Power through Prayer
The Gospel of Mark • Sermon • Submitted
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The life of the Christian is a life of faith - belief, trust, reliance upon Another to do things we cannot do for ourselves. We trust in Jesus to save us, to strengthen us, to empower us, and bring us safely to glory. The more we trust ourselves, believe in ourselves, rely upon ourselves, the more we distance ourselves from the power and sufficiency of Jesus. Self-reliance may be central to the American Dream, but it’s suicide to the Christian walk. We start the walk by faith, trusting that we can be saved through Jesus life, death, and resurrection. We begin the walk by faith, taking steps of obedience believing in Christ’s wisdom ahead of our own. We continue our walk through life by faith, not sight, that God is faithful, that God hears us, that God provides, that God will not abandon us, that God is working all things for our good and his glory. And when we serve others, to help them and bless them and encourage them and disciple them and minister to them, we do so knowing that we cannot do them any spiritual good unless the Holy Spirit works through us. So the power of us to be saved comes from the outside, the power to change and grow comes from the outside, the power to influence others in any significant eternal way comes from the outside. In other words, everything we’re called to be and do is enabled by an outside power. And that’s why we live by faith, because apart from Christ, we can do nothing.
Now, the premier, the ultimate, the indisputable and irrefutable test of faith is prayer. Prayerlessness is symptomatic of faithlessness. Prayerlessness is the premier expression of unbelief. To be prayerless is to sign a declaration of independence from God; it is to crawl into the box of your own self-reliance, it is to be held captive by the lie that you don’t need God, or that God doesn’t care about you, and that prayer is optional. Or your prayer life resembles a fire extinguisher - you only use in the event of emergency. But prayer - true prayer - is the expression of faith; prayerlessness is the expression of unbelief.
If you want an honest evaluation of your walk with Jesus, ask yourself: “Do I pray? Do I pray when no one’s looking and no one cares? Do I bring my requests to him? More than that, do I bring my questions to him? My problems to him? My praises to him? Do I confess sin? Do I ask for empowerment for obedience? Do I really pray?”
And if you want a sure evaluation of a church, ask yourself: “Does it pray? What are their corporate prayers like? Do the members pray before the service? Do they pray after? Do they pray throughout the week? Do they have any service where prayer is central?” Because the presence of absence of prayer in the life of a church will be directly proportional to the power of its witness in the world. Do not expect a prayerless church to see revival. Do not expect prayerless children’s ministries to water their saplings. Do not expect prayerless evangelism to reap a harvest. Do not expect prayerless discipleship or prayerless parenting or prayerless ministry to do any spiritual good. We are powerless, and any spiritual good must by God’s power, and therefore, we must ask him for it.
My prayer in this sermon, what I have been praying for us this week is that this text would teach us to pray. I hope you pray. If you don’t, I hope this word will increase your faith, and enhance your prayer life.
In our text we find a dramatic story about the puzzled disciples, the intense agony of a suffering father with an oppressed son, and how Christ responds to the whole situation. Read text.
As we study the text, we’re going to see 1) Human Powerlessness, 2) Demonic Possession, 3) Christ’s Pity and 4) Helpless faith, and 5) A lesson for us all.
#1 Human powerlessness. So if you remember, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to reveal his glory to them. It was a way of reminding them that even though he would suffer and die, his kingdom would not be thwarted. It would have been an incredible experience, and now they’ve come down the mountain into a kind of squall of human activity. The serene, majestic glory of the mountaintop quickly gives way to the bustling crowd.
“And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them.” You can imagine the four men coming down the mountain and seeing a crowd with the nine disciples there amongst them, but it’s not teaching, it’s not healing - there’s an argument going on. I mentioned that the mountain they were on was probably Mt. Hermon, which was far north of Jerusalelm, even north of Galilee, and for the scribes to be all the way up there shows what great lengths the Pharisees were going to try to discredit him. What are they fighting about? It doesn’t say yet, but we’ll make an educated guess here in a second.
15: “And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him.” As Jesus and the three others come into sight of the crowd, the crowd is astonished. The words here connote that their minds were blown: “greatly amazed” - older commentators thought the reason for this was because Jesus must have been still glowing from the transfiguration - but there’s no textual evidence for that. The reason they’re amazed, I think, is because Jesus appears just in time. At the climax of this argument, here comes Jesus.
It’s probably that’s the whole reason the crowd was there in the first place. They wanted to see Jesus, and they saw his disciples, and they rushed to him, and it turns out he’s not there. But there are some scribes, and the scribes are arguing with them. The crowd runs up to him.
