How to Strengthen Your Faith (Mk 9:17-31)

April 13, 2016 Length: 18:54

The gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is about the healing of the demon-possessed boy. In it, we can all relate to the pleading of the boy's father: "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!" To help us in our Lenten journey, Father Thomas gives us three practical ways to strengthen and deepen our faith, taken directly from this Sunday's readings.

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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! [Glory to him forever!]

Sometimes when we are reading the gospel or hearing the gospel reading, it’s hard to discern exactly what the theme is. What are we trying to learn? What is being conveyed to us? I would say that if we take both readings together this morning, the epistle reading and the gospel reading, it is about faith. We heard in the gospel reading this morning Christ pointing to the faithlessness of those who were gathered there. He said to them, “O faithless generation! How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” He said to the father, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Even the father himself, he said to Jesus, “If you can do anything…” Imagine: he said to Jesus, “I don’t know if you can do anything. If you can do anything, help my son.” And Jesus even said to his disciples…

And by the way, it’s interesting about this story this morning. This gospel reading makes it very clear that this story, which is said both in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, comes right after the Transfiguration, and they all record it mostly the same way. But in this particular case, Jesus says to the disciples when they asked him, “Why could we not heal this man? Why could we not cast out this demon out of this young boy?” and he said, “Because of your unbelief.” We don’t hear that in Mark this morning, but we heard it in Matthew. “Because of your unbelief you could not cast it out.” So I would say let’s think this morning about what it means to believe. And how can we identify and put into practice what the father said to Jesus: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief”?

I think that there are at least three things in the readings today that can help deepen our faith. Sometimes I think when we are examining our own faith we say, “I need more faith.” What does that mean? As if faith is somehow quantified. I think it’s better for us to think this way: “I need deeper faith. I need faith that is more enduring, that is broader, that is more solid.” So we’re going to think about three things today that can help deepen our faith in God.

The first is what we heard in the epistle reading this morning: to practice what Abraham practiced, and that is patient endurance. Patient endurance. It says: After God had promised Abraham that he would make him the father of many nations, he said, “After Abraham had patiently endured, he obtained the promise.” After he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. If our faith is to amount to anything, it requires of us patient endurance. Patient endurance fulfills the gospel command of Christ, who says, “He who endures to the end will be saved.” So much of our faith is weakened by the things of the world, and we might make this very clear: We see in our society today a challenge not just to people’s faith but to the very notion of faith in God itself. Faith that there is a God is being questioned in our society at every turn. We know statistically people are putting less and less emphasis in their faith on religion, that they’re not seeing the value in religious faith, that they’re not seeing the value in what it is to believe in God. If we believe in God, it means that we trust him. It means that we understand that there is something better, that there is something worth enduring all of the hardships of this life.

Last week we brought out the cross, and we said that the cross itself is the icon of this patient endurance. Christ himself said it today: “How long must I bear with you? How long must I be with you?” And yet, he followed through. He was patiently enduring even us. I think about that myself sometimes, when I become frustrated with things that are happening in my life or even things in the Church. I think about God, how God himself is patient with me, how God himself doesn’t wipe me off the face of the earth for all of the things that I do that are breaking his commandments. He could eliminate me in a moment, but God is patient with me. He’s constantly giving me the opportunity to turn to him again, to repent, to see life in a different way. So God himself is the best example of patient endurance, and that’s why when Christ comes he embodies that; he shows that. So if we want to deepen our faith, the first key is to remind ourselves of patient endurance.

The second is also in the epistle reading. It says, “Thus God, determining to show more abundantly the heirs of the promise, the immutability of his counsel, that we might have strong consolation.” What is immutability? Something that mutates—right? we know that term—something that mutates means it changes. And what it says is: the counsel of God, the words of God, the promises of God, they never change. He doesn’t change his mind. God himself is faithful. God himself can be relied upon for what he says. If we want to deepen our faith, we have to come to an understanding where God himself can be trusted with our faith. Does that make sense? Do you understand what we’re saying? That if I have faith in God, I have faith in a God who is immutable, who is changeless, and not only that, but his word, his promises, what he promises to us cannot be changed. God is not arbitrary in the way that he deals with his creation.

