November 20, 2016
Mountain-top experiences – we’ve all had them. Times when we experienced the grace and presence of Jesus in remarkable ways. Maybe it was a time of summer camp when we got away from the routines of school and summer vacation and were immersed in spiritual activities. Great music, challenging speakers, compelling altar calls, emotional times of prayer and forgiveness, late nights. Were there emotional decisions induced by lack of sleep and peer pressure? I’m sure – but there were others, made in the presence of a living, convicting, inviting Holy Spirit – decisions which changed kids’ lives forever. Times when you experienced the power and glory of God unlike anything you had ever seen before.
Of course, as we get older, we don’t do summer camps anymore. No, we’re much too sophisticated. We do conferences, seminars and retreats. We don’t stay in bunkhouses, we stay in hotels. We don’t eat in cafeterias, we eat in restaurants. And we meet with God in a special way. Great music, challenging speakers, compelling altar calls, emotional times of prayer and forgiveness, late nights. Orchestrated emotional decisions? Perhaps in some cases – but in others, some of you can recount decisions in the presence of the Holy Spirit that changed your lives forever. Special times away from changing diapers and screaming kids and bills you can’t pay and work you can’t stand, where you met God.
Mountaintop experiences – we’ve all had them. It may be you didn’t have to go away to experience one. Some have come when God met you in a special way during our corporate gatherings, others in the quietness of your own home, perhaps others during a trial or crisis when God showed up, and His grace sustained you in a remarkable way. Mountaintop experiences – not only have we had them, we like them – we want to stay on the mountaintops. Remember, you didn’t want to come home from summer camp. You didn’t want to lose the glow from the campfire as you held hands and sang, Kumbaya. You didn’t want to leave the conference – you wanted to continue to experience the glorious euphoria of corporate worship in God’s presence.
But there is a significant challenge: all mountaintop experiences are separated by valleys. Some low, deeply cut valleys. There comes a time when we must descend the mountain to face the everyday challenges and trials of life. Despite all our efforts to maintain the glow and the tingle, to experience the glory, despite all our efforts to stay in the euphoria, it eventually, usually quickly, fades, and we find ourselves in the trenches facing battles. We try to convince ourselves – when I go home, I’ll never be the same again. I’m going to take the mountaintop with me. Then the trials of everyday life come – usually the next day. Those trials may be as severe as Satan’s fiery darts unleashed against us, they may be as simple as the mundane, dreary, dull, hum-drum existence of our everyday lives. If I have to take another test, if I have to change another diaper, if I have to face another day at work… After God has given us a glimpse of His glorious presence, while we would just as soon stay there, He sends us back into the thick of the battle. To face things like kids screaming, spouses biting, pain throbbing, unresolved prayers, and struggles I can’t overcome, and demons that won’t come out.
You see, on the mountain, everything was very clear – easy – no striving, no distractions, it was powerful, unforgettable. But mountaintops are only mountaintops because they’re separated by valleys. And that’s where we live. They’re hard, they’re difficult, there’s no glow, and it’s hard to see the glory. If you find yourself on the mountaintop today, I have a word for you – the valley’s coming. And if you find yourself in the valley this morning, and you’re really struggling – pay very close attention.
A few weeks ago, we looked at a mountaintop experience. In fact, it may be from that story the term “mountaintop experience” is derived. You remember – Jesus led the disciples, the inner circle, Peter, James and John – literally up to a mountaintop. And they experienced, without doubt, the greatest literal and spiritual mountaintop of their lives, at least to that point – we call it the Transfiguration. Can you imagine what it must have been like? The disciples were actually able to see Jesus peel back the flesh. They saw Him reveal His glory, the glory He had with His Father before the world began, the glory veiled by human flesh at the incarnation, the glory He will display for all to see at His second coming. It’s going to be great. And the disciples got a foretaste. They saw the glory, they experienced it – we saw His glory, John said, the glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. Peter says were eyewitnesses of His majesty on the holy mountain. This was the mountaintop experience of all mountaintop experiences.
And Peter wanted to stay, right? Jesus, let’s stay around the campfire and warm up to its glowing – roast some marshmallows and sing another round of Pass It On. Let me build three tents, for You, Moses, and Elijah. Let’s have summer camp and hang out for awhile. Besides the fact Peter didn’t understand the importance of the event, and didn’t understand the singular uniqueness of Jesus Christ – he missed another vital truth – you can’t live on the mountaintop. You have to go to the valley to face the challenges and battles of the Christian life. And as you descend to the valley, you may have the experience of failure, weak faith – of a father with his son – the struggle great. Read the text with me – Mark 9:14-29.