16: “And he asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?” And what happens is like when a parent walks into two kids fighting over a toy, “So, what are you guys talking about?” And suddenly both kids are silent. The Scribes don’t say anything. The disciples don’t say anything. There’s something like a stunned silence.
But then, breaking the silence, v 17: “Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” Now we can piece together what they’re arguing about. It seems to be that here comes this man with his son, asking the disciples to cast out this demon, and they begin their attempt to cast it out, and they fail. And they fail again. Nothing is working. Oh how the scribes must have loved this. They were eating it up. Jesus and his disciples had been a whirlwind all over Israel, teaching, healing, casting out demons, feeding multitudes. Now the disciples are standing there looking stupid, powerless. And the scribes jump in and say, “See? Jesus isn’t the Messiah. He’s a fraud. You guys are frauds.” And the disciples strike back - arguing with them.
Now I think the disciples are a bit befuddled by all this. In chapter 6:7 Jesus gave his disciples authority to cast out demons. They had actually done this before. They had become accustomed to casting out demons. But now they’re stumped.
I’ve heard it said that one of the greatest threats to future success is past success. Because past success makes you comfortable, makes you feel strong, makes you feel competent, and so you stop learning, stop growing, stop stretching yourself, you begin coasting.
The same principle applies to the Christian life and to church; one of the greatest threats to our future maturity is past success. It’s the preacher who has preached so many times he stops depending on the Lord and never prays. It’s the parent who seems to have his kids under control and no longer is actively seeking the Lord’s help. It’s the counselor who’s counseled so many people she relies more on her previous experience. It’s the church that says, “Hey look, we’re doing well, we’re growing, we’re thriving” - and so we stop praying, we stop longing, we stop evangelizing, we stop discipling.
The disciples had had great success in the past, but it seems that their past success had made them self-reliant. It seems, according to verse 29, they tried to cast out a demon without praying. Sounds laughable. But that’s what you do when you haven’t learned how helpless you actually are. You try to do impossible things without God’s help.
Here, the disciples are learning the important lesson of utter helplessness apart from Christ. The reasons why strong Christians pray more is because they realize how weak they are. Our greatest problem is not our weaknesses, but the illusions of our strength.
So we may look down at the disciples for this - trying to cast out a demon without praying. But how many of us are trying to bear fruit without praying? How many of us are trying to parent without praying? How many of us are trying to do our day to day work, our business, vocation, without praying? How many of us are trying to suffer well, in our own strength? Face temptation in our own strength? Face the world in our own strength?
Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” That is, nothing of any spiritual, eternal worth. I wonder how much “nothing” we are busy with week-in and week-out.
Let’s look at the Demonic Possession. In verse 17 the Father says his son has “a spirit that makes him mute.” So he can’t talk. Verse 25 Jesus calls it a “mute and deaf spirit” - which means that this boy could not hear and could not speak.
Verse 18: “And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.” Demons have an incredible amount of power in our world, and can even have power over a human body. Remember the demon in chapter 5, the demoniac? He had superhuman strength, couldn’t be bound by chains. He lived among the tombs, screaming night and day, cutting himself. Demons ultimately want to destroy people, and they can inhabit a person’s body, possess it, control it, and abuse it.
“Whenever it seizes him” - so there were times of freedom, but from time to time, the demon would seize upon the boy. Luke includes the detail that the boy would scream, shriek, and the demon would “shatter” him. The same word could be translated “maul, assault, beat.” Here it says it “throws him down.” NASB uses the word “slams.” The idea is that the demon is aggressive, the demon is violent. The demon would seize the body and begin then send it shrieking into self-harm, self-mutilation. He’d be slammed to the ground, assaulted.
It says when these fits happen, the boy “foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.” This is obviously the demon’s doing, but it’s also likely that trauma to this boy’s brain over the years of this kind of thrashing and bludgeoning he’s had to endure. Last I read in the NFL if you get 3 concussions in a year, you have to sit out because you’re in danger of more permanent damage, this poor boy probably had way more than 3. The demon would seize him, slam him to the ground, contort and twist his body in rigidness.
In v 22 the father gives more information: “it has often cast him into the fire and into water, to destroy him.” It was common to have open fires; every meal cooked, any kind of heating mechanism would have included a live, often open fire. Wells were common too, streams, pools. And the father says there were instances where the demon would seize the boy, and cast him into the fire - this would result in harrowing second and third degree skin burns. Sometimes, it’d be water, the boy wouldn’t be able to swim, he’d drown unless someone pulled him out.
