Prayer Paradox

Text: Mark 9:14-29
Full Sermon Draft

This text itself is something of a paradox. It has two of the most memorable phrases from the gospels. “I believe, help my unbelief” which in the story context is this heart rending plea of desperation. And it has Jesus’ summary to the disciples, “This kind only comes out through prayer” which can seem oddly tacked on to the story, seems to add a differentiation to spiritual evil and makes a comment on technique that is wholly absent elsewhere, and added to that is the manuscript tradition adds fasting to prayer. Our two best manuscripts do not have fasting, the first corrector of one of those manuscripts added it, almost all the other manuscripts have fasting. The best textual scholars all say fasting was an early churchly scribal addition, but the evidence of it being original is somewhat staggering for such an easy verdict. The reason that is interesting at all is that driving out spiritual evil by fasting would be a long term thing while just by prayer is an in the moment operation. The disciples did not fast because the bridegroom was with them (Mark 2:18-19). With fasting Jesus’ words would seem to be directly addressed to later hearers after the bridegroom had ascended.

And this is the paradox, with all that interesting stuff to ponder, this episode has been sparsely preached and commented on. Interesting sayings and emotional scenes are usually sermon goldmines. You can here preachers everywhere saying, “That will preach”. Not so much here.

My approach was to struggle with what I think is the central paradox. The father in the story is example. We are the disciples, or they are our entry into devotion. The time that prayer is most necessary, is exactly when you don’t believe in the person you are talking to. When you are thinking – “My God, why have you forsaken me?” is exactly the time you need to say “Into you hands I commit my spirit.” A paradox of prayer.

Less brought out in the sermon, but still something of a paradox is the question of exactly who believes and trusts? Is it our belief and trust that enables miracles? Or is the one who believes really Christ alone? His belief is given to us. His belief helps our unbelief.

Both of those will preach. Both of them point to a deep promise – “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory – Matt 12:20.” At those breaking moments are when we can be most sure of grace.