Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

I believe

Message preached February 15, 2015
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Mark 9:2-29

Order of Worship

scripture                                 sermon

A - Imagining the scripture

            Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Epiphany draws to a close, making way for the season of Lent, which begins this coming week. On this day we remember when the disciples saw Jesus manifest in a different way, their teacher transfigured before their eyes. With the gospel of Mark as our guide, I’d like us to imagine, to picture in our minds what happened.

             So, get comfortable where you are, but not too comfortable. Close your eyes, if it helps, but don’t fall asleep. Allow God to speak to you once more, through scripture and the Holy Spirit. Use your imagination. Picture yourself just now as one of the disciples of Jesus.

             You and the other disciples are seated on the ground surrounding your teacher. Pay attention to the dirt beneath you. Pick some up in your hand and sift it through your fingers. A slight breeze blows across the back of your neck. You look up as Jesus stands. “Peter,” he says, turning toward Simon. “James,” he adds. Then he looks straight at you and speaks your name, “John. You three come with me.”

             And so you stand, giving a shrug to Bartholomew beside you, as if to say, “I don't know what’s up, either.” Jesus takes the lead and the three of you follow him up the hill, leaving the rest behind. As you walk, the terrain gets steeper and quite rocky. It is a fair hike up that incline, and you breathe more quickly as you climb. After a while, you reach the top. It is quiet up here. No one else is around.

             The three of you lean against nearby boulders, as Jesus walks a short distance ahead. Your heart is beating a bit faster from the hike, but thoughts of your journey disappear as you look toward where Jesus now stands. Your heartbeat quickens, as in your presence a change comes over your teacher. Suddenly his face begins to shine. His clothing almost blinds you with a brightness you’ve never before seen. The only word that comes to mind is “glory,” but even that does not describe what your eyes see. Words fail you.

             Two other men are standing with Jesus. Who could they be? The first name that comes to mind is Elijah. Stories from your childhood flow in your imagination about a great prophet of God who ascended to heaven on a chariot of fire. Yes, you think: “Elijah.” If that prophet of power could stand in this place, you think, then why not also the most famous ancestor of all? “Moses,” you whisper, the great “let my people go” speaker, sea-divider, wilderness leader, giver-of-the-law. Yes, that must be it. Moses and Elijah are here on this mountain with Jesus. You somehow recognize them. They are talking with Jesus.

             Suddenly, everything seems crystal clear. Jesus and Elijah and Moses - the teacher, the prophet, the law-giver. As you watch, you hear Peter speak, almost shattering the moment. “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. We can put up one shelter for each of you,” he says with a quiver in his voice. On the one hand that sounds like the perfect thing to do. On the other hand, Peter’s words strike you as a bit silly. But what else would you have said at such a time as this? You feel a shiver run through you. It's not cold, really. It’s more like you are both excited and frightened by what you see.

             And then, suddenly, a cloud covers everything. You can barely even see the hand you hold up in front of your face. Out of the quiet of on that now cloud-covered mountain, comes a voice. “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” … Just as suddenly, the clown disappears, and there you are: Peter, James, and John, alone with Jesus, who does not shine any more. “Let’s go,” he says, and starts back down the mountain.

             On the way downhill. he turns to the three of you and instructs you not to mention what you have just seen. Not “until the Son of Man has risen from the dead,” he adds, words that make no sense to you at that time. Peter and James are just as baffled. Questions arise. Jesus answers with more hard to comprehend words about suffering and rejection. You’ve been to the mountain, beheld glory, and now are left confused.

             As you approach the place where you left the other disciples, you see a large crowd. Obviously there has been an argument going on between the disciples and some other religious leaders. When the crowd sees Jesus, they run to him. Jesus turns to the other disciples and asks, ”What are you arguing about?”

             A man in the crowd answers, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, because he has an evil spirit in him and cannot talk. Whenever this spirit attacks him, it throws him to the ground, and he foams at the mouth, grits his teeth, and becomes stiff all over. I asked your disciples to drive this spirit out, but they could not.”

             Jesus stands quiet for a moment, looking over the crowd. With a sigh he says, “Oh, you people of little faith.” Is he talking about the gathered crowd, or all of you disciples? “This is getting old,” he adds, turning to the father. “Bring a boy to me.” The crowd parts as the boy approaches Jesus. On the way, however, he starts to have a fit, falls downs and rolls around on the ground, foaming at the mouth. The people back away with a gasp, fearful of whatever spirit is causing this behavior.

             “How long has he been like this?” Jesus asks the boy’s father. “Ever since he was a child,” the father replies, looking very tired and worried. “Many times this spirit has tried to kill him by throwing him into the fire, or into the water. Have pity on us. If … if you can heal him, please do so.”

