"If You Can?!"
Theme: When our attitude about Jesus is one of uncertainty or doubt, he brings attention to our lack of faith and reminds us of God’s power (omnipotence) to do all things.
As we continue our journey through the Season of Lent, we not only contemplate the forty days of Christ’s wilderness preparation for ministry, and his final suffering and passion during Holy Week, but journey with him along the way from the Mount of Transfiguration to his final days in Jerusalem. We have been considering some of the questions asked by and of Jesus himself. And we have been reflecting upon the answers to those questions as they still have relevance to our lives now and in the future. In this process, we trust that we will grow as disciples of Christ as we live out our faith day by day.
One question we’ll look at is one that is both of and by Jesus. "If you can?!" And it comes in the midst of other questions and responses during an encounter shortly after Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, and seen by Peter, James and John speaking with Moses and Elijah.
So let’s take a closer look at what happened when Jesus, Peter, James and John returned down the mountain to the other disciples.
(14-17) When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the (Jewish) law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. (He asked the scribes), "What are you arguing with them about?"
(18- ) A man in the crowd answered, "Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not."
Now from the father’s later words, I believe we can agree with one commentator who says of him (IB), "There is no bitterness on his lips, no anger in his heart. But his disappointment and broken hopes are themselves a reproach that must have cut sharply." How would you have felt as that boys father? Jesus’ disciples had, after all, earlier been given authority to cast out demons and they did (6:7-13). Why could they not do so now?
They could not. They were not able. How often have you felt that way when someone in need requested something beyond your means? Or perhaps you have been in the father’s position, hoping that someone else could meet your need, only to feel the disappointment when they could not.
The scribes sought only to argue with the disciples, perhaps questioning their interpretation of the law, or their authority to try and cast out demons.
"You unbelieving generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me." (emphasis added)
These seemingly harsh words of Christ were meant for more than those immediately present. They were for all living in Christ’s time. And they can cause us to pause and reflect on our own faith, or lack of it. How long can we expect Jesus to stay and bear with us as we argue over the interpretation of God’s teachings and authority, while abused children or others in need of protection, healing or release from demons are left to suffer?
How long shall Jesus put up with us when we lack the faith to follow our conscience in matters of moral and ethical living, wether individually or corporately?
"Bring the boy to me." Jesus said.
So they brought him, Mark tells us. And when the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
It’s interesting to note that Mark’s account, very likely from Peter himself, shows Jesus gathering further information about the boy’s condition. Jesus asked the boy’s father, "How long has he been like this?"
"From childhood," he answered. "It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."
Here Jesus asks another question, the answer of which reveals that the boy has been oppressed since childhood. It is a question that we naturally ask when we are concerned about someone who is suffering. We can often only imaging what it is like to live with a debilitating or life-threatening condition, like seizures, for a long time.
Now I know that some people may not believe in demon possession, and may want to explain this passage only in terms of a medical condition, perhaps epilepsy. But I believe that while medical knowledge was largely limited or unscientific as we have it today, still there were instances of actual demon possession or oppression, as well as mental illness, which accounted for a large part of human suffering – and still does.
And that brings us to the real question of the day. It was first put by the father to Jesus.
Did you hear it just a minute ago? "But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."
And what was Jesus response? . . . "‘If you can’?!" said Jesus. "All things are possible for one who believes."
If. . . you. . .can. Now it’s interesting to note that different translations use either a question mark or an exclamation mark after those three words, pointing out the fact that they can be interpreted as either a question or an exclamation. That is why I have used both in the sermon title.
In other words, Jesus responds to the father’s question as he often does, by turning it around upon the one asking. And because he does so in this case, his response could have more than one meaning.
As the Interpreter’s Bible explains: "Commentators have interpreted these words in two different senses. They may be taken as an exclamation of wonder that anyone should use the word ‘if’ in connection with God’s power. . . .That is no way – as Jesus’ repetition of the (words) ‘if you can’ might indicate – to approach a question of God’s power." For as Jesus points out, "All things are possible for one who believes."
"Others take the words as referring to the man’s own part in the healing. ‘If you can,’ Jesus may be saying, throwing the issue back to the man (that is the father) himself." It is as though Jesus were saying, "It’s not whether I can do anything, but whether or not you can." Just as he declared at other times, it was the faith of others which brought healing and wholeness to themselves or those they loved.
Perhaps his words and his emphasis reflected both intentions. For "taken either way the words proclaim the same great truth of the power of God and the need of faith to make that power operative."
And how did the boy’s father reply? Immediately he exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"
Very often we find ourselves in the position of that boy’s father, again asking Jesus to help us believe in more than we do. Our life is a process of spiritual growth – growing in faith as we walk daily with Christ. We must rely upon the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us in the way and empower us.
When our attitude is one of uncertainty, doubt or despair, Jesus brings attention to our lack of faith and reminds us of God’s power (omnipotence) to do all things.
Jesus can cast out our demons as he did that boy. He can help overcome our unbelief as he did for the boy’s father.
One last question to be asked and answered by today’s passage.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, "Why couldn’t we drive it out?" Do you remember his reply? He replied, "This kind can come out only by prayer."
Let’s not overlook the need for – and power of – prayer. Here as elsewhere, the bible points out the effectiveness of prayer, of communing with God in the Spirit.
As some of you know, I have personally heard the witness of my own mother, whose healing process from cancer was made complete after praying to God and receiving a divine visitation. I firmly believe that my prayers for healing and cleansing have been answered numerous times for myself and others.
That is not to say that every prayer for physical healing has been answered as I would have hoped at first. Sometimes in prayer or following God has given me a different answer that I have learned to accept as part of God’s perfect and loving will, difficult as it may at times be.
But I rely upon God’s love and grace for all persons and in all circumstances. I realize and accept that some times God is calling me to be part of his plan and will to bring healing, peace and freedom to all people. "If you can?!" he says to me.
My friends, Jesus says the same to each of us. For "all things are possible for those who believe."
This Lenten season, I invite and challenge you spend some time in contemplation and prayer on our Lord’s suffering and death on the cross. But also be in prayerful communion with him to seek how you may be called and empowered to bring a miracle (even a minor one) into someone else’s life. Some ways you can follow with Christ this season include things like helping and serving others, coming to church each Sunday, reading your bible, praying with and for others.
There are opportunities to do great things for Christ’s kingdom in and through our church, as many of you know by doing already. Invite someone else to join with you. Let me know of others in need of prayer or other assistance.
If you can?! Yes, Lord. I know you can! And with the power of the Holy Spirit, I can too. And so can you. Amen.