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.” – Mark 9:17-18
We pick up where we left off in our last lesson, with Peter, James and John reveling in this extraordinary experience of having seen Jesus transfigured and glorified before their eyes. Jesus told them to keep it to themselves, and this was a good thing, because they were about to go into a situation that needed a different type of focus.
The rest of the disciples had been left at the bottom of the mountain while Jesus and the three spent time apart. While they were there, a man approached them looking for healing for his son. Try as they may, they were not able to fulfill the man’s wishes. You would think that they would have been praised for even trying – showing enough compassion on the man and his son to engage in what was a pretty difficult task, but this didn’t happen. The simple request unfulfilled turned into an all-out argument, the crowd against the disciples.
As disciples, we face the same challenges. Like the rest of Jesus’ followers, these challenges can come out of the blue, and be disguised as a loving request of a father for his son. In these situations, it is important that we understand not only what people are looking for, but what they see, for it dictates not only how we operate in the situation, but what we do before the situation ever comes up.
Peter, James and John were left with two things: their teacher, and a command: “Listen to him”. As they came down the mountain, Jesus told them not to tell anyone about their experience until he had risen from the dead. While on the one hand they “listened to what he said and didn’t tell anyone”, they got caught up in side views of what he was talking about
They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?” – Mark 9:10-12
Peter, James and John got stuck on something they couldn’t understand, but rather than listen to what their teacher had to say about it they tossed it around between themselves. They probably came up with every conceivable explanation of what this could mean – maybe he was talking about being accepted by people, or waking up from a long sleep. Maybe he was going to go through something as bad as death and come out of it. Whatever explanations they may have agreed or disagreed on, what was clear was that they didn’t have Jesus’ view of what he had said.
Rather than ask a clarifying question, his followers diverted the question to something they thought they knew something about, or at least they had enough information to ask intelligently. Jesus, however, showed that he had one focus – the path that his Father had for him. Even though Jesus answered the question, he opened the door for the disciples to re-engage in the uncomfortable statement he made prior. As disciples, we have to realize that Jesus’ plan and desire for us will not be thwarted by what we put in front of him, and he will often return us to the one lesson he wants us to learn. In addition, as disciples, we have to learn to be as Jesus was – solely focused on the path that God has for us, and not deterred by what others bring to us.
There is a “U” in “They”
Jesus and his followers went to rejoin the rest of the disciples, only to find a crowd around them, and the teachers of the law in argument with them. As Jesus tried to understand what was going on, the man at the center of the story stepped up to tell his side.
Teacher, I brought you my son who is possessed by a spirit… I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not – Mark 9:17a & 18b
While it is pretty subtle, what the man said is actually very telling for the life of the disciple:
I brought him to You, but they could not…
For the man, and probably for the crowd, there was not much difference between the teacher and the disciple. When the man saw the disciples, he saw Jesus. He expected from the disciples what he would have received from Jesus.
Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” and Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two. Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over. The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. – II Kings 2:12-15
Everyone knew that Elijah’s time was short. They could have taken the time to spend with Elijah, get his last bits of wisdom and prepare for the departure of their friend and mentor. What the prophets of Jericho did, however was watch Elijah’s disciple, Elisha. They had an expectation of what would happen, and as soon as Elijah was gone, made that expectation known – they saw Elijah in Elisha. The disciples of Jesus probably thought the man was coming to them, but truthfully, he was coming to the Jesus in them. The man had an expectation of success because he had seen Jesus, knew what he was capable of, and if these were his disciples, they would carry the same weight and power that Jesus did. One of the most telling quotes about discipleship comes from Mahatma Gandhi:
“I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ”.
Gandhi expected to see the “U”, or the you, in them – to see Christ fully represented in those who were his followers. Similarly, the man who wanted to see his son healed expected to see the life, faith, and power of God represented in the disciples in the same way it was represented in Jesus. This is why there was no praise in the failure, no “good job, thanks for trying”, no appreciation for trying to show some compassion. The man could have gotten that from anyone – he was looking for God to be revealed. As disciples, we have to understand and keep focused on the fact that the world wants to see, not nice Christians who are no different than them. They want to see God represented
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. – Romans 8:18-19
Creation, the world, our neighbors, our family, the person sitting next to you on the bus wants to see the “U in they” – the Christ in us. They want to see the nature of the children of God revealed in us. Anything less is a travesty, because it will never represent the God that we are supposed to be following. As disciples, we are Jesus to those around us, and are the closest thing they may ever get to Jesus – or, depending on how we represent him, the closest thing they will ever want to get to Jesus.
All Things are Possible… but we could not…
Jesus took care of the situation, but not before straightening out some of the thinking of the crowd and the man. When their expectation wasn’t met by the disciples, the man and the crowd blamed the disciples for the outcome. Jesus helped the man to see that he had a part to play in the result
“If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” – Mark 9:23
The good thing is that the man was not only willing to believe, but willing to admit that he had a hard time believing and needed help. No doubt this is why he came to the disciples in the first place, having exhausted all other measures. Because we tend to make God our last resort, we are particularly sensitive to the result, knowing that we have no other recourse after that. Prayer is usually our final step, but what happens when even that is not enough?
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” – Mark 9:25
The father believed… the disciples believed… and yet here was a boy still suffering from this spirit. Something was wrong – a formula was out of whack, a step missed… something needed to be fixed in this picture. Jesus’ statement not only caught hold of the man, it also caught hold of the disciples – mainly because they were already feeling the sting of failure and condemnation from the crowd.
“Everything is possible for one who believes”…
They did what they had been taught, they remembered how Jesus had done things before, they knew they had authority, but none of it was working. The disciples went from being “the go-to people” to being students of the teacher again. They had to be taught, not just how to cast out difficult demons, but how to live as disciples.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” – Mark 9:28-29
This begs the question: when did Jesus pray about this situation? We don’t read anywhere that he stopped to talk to his Father before taking action. We could assume that he was praying silently while the crowd was all up in arms and he was talking with the boy’s father, but that doesn’t seem to fit into the context of his statement. The word for prayer, προσευχῇ not only refers to the act of prayer, but also speaks of a place of prayer. Places where one could go and commune with God in prayer, not just throwing up a quick prayer in the time of need. Jesus’ time of prayer with the Father in private prepared him for dealing with the spirit in this situation. Similarly, as disciples, what people will see in us of the life of God will not be determined by how we jump to action in public, but rather how we prepare ourselves in private – how we come away to those places of prayer and dedication, communing with the Father where no one can see, receiving from Him what our focus and path are to be. Jesus had already modeled to the disciples what that life of prayer was to be. He was now bringing them back to it – “if you want to act like me, you have to do so in everything – in the private things as well as the public things.” As disciples, the only way that we can truly demonstrate the life of Jesus is to do it at all times, private and public, doing what He did, living how he lived.
– What challenges to your faith have you faced, especially ones that presented themselves as nice and inviting? How have you responded to those challenges, and what was the result?
– What uncomfortable lessons has God brought to you over and over? How have you tried to divert yourself and God away from the uncomfortable?
– What is God’s path for you? Why is it difficult to stay focused on that path?
– What of Jesus do people see in you? Do they always see it? Is it something that they can rely on where God is manifest, and not you?
– Do you realize you are being watched? Does that make you uncomfortable? Would you change something about yourself if you knew you were being watched? If so, why haven’t you?
– When do you pray about situations?
– Where is your place of communion with the Father?