September 10, 2017
William G. Carter
When they came to the crowd, a man came to Jesus, knelt before him, and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.’ And they were greatly distressed.
The TV preacher looked at the weather map and was not the least bit discouraged. Then he looked back at the camera and said, “If we pray hard enough, God will send the hurricane out to sea and it will never touch us. We just have to have enough faith.”
Tell me friends, do you have that kind of faith?
There's another preacher down in Houston who has been quite successful at telling people to have more faith. “If you have faith,” he says, “God will make you successful too.” That’s his message. Then he extends his arms toward an arena that seats 16,000 people, all of them hungry for riches, success, happy children, and recordings and books of his sermons which are conveniently available in the church’s bookstore.
As one of my teachers used to say, “Every preacher has only one sermon that they keep preaching over and over again. They may use different Bible texts but there's only one sermon that they speak.” You think that's true? It's true for the preacher down in Houston. “If only you have enough faith, God will enrich your life and make it better.”
But maybe you saw the news as I did. When the first big whopping hurricane hit Houston, that success preacher was slow to respond in reaching out to people who were homeless or flooded. And then he kept changing his story to avoid the awkwardness what he has said repeatedly over the years, that if you have enough faith, God will make your life turn out well.
So this was on my mind as I worked with the Bible text from today. A father is concerned about his son. The boy has a severe case of epilepsy and it is harming his life. Now, that’s a first century family. They didn’t know what to do. They heard about Jesus, but for some reason they didn’t go directly to him. They went to his disciples – and the disciples could not cure him.
But then Jesus comes to town, so the father rushes toward, falls to his knees, and spills out the whole story. Jesus responds in a grumpy way: “How much longer must I put up with you people?” Take note. We don’t know if he’s talking about the man, his family, the townspeople, the world at large, or just the disciples. He doesn’t specify.
Yet this is the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel, the One with great authority and power, the One who heals “everybody.” So he calls the boy toward, casts out the illness (which is personified as a hostile force), and the boy is healed instantly. End of story.
Well, not so fast. The disciples pull aside their Lord to ask, “How come we can’t do that?” And the episode becomes a teaching session about faith. “You don’t have enough faith,” he says. “In fact, if you had faith that size of that little, bitty mustard seed that I keep talking about, you could move mountains.”
Now, as you know, that’s the verse, the single verse, that all the smiling TV preachers latch onto. And it’s true. Jesus said it. It’s in the book. There are other verses in the book that sound like this one. Gives the impression that anybody with enough faith can pray away a storm, or at least have their best life now!
Just one thing to remember: there are other verses in the book too. In fact, in the very next verse, we hear Jesus saying he is going to the cross.
Do you hear the paradox of that? The man who can heal everybody is going to be betrayed, condemned, and killed. The Lord with great power and complete authority will be crucified. The One who chastises his own dear ones for not having enough faith is going to suffer on the cross. How do we hold that together?
It’s difficult, especially if you subscribe to those people who insist that faith makes you successful.
Years ago, Robert Schuller, bless his heart, spoke at the chapel of Princeton Seminary. The room was packed to hear that cheerful can-do preacher speak about his beliefs. After he spoke, there was a question-and-answer period. One of the theology professors raised his hand, and Dr. Schuller called upon him. “Tell us, Dr. Schuller, what you believe about the crucifixion.” Without blinking, the cheerful preacher said, “Like every successful person, Jesus had his share of setbacks.”
Across the chapel, there was a unanimous groan. If we read the Gospel of Matthew, the cross is more than a setback. The crucifixion of the Son of God is a rejection of God himself. It is a defiant response to a man who taught us to love one another, and then showed that love as he healed kids with epilepsy, fed the multitudes, and forgave the sinners. To put him on the cross is to declare, that regardless of whether or not we think he’s a good man, we don’t want him.
And it’s even more than that. Jesus knows the cross is the inevitable outcome of loving God in a world like this. Yet he goes willingly and does not waver. Do you know why that is? Because when he goes to the cross, it is a matter of faith – his faith. He trusts in God so completely he will risk his life to do the will of God.
