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MIRACULOUS MOMENTS IN MARK: Saved By A Semi-Colon: Epileptic Boy

Mark 9:14-29

Jesus was radiant.

Jesus and Peter, James and John had just had that unforgettable experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, where the three disciples had seen Jesus transfigured before their very eyes. His face was shining like the sun. His garments were as white as blinding light. They had heard the voice of God say: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” It was a moment of tremendous spiritual significance for the disciples, yes, but also for Jesus. It was one more clear confirmation of who He was and why He came to this earth. Now, as the four of them came down from that ultimate “mountain-top experience”, the shimmering effects of the transfiguration must have lingered in Jesus’ appearance, because Mark, in sharing this particular incident with us, notes quite specifically that when the crowd saw Jesus they were greatly amazed. They were filled with awe. Jesus’ appearance must have been dazzling indeed. Yet, what happened next was more dazzling still.

For at that very moment, Mark tells us, a man from the crowd said: “Teacher, I brought you my son. He has a spirit which makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid, and I asked your disciples to cast it out but they could not do so.” Jesus then asked the father: “How long has this been happening to him?” The father replied: “From childhood. It has often caused him to fall into the fire or into the water to destroy him; but Lord, if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus shot back in response: “If I am able! Listen to me, all things can be done for the one who believes.” And the Bible says: “Immediately the father of the child cried out: ‘I believe; help my unbelief. ’” And with that, Jesus healed the epileptic boy.

Now in order for us to grasp the meaning behind this miracle, we have to focus on what the father said. Listen again to the words he used: “Lord, I believe”—semi-colon—“help my unbelief.” My English teacher wife would want me to remind you that a semi-colon is used to tie together closely related coordinate clauses. When we hear the words belief and unbelief, we tend to think that they are not related, but the fact that here, those two words are connected by a semi-colon means that they are related. “I believe”—semi-colon—“help my unbelief” In fact, it is my conviction that this father’s statement is one of the most powerful statements of faith in all the Bible. And it is his statement which triggered the miracle. Come along with me then as we try to sort out the details of this “Miraculous Moment in Mark”…

Note, please, that this father was honest enough to express his doubts.

Make no mistake about it: This father’s doubt was an honest doubt. Sometimes in life we encounter the kind of doubt which is an act of deceit. These are people who refuse to believe because they know that certain things in their lives cannot exist together with Jesus, but they do not want to give those things up. They do not wish to change the way they are living. So what do they do? They manufacture doubt in order to justify their own behavior. Because they do not wish to bring their lives into harmony with Jesus’ teachings, they simply dismiss Jesus as meaningless, irrelevant, or even non-existent. That kind of doubt is an act of deceit. And then there is that doubt which is an act of conceit. These are people who claim to be intellectually superior. They pompously declare that they have given themselves to logic and science which teach that if there is any evidence at all for something, it must be tested and proved without prejudice or preference, forgetting that basic scientific principles, like basic human values, can only be observed but not proved. For these people then, doubt is an act of conceit. But the doubt of this father in the story was not a doubt of deceit or conceit. It was honest doubt.

You see, in Biblical times, illness was regarded as punishment for wrong-doing. Therefore, we can assume that this father regarded his son’s illness as having been caused by sin—and since the boy was really too young to be guilty of such terrible sin, this father would have assumed quite naturally that it was his own sin which was causing his son’s illness. Now imagine, if you can, what it would have been like to see your own child, this one whom you prized above all others, thrown to the ground in convulsive seizures; having to drag him out of the fire or out of the sea into which he had fallen; seeing his back bent like a bow, his muscles cramped, his rib-cage distended until it shook with the raging bursts of epilepsy—imagine seeing all of that and believing in your heart that your child’s suffering was being caused by your own wrong-doing. That was the kind of agony that ripped away at the heart of this father. While his son was trying to die only once, this father was dying a thousand times.

Of course, we know better now. We know that illness is not in and of itself a punishment for sin visited upon us by an angry God. To be sure, there are times when our wrongdoing can lead to the consequences of physical pain or illness, but illness is not in and of itself a punishment for sin. However, I think we would have to admit that sometimes the kinds of doubts which assailed this father also assail us—the sense of personal unworthiness, the sense of hopelessness and futility, the sense that things are just not right in our lives and in our world. We have known such doubts—or at least I have. I look at the great saints of the faith I have known and I say: “I am not the super-Christian they are. I don’t win every battle in my life. I don’t triumph over every trouble I confront. I don’t experience a positive answer to every prayer that I pray. I can’t always say that my life is like a joyous victory parade.” I remember once asking a famous preacher what he did when he encountered doubt and depression in his experience. He said: “I never feel that way.” Well, that effectively ended our conversation, for I do not live always on that kind of exalted spiritual plane. There are times, not often, thankfully, but there are times, when, like Thomas, the disciple, doubt worms its way into my heart. I daresay that that may be true of you as well. It was certainly true of this father when he said: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” He was saying in part, “Lord, I’m trying to believe, but sometimes these doubts of mine keep getting in the way.” I admire this father because his doubt was an honest doubt.