Now put yourself in this father’s shoes. To care for this child would be an incredibly draining, exhausting, life. First of all, there’s the obvious pain he felt. There’s a kind of anger I feel at a person who abuses children. There’s nothing more despicable than a person who uses his strength and power to hurt poor, defenseless children. And any father in this room would rise up and defend his child against the bullies and abusers who would threaten their children. But what if the abuser is a demon? The father can’t do anything about that - and so he faces the agony of knowing his son is the victim of a demon’s bloodlust, and he can’t do anything.
Secondly, the father would not be able to live an ordinary life. Caring for and protecting his son would be a 24 hour job. How could you do anything else? How could he work a normal job?
This man clearly is desperate. He brought his son to the group of disciples, thinking maybe they could set him free. But they can’t. They can’t.
Christ’s Pity. Verse 19: “And he answered them, ‘O faithless generation,” I think he’s talking about everyone here. The disciples. The scribes. The crowd. No one there in the crowd believes in the power of God. “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” This is a kind of holy exasperation. I think this is Jesus mourning over the unbelief of the generation. The question: “How long” indicates there’s a limit to the amount of time Jesus has to deal with unbelief. Unbelief will not last forever. But right now, he’s in it, and it grieves him.
He says, “Bring him to me.” Verse 20: “And they brought the boy to him.” The demon had been able to overpower the boy, the father and everyone else could do nothing to retrain him. But now, he’s faced to face with Jesus, his maker. And he makes one last attempt at assault. “And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.”
Now here’s where we see Christ’s pity, his compassion. Jesus is watching this and he asks, “How long has this been happening to him?” Why does he ask that? Jesus asks that - listen to this - he asks that because he cares. Jesus is not an impersonal force, raw, supernatural power. Jesus is a person, and he cares for this man, and he demonstrates his care by asking him, “How long have you had to suffer this way?” He wants to hear the man’s story, the man’s heart, the man’s suffering. He wants to listen. He wants you to bring your requests to him.
That’s what Jesus is like. He’s sympathetic and compassionate, merciful and gracious, kind and caring. He invites the man to share his burden with him. Listen, Jesus invites needy, struggling, suffering people to come to him in prayer, and he is always willing and able to listen.
The man’s answer is: “From childhood.” This is about as sad a story as it gets. A little boy - and the word used here is under seven years old - a little boy becomes the target of an aggressive, violent demon.
J.C. Ryle comments powerfully on this: “There is a lesson of deep importance here which we must not overlook. We must labor to do good to our children even from their earliest years. If Satan begins so early to do them harm, we must not be behind him in diligence to lead them to God...It is never too soon to strive and pray for the salvation of the souls of children - never too soon to speak to them as moral beings, and tell them of God, and Christ, and right, and wrong. The devil, we may be quite sure, loses no time in endeavoring to influence the minds of young people. He begins with them even ‘from childhood.’ Let us work hard to counteract him. If young hearts can be filled by Satan, they can also be filled with the Spirit of God.”
Helpless faith. But what we need to look at is the end of verse 22: “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Does that sound like rock-solid, confident faith? “If you can.” You see, the father’s made all this trip out to see Jesus, but now he’s not so sure he’ll be able to do anything. The disciples couldn’t. He’s beginning to doubt.
Jesus picked that up: “If you can’!? All things are possible for one who believes.” He’s not saying, “If you just have enough faith, you can do anything!” He’s saying that when we believe God, and we look to God, we need not ask whether or not something is possible. Faith is looking to divine power to accomplish your requests. This isn’t saying, “You can be healed if you just believe more. The reason you’re not yet healed is you don’t believe enough.” No, it’s saying you never need to wonder whether something is possible for God. All things are possible. What Jesus is trying to eliminate the word “impossible” from our prayer lives. “Oh, it’s impossible that my neighbor be saved. It’s impossible that my parents ever change. It’s impossible that this relationship be restored. It’s impossible that I ever get over that guilt. It’s impossible that my children ever return.” Believe it is possible, and you’ll find your prayers to start leaping with hope rather than limping with cynicism.
Sometimes we come to Jesus with the attitude of “If you can, Jesus, please...” And Jesus, from heaven, replies, “If I can?” Do you know who you’re talking to?
Now I love the response of the father: “Immediately the father cried out,” this is the cry of conviction, desperation, and even a sliver of hope: “I believe, help my unbelief.” There’s an honest response, right? He believes - that’s why he brought his son all this way. But he also, at the same time, recognizes the reality of unbelief in his own heart. Shadows of doubt still linger.
I love how Jesus doesn’t rebuke the unbelief. Not in this case, because it’s an honest confession. Jesus doesn’t say, “I am the divine Son of God. Purify yourself, confess your sins, get rid of all your doubts, and once you have totally surrendered to me, then you can come to be and ask for the deliverance you need.”
