How God’s power becomes effective

“O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” (Mark 9:19)

How would you like it if these words were addressed to you? You wouldn’t, would you? Well, they are! They are addressed to you - and to me also! The word of God is alive, and is addressed to us, listening to it at this very moment, as when it was uttered by the lips of the Savior. Faithless, unfaithful. Immoral, degenerate and sinful as well. But above all, faithless.

Because it all starts from there: from unfaithfulness, from faithlessness, from lack of faith in God. “So,” you say, “I was right in the first place. Jesus Christ is talking to those who have no faith, not to us, Orthodox Christians, who believe in God, who trust in Him, who call Him Father.” Well, let us get a closer look at the characters of today’s Gospel narrative, and let us see where we fit in.

Faithless disciples

In the first place the words of the Lord are addressed to His disciples (although St. John Chrysostom curiously thought they were addressed to the Pharisees). The disciples had tried. They did their best. But to no avail. The young man was not cured. But they had received the authority to heal the sick and expel the demons, had they not? The Lord had given it to them. Just a short while ago we read: “calling on His twelve disciples [He] gave them authority over the unclean spirits, to expel them and to cure every sickness” (Mt. 10:1). So, what’s the explanation? Why it didn’t work? Embarrassed, ashamed, disappointed they had to give up, with their confidence in the Lord (notice well, not in themselves, but in the Lord) somewhat tarnished. And on top of it the Lord scolds them and reproaches them severely: “Faithless generation!” Unfair, wouldn’t you say? First He gives them the power. Then He takes it away from them. For no apparent reason. Or was there a reason? What was it? Fear? Lack of confidence? Too much confidence perhaps? In themselves, that is..., instead of the Lord?... We’ll come back to the disciples. Let’s move to their successors.

Faithless clergy

We, clergymen, as stewards of God’s gifts and ministers of His work, carry on, by divine mandate, the work of salvation. So what happens? In the process, I suppose, we become nonchalant. We perform our duties mechanically, without zeal, without conviction – and without humility. We expect what we do to work. After all, we are not the ones who do the work, right? We are only God’s instruments. And He is going to come through, no matter what! Right? So we become presumptuous. We receive the gift and we think we have earned it. But we have not. Our skin is not capable of withholding the potent new wine, and it bursts. So instead of acting as the conduit of the divine grace, we become resistors. We block the divine action. We put up a wall between the Lord and suffering humanity. We just go through the rituals, which are ineffective, impotent, sterile.

You, the people of God, come to us, as to God’s representatives, with your requests, your petitions, your prayers. And we, most embarrassingly, find out that we cannot lift your pain. Our heart is hard and cold. Our prayers and supplications are done mechanically, without fervor, and they fail to reach God’s throne. God’s grace is not flowing to you, His people. Like the disciples we find out that healing is not accomplished through magic incantations, but through faith and trust in the Lord Who acts through us.

Faithless people

But there is another character in the story. Let’s examine him briefly as well. It is the father, who cares for his son, who agonizes in pain over him, who expects “something” to happen. And nothing does. Disappointed, with his hopes dimmed, he approaches the Master: “Teacher, I brought You my son... If You can do anything...” as if a last resort. “I’ll try this, and if it doesn’t work, then I’ll give up all hope.”

My dear Christians: You too are here, because you have a motivation, a need, a desire. But that’s not enough. That’s not all. The father of the possessed youth was there. But look how he approaches the Lord: not with unshakable faith, not with complete confidence and total trust in Christ’s absolute power, but with a deep-seeted doubt in his heart. With a good dose of skepticism. With uncertainty. With faintheartedness. With pusillanimity. “If You can”; “if by any chance it might work”; “just in case there is something you can do about it...” Not a display of a strong confidence and trust in the power of the Lord, in Who the Lord is and what He can do, wouldn’t you say?

It’s so easy to look over our shoulder and criticize, and point out every possible wrong, isn’t it? But let’s do now what is not so easy. Let’s look at ourselves, at the faith we possess... Let’s first answer this question:

  • Do we believe that the Lord is alive and as potent now as He was when He walked on earth?

Then let’s answer the second question:

  • Do we go to Him to be cured from our illnesses and maladies with the assurance that He will respond to our needs, as a Merciful and Compassionate Lord that He is, and that He will take care of us?

Or is our approach exactly like that of the father of the sick youth? Anemic. Weak. Or even worse: not really expecting anything to happen. Yes, we pray, especially in case of need, but knowing that there really isn’t anything the Lord can do. And we become good predictors, because the Lord does not work magically. His power becomes effective when it meets our faith. That’s when the “chemical reaction” takes place. Without our faith it remains ineffectual, impotent, unrealized.

Looking again at the Gospel narrative, we see that the words of the Lord awaken and shake up the father: “If you can believe, all things are possible.” Words that pierce his heart and touch him deeply. They make him realize his weakness. And transform him. Then he exclaims that beautiful prayer, which should become our constant prayer and supplication: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Then the Fountain of mercy opens and pours down in a deluge.

The Lessons

1. We need faith!

And thus we too receive a lesson. We, the clergy, God’s ministers, and you, the people of God alike, we are all in need of faith, in order to become partakers of His mercy, grace and love. Without strong, unshakable faith, our prayers will remain ineffective. Without purity of life, we don’t allow the free flow of God’s grace to penetrate us. We run to the Lord when we are in need. We light candles. We make promises. We are... very religious. Until the difficulty passes. Until the danger is behind us. Then we return to our indifference, our incredulity.

2. Why our prayers are not answered

There are many reasons why our prayers are not answered. At times, it may be because the Lord knows that once our prayers are answered we will go away from Him. At other times it might be that we would become too puffed up if, with God’s help, we can “make things happen.” We don’t see the “big picture,” as God does, to know what is best for us. We should trust God at all times, “no matter what.”

3. Prayer and fasting

What we need, my dear Christians, is perseverance in prayer. We should also keep the fast, because “this kind can only come out by prayer and fasting” (Mk. 9:29). If we are to see lasting changes in our lives we must keep the prescribed fasting of the Church, under the direction of our spiritual Father.

Prayer and fasting are great “preventative medicine” that keeps the devil and his demonic influence away from us. They are our “insurance” that guarantees victory against the great temptations of life. They strengthen the soul, making it a powerful resistor against attacks of the enemy.

4. The gift of healing

Healing the sick and casting out evil spirits is a special gift of God (cf. 1 Cor. 12:9-10. 30). Let’s not presume it for ourselves or expect it in others. It is given by God, “as He wills” (1 Cor. 12:11), and in general, only to people of great virtue, especially humility, and always according to His inscrutable designs, of which we are not privy, and in any case not for our ephemeral and material benefit.

Let us, then, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, ask the Lord to purify us and to cleanse us from our weaknesses and to increase our faith, and, if we desire God’s gifts, then, as the Apostle says, let us “earnestly desire the best gifts...pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31. 14:1). Amen.

This sermon was written for the fourth Sunday of Lent, 1995. Heading photo by A.H.

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