When we die, we’ll be brought into this church for here, and the first psalm that will be prayed over us is what’s called Psalm 119 (in the English Bible, 118 in our Orthodox Bible). And it’s the longest psalm in the Bible. What’s interesting [is that] it’s the longest psalm in the Bible because it’s about the promises of God. It’s about the laws of God. It’s about the counsels of God and how beautiful they are and how wonderful they are. There’s hundreds of verses in this psalm, and one says, “Forever, O Lord, your word is settled in heaven. Your faithfulness endures to all generations. You established the earth, and it abides.” In other words, it’s reliable. You step out of your car, and the earth is there.

So I want to give you one bit of advice to think about this, and I mean this sincerely. I notice sometimes when the gospel is read, when the epistle is read especially, people are looking around and we’re not paying attention to the words. Maybe it’s my fault; maybe I’m not speaking them clearly. And we live in 2016, where we can carry a Kindle or on our phone thousands of books, including the Bible, for free! And we can have all these printed books and we have a library and we have Bibles right by you. And here’s my question to you and here’s my challenge, and I mean this sincerely, because I think: How can we trust in the counsels of God if we don’t know them? How can we say, “I place my trust, I place my faith, my certitude, in the laws of God,” when I don’t take the time to read them or know them or understand them?

I can imagine in the first, second, third, fourth century, there were no Bibles! People didn’t have Bibles. When did the printing press come along? Gutenberg: 15th century. So today it’s different. Today we live in an information age. We spend hours and hours a day reading things on the internet, if we’re not watching videos of cats on YouTube. Can we take ten minutes a day to read the Scriptures? You could read the daily readings. You could listen to them on a podcast. There’s a very good one I know of… Or you could just open your Bible and read—something, anything! We will never have trust in the counsels of God, in the laws of God, if we don’t know them. But that’s how we deepen our faith: knowing that God’s counsels are trustworthy.

And the final point to deepen our faith is this idea of the practices. We’re in Lent, right? We’re supposed to struggle with this prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the three legs of our spiritual life. And we’re asked to do more: more fasting, more prayer. And we heard it in the gospel reading this morning. The disciples come to Jesus, and they say, “Lord, why couldn’t we cast out this demon out of this man?” And in the gospel reading this morning it says: This kind, this kind of demon, can only come out by prayer and fasting. And jaws drop all over the world, like: Well, who cares about fasting? Nobody does it any more. We’re called to do it, and we’re called to do it precisely because, in fact, it can increase our faith. And Jesus said it actually more clearly in the Gospel of Matthew. It says:

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” (“It”: the demon.) So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief. For assuredly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard-seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”

If you want to deepen your faith, you have to pray every day. You have to do this. Prayer is the way that we establish this relationship with God. It makes him real to us. He’s real, but it makes him real to us, because you have to stand before your icon corner, and you have to go through this exercise of saying or memorizing these prayers. And then you can pray in your own words, too. You have to cry out to a God whom you cannot see, other than the images of the icons that are in front of you. If you don’t do that ever, if you don’t do that, your faith will always be weak. It is impossible to have a spiritual life, it is impossible to say you believe in God and not pray. It’s impossible. And the only thing it takes is the willingness to do it, and then just do it. That’s all it takes. It costs you nothing just to do this.

And to fast. Fast means you don’t eat something, which, again, when you think about it, it costs you nothing to not eat something. We get caught up in the “Oh, I’ve got to get my half-gallon of almond milk at Whole Foods, and I’ve got to get the right kind of tofu”—so it costs something. It’s okay, but the point of fasting is to eliminate something. Again, not costing anything. These things increase your faith, because you are sacrificing something for Someone that you believe in. You see?

So when we say, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” there is something that we can do. We don’t just wait for the magic faith-fairy to come down and wave something over us to make us more faithful. We can: (1) Practice patient endurance: endure the things that happen in your life; rely on God instead, not on yourself. (2) Believe in the immutable counsels of God and know them and read them and understand them and come to live by them. (3) Practice prayer and fasting. Three things will help us to deepen our faith and make us more faithful, and when the difficult times come we will be ready; we will be on solid ground in order to face the challenges of our day.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, how rich the Scriptures are! How rich the faith is! How much God loves us and wants us to be with him, wants us to believe in him, wants us to rely on him in order to give us the comfort of faith! Let us enable this in our life. Let us trust that God is worthy of our faith.

To him who is our life, with the Father and the Spirit, be glory, honor, and majesty, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! [Glory to him forever!]