Highs and Lows
I wonder if you're ever caught out. Everything has gone well and you're having a great time, your spirits are up and life feels great but then something happens. Within a minute all those feelings of happiness and well-being seem to be a faint memory, as your emotions turn to disappointment, discouragement, sadness or whatever.
I get caught out like that. I want to enjoy the good of the moment without dwelling on the fact that my feelings will change sooner or later – and so I'm susceptible to a crash. The greater the high the deeper the crash is likely to be and I imagine that most of you know something of this.
Why is this so?
It is because we live in a fallen, sin-marred world and that is simply the reality of it. We generally learn, some better than others, how to cope.
This is true in normal everyday life but it is also true in our spiritual lives. We can have a deeply moving spiritual experience only to see it quickly followed by something else that brings us crashing back down to earth again. At such times we may well call into question the reality of what had brought us such joy, such peace, such confidence. We may well be tempted to think that living a Christian life just isn't worth it as all the progress we thought to have made seems swept away in an instant.
We do well at such times to remind ourselves that our spiritual lives too are lived out in a fallen, sin-marred world. Being a Christian doesn't mean that we no longer experience sorrows in this life but God has promised that he will wipe away all of our tears in heaven!
When Jesus came into the world to be our Saviour he too was exposed to highs and lows. The passage before us today introduces us to just such a situation.
From the wonderfully encouraging experience up on the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus was confronted the very next day with the sordid and destructive activity of evil spirits; the failure of his followers to deal with the situation only compounded the contrast.
Let us look at what happened and what we might learn from this little episode.
Yet Another Crowd
Luke was obviously impressed by the numbers of people who gravitated to Jesus. He referred over 30 times to the crowds and the multitudes that came together because of Jesus. On this particular occasion a large crowd, a great crowd, had already gathered but pretty soon they would be totally focused on Jesus.
After the experience of the Transfiguration it was time for Jesus to rejoin the nine disciples he had left behind. Approaching them he saw they were surrounded by a large crowd.
Now crowds can gather for a variety of reasons some good and others bad. This particular crowd was a disparate one. In the crowd there was at least one person in desperate need. Others may well have been there out of simple curiosity while yet others were looking for a quarrel Still others may have been there simply because, as they say, a crowd draws a crowd.
There was a heated argument going on. Jesus' followers were being given a hard time by some scribes. The scribes were part of the religious establishment and wherever me meet them in the gospel record they are portrayed as being hostile towards Jesus.
What was the argument all about this time?
Well what kicked it all off was a failed attempt by the disciples to cast out an unclean spirit which was destroying the life of a boy.
The father of this boy had wanted to bring his son to Jesus but not finding him with his followers he had instead asked them for help. No, he did more than that – he begged them for help. You see the boy's need was desperate. And this boy was his father's only child!
The presence of the unclean spirit, as an agent of Satan, was clearly very destructive:
v.39 "And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth; and shatters him, and will hardly leave him."
Satan doesn't always or only work by means of evil, unclean spirits – he doesn't need to as he has plenty of ways whereby he seeks to dominate and control men's lives. The effect of Satan's influence while not always as visibly dramatic as in this case is always negative in a person's life. A person may even appear live a comfortable, contented life – why then give God a second thought? Well another of Satan's devices is to rock such worldings to spiritual sleep. Just because things don't seem that bad now is no reason for ignoring the clear warnings of the NT to flee the wrath to come!
Jesus' disciples had evidently attempted to cast the unclean spirit out of this boy but had failed to do so. This failure doubtless enabled the scribes to challenge and criticise not only the disciples themselves but the Teacher whose disciples they were.
How careful the follower of Jesus must be so as not to provide Christ's enemies with excuses for further attacking the cause of Christ and for discouraging others from seeking him!
Jesus Arrives on the Scene
No sooner did Jesus arrive but the crowd came to meet him and he at once took control of the situation. He is soon listening to the father filling him in on all the pertinent details.
The father had begged Jesus' disciples for help but their failure to do so doesn't dampen his spirit having carefully explained to Jesus he now begs Jesus to help him by doing something for his son.
The word "beg" is a strong word isn't it? It implies an earnest asking for something but it means something more than that too. Leaving aside those charlatans who make a living out of professional begging, to beg usually implies a certain humbleness or humility. A genuine beggar is not bothered about keeping up appearances because his need is so great that appearances don't matter to him any longer.
Martin Luther on his death bed wrote "We are all beggars." By it he meant that none of us has anything to offer God but we have come to him needing to receive what only he can freely offer. Indeed the Christian who wants to share his faith with another person is simply acting as one beggar telling another where he can find food for his soul.
Have you gone to Jesus in this spirit? We would prefer, I guess, to go to Jesus to negotiate and many of us try that strategy for far too long and it really will not do. If we are to benefit from him then we must come to realise something of what our true spiritual state is. We have nothing to negotiate with and all we can do is to cast ourselves upon his mercy, pleading earnestly for his compassion. Let me repeat my question: Have you ever gone to Jesus in this spirit?
And now the outcome is in Jesus' hands. What will he do next? We turn to that now.
