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Power Over Demons – Br. David Vryhof

Mark 9:14-29

It seems to me that we who live in today’s world, with its extensive and rapid means of communication, are more keenly aware than ever before of the tremendous evil and suffering that affect the lives of all who live on this earth. Day after day, we are confronted with images of war, genocide, greed and corruption, poverty, disease, and starvation. We live with the daily threat of terrorist acts of devastating proportions and with the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation. With this greater awareness of evil and suffering comes a great temptation – the temptation to despair. How can we remain hopeful in such a world? How do we sustain belief in the power of God to overcome these evil forces and to relieve human suffering? How can we continue to trust in God when so many things seem to have gone wrong?

I believe today’s gospel has something to teach us.

Mark tells us of a demon-possessed boy who is brought to Jesus by his father. The demon that torments this boy is powerful and seems bent on his destruction. It attempts to destroy him by seizing his body and casting him into the fire and into water. The father comes looking for Jesus and when he fails to find him, he turns to Jesus’ disciples and asks them to cast out the demon. They try, but they are incapable of liberating him from the evil power; their faith proves inadequate to the task. When Jesus returns to the scene, he discovers confusion and strife: the boy has not been helped, and his disciples have been drawn into an argument with their opponents. He firmly rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith, and then turns his attention to the boy and his father. With a single command, he drives away the demon that has been tormenting this boy all of his life.

Now this is a story about faith and its power to effect change, and it invites us to examine the faith responses of both the disciples and the concerned father. It is clear from Mark’s gospel that the disciples have witnessed first-hand the power of God to overcome demonic forces as they have accompanied Jesus during his ministry. They have seen God’s power to bring about healing and to restore life. Furthermore, they themselves have been entrusted by Jesus with authority to cast out demons and to heal the sick (6:7,13). It is not surprising then to find that Jesus expects them to be able to join with God’s power to deliver the boy from his demon. But they fail. They are powerless to cast out this evil force. Jesus scolds them for their lack of faith, but the reason for their failure is not fully revealed until the end of the story, when Jesus speaks to them in a private place and explains that “this kind can come out only through prayer” (9:29).

In claiming that this demon can be overcome only by prayer, Jesus is reminding his disciples that successful exorcists do not make use of their own power, but must depend entirely on the power of God, a power that is only realized through prayer. Their powerlessness is the direct result of their prayerlessness, and the lack of faith that results from it. We are left to speculate about exactly why their faith was deficient. It may be that, because of previous successes, the disciples were self-confident and were relying on their own power rather than on God’s power to achieve their end. Or perhaps they were so overwhelmed and intimidated by the power of this demonic presence that they gave up, abandoning any belief that God could or would intervene against such a force. (Have you ever encountered evil or suffering so great that you felt that even God could not change or overcome it?) Whatever the reason, at this moment, their faith failed them. Their connection to God was not strong enough to release the boy from the evil power that held him captive.

The father’s faith is also inadequate, though he is treated more kindly by Jesus, perhaps in the recognition that his ability to believe had just been shaken by the failure of the disciples. His is a wavering and uncertain faith. True, he has demonstrated a measure of faith simply by bringing his son to Jesus, but he lacks sufficient confidence that Jesus will be able to cast out the demon. “If you are able to do anything,” he pleads weakly, “have pity on us and help us” (9:22). He seems to have come to Jesus out of a sense of desperation rather than with hope and trust.

“If you are able!” cries Jesus, shining a spotlight on the man’s inadequate faith. “All things are possible for the one who believes.” Jesus’ trust in God’s power is sure. He believes in God, whose power is of such magnitude that for God all things are possible.

We have to be careful here not to make a false assumption. Jesus is not suggesting that if the disciples’ faith had been stronger, if they had prayed more earnestly or acted more confidently, they would have been able to cast out the demon. The expulsion of the demon is not dependent on the strength of their faith, but on the power of God. As we sometimes say, it’s not about them. The faith that casts out demons and brings healing is a faith that puts its confidence in GOD and in God’s power, not its own. Faith that is based on one’s own strength or effort will naturally result in failure, and give way to uncertainty, doubt and despair. But a right faith, centered not on itself but on God, reflects confidence in the power of God to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. It is characterized by a hopeful anticipation based on its complete trust in God, and the assurance that God is capable of defeating any evil that challenges God’s purposes in the world. This faith knows that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted or denied.

At least the father is open to receiving this kind of faith. “I believe,” he exclaims, “help my unbelief!” We might think that even this plea reveals the uncertainty of his faith. But it could just as well be said that his honest cry of faith and of doubt reveals a humility that acknowledges its own limitations and its need for God. He does not give in to discouragement. He does not turn away in despair. Instead he asks for Jesus’ help, not only for his son, but also for himself, so that he might believe God’s power to heal the boy.

So what comfort and hope can we, who are daily faced with the presence of evil and suffering in our world, draw from this story of faith and prayer?

I’d like to suggest two things:

First, this story encourages us, even in the face of evil and suffering, to turn in hopeful anticipation and trust to God, believing that God’s power cannot be defeated by evil, and that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted by any evil power. As the evangelist John testifies, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Jesus embodies that death-defeating, life-giving power, and shows here that even an evil force bent on destruction and death cannot overcome his strength to save and heal.

Do not give in to despair. Look to God and believe.

At times we will be privileged to witness evil’s defeat. In our generation the end of apartheid in South Africa and the destruction of the Berlin Wall come to mind as signs of God’s power to reverse evil and bring about good. But it will not always be so. Often we will have to wait in hope, trusting God for a victory we ourselves may never see. It may well be that deliverance will only come on that day when God’s will is fully accomplished on the earth. Christian faith holds to the promise and puts its trust in God. There is good reason to believe. There is cause for hope. Faith is possible, even when evil seems to prevail. God’s strength and power to save will always prevail.

The great spiritual leader of India, Mahatma Gandhi, once said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a little time they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall – think of it: Always.” Faith trusts in the power of God.

Second, the story encourages us to pray, acknowledging our own weakness and fixing our hope on God. We can, like the caring father, express honestly our faith and our doubt, and ask for God’s help to grow in trust. Prayer connects us to God’s power, and enables us to be channels of that life-giving power to others. In prayer we recognize the insufficiency of our own efforts and our deep need for God. We need God’s help even to be able to believe in God’s power and to hope in God’s strength.

Christian, do not give in to worry or despair. God’s strength is greater than any evil; there is no force in heaven or on earth that can thwart the divine purpose. “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom.8:31) “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom.8:35, 37-39).

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25 Comments

  1. Ruth West on September 13, 2017 at 15:56

    Br. David,
    In our Bible Study at Christ Our Redeemer, we are now focused on the Gospel of Mark with the study guide of N. T. Wright. Thank you once again for this good sermon. At the end of our lesson re: chapter nine, we have this comment from N. T. W. :”Thank God that he will help you even when you have doubts instead of complete faith, especially when you face problems and crises. Ask him to help you turn to him anyway and believe he will act.”
    Ruth West

  2. D Johnston on April 20, 2017 at 13:42

    Thank you for showing me hope in the darkness I have found myself in

  3. Ruth West on April 18, 2017 at 21:24

    Thanks, Bro. David, for this timely message. Some of my friends and I have discussed this subject recently. Our Lord Christ is able to do the seeming impossible: healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and restoring the worst of sinners to life anew. Alleluia!

  4. Mavis Latchman on April 18, 2017 at 18:32

    Your ‘exposé’ or sermon comes very handy as I am currently having problems with regard to a great fight against governmental discrimination and injustice whilst I am looking for truth and justice and where my faith in Christ is being criticized or even worse; condemned as opposed to other peoples’ faith in themselves.
    Just this evening, I have been deeply saddened by a comment on facebook made by a friend with regard to the attitude of those who pray (when referring to me) but who will not get involved and help others in distress. In fact, I have been involved and helped the group since the past two years, but after praying, I have decided to quit the group as I feel that the direction that’s being followed by certain people is not the one that God wants me to take.
    I was feeling deeply hurt and your sermon has brought reassurance and comfort to me as I have realize that my decision has been prompted by my faith in Christ Who does not want me to follow a road that He is not leading but is being led by people who only act to satisfy their own ego. Thanks so much and Praise the Lord!

