Matthew 17:14-21 – Use Your Faith

At the foot of the mountain, a large crowd was waiting for them. A man came and knelt before Jesus and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son. He has seizures and suffers terribly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. So, I brought him to your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him.”

Jesus said, “You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Then Jesus rebuked the demon in the boy, and it left him. From that moment the boy was well.

Afterward the disciples asked Jesus privately, “Why couldn’t we cast out that demon?”

“You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” (New Living Translation)

As we reflect on today’s Gospel lesson, let’s keep in mind that any time we see Jesus exorcising demons, we need to resist the idea that anyone having similar symptoms today is demonic in origin. Any chronic health condition a person experiences, without seeing any healing take place, does not necessarily mean the condition is due to the person’s lack of faith.

Conversely, it is also possible to relegate such healing accounts to a different time and place. My own view of Scripture, along with personal experience, informs me that demonization is real. We may underestimate how influential and widespread demonization occurs in this modern time and place.

The nature of faith is not located in its amount or intensity but in its object. All of life requires some faith. Even sitting in a chair. When I sit, the amount or intensity of my faith isn’t the issue – the object, the chair, is the issue. If a leg on the chair breaks and I flop to the floor, its not reasonable for me to conclude that it happened because of my lack of faith.

The disciples’ inability to heal the boy.

I’m not sure what is more difficult: to be the person suffering, or to observe a loved one suffering. The father is desperate and hurting, watching his son suffer with seizures. The man is utterly discouraged because Christ’s disciples were not able to help.

So, the desperate father approached Jesus and knelt, begging him to have mercy and help his son.

Our Lord’s response, I admit, is not likely what my response would be. I would be more like, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you. This is terrible. Let’s take care of this.” Jesus did honor the father’s request and healed the boy, but not before he had some words.

Jesus was exasperated, and he let everyone know about it. Why was he so disappointed?

Because his disciples knew better. The disciples were not ignorant or unable. They had what they needed to deal with the boy and his father. Jesus already equipped them to do this kind of ministry: 

Jesus called his twelve disciples together and gave them authority to cast out evil spirits and to heal every kind of disease and illness… “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!” (Matthew 10:1, 8, NLT)

The reason for the disciples’ inability to heal was their lack of faith.

Jesus was perturbed with his disciples because they were not utilizing faith.

Jesus is bothered when believers don’t believe.

Up until this encounter, the disciples were healing people and doing the work Jesus gave them to do. Yet now they cannot. What changed? They relied on their own power, abilities, and experience, instead of relying on the power of God to heal. 

The Gospel of Mark includes Jesus saying that this kind of demon can only be dislodged through prayer (Mark 9:14-29). In short, the disciples didn’t pray. They didn’t tap into God’s power. They didn’t use the authority Jesus gave them. Rather, the disciples rested on their own laurels.

Their lack of prayer translated into a lack of power. 

If we are unable to do the work God has called us to do, it isn’t because we lack the authority or ability. It is a lack of faith.

Effective ministry happens because of faith.

The power of faith is in the person to whom it is directed. If we trust solely in ourselves, we will fail. However, if we trust in Jesus, then even the tiniest of faith will be able to do the impossible.

The power is not in particular words, or in a certain formula – the power is in faith rightly directed toward Jesus. Most demonic manifestations are much more subtle – such as thoughts of how I am not enough, how I have no right to try and help another, and how unable I am to do the will of God.

Conclusion

Here is a simple observation of Christ’s words: We are not told that if we have faith as big as a mountain that we can move one. Instead, Jesus tells us that if we have any faith at all, even as small as a tiny seed, directed toward God and not ourselves, the sky is the limit – we will have all the ability we need to do the will of God.

So, what is that impossible thing that could be done in your life with properly directed faith? 

What miracle, healing, or resistance to a bad spirit needs to take place around us? 

Discouragement is the most common tool of the devil in keeping us from realizing genuine manifestations of faith. Jesus has already accomplished victory over sin, death, and Satan. We must, then, claim all the will of God for today.

Resist the devil and he will flee from you (James 4:7). Step out in faith and do the will of God. The first step is always one of prayer….

High and Holy One, because your mercy is everlasting and your truth endures from generation to generation, show mercy to the sick and infirmed of either body or soul. Grant them deliverance from mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical illness. Blessed Lord, keep them under your care, for only in you can we live in safety and wellbeing. Visit them with your saving health. Do not let their hope be taken away, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Mark 8:14-21 – Adventures in Missing the Point

The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

“Twelve,” they replied.

“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

They answered, “Seven.”