Jesus Speaks Sternly
The boy's father had described his son's condition. He had then explained how the disciples had failed to bring any help. But he didn't stop there he begged Jesus for help too. Jesus immediate response was to speak some very stern words. In their accounts of this episode Matthew, Mark and Luke each chose the details they wanted to include – some one having more and another less – but they each record these stern words:
Lk.9:41 "Jesus answered, "O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.""
Apart from the final phrase which is addressed to the boy's father, it isn't immediately obvious to whom Jesus is speaking. Commentators come up with a variety of options but I think that his words, harsh as they sound, are addressed to his failing disciples and let me explain why.
Back at the beginning of this chapter we read of how Jesus commissioned and equipped his apostles. This is how the chapter begins:
Lk.9:1-2 "And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal."
These disciples had received the power to cast out demons and then they had gone out and done just that. But now in this case they had tried and failed.
Luke doesn't to give any further explanation so we are dependent upon the accounts of the other gospel writers and they give us two reasons:
Matthew highlights a failure of faith:
Mt.17:20 "Because of your little faith."
Mark too underlines the importance of faith as he records Jesus' exchange with the father but he adds another explanation that was relevant to the disciples – their failure to pray:
Mk.9:29 "And he said to them, "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.""
These disciples failed: perhaps they were cocky and thought what they were about was easy and they stopped relying upon their Lord; perhaps they doubted his power to deal with such a serious case as this one; certainly they didn't pray.
Before we are quick to criticise the failure of these men are we so sure that we always rely upon our Lord? Are we so sure that we never doubt his power? Are we never found wanting when it comes to prayer? There are lessons for us who call ourselves Christians here, serious warnings. And isn't this in harmony with the apostle Peter would later write in his first letter:
1Pet.4:17 "For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?"
The disciple's failure was real and serious and it had consequences:
It facilitated negative criticism and argument
It reflected badly upon Jesus himself
It risked discouraging a desperate man
This was sin and must not be easily glossed over.
Similarly, we must not try to pretend that our own sin and failure as Christians in our own day are insignificant. The world rejoices to see Christians failing whether that failure be moral, legal, social or spiritual.
Jesus Speaks and Acts with Compassion
After uttering stern words Jesus spoke tenderly to the father of the boy:
Lk.9:41 "Bring your son here."
The unclean spirit knows its time is up but does not leave quietly – Satan never relinquishes his hold on his own easily. But this will be the last time that this evil unclean, spirit will hurt this particular boy!
In fact as the spirit is in the very process of exerting its harmful influence Jesus intervenes. There are no histrionics, no long drawn out ceremonies, no peculiar incantations or weird bits of behaviour – Jesus speaks! His speech rebukes the spirit who cannot resist; it knows it has met its match with Jesus! And the next we read oh so simply is that the boy is healed.
Isn't that wonderful?
Isn't it good to know that Jesus is able to help even when his followers have failed to do so?
When you are discouraged by some fault, by some failure, in the life of one of Jesus' followers don't for a moment imagine that Jesus is unable to help you.
The father didn't give up and trudge away when the disciples failed him, he held on and pleaded with Jesus and Jesus was able and willing to help.
Christian this is not to encourage you to accept an easy tolerance of sin and failure in your life but it does remove what might seem an otherwise intolerable burden from your shoulders. Even when trying hard to do the right thing and to follow the Saviour you will still make mistakes and fail but that does not tie the hands of the Lord – he is still able and willing to minister to others who need his help.
The Crowd Reacts
The crowd was still there.
They'd seen the desperate father plead with he disciples and they'd seen the disciples fail; they'd listened on as the scribes launched their verbal attack criticising the disciples and doubtless criticising Jesus too; they'd seen Jesus approach and his very approach had impressed them – what was it that struck them so? – they'd heard as the ever-more desperate father repeated his story and reiterated his pleas for help; they'd heard Jesus speak severely to his disciples and then they'd seen that the description given by the father of his sons condition was no exaggeration while they watched the boy thrown to the ground and convulsed as the unclean spirit did its worst; and then they'd heard the voice of Jesus again speaking powerful and effective words of rebuke that broke the power evil had held over this boy's life.
Is it any wonder that the crowd was astonished? They had just witnessed something extraordinary. They had just been given a glimpse of the majesty of God.
My friends, you, all of you, need the help that only Jesus can offer you. I need him and have gone to him for the forgiveness of my sins and you must do so too. It is not Jesus who will destroy your life – sometimes the world likes to put the idea about that becoming a Christian will be a disaster, perhaps you too have thought like that before but how far from the truth that is! Jesus saved that boy's life that day, he transformed the life for the boy's desperate father and for the better! He can do the same for you too. He came to die in order that you might live as your Creator always meant you to live in a good relationship with God!
Come to Jesus, plead with him to have mercy on you; beg him to have mercy on you. And let me encourage you by telling you in the words of the hymn we're just about to sing:
Jesus ready stands to save you,
full of pity joined with power;
He is able,
He is willing; doubt no more!
And to God be the glory.