Mark 9:14-32; 11:22-23; Luke 17:5-6
Instead of the usual sermon, I’d like to read you a letter:
Hello, my name is Ben, and I’m writing to you from across the miles, and from across the years. And I’m writing, because I’m sure that even you, in your time, will have heard of a man called Jesus. And, if you have, you’ll no doubt be wondering what it was like in Jesus’ time—what it was like following Jesus around.
Now the fact is, that Jesus was very radical in what he said, and he upset a lot of people. His beliefs and practices cut across many of the acceptable ideas of the day. And, what’s more, he expected his disciples to do as he did too. Indeed, he told us not to listen to the religious leaders of the day—not to listen to those who had a stranglehold on organised religion—because they were only intent on keeping things the same. All they wanted, was to maintain their own power and authority. Instead, he asked us to believe in him, and to actively go out and share our faith, and show that we care. (And especially to those for whom the religious leaders had no time.)
Of course, for us, that was a very hard thing to do. Getting ourselves offside with those in authority—those who liked things done in a particular way, and those who liked things to stay the same—was a recipe for trouble. The leaders didn’t like change, and we knew they would oppose anyone who stood up to them. It would mean putting our lives in danger. So, frankly, we found it hard to have the faith or the courage.
It was alright for Jesus. He knew the Father intimately—or so it seemed to us. In fact, I have never known anyone who was so devoted to God that he was. He was determined to set things right. But us… well weren’t so strong, and I’m guessing that you may not feel so strong either.
So, perhaps, if I tell you of some incidents that I witnessed personally—which certainly helped me in my faith—perhaps they will be of help to you too.
B. THE POWER OF FAITH
1. Incident 1: “A Mustard Seed” (Luke 17:5-6)
The first incident occurred as Jesus, his disciples, a few others, and I, were walking along the beach at Joppa. (Well I think it was Joppa, although my memory isn’t as good as it once was.) But I’m sure it was Joppa, because the beach had trees on it—and almost to the edge of the sea.
At that stage we’d all been around Jesus for a while. And we’d picked up that whilst we all had some faith, we weren’t quite sure whether it was enough to do what Jesus was asking. So the inner group of twelve bravely asked Jesus, “Increase our faith!” And to our amazement Jesus replied: “If your faith was like a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Uproot! Be planted in the sea!’ and it would obey you.”
Now, of course, the first thing that came to our minds was this crazy idea of trees uprooting themselves from the beach and throwing themselves into the sea. I mean, we were there on the beach with trees on one side and the sea on the other. But, once we got past that, it was evident that we’d got it all wrong. According to Jesus, faith wasn’t something that could be quantified. You either had it or you didn’t.
Now, I’ve never been good at gardening. But even I knew that a mustard seed was one of the smallest seeds that there was, and yet it grows into one of the biggest trees. And even I knew that the fig mulberry tree’s claim to fame was that it had very deep roots. So, as we walked along that beach, and as we wondered how we could possibly be strong enough—or have faith enough—to go against the trend, we were left under no illusion that within each of us we had enough faith. In fact, enough faith to make anything our Lord asked us to do to be possible.
And I must say that was quite a revelation. It was also a very scary thing, because if we’d stayed ignorant, we could easily have excused our lack of activity—we could have maintained our lack of willingness to stand up to those who wanted to keep everything the same. Indeed, we could have got away with not putting Jesus’s demands into practice. But now we knew what was expected and that we had the means inside to make us more pro-active … well we had no excuse. And that was very scary indeed.
2. Incident 2: “Faith and Prayer” (Mark 9:14-32)
And that was made worse by another incident sometime later, when we were tested to whether we really had taken in what Jesus had said.
Now, for some reason Jesus went off to do something, and left us disciples on our own. (It was just after the transfiguration, as I recall, and Jesus had probably gone off to spend time alone with his father.) However, this time we were approached by a man whose son was demon possessed and was unable to speak.
Now, we’d seen Jesus cast out demons on a number of occasions, and he’d made it look easy. So having been given a pep talk about faith, we obviously thought “There’s no need to search for Jesus. We can do this ourselves.” But you know try as we might we couldn’t do it. The demon simply threw the boy down, as though he was having a fit, and made him foam at the mouth.
Well, so much for faith, or so we thought. But rather than make a bad situation worse, we suggested that the man bring the boy to Jesus himself. And you know, no sooner did he meet with Jesus than the boy was cured. Jesus simply commanded the evil spirit to come out of the boy, and it did. And again Jesus repeated to us the idea that if we only had faith—if only we believed—we could have done that too.
Now, of course we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves in public, so we waited until we were alone with Jesus. Then we asked him what he had meant. After all, he had already told us that it wasn’t the quantity of faith that mattered, but just that we had faith. And, he then introduced to us the concept of prayer, and the need for total reliance upon God.
Because, what we’d done, was to take the gift of faith, and used it as if it was under our complete control. We had used it as though we could exercise it in any way that we wished. But we were wrong, and we should have realised that when we’d tried to cure the boy. We had trusted in ourselves, rather than in God. We’d ignored the fact that we needed to ask God for his help; that we needed to rely on him alone. And that’s why we had failed to exorcise the demon from the boy.