He said to them, “Do you still not understand?” (New International Version)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses yeast as a metaphor for corrupting influences. It only takes a little bit of yeast to work through the whole batch of dough. Christ, upholding the teachings of Old Testament law, didn’t just want people to avoid eating actual unleavened bread. He desired his disciples to be unleavened themselves, a holy people, free of all crookedness and malevolent motives.

Christ’s disciples, bless their pea-pickin’ literal interpreting hearts, were too dense to pick up on the metaphor. They began anxiously chattering about how Jesus might be disappointed with them in having no actual bread to eat. Although they had just witnessed an amazing miracle of literally feeding thousands of people, the disciples did not discern what that miracle meant beyond just filling bodily stomachs.

Had Christ’s disciples been able to see beyond the literal to the metaphorical, they would have likely understood several lessons Rabbi Jesus was teaching them:

  • The provision of bread pointed to who Jesus truly is: Living Bread from heaven. Just like the miraculous provision of manna in the desert to the ancient Israelites, so God was graciously meeting the total needs of people through Jesus. Conversely, the yeast of corruption saps the life out of people.
  • The presence of bread doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all good. There’s leavened bread and unleavened bread. That is, there is the healthy bread of God’s Word to eat, and there are other words to eat which is unhealthy bread. A life set apart for goodness and mercy in the world brings life to others. A person with mixed motives and personal agendas of power and privilege brings no nourishment to others – only inedible bread.
  • The puny amount of bread became a huge feast. A little bit of Jesus is enough to feed thousands and satisfy empty stomachs. A little bit of false teaching and hypocrisy is enough to corrupt thousands of people and make them sick.
  • The prosperity of bread multiplied by Jesus was so much that there were leftovers. In the kingdom of God, there is abundance. The disciples served the bread to the throng of people, and they received bread for themselves with twelve basketfuls of bread pieces – enough bread to feed their families, as well. The leavened bread of corruption doesn’t satisfy; it only decreases health.

But the disciples didn’t get it. So, Jesus chided them for their profound lack of spiritual awareness. By this time, the disciples had been following Jesus for a while – watching him do miraculous works of healing and meeting people’s needs, as well as being on the inside track of receiving his gracious teaching. If anyone ought to get what’s going on, it was them.

If we continually possess only a one-dimensional interpretation of Holy Scripture, a literal one, we are most certainly going to miss most of what’s really happening with Jesus. Rigid and narrow hermeneutical approaches aren’t just inadequate; they’re a corrupting influence. It is an adventure in missing the point because there is only a dim awareness of self, others, God, and God’s Word. It doesn’t nourish anybody. In fact, it makes people sick.

That sad situation makes such people, along with disciples at the time, no better than those on the outside of God’s kingdom.

“You will listen and listen,
    but never understand.
You will look and look,
    but never see.” (Isaiah 6:9, CEV)

Spiritual blindness and deafness are the symptoms of an unexamined and unaware life. And the lack of awareness is a malady from the bread of corruption.

Jesus Christ has a mission, along with the authority to make it happen. He was hoping for a more adequate understanding of this from his disciples, instead of getting the obtuse deer-in-the-headlights response.

Although, in some ways, today’s Gospel story is downer, it is also hopeful. The disciples ultimately do not remain stuck. They illustrate for us the nature of faith. Faith is not a one and done event of praying a sinner’s prayer or accepting Jesus. Rather, faith is an unfolding drama of redemption.

We grow in and into faith. Faith is much more a gradual awareness of God’s character and working in the world, with maybe a few dramatic epiphanies along the way. It is piecemeal, rather than wholesale. It’s more like taking small bites of delicious bread and savoring it with friends, instead of ravenously devouring an entire loaf alone.

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51, NKJV)

Lord Jesus, as you came to serve us living bread, fill us with the compassion and insight to respond to human need by loving service. Let the fire of your goodness and justice burn into us and through us, that we may seek to transform the unjust structures of society. As you come into our lives to redeem all that is good, guide to renew and sustain the life of your creation. Let your glory fill our lives. Let your glory fill this world. Amen.

Mark 6:35-44 – You Want Us To Do What?

Late in the afternoon his disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the nearby farms and villages and buy something to eat.”

But Jesus said, “You feed them.”

“With what?” they asked. “We’d have to work for months to earn enough money to buy food for all these people!”

“How much bread do you have?” he asked. “Go and find out.”

They came back and reported, “We have five loaves of bread and two fish.”

Then Jesus told the disciples to have the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So, they sat down in groups of fifty or a hundred.

Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he kept giving the bread to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people. He also divided the fish for everyone to share. They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftover bread and fish. A total of 5,000 men and their families were fed. (New Living Translation)

I once knew a dear church lady who made a pan of lasagna for a local soup kitchen. When she showed up, it turned out, other church ladies didn’t. Hers was to be one pan amongst many. Instead, it was the only one. When a long line formed of hungry impoverished people, she felt both compassion and heartsick. Her immediate thought was to go and buy several pans of lasagna. But she knew it would take too long, and she wasn’t even sure she could find enough to feed everyone.

So, rather than turning the people away, the dear woman looked up to heaven, uttered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for what little she had, and began serving. She said, “I just kept sticking my spatula into the pan, and lasagna kept coming out. By the time the last person in line came, I served the last of it. I can’t explain it. It just happened.”

No one left hungry.

Today’s Gospel lesson of Jesus feeding the five thousand men and their families is not just a nice account of something that happened a long time ago. Jesus is still doing miracles. The Lord is still expanding his benevolent reach all across God’s big world.

Jesus takes our meager resources and turns them into something with a large impact on a lot of people. For this to happen, all we need to do is follow our Lord’s simple instructions: “You feed them.” 

“But Jesus! I don’t have much money. I’m not a good organizer. I can’t do what you’re asking!”

“I don’t…” “I’m not…” “I can’t…” Jesus hears it every day.

Jesus really doesn’t want to hear about our “buts.” Maybe we ought to take the word “but” out of our language altogether. That’s because it’s not about us, at all.

Jesus can multiply whatever little we have to accomplish his benevolent work through us. 

Jesus could clearly do miracles without us having any involvement. Yet, he deliberately chooses to use us and our drop-in-the-bucket resources to participate in his work. Jesus wants to use our minds, our mouths, and the very marrow of our being to effect a miracle.

Our work is to bring Jesus our five small loaves and two fish. He’ll do the rest.

It is the compassion of Jesus which motivates him to miracles.

The crowd did not leave him alone. Rather than being annoyed by the situation because it was not on his agenda to deal with any people, Jesus looked at the large group of people and had compassion on them.  His heart went out to them.

God does not begrudgingly deal with us, as if we are an interruption to his day.

All these hungry people. What to do about it? “You feed them,” Jesus says. I perhaps detect a hint of sarcasm in the tone of the disciples reply: “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish.”  Their math was way off because they did not count Jesus. 

Through simple prayer and active obedience, we must give Jesus what we have, no matter how little or insignificant.

In this contemporary era, much of what we do is concerned to be reasonable and rational with a strong scientific or proven base for engaging ministry. Although I don’t have much of a stomach for believers who incessantly want a miracle for everything and see devils under every rock, I equally have no stomach for doing ministry as if it were an Enlightenment project, completely drained of all faith and the possibility of seeing God work in ways that are incomprehensible to our modern sensibilities.

Indeed, looking out at all the vast Western resources have accomplished with money and buildings and programs, it makes me want to explain, “This is amazing! It is incredible what we know-how American Christians can do without God!” 

I am curious what Christ’s Church would look like if we were to have an underlying presupposition and assumption that God is still in the business of doing miracles? I wonder: Would it impact the way we pray, and the way we act? 

What if we altogether forsook shame and had the boldness to say, “This might sound crazy, but what if we…”

  • “Found everyone in our city who needs food and go love on them and feed them” (instead of just going the rational route of only supplying the food pantry).
  • “Used our property to create a community garden and seek to help people grow their own food.” (instead of just giving out some food cards).
  • “Built a smart robot to plant the fields of disabled farmers and gave them the rights to the tech we developed.” (am I getting too crazy yet!?). 

In the kingdom of God, there are no boundaries – only unlimited opportunities to give our small ideas, little bits of strength, and puny resources to Jesus so that he can take it and feed the world.

Jesus is perfectly able to do his work without us and without what we have. However, he wants to use us and our meager resources to accomplish the miraculous meeting of needs far beyond what we could ever imagine. 

We too often do nothing. That’s because we mistakenly believe God either cannot or does not want to use me or what I have.

It just won’t do to stand afar off and expect God to work without us giving what we have, whether that something is time, money, conversation, food, hospitality, or whatever. Our excuses won’t do for Jesus – my home is too small, it is not clean enough, I don’t have enough money, I am not smart enough, my schedule won’t allow it, I don’t have enough resources…. All you need is something, no matter how seemingly insignificant it is.

You want me to do what? Feed thousands? The real pre-miracle work for many people is to be open, real, and transparent enough to believe Christ can do a miracle through confessing sin, participating in a ministry, having a spiritual conversation with somebody different than me, or just saying what I actually think and feel.  

The question is never, “Can God use me?” The real question is, “What miracle does Jesus want to do through me and through his Church?”