  5. John McCann on April 18, 2017 at 11:23

    As an Anglican, I have never felt that doubt shows a lack of faith, it shows an engagement with belief.

    The reflections here all resonate with me. I don’t expect that God will prevent cancer, war, or other of lifes traumas, but faith can give us strength to go through life’s tragedies and triumphs, and to radiate that gift, to help us always see Christ in one another.

  6. rhode on April 18, 2017 at 07:18

    Your message is still so very meaningful and timely. I am happy to have read also my own reply of last year ..for as we know ..much can change in a year. But God changes not. “as when the enemy comes in like a flood …the spirit of the Lord will raise up a standard against him… Our Lord on the cross..our own true physician.

  7. Fred Adams on April 27, 2016 at 16:32

    “. . . and our deep need for God. We need God’s help even to be able to believe in God’s power and to hope in God’s strength.” That is such a powerful statement and give me hope as I struggle to believe more firmly and doubt less.

    Thanks, Brother

  8. Rhode on April 26, 2016 at 09:50

    Faith is the substance of all things hoped for the evidence of things not seen. I always thought this beautiful but kind of murky. I hoped for so much….for healing, for true friends, for deliverence from a violent stalker, for freedom from addiction and lying and freedom from demons of resentment and past betrayal. So much hurt and there would be even more. When I came fully broken to the Word and to prayer and to appreciate the very gift of Christ on the Cross my world did change. My new faithbased outlook created a different scenario of my life. My reactions changed over time …my resentments fell away no longer needed, over time. The Word became my rock and through it I came to a land of adventures which had been awaiting my return (thank you Auden). I noticed miracles where before I just walked a barren land. Life! Gratitude! friendships healed! Patience!! Everytime my body becomes sick and heals it is a miracle. True there is sickness that we may never recover from here on earth. But, the greatest miracle is we have forever with a majestic God who will give us back our own real self, perfected. This earth and its problems can seem like an overwhelming demon. But, as much as we long for a perfect earthly life there is a better longing which in itself embraces a miracle. Christ asks us to pray always. We are the problem. Prayer is the answer because it our portal to voice all things hoped for. To receive in love the evidence of things we cannot yet see.

  9. Marta E on April 25, 2016 at 23:39

    I am so easily tempted by the despair of aging, aloneness, lonliness, and all the evils that these conditions bring. I keep trying to center, release, and breathe, so to be able to dig out (again) and move forward. Sometimes it works, when I don’t get in my own way. . . ……… it is easier in spring-time with the joy of sunlight, night skies filled with promises of stars and moon, fragrances and colors of flowers, joys of births and renewed energy, all gifts of God. Prayer helps also . . . . . Thank you for all of yoru words of wisdom and support, another gift of God.

  10. Paul on April 25, 2016 at 16:58

    Two things: I don’t know about you but my faith is imperfect and may always be; I always say “help my unbelief” and I will continue to do so until the day I die. At the same time, although my faith is not and may never be perfect, I am content that it is “perfect enough.” Truly content and grateful. Secondly, I have some experience with mental illness; and I believe that, faith or not, it will always be a part of the human condition. Instead, I try to become aware of the lessons to be learned and the spiritual gifts hidden in the mental illness — my own and others’ — and whether cured or not, the gifts for me have been palpable. Thank you, Jesus.

  11. Gretchen Crawford on April 25, 2016 at 13:36

    Thank you!

  12. a city monk on April 25, 2016 at 13:21

    What are these signs?
    Where do the signs direct us to go?