Imagine what kind of faith you must have to risk your life. Imagine what kind of faith you must have to bear the sins of the world upon your shoulder. Imagine what kind of faith you must have to face destruction, indifference, cruelty, and total darkness. As the early church would say, “The world is saved through the faith of Jesus.”
So the first thing the Bible story reminds us that we are not free to pick a favorite verse out of the text and isolate it from what's around it. Faith like a mustard seed that moves mountains and going to the cross are connected in Matthew’s mind. And looking to Jesus, I think we will see the connection. Faith is about being faithful. It’s not primarily about success; it’s about doing the right thing.
It’s the faithfulness of Jesus that saves the world from its brokenness. It’s his faithfulness that begins the world’s redemption. And it takes a good measure of maturity to be able to see that.
My friend Terry Chapman was in town last week. He's a pastor in New Jersey and has done some mission work in Africa. A few years ago, he visited a church where the sermon was titled, “Get God – Get Gold.” The African preacher was wearing a white three-piece suit, and strutting around the stage to show off a big gold Rolex watch. “I got this,” he said, “because I got God. Why don’t you prove to me how much you want God?” With that, the ushers came around with the offering buckets. People climbed over one another to fill them with everything they had.
You know, it’s almost enough to make you want to get your own show biz church. Almost.
Terry said, “It seems the more people suffer through tragedy or economic and political injustice, the more vulnerable they become to this thin veneer of illusory good news covering over a vast amount of fear and greed.”
So what do you think God wants from us? More faith, so we can improve our circumstances? Or more faithfulness to become more like Jesus?
As scholars reflect on the Gospel of Matthew, they see more than a biography about Jesus. They see the invitation to become his disciple. To study him. To imitate him. To do what he says, particularly when we see him doing it himself.
It starts as early as the Sermon on the Mount. “Love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you,” says the One who shows us what that looks like. Matthew’s Gospel is a manual of discipleship, a textbook for true faithfulness. Feed the multitude, give a cup of fresh water to the thirsty, heal the sick, visit the castaway, love those considered disposable, pay attention to the littlest ones, give money to the needy, and pray at all times. That’s faith – faith-full.
And we all need more of it, because the life of faithfulness is an invitation to bring every aspect of our lives under the obedience of a sovereign God. It matters to whom we bind our hearts, how we spent our money, and how we treat our parents. It matters that we belong to God before we bow down to the Emperor du jour.
Even in this Gospel of Matthew, which normally treats the disciples of Jesus with kid gloves, here we're reminded that the disciples were far from ever being complete. As good as they were, they did not have their act together sufficiently to heal as Jesus healed. What they needed was faith, more faith, more little-bitty-mustard-seed faith -- which I take to mean faithfulness.
In the long run, life doesn’t depend on how good we are, because we alone will never be quite good enough. Life depends on how good Christ is, how faithful he is in doing God’s mission to the world. And if he is that good and that faithful, we can trust him and live like him.
And that's what a church is all about. We invite people to follow Jesus. We can’t promise riches which rust, or big fat houses that are built on sand. But we can lovingly nudge one another to more faithfulness, more dedication, more commitment, more justice, and more love. That’s deep, soulful living, the life that really is life.
And there's a good word here, as we begin our fall program together. Whether it’s worship, whether it’s service, whether it’s singing, or especially if it’s Christian education, at the heart it’s the invitation to live the life of Christ. So let me encourage you to be part of what we’re trying to do here.
On Wednesday evenings around here, it’s discipleship night. We’ve had a great group of people coming to classes and choirs, and there is plenty of room for more. Our goal is to move from being observers to participants, to move from being like the disciples in our text who feel inadequate to serving God with dedication and joy.
That’s our continuing invitation, to help us all move from the prevailing whims of our culture to the God-centered life of service and praise. It is a journey to become faithful like Jesus.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.