brings down the house. But that doesn’t take away from the promise. Jesus says, with even the smallest amount of faith, anything will be possible. So I’ll ask, do you believe that? Do you feel as though anything is possible for you?
I was thinking all week as I was writing this about my friend Landon who died of a long illness. I prayed for him every week, asking God to heal him. And I have hope that he is healed now, but hope is not what I wanted, if I’m honest. Hope is not what I was hoping faith would get me, which is just another way of saying I lost focus on God and on Landon in the midst of my grief. When I focus on God I am grateful that one day I will see my friend again, restored and whole. And when I focus on my friend, I know he is restored now. Faith in many ways is learning to wait in hope rather than in fear of the future.
I think about this father in the passage. How many times do you think he’s taken his son to a healer over the years, and no one has been able to help him? How many years do you think he’s closely watched his son—he tells two stories, once he fell into a fire and once into water. You have to know those were the two worst moments of his life. It’s amazing this man still believes something can change, he still believes after years that God’s heart for his child is to be healed and whole.
In the passage, the faith of the boy’s father is contrasted with the faithlessness of the disciples and the scribes. Jesus calls them faithless, but he doesn’t need to; their faithlessness is on display. Not that they can’t heal the boy, that’s not what I mean. Their faithlessness is displayed in their reaction to not being able to heal the child. They’re upset, not so much about the child—notice, the boy and his father get lost in the crowd. They’re upset that they aren’t able to heal the child. Their concern is for their own reputation and ability more than the boy who’s suffered for years. True faith isn’t like that. True faith is focused on the person of God and the person in front of you, and true faith is broken.
What have we read over and over again as Jesus goes about from town to town healing the multitudes? It usually says, Jesus “had compassion on them.” That word literally means gut-wrenching. Jesus, even though he actually deserves glory, ministered to people, not for the sake of his fame, but because his heart broke for them. True faith is broken.
In Mark’s account of this, when Jesus talks about faith being able to heal the boy, his father it says cries out, “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief,” and in that moment his son is healed. So many times, we read this passage, and we have the same reaction as the disciples. We come away worrying that maybe God isn’t working more powerfully in our lives because we aren’t good enough. Maybe if you can will yourself to trust the Lord more fully, you can work miracles. Maybe if I had prayed differently, my friend would have been healed after all.
That’s the reaction of the disciples, to be upset that they aren’t able to heal the boy, themselves. What we need to imitate in this passage is not the disciples’ pride, but the father’s brokenness. When we meet someone in need of healing, in need of salvation, in need of freedom from some addiction or other, so often we want to be the one to heal them, rather than telling the person in front of us, there is someone who can heal you. There is someone who can free you from that evil influence. It’s Jesus. I know he can heal you because he has been healing me.
True faith is broken. The father has faith that Jesus is Lord, faith enough to come to him for help. Faith enough to admit he needed God to intervene. Faith enough to admit he was in need of healing as well as his son. And through that faith, God heals his son. So much of what we need to do as Christians comes down to this: pointing people to Christ and admitting our own lacks. So many times we as the church, like the disciples, are in the way of what God is actually able and wanting to do. Our failures drive people away from Christ, himself, yet it pleases him to work through us.
Many people will tell you, in today’s world, miracles don’t happen, that they ceased with the ministry of the apostles. I don’t believe that at all. I have seen impossible things happen in my life, praise God, and I know many other people who have been a part of God doing miraculous things in people’s lives. I believe faith allows us to participate in the miraculous by the power of the Spirit, and that there is no limit beyond his own will to what God can and will do in the world. I just also believe that true faith is going to be focused, not on building a reputation for yourself, but focused on Christ and on people in need, and true faith is broken.
I think most people you meet today who have seen miracles happen will probably talk less about their ministry, their abilities, than they talk about God, himself, what God is able to do, and if they speak of their own faith they would likely admit their own faults and doubt. What if Jesus is waiting on us, not to will ourselves to have the faith to move mountains, but to admit we don’t? To admit we need him to help even our unbelief? I wish the disciples in this passage, instead of becoming angry that they weren’t able to perform the miracle they were hoping to see, I wish they had waited side by side with this father and his son for Jesus to come and move. May we be a church who believes God is able to do anything, who waits on the Lord, and who cries out to God to help us in our unbelief.
True faith is focused on the person of Christ and the person in front of you, it’s broken, and lastly, true faith is filled with hope. History repeats, the same tragedies, the same mistakes, the same atrocities occur in our world over and over again. If I look only at the world, I see a lot of sick kids and desperate parents. I see a lot of people arguing rather than doing anything that might actually help. I see violence, war, families breaking down, people trapped in slaveries of all kinds. And I see myself as powerless to do anything about it.
But if I focus on Christ, instead; if I see, really see, the people he brings into my life day by day; if I can see my own faults and failures enough to get out of the way and know Christ is really the one they need; if I can see his work in and through the world; then I have hope. Not an anemic hope that maybe one day I’ll be good enough and have enough faith to really make a change. I hope in Christ, that in and through all of the brokenness of the world, he’s still here working.
If I focus on him, I can see what he’s started. He’s started to make me a person who shares his heart for the people around me. He’s started to make our church a real family, where we can find and share healing and belonging. He’s started to make our community a place where people can find help and freedom. He’s started to teach us his truth. And when I see the heart of Christ displayed in his word, I have hope that he’ll be faithful to complete each and every work he’s begun in and through us.
I don’t know everything you’re going through right now, but I know because sin is in the world, and in each of us, I know many of our days in this life will be dark, and leave us feeling trapped and helpless. I’m not naive. I know in this life there is suffering and me preaching my sermons and serving meals on Friday isn’t going to change anyone’s life. I just also know a savior who is able to heal the people I can’t. I know a God who is able to change lives. I believe he is able to change you this morning in all the ways you need to be changed. And in the moments where my belief wavers, I know he is able to help my unbelief.