In 1517, the Italian painter Raphael Sanzio began his now famous painting called The Transfiguration. He worked on it until his death in 1520 – someone else had to finish the work. But notice how Raphael pictured the event – Jesus up on the mountain, with His disciples, and Moses and Elijah. Light, glory, all around. I’m not sure about Jesus levitating, but we’ll go with it. Down below in the valley, we see the vain attempt of the disciples to cast the demon out of the boy. Notice – while some were on the mountaintop, others were in the valley. Mountaintops and valleys exist at the same time. And we all move through life from peak to peak, valley to valley. You see, God doesn’t expect us to live on the mountaintop. Let me give you the outline of the text as we make our way through the story:
- The Impotence of the Disciples (14-19)
- The Power of Jesus (20-27)
- The Answer to Impotence (28-29)
Let me tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to look at this story and see failure, and trial, and weak faith, and the answer to all that in faith-filled prayer. So, we’ll end with a time of prayer as we seek God to increase our weak faith in the midst of challenging trial.
So let’s start with the impotence of the disciples. As the inner circle descended the mountain with Jesus, they came back to the nine disciples, who were arguing with some scribes. By now, we’ve seen the scribes to be some of Jesus’ most outspoken opponents. There was also a crowd watching the commotion. As soon as they saw Jesus, they began running up to Him. You see, that’s who they were really looking for. In fact, that’s who the father was looking for.
Jesus asked them – either the disciples or the scribes – what they were discussing. But one in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought You my son.” Don’t miss that. The man was looking for Jesus – his hope was rightfully placed. But Jesus wasn’t there. You ever feel like that in the midst of a significant challenge – I’m came to Jesus, but He wasn’t there. My prayers seemed empty, meaningless – they just bounced off the ceiling. Don’t miss that Jesus showed up at just the right time – He had some teaching to do first. He had some faith to strengthen first – maybe that’s true in your life.
Matthew tells us the man fell on his knees. By the way, both Matthew and Luke tell this story. But Mark’s account is twice as long and has some intriguing detail. I brought my son, his only son, because he’s possessed with a spirit. All three accounts tell us this was a case of demon possession. I say that because many today want to suggest this was just a case of epilepsy or grand mal seizures. But while his symptoms may be similar to those maladies, all three accounts make clear this was demonically induced. Somewhere there is a balance between dismissing demonic activity as mere mental or physical sickness and seeing a demon under every rock and behind every tree. Demons are real, and we should be aware of their schemes to destroy people made in the image of God. That’s the issue here – demons are always opposing God and His works – especially people who were created to reflect God’s glory and grace.
Well, as we read through the account, we find this demon caused the boy to be both deaf and mute. It threw him into seizures, slamming him to the ground, foaming at the mouth, grinding teeth, paralysis. In fact later, we find he’s been possessed since childhood, and the demon would throw the boy into the fire or water to destroy him – again, seeking to attack this divine image bearer. We can only imagine what the boy looked like – perhaps scarred and disfigured after years of demonic attack. Again, Mark’s account is much more detailed so we might be impressed with the severity of the possession, and the magnitude of the miracle.
You have to understand, this is all very intentional. Jesus is teaching His disciples, all of us, something about faith. They were going from a mountaintop, and they are immediately confronted with a sin-infested world. From the glory of the Son to a demon-possessed boy.
And now, the impotence of the disciples. The father says, “I brought You my son – you weren’t around, Your disciples were, so I told them to cast out the demon.” I mean, after all, back in chapter 6, Jesus sent the twelve out in pairs, and gave them authority over unclean spirits. And so they went out preaching, casting out many demons and anointing many who were sick, healing them.
But for some reason, this time, they were unable to do anything about the problem. They were unable to cast out the demon. Back to the realities and challenges and difficulties of life in the valley. I can hear Peter saying now – Lord, can’t we go back to the mountain? Do we have to come down here? What’s with the failure – haven’t you promised success? Haven’t you promised kingdom power – where’s the glory now?
So again, have you ever done that? You experience God’s presence in a meaningful way, only to immediately face a serious battle? Listen, the forces of evil know when you’ve been faced with the glory of God. They know when you’ve made new commitments, taken giant steps in faith. And they show up just as quickly to attack you, to discourage you, to steal the glow. The disciples came off the mountain and were immediately confronted with failure. And the message for us today is this: hold onto Jesus even when you don’t feel like it – even when the glow is gone. Even when you don’t feel all tingly, Jesus says, I want you to know I’m there – you’re not always going to feel it. Hold on with great faith, then.
