“I believe, help my unbelief”

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
October 3, 2021
Mark 9:14-29

Sermon taped at Mayberry Church on October 1, 2021

Thoughts at the beginning of worship:

Do you know about red herrings? They’re not like red snapper. You don’t eat them. A red herring is a term often used in debate. When someone doesn’t have a good argument, they throw out a red herring. It distracts everyone’s attention. Politicians, of all strips, do this all the time. But so do we. If you can’t handle a situation, you distract people. Sometimes we do that with our faith. We don’t like something, so we start arguing theology, when we really should be showing the compassion of Christ. 

Red herrings are nothing new. They were thrown around even in Biblical times, as we’re going to see in our text for the morning. 

Last week, we finished the first half of the Book of Daniel. I am going to take a few weeks break from Daniel and move into the gospels. We’ll come back to Daniel later. 

Read Mark 9:14-29

What are they arguing about?

Wonder what everyone was arguing over? We’re not really told. Yet, everyone seems glad Jesus has arrived. “Overcome with awe,” we’re told. Perhaps, as Jesus and three of the disciples have just come down from the Mount of Transfiguration, a glow still surrounds his face.[1]Or perhaps they’re just glad he’s there so he can settle their differences. 

Jesus asks, “what’s going on.” He doesn’t get the answer we expect. I don’t know why the nine disciples who’d remained behind didn’t just lay it all out for Jesus. They could set have forth both sides of the argument and let Jesus settle the issue. Maybe they were embarrassed. 

Or perhaps this is one of those all-too frequent occasions where the real issue is something different than what the argument was about. A red herring has been thrown into the argument. This happens all the time, especially in relationships. You argue about one thing when you are mad about something else.

The Real Issue

What’s at issue here is a possessed boy driven into fits and driving his parents insane. The boy needs help. We’re told the disciples, the nine who were not with Jesus, tried to free the boy from the demon. They failed. Some scribes were also at this gathering and, we might assume, likewise, were unable to help the boy. 

I have a hunch what this argument is all about. Since neither the disciples nor the scribes can heal the boy, they distract the crowd by debating theology. They argued over the nature of God, an important topic I think we’ll all agree. But while they are arguing, this kid is on the ground foaming at the mouth. 

Forgetting an essential trait of God

In their highfaluting talk about God, they forget an essential trait of our Creator—compassion. We’ve all been created in God’s image and given a dose of compassion. However, it seems as if those gathered around this boy have lost some of theirs. I have a hunch why they suddenly get quiet when Jesus asks what’s up. They know Jesus is going to see through them and get to the real issue—there is a child in need.

The Real Issue

Jesus’ asks, “What’s up?” While the disciples, scribes and the crowd remain silent, a man in the back speaks up. “I brought my son to your disciples. They couldn’t rid his body of the demon.” The silence of the crowd and the plea of the father focus us on the real issue. Jesus is incensed. “How much longer,” he shouts, “do I have to put up with you?” Jesus directs his anger at the disciples, in other words at the ones who should know better. You know, we’re a lot like the disciples. 

Jesus then asks that the boy be brought to him. When the demon inside his body sees Jesus, it goes berserk. Even demons believe and tremble, we’re told.[2] The demon throws the child into a violent fit. The healing stories of Jesus are always more than just a demonstration of brute power overcoming illness and evil. If Jesus only wanted to demonstrate his power, he would have just said, “Get ye gone, you lousy demon,” and the freed boy would run home to his momma. Instead, Jesus uses this opportunity to teach. 

Evil causes about destruction and death

As the boy shakes uncontrollably, Jesus asks the father about how long the boy has been like this. The father, whom we now see as desperate, tells Jesus the boy has been like this since childhood. A demon has tried continually to destroy the boy by throwing him into the fire and into bodies of water. Evil always brings destruction and death. 

Mark is the short gospel; he’s brief on the details. Indulge me for a moment. Let me fill in what I think the father said while asking Jesus to have pity. “The boy is possessed. He destroyed our living room. He broke the lamps and tables and chairs. He broke the trinkets my wife purchased on our honeymoon. Our child is the terror of the neighborhood. Other kids refuse to play with him. Dogs, even mean junkyard dogs, run from the kid. Our son has problems. If you are able, do something,” the father pleads.

“If God is able?”

This request takes Jesus back.  “If I am able?” he asks.  “If I am able?  Sure, I’m able; all things are possible with faith.” I wonder if the man’s faith had been challenged by the disciples’ inability to help his son. After all, he had obviously heard about Jesus and the twelve and felt if he could just get his son to them, he’d be made well. But then, it didn’t happen. 