             There is a touch of fire in Jesus’ eyes as he repeats the words, “If you can?… if you can!” After another sigh, he says, “Everything is possible for the person who has faith.” The father looks at Jesus for a moment, then cries out with tears in his eyes, “I believe… I believe... Help my unbelief.”

             The man's cry gains the crowd’s attention, which has been focused upon the antics of the child. Jesus turns from father to son and speaks to the cause of his dilemma. “You who are keeping this boy from hearing or speaking, I command you: come out of him and never return!” With a scream, the boy is thrown into another fit, and then he lays still, as if dead. More than one person cries out, “He is dead.” But Jesus reaches down and takes the boy by the hand, and helps him to stand.

             Gradually things settle down. The crowd disperses. Jesus and you disciples are alone. One of you asks, “Why couldn’t we drive the spirit out?” Jesus answers, “Only prayer come drive this kind out. Nothing else can.” You are just as puzzled as when you came down the mountain, but you were afraid to voice your questions. “I believe,” you say to yourself, “but I don’t understand. What does it mean to believe?”

             With this question mind, the distance between the scripture and yourself grows. You are no longer in Galilee 2,000 years ago. Yoy are here in Baltimore. Open your eyes. Come back to this place. Let’s a verse from a familiar hymn, the words to which are in your bulletin:

““I know not how this saving faith to me he did impart,
nor how believing in his word wrought peace within my heart.
But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able
to keep that which I've committed unto him against that day.”
(vs. 2) 338

 B - the sermon

            “I believe...” With these simple words most every creed, every statement of faith begins. “I believe,” the father cried out, whose son lay helpless on the ground before Jesus. “I believe.” In an age of facts and figures, these simple words are truly spoken with great difficulty. Now, it is not that the words, “I believe,” are rarely used in our daily conversation, however. “I believe,” we say, when what we really mean is - “it seems to me,” or “this is my opinion.”

“I believe that the Orioles will go all the way this year.”
“I believe I got the best deal available on the widescreen television I just purchased.”
“I believe in our President,” or
“I believe we have two more years of a lame duck administration.”

            Often when we say “I believe,” we are really talking about opinions, perceptions or feelings. Of course, people hold great stock in such things, worshipping a team, or an appliance, or a politician. “I believe…” In an age of facts and figures these simple words are spoken with great difficulty, especially if they are to be taken as truth. When the words mean more than “it’s my opinion,” or “it seems to me,” or “I feel that…,” then “I believe” becomes a difficult statement to truly make.

            People want facts, figures, or proof. Lacking these, folks at least want these opinions, perceptions, or feelings to be stated with “conviction,” whether or not they are actually true. But when it comes right down to it, “I believe” is a step beyond facts and figures and proof. Oh, we can say “I believe” and attempt, by every means possible, to make the facts and figures “prove” that what “I believe” is true in a rational sort of way. But, when it comes right down to it, will such an attempt really satisfy anyone?

            To say “I believe” is to take a step beyond facts and figures and proof. Anyone waiting for absolute, undeniable “proof” (beyond a shadow of doubt) that the gospel story literally happened before they say, “I believe,” will never take the step of following Jesus… Likewise, anyone who waits for the earth to move in a moment of religious feeling before saying “I believe,” will never really take that step. For when it comes right down to it, “I believe” is a step beyond religious feelings. Some people journey from church to church, from channel to channel, from website to website, seeking a religious feeling. Do they find it? It is not that to say “I believe” with real meaning does not involve our intellects and our feelings. When it comes down to it, however, “I believe” is a step beyond intellectual reasoning and religious feeling.

            A father brought his son to Jesus hoping that this child would find release from his torment. With a crowd looking on, waiting for a demonstration of power, the disciples were powerless to do anything about this boy’s predicament. Finally, in walked Jesus, and this boy's father met him face to face. “If you can do anything,” he asked, “please, have pity on us and help us.” At that point Jesus shifted the focus, and spoke not of his own ability to work miracles or the inability of his disciples to do so. Rather, he turned the conversation toward the father, who was waiting for something to happen.

            “You asked if I could help your son,” he responded. “The truth is that you are not powerless. You are an important part of your son’s health. Yes, you brought him to me. But, do you believe? Do you trust God? Your faith matters, even faith the size of a mustard seed.” Okay, maybe Jesus didn’t mention mustard seeds at that moment, but his intent was to empower this father, faith-wise.