I know it’s true in my own life. Periods of closest intimacy and growth and commitment and relationship with Christ are followed with attacks, temptations, and all too often, failure. With all the good things God has been doing at Alliance, you should know, there have also been attacks of the evil one. The valleys are deepest, the attacks fiercest, the failures greatest following the peaks of spiritual success. It shouldn’t surprise us, in fact, it should prepare us.
In this passage, Jesus is trying to communicate an important truth to the disciples, and to us: you can’t live on the mountaintops. We live a lot of the Christian life in the valleys where we face the realities of a fallen world. And the principle Jesus wants us to learn is this: hang on to Me with everything you’ve got. That’s real faith. You see, the valleys are intended to increase our faith – they are there to cause us to look to the Savior.
Now, let me ask you a question – why did the disciples fail here? The text tells us, but let me tell you what it wasn’t. It wasn’t because they had no power or authority to cast out demons. Jesus had given them authority in chapter 6. They had the power, and it had been working. That wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t because of lack of experience – they’d cast out demons before. The problem was the littleness of their faith. Notice, their failure caused Jesus to cry out, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” Who is the unbelieving generation? Well certainly in includes the disciples. Even Jesus was frustrated with them. They had been with Him for two and a half years by now. And yet their faith was weak. He came off the mountain, where He had disclosed His glory, only to be faced by a helpless boy, a helpless father, a helpless generation, and bunch of helpless disciples. He was understandably frustrated.
The problem was the littleness of their faith. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard Jesus refer to their small faith. In fact, I’ve pointed out before, in the gospels, whenever Jesus says, o ye of little faith – it was always to the disciples. They had little faith. What does that mean? Does that mean they just didn’t have enough faith? They had little faith, but they just needed more? A little more, and you would have been successful?
That doesn’t seem to fit the context. In Matthew’s account, Jesus goes on to say, “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will.” Jesus called the mustard the smallest of all seeds. It was very tiny, and He says, if you have just tiny faith, you’ll move mountains. Not literally, of course – then, like today, moving mountains was a way to speak of overcoming obstacles – of accomplishing something of great difficulty. Jesus says, you can move mountains, you can overcome every obstacle, you can accomplish anything, nothing will be impossible to you – if you have mustard seed faith.
The problem here was not the quantity of their faith, it was the quality of their faith. That’s why He said, O unbelieving generation. Theirs was an unbelieving faith. Why? Who knows. Perhaps they had become complacent – they’d done this before, no problem to do it again. Maybe they saw their previous powers as some sort of magic – all they had to do was go through their routine, and the demon would come out. Say the right words, really, really mean it.
Can’t you see the scene now? All nine disciples tried, one by one, to exercise the demon – to heal the boy. Judas, back up, it’s my turn. Obviously, Thomas, you’ve got a problem with doubting, let me try. They worked their way up, probably to Andrew – after all, he was Peter’s brother. But even Andrew failed. Why? Perhaps they had misplaced their faith – that is, they were confident in their own abilities – in themselves, rather than the proper object of their faith – God Himself. We’ll see that in a moment.
It’s important we understand they had cast out demons before, they had healed people before, not because they said it right. Not because they were super spiritual guys – they weren’t. They had performed the miracles because of God’s power behind it – because of the object of their faith – Jesus Himself. It’s critical we understand that, because it’s key to understanding this text.
That’s why Jesus goes on to say, this kind does not go out except by prayer. Jesus isn’t giving a formula – okay, demonology 101, in order to cast out really nasty demons, we’ve got to pray more. No, Jesus is saying – the problem here is you were depending on yourselves. You can cast out no demons by your own strength. This and every demon requires faith and dependence on the Master. You see, the danger of mountaintop experiences is we can become complacent and self-dependent. And Jesus is looking for people who will cling to Him all the time – even when the glow is gone.
Which brings us full circle to the point of the passage. It’s easy to cling to Jesus on the mountaintops where there is a visible display of glory. It’s easy to hold on to Jesus at a moving summer camp or a meaningful conference or in special times of worship – corporate or personal. But disciples, know this: you better hold onto Jesus in the valleys too, or you’ll never make it. Don’t take your eyes off Jesus, don’t focus on the circumstances and trials, don’t trust in your own abilities – hold onto Jesus with everything you’ve got. Life in the valleys requires prayer – life in the valleys requires simple faith in the Savior – not some unbelieving sense of trust in your own abilities.