Nope. The man says “I do believe, but I am so unfaithful. I cannot even muster up the spiritual fortitude to believe as I ought. Please help me!” And guess what? Jesus responds to that request. Jesus responds to the requests of imperfect people with imperfect faith. Because that’s all of us down here on earth. Doesn’t that encourage your prayer life?
If your earthly father said, “You may only come to me when you’re clean, when you’ve got it together, when you’ve answered all your questions, but you may not come perplexed.” I don’t know if we’d ever come. Come with your doubts, fears, concerns. And say, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Learn to pray like this man, church.
Jesus casts out the demon; he commands him to come out and “never enter him again.” This is the end of this boy’s demonic suffering. It’s over now. And the demon, with one last fight, convulsing the boy terribly, comes out. The boy is like a corpse and everyone thinks he’s dead. He’s not writhing on the ground anymore, he’s not foaming at the mouth or grinding his teeth. He’s limp, he’s listless. But Jesus takes him by the hand, lifts him up, and the boy gets up.
Mark doesn’t include the Father’s response, the crowd’s response, or even the boy’s response. The narrative jumps past all that to the part where they privately enter a house, and the disciples ask him: “Why could we not cast it out?”
They were baffled, confused. They’ve been utterly humbled. They’ve been publicly humiliated. And Jesus’ response is: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
The disciples could not drive it out because they were not praying. They were not praying because they did not yet believe, they had not yet learned to truly rely upon him. They were depending on their own power, their own ability; their past success had made them self-confident, and self-confidence is the death of prayer.
Let’s wrap this up with a poignant lesson. Here were the disciples attempting to do spiritual battle without spiritual resources. And what’s the result? Embarrassment. The scribes are given good reason to ridicule and deny them. Even the father, who first comes with confidence that Jesus can heal, begins doubting if even Jesus himself can do anything.
Christians and churches who try to do God’s work without God’s power are hideous and grotesque misrepresentations of God. They are an embarrassment. They heap scorn upon themselves. They confuse and mislead. Genuine Christians, like the father in our story, are taught to doubt; and doubters are encouraged to scorn. They provide fuel for the skeptics and material for the mockers. They do more harm than good.
There are heaps of stories of people calling themselves ex-vangelicals who have what they call a “deconversion story.” A sad and central theme in their stories is their eventual disenchantment with the church because they came to see its nasty underbelly of manipulation, power-plays, dishonesty, deceit, corruption, all the while maintaining the outward appearance of spirituality. These churches are doing what the disciples did all those years ago. They are attempting to do God’s work without God’s power, and they have nothing.
Church, this is our danger. I remember almost exactly three years ago writing in my journal how amazed I was that 42 people showed up to church - on Easter Sunday. I remember the feelings of desperate prayer, living by faith, begging that God would save, sanctify, and build his church. There was a tangible fear I had - what if it all fails? What if we come home, tail between our legs?
God has answered our prayers in incredible ways. Beyond our asking. And do you know what the temptation is now? To coast. To settle. To depend on our natural gifts. To depend on our past success. To depend on our apparent stability. We can become like the disciples and begin to simply carry on God’s work without relying on God’s power. And it will be subtle, but if we go down that road, we will soon be without power, and turn to human power, and human power doesn’t change the heart, it only changes the outside - and thus we become a church of hypocrites.
We must see this. We must come to see our utter helplessness. We have no spiritual power in and of ourselves. We must come to see Christ’s compassion and generosity, and his power above every other spiritual power. We must come to him, bringing it all to him, we must learn to pray - to really pray! - begging and pleading and wrestling for spiritual power. We must be a praying church. This is not optional. This is not an add on. “Too often we regard God’s power as an added ingredient that turbocharges our own efforts.”
Ray Ortlund has some great wisdom on this point: “It is rare today to see a passion for prayer as the essence of gospel ministry. But I also believe it is futile to try to work people up into prayer. It just doesn’t get results beyond a surge of enthusiasm that soon wears off. I know of only one infallible way to get a church praying, and to keep it praying, for the power of God to come down: we need to fail. We need to fail so badly and obviously that we find out how much we really do trust ourselves rather than God. We need to be shocked by the collapse of our best methods. But what a blessing catastrophic disaster is, with all its misery and shame, if it turns us back to God!”
Just as there’s nothing more damaging than a prayerless, powerless church, so also there’s nothing more wonderful, powerful, fruitful, productive, and effective than a church filled with the power of God, because it has actually, repeatedly, and consistently humbled itself, and looked to God in believing prayer.
There will be no revival until we do this. And we will never do this until we come to the very end of ourselves.