The man’s desperation 

The man assumed the disciples had the powers of their master and is now down to his last straw.  “Maybe Jesus can help,” he thinks, “but maybe not. I better not set my hopes too high.” When Jesus tells him that all things are possible for one who believes, he cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief.” This is the climax of the passage. “I believe, help my unbelief.” It’s a cry of desperation. He believes because he has no other option.  

He believes, but he stills has doubts. If we are honest, most of us can identify with the man’s feelings. We know Jesus is the answer, but we don’t want to trust him enough to throw on him all our concerns. 

“Consider the lilies of the field and birds of the air,”[3] Jesus tells us. We’re quick to remind Jesus that we are not flowers or birds, but people, human beings, Homo sapiens, the crown of creation. We are people with jobs and homes and mortgages and car payments and kids with whom we have a hard time relating. Like I said, we’re like this man. We believe, but only to a certain point. We believe, but not fully. We want to keep some control and that’s where we generally get in trouble.

Harold’s story

Harold was a man who started mysteriously attending the church I served in New York state. A tall broad man, he farmed and drove a truck. He dressed in overalls and flannel shirts. When he first started coming to church, he would slip out during the last hymn. It was a month before I got to shake his big, calloused hands and was another month or so before we talked. 

As you know, in a small town, everyone knows everyone. People wondered why he was coming to the Presbyterian Church. Even people that didn’t attend our church questioned me about this strange turn events. Someone shared that he was in trouble with the law and that his family had never attended church. I was told that one needed to be careful around him. He was prone to violence.

When I finally got a chance to meet one-on-one with Harold, he broke down and cried. This huge hunk of a man bawled as he explained all his troubles. His son, who was in his early 20s, was wanted by the law for traffic violations. It seems the boy liked to outrun the sheriff deputies, which didn’t exactly endear him to the officers. One night, two deputies came to Harold’s house at two o’clock in the morning. 

According to his story, Harold asked for a search warrant. They said they were in hot pursuit of his son and didn’t need one. Harold’s son was in bed asleep. They pushed the door open and came in. As I said, Harold was a big man and when the first officer stepped into his house, he did what came naturally. His fist connected with the face of the officer, driving him back onto the porch with a busted nose. It was a short-lived fight. The officers drew guns and nightsticks and quickly subdued Harold, hauling him off to jail.

Harold was vindicated. It turned out the officers did need a search warrant, but the court fights and the time in jail took a lot out of him. He lost his life savings and was in danger of losing his farm. Like the man in this story, he didn’t know what to do, and there was nowhere else to turn. Putting his trust in Jesus was a desperate attempt to regain sanity by a man who had no other options left. 

But it worked. To the surprise of the whole community, Harold asked to be baptized (he wore a suit that day). He turned his life around. For a man who had been a loner most of his life, he began to make friends. His legal troubles were behind him, and a few years after I’d left New York for Utah, I was surprised to learn he’d accepted a position as an officer in the church. 

Our human condition

“I believe; help my unbelief.” This is an honest statement of our human condition. The ability to say “I believe” comes the grace God gives us to seek him out. The cry, “help my unbelief,” is a prayer of confession that demonstrates to God our dependence upon him. To say, “I believe,” isn’t enough. We can all say, “I believe,” and still believe it is something we do by ourselves. We can say “I believe,” and believe were in control. But when we say, “Help my unbelief,” we admit our need and dependence upon God. 

We can’t succeed by ourselves, we need help

It’s difficult to admit; but we can’t do it alone. Therefore Jesus, at the end of this passage, tells the disciples this type of demon can only be driven out by prayer.  Overcoming the powers of evil is not something we can do by ourselves (we can see where Harold’s attempt at control got him). Only by depending upon God can we be truly successful in life and in eternity.  

This passage reminds us that we’re not God. We’re not the Lord, we don’t run the company, and we’re not the CEO. Jesus is in control and we’re here to do his work. We must depend on him and his power as we listen to the cries of those in pains—those who have the blues like the man in our story and like Harold. We listen and reach with compassion and love while trusting in God to do what we can’t.  Amen.  

just before sunrise this morning


[1]Interestingly, the crowd is in awe before Jesus heals!  See  Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: A & C Black, 1991, Hendrickson Publishing, 1997), 222-223.

[2] James 2:19

[3] Matthew 6:25-28.

12 thoughts on ““I believe, help my unbelief””

  1. Excellent points! Your sunset photo is stunning, and yes I know that term red herring and it can be such a great source of debate! Enjoy your week ahead! Take care.

  2. “…help my unbelief.” Oh, this is so apt. Great interpretation, Jeff. I like your sharing the story of Harold the mysterious new parishioner. It’s funny how people will gossip when they see someone who in their minds “doesn’t belong.” I think we all belong.

  3. Your paragraph on “Our Human Condition” is quite convicting. I’ve often prayed that prayer, but it takes on additional meaning now. Beautiful sunrise!

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