We leave here and face a sin-cursed world, where things don’t always go according to plan. Where we fail tests, and fight with spouses, and deal with bratty kids and get frustrated at work and people are getting sick and not getting healed, some are even dying, and we find that demons don’t always come out. It’s then we have to hold onto Jesus.
Well, I’ve jumped way ahead. Not only did the disciples lack the requisite faith, so did the father, which brings us to the second point, the power of Jesus. At the end of verse 19, Jesus says, bring Me the boy.
And this part is quite familiar. As they brought the demon-possessed boy, the demon saw Him, knowing who Jesus was, and the unclean spirit threw the boy into a convulsion. Jesus asked how long this had been happening, and the father replied, since childhood. It’s not that Jesus needed to know that piece of information – or that He didn’t already know. He was likely exposing the magnitude of the miracle He’s about to perform. The father gives the additional information we already looked at – the demon has been trying to destroy the boy. Why had the demon been unable to do so? I’m just guessing, but I suggest it was for this moment – for the glory of God to be displayed. Is that possible in your life as well?
At this point, the father exclaims, if You can do anything, take pity, more literally, have compassion on us and help us. To which Jesus replies, If You can? Read that with incredulity intended. Are you kidding – if You can? Do you know who you’re talking to? Is Jesus saying that to you right now? Do you believe God is able to meet you right where you are to accomplish His purposes in your life? Jesus goes on to say, all things are possible to him who believes.
Stop right there. This verse has been wrenched out of it context to make it say things it does not say. If you just have enough faith, you can have whatever you want. And if you don’t get what you want, it’s because you don’t have enough faith. That’s not the point of the verse. The point of the verse is God has the power to do whatever He wants – through the faith of the one who believes. This is not a carte blanche promise to ask for whatever you want and God will do it. Rather, it’s promise that God has the power to do whatever He wants. The point is not the amount of faith, but the object of faith. Everything is possible through our great, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God. I use those terms to remind us – He is present, even if you don’t feel it. He is powerful, even if you don’t have the resources at hand. And He is all knowing, even when you don’t understand. And as a result, He will do what is best.
At this point, the father cries out with that very famous line recorded only in Mark, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” That response has aided Christians for centuries – and I hope it helps you today. This guy believed Jesus could do something about his son’s condition – that’s why he brought him to Jesus. But Jesus wasn’t available. The disciples failed. Now the boy had just been thrown into a terrible convulsion. Everything seems against him. But the truth is, Jesus was drawing out and strengthening faith. This answer to Jesus was exactly what He was looking for. An admission of little, but a desire for great faith.
Which may be exactly where you are today. You’re in the valley. Oh, you’ve experienced God’s grace and glory in the past. You’ve had those mountaintop experiences. But you’ve been in the valley for some time. And maybe Jesus feels absent. Maybe He’s up there, unnoticing. Maybe your prayers have seem unanswered. Or maybe you haven’t prayed – you’ve relied on yourself – and maybe you’ve exhausted your resources. And maybe you should cry out to Jesus today, I do believe – help my unbelief.
Don’t miss that Jesus helped this father and delivered his son. When Jesus saw the crowd gathering – perhaps he’d drawn the father and son away for a private conversation – but when Jesus saw them re-gathering, He rebuked the unclean spirit. Not only did He command the spirit to come out, but never to return again. What an encouragement that would have been to the father and the boy in the weeks and months and years ahead.
The demon came out – he had to. The God of the universe had commanded it so. With one final desperate attempt, he threw the boy into terrible convulsions such that the crowd thought him dead. Jesus took him by the hand and raised him.
Which brings us to our third point and our time of prayer. In verse 28, later, when the disciples were alone with Jesus, they asked Him, why couldn’t we drive the demon out? And Jesus responded, this kind cannot come out by anything but prayer. It’s not that Jesus is saying, you can do some exorcisms by yourself, but this was a particularly nasty demon which required prayer and the power of God. No – all spiritual work requires the power of God. They had perhaps begun to rely on themselves, “we’ve done this before.”
Maybe that’s where you’ve been. Trying to live in the valley, facing your situations by yourself – after all, you’ve done it before, you think. And after exhausting your resources, maybe now it’s time to turn to God.