It was no accident when Jesus distributed the bread that it sounds a lot like communion.

The Lord’s Supper may seem to be irrelevant to some – as if it is only a way to remember Jesus, a mere regular ritual. Yet, God’s design is much bigger. Jesus wants to do a miracle through the distribution and ingestion of the common elements of bread and wine – a miracle of healing, a miracle of bringing true satisfaction the world can never give. 

It isn’t realistic to expect that Jesus can use the Table to feed and reach thousands. However, we don’t serve a God who is limited to work through rational means by only using our five senses. 

We serve a God who does unexpected miracles within the life of the community.

Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief! I open my mind and heart believing in your infinite power and possibility. I believe in your constant expression of perfect good in and through me. I know that with you all things are possible. All that I am, all I was, and all I hope to be I give to you. I am yours. Amen.

*Above painting: Feeding of the 5,000 by Laura James

**Above: Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Christ feeding the 5,000

Psalm 98 – Sing a New Song

Sing to the Lord a new song
    because he has done wonderful things!
His own strong hand and his own holy arm
    have won the victory!
The Lord has made his salvation widely known;
    he has revealed his righteousness
    in the eyes of all the nations.
God has remembered his loyal love
    and faithfulness to the house of Israel;
    every corner of the earth has seen our God’s salvation.

Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth!
    Be happy!
    Rejoice out loud!
    Sing your praises!
Sing your praises to the Lord with the lyre—
    with the lyre and the sound of music.
With trumpets and a horn blast,
    shout triumphantly before the Lord, the king!
Let the sea and everything in it roar;
    the world and all its inhabitants too.
Let all the rivers clap their hands;
    let the mountains rejoice out loud altogether before the Lord
    because he is coming to establish justice on the earth!
He will establish justice in the world rightly;
    he will establish justice among all people fairly. (Common English Bible)

Please notice the point of today’s psalm: Sing to the Lord a new song. Yes, a “new” song. This means we have an obligation to bring fresh music to our worship of God. This is a summons to get an original voice. Rather than going down the same ruts in our speaking and living, we are to exercise some creativity.

It seems as if those who want to stick with the “tried and true hymns” of the church have forgotten those hymns are only a few hundred years old in a church which is two-thousand years old. Back in the nineteenth century, a bitter worship battle ensued between those who wanted to sing the new hymns and those who had been singing the psalter for the past few hundred years.

The reason we sing new songs is because God is continually performing wonderful deeds in every generation. God has not only worked in the past; the Lord is doing the miraculous in the present, as well. The psalmist is thinking in cosmic, not provincial, terms. Included in the praising of new songs are a variety of creatures, along with all of creation.

Rivers Will Clap and Mountains Shout by Itamar Raz

We sing because of what God has done in the past, is doing in the present, and will do for the future. Creative and fresh praise that remembers previous divine works, experiences the now of the Spirit, and anticipates the coming of the Lord is the sort of praise called for in the psalm.

Being attentive to God’s mighty deeds helps us breakout into new vistas of living. Considering God’s works through new songs can become so invigorating that everyone and everything on earth is encouraged to join into the imaginative expression of praise.

We are to praise the Lord in this present time because of what God has done in the past, with a continual eye to the future when Christ will come again. If we don’t make the effort to offer praise that is fresh, creative, and thoughtful for our present time, then we ought not be surprised when a watching world gives a shoulder-shrugging “meh” to our tepid singing. And if such vibrant praise seems foreign, then the time is past due for a renewed focus on the works of God because the Lord really has done miraculous things for us.

Let’s jump start your creativity a bit:

  • Do some prayer walking through your neighborhood. See the community through another’s eyes.
  • Write in a journal or collect photos of significant experiences. No one needs to read or see it unless you want them to. Although, it’s a good idea to share with others.
  • Sketch, paint, or sculpt. Make a visual depiction of your joy or experience. It doesn’t matter if it looks like a second grade art project. It’s the process of creating that matters.
  • Participate in a new activity, like taking an online class or developing a different routine.
  • Don’t just do what somebody else did. Reflect on what is important to you. Then, make something to remind you of its value.

You are already a creative artist. You just might not know it, yet. Since you carry within yourself the DNA of a creative God, the Lord’s image and likeness within wants a creative outlet. Open yourself to the possibility of smelling colors, talking to trees, and listening to what animals have to say to you. In doing so, you just might discover that the miraculous has been under your nose all along.

Mighty God, your holy arm of power has done incredible works in history. What’s more, you have done influential works in my life, especially through deliverance from evil and transformation of heart.  For this, and for all your miraculously good work, I praise the gracious and wonderful name of Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord. Amen.