            The two of them stood face to face, probably inches apart, but in reality a deep chasm separated them. “Heal my son,” this father pleaded. “Bring him to me,” said Jesus, “all it takes is a step in the direction of faith.” Of course, few - if anyone - in the crowd that day saw that deep gorge which separated Jesus and this boy’s father. But our gospel storyteller does not allow us to miss it. This father takes a running jump across that divide and cries out, “I believe,” in a voice similar to that of a parachutist jumping from a plane, screening, “Geronimo!” … “I believe,” he said - not as an opinion, or a perception, or a feeling, or because the facts, figures, and proofs all lined up. “I believe,” he cried out, and in the next breath realized that though he has taken the first step, he still lives in a world of unbelief. “I believe,” he says, adding, “help my unbelief.” I believe, but I am still afraid. I believe, and my need for God to give me faith is greater than ever. I believe, help me to believe more.

            The rest of the story is almost an anticlimax. The crowd’s attention is turned toward these two, and so Jesus performs a miracle. The boy is made whole. But the real miracle is not what happened to the boy. The real miracle is what happened to the Father. In the midst of a hopeless situation, when making a step of faith is contrary to what seems possible, the father took that step of faith anyway. That is a miracle. As if to emphasize the point, Mark’s Gospel downplays the boy’s healing. If anything, the crowd is at first suspicious (“he is dead”), and then, there is no record of any response. No amazement. No “ooh!” or “ahh!” The scene shifts immediately elsewhere… “I believe, help my unbelief.” 

            Now, please hold back the impulse to explain this away. After all, from our present vantage point this boy seemed to suffer from what we would today call an epileptic fit. We would not, today, attribute the cause of this to an evil spirit, but to something in the brain triggering a seizure. Looking back upon the 2005 accident that led to my mother breaking her hip, from which she never recovered, we now think the damage may have been caused by a seizure, not a fall. Why? Because we learned, only after the fact, that her mother suffered for twenty years with grand mal seizures. Apparently, epilepsy is part of our family story.

            To attribute the malady of that boy in this morning’s gospel story to epilepsy rather than an “evil spirit” does not in any way explain away nor diminish the leap of faith made by his father. All parents of sick children stand, feeling as helpless as that man. A parent’s faith matters, even in the middle of a cloud of doubt.

            To say “I believe,” and truly mean it, is not an easy thing to do. Each of us stands where Peter, James, and John stood in the scene immediately before this father’s leap of faith. There are moments when everything seems clear, when we see God very active and very present in the world around us; moments when we stand on a mountaintop and behold a bit of the glory of the Lord, which we scarce can understand. The majority of the time, however, we live in a world where our sight is obscured by the clouds of doubt. Like Peter, James, and John, we stand surrounded by a fog which throws into question those moments when everything seems clear.

            Faith is for cloudy weather. It is appropriate that in the story of “The Transfiguration” we find God speaking in the middle of the fog. I dare say it is the only time in the Gospels where anyone but Jesus hears the voice of God. The closest parallel is found in the story of the baptism of Jesus. The words are similar, but the sense there is that only Jesus heard the voice as he came out of the water. That God would choose to speak amid the confusion and out of the fog on that mountaintop says a great deal about faith.

            The majority of our time, when it doesn't seem very clear how, why, or where God is involved, those times are precisely where faith belongs. Those times are exactly where we need to step out and say, “I believe, help thou my unbelief.” By faith, we are entrusting ourselves not to facts, figures, or proof, not to intellectual reasoning, not to religious feelings. By faith we are entrusting ourselves to someone.

            “Faith, Hope and love abide, these three,” said the Apostle Paul, “and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The basis of all faith and hope, Paul says, the core of what we process when we say “I believe,” is a relationship. “This is my beloved son,” said the voice amid the fog, “listen to him.” To say “I believe” is to jump with a Geronimo into the arms of God, especially when all evidence would seem to indicate that such arms do not exist, or do they?

             “I believe...” With these simple words most every creed, every statement of faith begins. In the coming weeks, as we journey through Lent and beyond, I will be exploring with you one of the oldest creeds in the Christian tradition. I hesitate to say this will be a sermon “series,” because “series” get old really quick. I also hesitate to use the word “creed,” because Brethren have a love/hate relationship with the term. We say “we have no creed but the New Testament,” which does not mean “we have no creed.” The word “creed” means “I believe,” and we are a people of faith. However, remember the “Geronimo” of “I believe.” By faith, we entrust our lives into the arms of God, beyond facts, figures, and proofs; beyond propositions, opinions, or feelings. As we explore the Apostle’s Creed in the weeks to come, remember that it all begins with “I believe.”

“I believe, help thou my unbelief.”   

©2015 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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