Now at this point I have to confess to you that I used to think that if one truly believed, then one would never know doubt. I no longer believe that to be true. Not only that, I now think it is dangerous to maintain that kind of belief. For when you take that position that if you are truly Christian then you will never have any doubts, then when you encounter something in life that provokes a feeling of doubt in you, your whole faith collapses like a house of cards. There is nothing left. I have seen that happen.

When I was young, a brilliant Canadian evangelist, Charles Templeton, came to preach in my father’s church. He spent a week at our church and in our home. Templeton looked like a movie star, preached like Peter and Paul, and possessed a winsome, charismatic personality. He seemed to me to have it all. I fell into a case of youthful hero-worship. But it was ill-founded. You see, Chuck Templeton’s faith made no room for doubt. For him, everything was certain. There were no unanswered questions. But then, several years later, when doubt assailed him, his faith crumbled to pieces. He became an atheist. Today he is a bitter, cynical, disillusioned and ineffective man.

Mark this down: Doubt is going to come to all of us. For example, no matter how strong our faith may be, when someone close to us dies, if there is not a bit of doubt or fear or anxiety then we haven’t really loved that person. So on the basis of my own experience and this father’s experience, I stand here to say that true Christian faith is not the absence of doubt, but rather, it is facing the doubt when it comes, acknowledging its presence and working your way through it hand-in-hand with Jesus. That’s what was behind this father’s words: “Lord, I believe”—semi-colon—“help my unbelief.”

That’s why I now want you to note, please, that this father was faithful enough to do something about his doubt.

He came to Jesus. He admitted his doubt to the Lord. And by so doing, he set a pattern for us to follow. We need to go to Jesus—even with our doubts, we need to go to Jesus. That’s what we learn from this father. He didn’t feel that he had faith, but in spite of that, he was still willing to put himself and his son into the hands of Jesus. There follows what, in my opinion, is one of the loveliest scenes in all the Bible. There was Jesus. There was this boy lying on the ground in convulsions. And there was this father with his mind churning because of his doubt and his heart breaking because of his boy. I want to tell you that I believe that at that moment the angels were leaning out of the windows of heaven to see what was going to happen, for the whole course of human destiny had funneled itself down to this magnificent moment. Jesus looked at the father and said: “All things are possible to those who believe. Do you believe?” The father, awash in his doubt, shifted uncomfortably on his feet. He looked at Jesus. Then he looked over at the hills. He looked at Jesus and then he looked down at his hands. He looked at Jesus and then he looked around at the crowd. He looked at Jesus and he looked at his son lying on the ground. He looked at Jesus and then he said: “I’m trying to believe. I want to believe. Please help me overcome my unbelieving.” And Jesus, so touched by his honesty, did the most wonderful thing for him. He healed this father’s son—and then he took the boy’s hand and placed it in the father’s hand. That scene is so lovely, so tender, so intimate, that it’s almost as if Mark draws a veil across it so that we cannot clearly see this father and his boy walking off together into the new life given to them by Jesus Christ.

Jesus said: “All things are possible to those who believe. Do you believe?” “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” You see, we don’t have to be perfect—semi-colon—we just have to be honest. We don’t have to be free from doubt—semi-colon- we just have to come to Jesus. You don’t buy that? Then let me share with you a letter I received from a friend. She had it made, or so it seemed. She was intellectually brilliant, socially prominent, financially secure. Long before the days of women’s liberation, she was the first woman elected to the Board of Regents of the University of Texas. She had it made, or so it seemed. Then I got a call from her husband in the middle of the night, asking me to come to their home as quickly as I could. When I arrived, I found that over a period of time, she had become a slave to alcohol. That night I guess you could say that she hit bottom. She was lying in the middle of the floor, convulsing and retching. Her husband and I worked gently with her as the hours passed. Then when she was able, she and her husband and I prayed, perhaps as we had never prayed before. After that night, there were other prayers, many of them. She acknowledged her doubts; she took what little faith she possessed at that point in her life; and she came to Jesus Christ. There came the day when I received this letter:

“Dear Howard: I think you deserve a report. Somewhere recently I read where a man said to a recovering alcoholic, ‘I see you’ve mastered the devil of alcohol.’ The other replied, ‘No, I haven’t, but I have found the Master of the devil.’ Well, Howard, my Lord has been so everlastingly good to me that I have no desire for alcohol anymore. Better still, He’s been good in giving me so many things that are far more important in life.”

She then goes on to tell me that she had started teaching a Sunday School class; she’d been nominated to be the President of the Women of the Church; that she’d been named to the Board of Trustees of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Institute in Houston; and that she and her husband had started a small prayer group that met each week at their house.

“Howard, this is a long letter, but I want you to know that you were the human vessel God used to deliver His miracle of giving me a second wind in life. I may not be able to fly like the eagle, nor run without being weary, but I can walk and not faint, thanks to Jesus Christ. It’s a great life. Thank you for your big part in it. All my love, Lyde.”

“Lord, I believe”—semi-colon—“help my unbelief.” We don’t have to be perfect—semi-colon—we just have to be honest. We don’t have to be free from doubt—semi-colon—we just have to come to Jesus Christ. He will give us a wonderful new life. I can’t prove it to you, but I know with all the heart I’ve got that that new life in Christ is yours…
Yours for the asking…

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