Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What can Jesus do? We have seen miracles the past few weeks: thousands fed; Jesus walking on the water; Jesus healing the sick, including the deaf, mute, and blind. And today we hear about Jesus casting out a particularly resistant spirit from a young man. Jesus, with Peter, James, and John have just come down from the mountain where Jesus was transfigured; where the Father said, “This is My Son, the Beloved; hear Him” (Mark 9:7). They come down from the mountain and as they approach the other disciples, they hear an argument: experts in the religious law disputing with the disciples in the middle of a large crowd. Then the crowd really starts to get excited, because they are about to get their money’s worth: Jesus is coming. Maybe He can cast this demon out. Then again, maybe not; His disciples couldn’t. “Teacher, I brought my son, who has a speechless spirit, to You. And whenever it seizes [him], it throws him down, and he foams at the mouth and he grinds [his] teeth and becomes rigid. And I brought [him] to your disciples in order that they might cast it out, but they were not strong [enough]” (Mark 9:18). “If you can do anything, come to our aid and have compassion upon us” (Mark 9:22).
Can Jesus do anything? That’s the question, isn’t it? Jesus has cast out demons before, but can He cast out this demon? Jesus has healed people, but can He heal this person? Jesus has fed people, but can He feed us? Of course, we don’t think in terms of demons; ours are far too subtle to make themselves known by thrashing and gnashing and foaming at the mouth! And healing? “If you could do something, Lord, that would be great.” This is how we hold our prayers at arm’s length: Yeah, healing would be great, but, you know, “Thy will be done” and all that. Which is sometimes a way to get out of believing that Jesus can really heal, because it relieves me of the responsibility of actually praying for healing. Whether He chooses to heal at this time or not, Jesus says, “Ask.”
“All things are possible to the believing one” (Mark 9:23). But who is the believing one in our text? It is not the experts in the law. It is not the father. It is not the crowd. It is not the disciples. In fact, there is only one Believer in this text, and it is Jesus. It may sound strange to call Jesus a “believer,” since we normally think of people who “believe in Jesus.” But at the foot of this mountain, the only one for whom all things are possible—even casting out obstinate, epileptic spirits—is Jesus. “O faithless generation! How long will I be with you? How long must I bear with you?” (Mark 9:19). This is, perhaps, why the disciples were not strong enough to cast it out: because they thought that they were. They did not trust that all their power to cast out unclean spirits was really God’s power. To trust God is to pray, and to pray is to trust that God will see and act.
Jesus is constantly praying. He knows that the Father does see and will act; that the Father is acting in the Son. And how does the Father act in the Son here? “Jesus, seeing that the crowd was running together, rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You speechless and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter into him [again].’ And crying out and convulsing, it came out” (Mark 9:25-26a). It seemed as if darkness reigned. Mute, deaf, and blind spirits were everywhere. But Jesus opens mouths and ears and eyes. He throws open the doors and windows of darkness and shines the light of His Word into every corner. There is no room for demons to hide; they must flee. They have no choice. Yes, Jesus can do something.
But maybe you’ve got your own obstinate spirits. You’ve got the devil whispering in your ear, muting your tongue in its praise of the Lord and setting it ablaze with the heart’s restless evil and deadly poison, and trying to shut your ears to the Word of Jesus. What spirit is it? Is it the spirit of depression that presses on your chest and darkens your bedroom? Is it the spirit of apathy that drains your joy and makes the days indistinguishable? Is it the spirit of absence that withers your faith and makes God seem distant? Is it the spirit of guilt and shame that continually prevents some sin from entering the light of Christ and His absolution? Whatever it is, it is all the spirit of the Evil One, who seeks your life. It is all infected with the stench of death. How long has it been like this? Since childhood, since birth, since conception. It is all by nature unclean and sinful from the time we were conceived in the wombs of our mothers, and that is why death is the only option.
But the question remains: can Jesus do anything for you here and now? Notice what happens when the unclean spirit leaves the man’s son: “He became as a corpse, so that most [people] said, ‘He died’” (Mark 9:26b). This is what healing looks like? The demon is cast out, only to leave the son dead? I’m not sure the father wouldn’t rather have a possessed son than a dead one. But that’s not the end: “Jesus took his hand and raised him, and he rose” (Mark 9:27). The sign Jesus worked in this son is the sign of the greater Son. “Jesus, when He had uttered a loud cry, breathed out [His spirit]” (Mark 15:37). And He became a corpse, so that everyone said, “He’s dead.” This is what God looks like? The centurion said, “Truly this man was the Son of God,” only for the Son to die and be buried? I’m not sure we wouldn’t rather have no savior than a dead one. But that was not the end. “And when they had come to the tomb, they saw a young man, and they were amazed. And he said to them, ‘Do not be amazed. You seek Jesus the Nazarene, the crucified one. He was raised, He is not here. See the place where they put Him’” (Mark 16:5-6).
“[I]f we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He is not able to deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). This is what healing looks like. It looks like death at first. It looks like drowning and burial, as you were buried with Christ by baptism into death (Romans 6:4). But then you were raised with the risen Christ; only resurrection can kill death. And that resurrection has also killed everything that goes along with death: all those spirits that oppress and deceive you. They know they are on death row. That’s why they fight so hard: they have only a short time to live, and they do not rule you. They do not reign. Christ reigns, and He reigns over you and your life, because He paid for it with His blood. He brought you under His reign at that font, and in the power of His baptismal promise, He raises you to new life day after day after day, until the Day when there is no more death, only life. When He will take your hand and raise you up, and you will rise. Hear the Word of the Lord: the unclean spirits—even yours and mine—are on their way out. They have no power over you; you are forgiven; you’ve been raised from those old, spirit-infested graves.
The story of this boy is your story: under the power of the devil from childhood, even from conception; deaf to the word of Christ; mute, unwilling to sing His praise; brought by your mother, or father, or someone else to Christ; unwilling to submit to Him, until He finally has to kill you to loosen your grip; and then, He takes your hand, raises you up, and you are raised. Dead to sin, now, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. I believe! Help my unbelief. In the Spirit, I believe; left to myself, I do not. In the Spirit, I pray; left to myself, I do not. And on it goes, dying these little deaths, rising in these little resurrections. In Christ, the only one who fully trusts, for whom all things are possible. In Him, the Lord Yahweh helps me, and I am not put to shame. My faith is not in vain, not empty, not worthless, because the Christ I trust is not vain, not empty, not worthless.
Jesus is able, and what’s more, He is willing. He is here this morning to feed you with His resurrected Body and to give you His resurrected Blood to drink. Because only His resurrection life can kill the death in you and in me. As often as you feel those spirits oppressing and whispering and pulling the darkness down on you, as often as you are deaf and speechless, so that your only words are “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”; Jesus says: “Bring him to Me. Bring her to Me. You speechless and deaf spirit, I command you, come out and never enter in again.” He is your faithful Lord. He has authority over all things. He sees and He acts. He has acted. And there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Hold to Him; cling to Him in spite of what you see and feel; and the one who believes Him can do all things, even conquer death.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/13/18