Fortunately, no permanent harm was done. Our pride may have been dented, but at least the boy was cured. And despite what people thought then, and you probably think in your time, we may have been slow learners, but at least we were learning.
3. Incident 3: “This Mountain” (Mark 11:22-23)
However, I must admit, I’m not sure that even then we really understood Jesus’s teaching on the subject of faith. We were still not confident about Jesus’s teaching. And that is perhaps reflected in the fact that Jesus continued to teach us on the subject.
Indeed, only a few days before Jesus died—on the Tuesday, I think it was—Jesus evidently knew we were still having problems on the subject. He knew that we were still not confident about how we could be strong enough to make a stand, like he did. And how we could put our faith into practice in such a way as he seemed to demonstrate so easily.
And you know, despite what he obviously knew he was about to go through on the Thursday night and the Friday, he gave us this advice: “Put your faith in God. Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, `Rise up! Throw yourself into the sea!’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes what he says, it will be done for him.”
Well, if any of you know your geography, when you stand on the Mount of Olives you can actually see the Dead Sea. And as Jesus talked, I think we all had mental images of the mountain throwing itself into the sea.
But for those of us more steeped in the Jewish faith, other images came to mind too. After all, the prophet Zechariah had prophesied about the Day of the Lord—a day when the Messiah would come at the fulfillment of God’s kingdom—at the end of the world. (And quite frankly, Jesus had talked about the time when he would come back to do that very thing.) Zechariah had also prophesied, that at that time, not only would the Mount of Olives be split in two—the mountain on which were actually standing—but the whole land would be made into a level plain (Zechariah 14:1-10).
Well, this was another twist to faith we hadn’t seen before. The focus of faith was to be the establishment of God’s reign in the world. Indeed, everything that a believer does is to be focussed on the end times—to the establishment of God’s kingdom in all its fullness. Everything that a believer does is to be focussed on the idea of including as many people as possible into God’s kingdom.
Of course, once Jesus had said it, it was pretty obvious. We really should have seen it. Where else should our faith have been focussed?
Now it’s alright to look back after the events and stick all the pieces of the puzzle together. But I don’t think even at that moment we really understood Jesus’s teaching about faith. It was only after Jesus was resurrected from the dead that somehow it all began to make sense.
But two things that Jesus told us, should have been plain from the start. And they were:
If we were to use our faith in a self-centred way—with what we wanted or focusing on our own abilities—the end result would be disaster, and we would be left wondering if indeed we had enough faith. On the other hand, if we were to exercise our faith on the things that God asked us to do—and with a dependence upon God—God would really bless us. And we were witnesses to some wonderful and miraculous things.
But then, the lessons of faith are so obvious now:
Faith doesn’t come in quantities. You either have it or you don’t. Because even the smallest amount of faith means that we are capable of doing great things.
When we exercise faith, it’s pointless thinking that we have the ability to do things based on our own strength. It doesn’t work that way. Every time we exercise faith we need to rely on God.
And the focus of faith is to be always on the establishment of God’s kingdom. Bringing others into it and looking forward to its establishment at the end of time.
And, the point that is evident in all three incidents I’ve described, is that with a focus totally on God, nothing is impossible. Indeed the idea of faith expects miracles, because faith includes the idea of an unwavering trust in divine help.
Now we had come a long way in the three short years that many of us had known Jesus. Having said that, the idea of faith wasn’t any easy lesson to learn. It wasn’t easy for us, and I’m sure it isn’t easy for you either. And that’s why I’m writing to you across the miles, and across the years.
Because faith can be very frustrating, confusing, and downright puzzling. When we pray for something to happen, and things don’t quite work out the way that we hoped, it’s very easy to question where we are with God—whether we really do have faith, and whether God is really listening.
Of course, as we followed Jesus around, we often felt he was on a completely different plain to the rest of us. His ideas and concepts, his beliefs and practices were so different to what we had been brought up to accept and believe. It was hard for us, at times, to take in what he had to say. But, at the same time, there was no doubt in our minds that Jesus was the most genuine person we had ever met. In contrast, the religious leaders were only interested in themselves and keeping things the same, in order to maintain their own power.
Now I cannot recall Jesus ever putting himself first or considering his own personal interests above others. He cared for people. His teaching was mind boggling. He did miraculous things. He wanted to include people rather than exclude them. And he fitted precisely the description of the man that God promised he would send to be the Messiah.
And if that wasn’t enough, the sacrifice that he made by giving up his life for the benefit of all (and he talked about the need to do that a lot before he died), would have to be the most unselfish act I have ever known.
And that is why I have written to you this letter. Because exercising faith isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy for us, and it won’t be easy for you either. Despite that, I would like to encourage you—all who read this letter—to try. And to try, because it is what Jesus expects of all of his followers.
So, always remember:
Faith isn’t quantitative. We either have it or we don’t.
Faith isn’t a gift we can exercise on our own independently from God. Rather it requires us, each time, to rely 100% on God.
The practice of faith should always be focussed on the fulfilment of God’s kingdom. And that includes bringing others to faith in Jesus.
And faith requires the expectation of miracles.
And those four basic things, don’t even begin to describe what faith truly is.
Now, may the Lord strengthen you in your faith. And may he make you bold to live lives fitting for the kingdom of God. Your friend across the ages,
Posted 10th May 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis