I believe – help my unbelief!

Mark 9:2-29

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Through the Bible people often encounter God on mountains.

The most famous mountain is Sinai, where God entered into a covenant relationship with the people of Israel. While Moses is on the mountain receiving the Law, the people are down in the camp making a golden calf to worship, since Moses had been gone for some time, and they thought it was time  to take matters into their own hands, and create a visible representation of the Lord who had brought them out of Egypt.

Coming down from the mountain, with the law that was inscribed on stone, Moses discovered the people worshipping the calf, and smashed the stone tablets. The Lord’s judgement came to them, and he told Moses to keep leading the people towards the promised land, but that He would not go with them. Because of their idolatry, they had disqualified themselves from having their God dwell among them.

Moses then went back up the mountain in order to intercede for the people, and pray for their forgiveness. The LORD affirmed to him that He would remain faithful to his covenant; even though the people had disqualified themselves, His grace was greater than their sin.

This is the setting for when Moses says to the Lord, ‘Please show me your glory.’ (Deut 33:18). The LORD put Moses in a hole in the rock, and cause his glory to pass by him. Moses only caught a glimpse – the LORD’s ‘back’, but what he saw was magnificent:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty… (Exodus 34:6-7)

Note that while Moses saw the glory of the Lord, the way in which he ‘saw’ was by hearing the Lord speak.

Six hundred years later, this same mountain was visited by another man – Elijah. Elijah’s ministry was during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel – considered the most evil of the monarchs of the kingdom of Israel, leading the people further into idolatry, making Baal worship the official religion.

‘Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.’ (1 Kings 16:33)

Elijah was sent to declare the Lord’s judgement upon Ahab – and in a confrontation with the prophets of Baal the Lord showed Himself to be the one true God.

However, this understandably brought him into conflict with Ahab and Jezebel; his actions had not brought the idolatry to and end, but had turned everyone against him, and he had to flee for his life. He headed South, and eventually found himself at Mt Horeb – another name for Mt Sinai. When he got there, he found a cave – a hole in the rock – and camped there.

Elijah was hoping for a Moses-like experience. God’s people were embroiled in idolatry, and he stood there as one man:

“I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:10)

Like Moses, Elijah has an encounter with the glory of God:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)

The words, ‘sound of a low whisper’ could also be translated, ‘sound of a tiny silence’. We may talk about a ‘deafening silence’ when an extremely loud sound stops suddenly, and the silence that follows seems somehow quieter than quiet. The sudden absence of sound from wind, earthquake and fire prepared Elijah to hear the voice of the Lord without distraction or confusing it with anything else.

These two pivotal encounters with God on the mountain involve the Lord’s presence being made known as he speaks.

With this background, let’s go back to Pater, James and John with Jesus on the mountain.

Jesus’ appearance is transformed, and his clothes are shining white – a white that is whiter than white. And the men see Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus. What does this signify? What did Jesus what them to see?

What’s not happening here is Jesus having a Moses-like or Elijah-like experience. This transfiguration is not saying that Jesus is number three after Moses and Elijah of great prophets of God who will perform wondrous signs. They are not witnessing Jesus having an encounter with the glory of the Lord’ rather they are witnessing Moses and Elijah having an encounter with the glorious Jesus. It is as if they are seeing Jesus in the present, but also looking back down the passages of time into the past, and seeing Moses and Elijah as they encountered the Lord on Mt Sinai/Horeb – the Lord whom they encountered then, is none other than Jesus! Or, we could say, the Jesus that Peter, James and John knew, with whom they walked the roads of Galilee and Judea, is none other than the Lord who came to Moses and Elijah.

This explains the description of Jesus’ transfiguration – matching that of Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days, about whom he said, ‘His attire was white like snow… his throne was ablaze with fire.’ (Daniel 7:9).

I mentioned last week that the appearance of Moses and Elijah point us to the fact that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law (epitomised by Moses) and the Prophets (epitomised by Elijah). But it is much more than a simple fulfilment of ancient prophecy and promises. Jesus fulfills Moses and Elijah because it was He who spoke to them in the first place! We shouldn’t think that in the Old Testament is was only the Father who spoke, and we only start hearing from the Son in the New Testament, and maybe the Holy Spirit only started speaking on the day of Pentecost. No, throughout history all three have been speaking in unison, such that Jesus could say,

I am in the Father and the Father is in me. The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. (John 14:10)

And then they hear the Father say,

“This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” (Mark 9:7)

Moses and Elijah we called to listen to the voice of God as He reaffirmed His goodness and faithfulness to his covenant relationship with his people. Peter, James and John – and we with them – are likewise called to listen to the voice of God as it comes to us in the person of Jesus the Beloved Son.

We shouldn’t make too much about Peter’s plan to build tents for everyone on the mountaintop, as if he wanted this glorious experience to last longer. We’re told simply that he didn’t know what he was taking about; he did not yet fully understand what was happening, because he needed to see it all in light of the coming cross and resurrection.

In both Moses’ and Elijah’s scenarios, the Lord shows incredible grace and mercy towards His people who had sunk into the depths of sin and idolatry; he continued to treat them as His people even though they had disqualified themselves and deserved to be cursed and cut off. In both cases we might be led to ask the question, ‘How could God just show mercy – just like that? How could he seem to put aside His people’s rank idolatry and just continue with His favour being upon them?’

The big question anyone must ask after reading the Bible’s story and seeing the persistent evil of the human race is not ‘How could it be fair for God to send anyone to Hell?’ but rather, ‘How could it be that God saves and forgives anyone, given the depths of sin and rebellion to which we sink?’

Jesus is the answer that question. As he goes to the cross, he goes to bear the guilt for human idolatry. He bore the guilt of those first Israelites at Sinai, and of the people of Israel at the time of Elijah; in fact any person who was forgiven and restored by God in the Old Testament was forgiven on the basis of Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice that was yet to come.

As we have seen, and will continue to see, we only know the true Jesus when we see him at the cross, and outside the empty tomb.

When they get to the bottom of the mountain, they are rudely jolted back to the harsh reality of this world. A boy possessed by a spirit, and his disciples helpless in trying to cast it out.

Take note of Jesus’ response, ‘O faithless generation, how long am I to bear with you?’ Does that sound a bit like Elijah? (‘…the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away…) Or Moses, who faced the people’s idolatry at the very moment of the giving of the Law?

Both Moses and Elijah were called to return to the people, with the assurance that the Lord would be with them by grace – despite their sin. In the face of our unfaithfulness, the Lord remains faithful. The revelation of His glory on the Mountain was an affirmation not that He is distant and inaccessible, but that He is present with HIs people. What did the vision of the transfigured Jesus on the mountain have to do with what was going on down the hill with the possessed boy? Everything! Because in Jesus we see the Glory of God embodied, and not remaining on the mountain but descending to us and entering into our human mess. Jesus’ glory did not diminish when he came down the mountain – it simply became less visibly apparent. It was the same Jesus standing before the boy, his desperate father, and the hapless disciples, who had moments before stood in radiant glory before Peter, James, John, Moses and Elijah.

In this encounter we see three statements about faith: A verdict, a gracious call, and a sinner’s response.

Having heard the Father’s affirmation of Jesus as His Son, and the call to ‘Listen to him’, Jesus returns to a people who are not listening, who do not recognise him as the Son of God, and who consequently are ‘faithless’. Faith is not mere intellectual belief in a set of facts; biblical faith is trust in the person of God; it is, in the words of Peter, ’entrusting my soul to my faithful Creator, and continuing to do good.’ (1 Peter 4:19). To have faith – or trust – in the Father, our faithful Creator, means listening to HIs Son.

Many people will say, ‘I believe in God – I believe there’s someone out there.’ And they tend o say it in a way that implies – ‘So, I’m OK, I don’t need organised religion or anyone else telling me what to believe or how to live. But believing that God exists is one tiny aspect of faith. It is not true faith until we have entrusted ourselves to our faithful Creator – so that our life is based not on our ability to believe a fact, but on His ability to remain faithful to us.

Understanding this about faith helps us understand the next statement, ‘All things are possible for one who believes’ or ‘has faith’. Jesus firstly is speaking of himself here. The boy’s father has suggested the possibility that Jesus might be able to help them. Since Jesus’ own disciples had been unsuccessful, he was not entirely confident that their teacher would be able to help. He uses the word ‘duné’ which comes from the word ‘dynamos’, a word for power or ability; he is hoping that Jesus is a powerful man who has the ability to help. Jesus’ response shifts the focus from power to faith. Jesus is not a powerful man; he is the Son who trusts – has faith in – his Father, and who does what he does not in his own power by by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, how could he not be able to help?

But this is also a call to faith for all those watching. To ‘believe’ is not to express a self sufficiency or  ability in ourselves – as popular culture makes it out to be:

‘Who knows what miracles you can achieve, when you believe. Somehow you will, you will when you believe’ (‘When You Believe’ by Stephen Schwartz, from Prince of Egypt soundtrack)

No, it is a cry of utter dependance upon our Father, that He has ability; that if anything happens for good it is His work, not ours, and He deserves the glory, not us. And how does the Father demonstrate His trustworthiness? What is the basis on which we can entrust ourselves to him?

’This is my beloved Son: listen to Him!’

We can read as many apologetics textbooks as we like, and study enough to see the logic of the Gospel message, or the evidence from archaeology that the Bible is accurate and reliable; but the one thing that will produce real, living faith in God is to look to Jesus and listen to Him.

Thirdly, we see the response of the man: ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ Grammatically it’s a contradiction. He believes, but he doesn’t believe. He is saying, ‘I find that there is trust in my heart, but I know that the origin of that trust is not from me; it has to come from God.’  Faith is a gift of God, and so the simplest cry of faith is to confess that we do not have faith; we need this Man of Faith to deal with our faithlessness. Like this man, we need to see that our primary need is not to have God solve our problems  – although we can know that He has compassion on us, and wants us to bring all our needs, big and small, to Him. Our biggest need is for a heart that trusts in Him by trusting and listening to His Son.

Every morning, the moment we wake, we need to say, ‘Lord, I believe and trust in You, but I know that in the day ahead I will face may challenges to this trust; I will hear many voices telling me to truth in others or trust in myself; I will be tempted to interpret my experiences as reasons not to believe; so Lord, help my unbelief!’

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