    I am spending more time pondering how these signs direct my heart to bear witness to Jesus’ relationship to the Father… here Jesus reveals something more about when he prays… who is it that prays? Jesus reveals that which is essential, source and summit — from which and toward all good comes and returns to…
    thanks giving
    and praise….

    so easy living in a “quid pro quo” culture for my heart to stick out a chin to assert… ok, I gave you faith now you give me! and give it NOW! and its to look like this! and nothing else will do! I’ve done it countless times, and haven’t we all…. Yet Jesus slowly amends all that magical thinking. Bit by bit…

    turn that over and over in the prayer of your heart, sweat away your errors, discern the truth….

    amen amen amen

  13. Judy on April 25, 2016 at 10:54

    Simply put…my heart needed to hear these words today.

  14. Ruth West on August 2, 2014 at 21:05

    I stand corrected. It was Christina I am agreeing with. Thanks!

  15. Rick Woollacott on July 31, 2014 at 20:13

    Yes, it is all God and not us when healing takes place. It is God’s power and many times healing does not take place the way we want it to happen. It is all God’s timing and in the end, all believers will be healed.

    Amen,
    Rick

  16. Margaret Dungan on April 22, 2014 at 14:24

    Thank You Br.David This is definitely one
    to save. I am sure Iwillrea it many Times.
    Margaret.

    • Christina on July 31, 2014 at 09:51

      Margaret: I’m afraid I’m not on the same page with you today. In the above passage it seems that if my faith had been greater John’s Parkinsons could have been cured, and, then, latterly his cancer would not have been terminal.
      Where was God? Well, the two diseases were not cured but God was with me and granted me the gifts of patience, compassion, a loving heart and the strength to put one foot in front of another for the years and final months. What gifts from the Eternal God.
      We’ll talk more about this another day when we get together.
      Blessings. Christina

      • Ruth West on August 2, 2014 at 21:03

        Thanks, Br. David, for this good message.
        I agree with Margaret. My husband’s illnesses were not healed, but it was not a lack of faith, for lack of faith does not limit the power of God. I liked Br. David pointing this out to us.
        To God be the glory for keeping us connected to Him, despite the circumstances.

  17. george miller on April 22, 2014 at 14:08

    i have a question..what would you call “healing” for the boy, if the same thing happened today? What would you ask of God? Is it right to ask that God’s love be manifested in him, regardless of his physical health?

  18. A Gordon on April 22, 2014 at 12:57

    Thank you for a very instructive and encouraging sermon and may I take this opportunity to say my lent and Easter were much enhanced by your daily Blogs My thanks to all the Brothers

  19. Joan Hawkesworth on October 22, 2012 at 12:45

    David—
    I trust GOD all the time or try to. Especially after having Pneumonia this summer and getting older I notice that I can not do what I used to do. It also scares me about getting older I talk to GOD about it all the time and try not to be scared. Going to the Monastary on Wed. and talking to GOD has helped. I talk to God at Home too. Thank You

  20. DLa Rue on October 22, 2012 at 09:37

    How timely.

    My daily reading has just set me wading through Jeremiah… Jer 11 – 12, to be exact.

    Talk about perseverance.

  21. Margo on October 22, 2012 at 06:40

    Br,David, In our world are God’s purposes and evil always clearly and unambiguously obvious. After our multiple holocausts can we really claim God’s purposes are never thwarted? Can one really claim the current regime in SA is creating a more just soceity than the one they had? Are the people behind the ‘wall’ more liberated today than they were?
    Faith and trust that everything will not be resolved in the here and now but as you have said elsewhere when everything is all wrong it is also somehow alright.
    Roms 8::35, 37-39. Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you margo

    • margo fletcher on September 11, 2017 at 10:09

      Dear Br. David,
      I still love this sermon but in 2017 I wonder if this attitude leads to indifference and quiet collusion with the status quo. “All will be well : every manner of thing will be well….” so in the “in between times and sometimes the very in between times” hope not action is enough.
      Perhaps just a little fire and brimstone?
      Margo

  22. Melanie Zybala on March 17, 2012 at 06:41

    A powerful statement. Thanks for not condemning the boy’s father for his desperation.
    I have heard too many clergy of different denominations criticize his passionate cry:
    ” I believe. Help my unbelief.” I’ve been more helped and more freed from guilt about lack of faith
    by this honest plea than by almost any other statement in the Bible.

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