(A) Introduction. Read: Luke9v37to43 See also Mt17v14to21 and Mkv14to29.

The disciple's failure to heal the boy with an unclean spirit is recounted in all the synoptic gospels. I will refer to each one but especially to Mark as that gives the fullest account of the incident.

The details of the story strike several resounding chords for the Christian but it is certainly not without its difficulties.

The symptoms of the young man accord very closely with those of an epileptic - one whose epilepsy was probably caused by birth trauma because the sufferer was also deaf and dumb from childhood. I have no doubt that epilepsy occurred at the time of Christ and that the condition was attributable to an unclean spirit. It remains uncertain to this day what causes the brain disturbance that produces epileptic seizures but it seems unlikely that they are the result of demonic possession. However, it is quite within Satan's power to trigger a seizure if and when he sees fit. If a flickering light can do it then I am quite sure Satan can!

Another difficulty resides in the sad experience of most Christians today. Men and women still bring their sick children to the church for miraculous healing. In this respect Christians remain powerless. Are we at fault in the same way as the 9 disciples at the foot of the mountain?

Nearly all commentators, preachers and teachers spiritualise the healing of the epileptic boy but in doing so it is easy to confuse two different types of faith and get into a muddle.

Having said all this there are some very important lessons for us in the wonderful way Jesus bursts onto a scene of confusion and despair to establish order and bring peace.

(B) A rout But they could not. Mk9v18.

After the transfiguration Jesus discovered 9 disciples defeated and in disarray in the valley. Let us examine:

(1) What happened.

The disciples were confronted by a major problem and a serious challenge when a father brought to them a chronic, deaf and dumb epileptic whose condition Satan was undoubtedly going to use.

It must be remembered that all the disciples had been given power by Jesus to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and cure diseases. Lk9v1. (See my exposition on Luke9v1to9.)

In spite of what Charismatic Christians might say very few modern believers have the power and authority enjoyed by the disciples. If this power was widespread then there would be no epileptics - certainly not of Christian parents. But there are. A year or two ago I entertained a young man who preached at our chapel who had just lost a dearly loved son to a severe epileptic seizure.

The 9 disciples tried to deal with the epileptic. The father of the stricken boy said: "I brought him to your disciples but they could not heal him." Mt17v16. The disciples had some faith - they tried - and failed. What poignant words Mark uses: But they could not. Mk9v18. The disciples were powerless - the task was beyond them - as it so often seems beyond us.

(2) What followed.

The father of the epileptic was disappointed and disillusioned with Jesus' disciples. There is little doubt that his faith took a knock because he said to Jesus: "But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." Mk9v22. Many people claim to have lost what faith they had in Jesus because of the conduct of his disciples who fail to live up to expectations.

Christ's enemies had a field day. They were able to go on to the attack. I can imagine how the teachers of the law accused the disciples of promising more than they could deliver, building up false hopes and leading impressionable and desperate people astray. By failing, the disciples brought dishonour upon Jesus.

Most members of the crowd were shallow and fickle. Many followed Jesus for his entertainment value - the signs and wonders. I expect they found the failure of the disciples and the attendant controversy equally diverting.

As the unwholesome argument between the Pharisees and the disciples continued Jesus arrived on the scene. Mark reports: As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to meet him. Mk9v15. I cannot think that the crowd would be overwhelmed with wonder because he turned up at such an apposite moment. 'Overwhelmed with wonder' is a very striking expression. I think a far more convincing explanation is that the glory of the transfiguration had not quite faded.

When Jesus discovered what was going on he was exasperated beyond measure. He said: "O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you? How shall I put up with you?" Mt17v17. It doesn't sound to me as if Jesus said this with just sadness. This is a cry of anguish and exasperation that applied to everyone who was present.

The crowd, the Pharisees and even the disciples were faithless - lacking faith in him despite his many mighty works. They were also perverse. If they could get the wrong end of the stick they did. The Jews were unable to grasp who he was or why he had come because their attitudes were materialistic, legalistic, nationalistic or just down right shallow.

(3) What applies to us?

(a) Church members can fail individuals collectively by not:

    (I) Being what they are supposed to be: welcoming, inclusive, caring, encouraging or helpful. If someone comes to church for love and finds none they may be put off Christianity for life. William Barclay in his commentary on Mark quotes a story told by Hugh Redwood. It is a story of a woman who began attending a ladies meeting in the dockland area of London. She lived with a Chinese and brought her mixed raced baby to the meetings with her. She enjoyed the meetings and came over and over again. Then the vicar approached the woman and said, "I must ask you not to come any more. The other women have said that they will stop away if you continue to attend." The lady looked at the vicar and said sadly, "Sir, I know I'm a sinner, but isn't there anywhere a sinner can go?" Well - the one place a sinner should be welcome is church!!

    (II) Doing what they are supposed to do - proclaim the gospel of salvation by grace and through faith. It is a disgrace if people attending church are never told that they must trust in the saving work of Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of sins and follow him to receive the prize of eternal life. Churchgoers need to hear frequently the wonderful words of life.

            Sweetly echo the gospel call!
            Wonderful words of Life!
            Offer pardon and peace to all!
            Wonderful words of life!
            Jesus only Saviour,
            Sanctify for ever!

            Beautiful words! Wonderful words!
            Wonderful words of Life!

(b) The church attracts criticism from the world when it is unable or unwilling to deal with its problems. These include: personal misdemeanours, rampart materialism, chronic disunity, disharmony and obscurantism so far as the findings of Science are concerned. I read in the Daily Telegraph yesterday of a dispute between a vicar and his neighbour over a beech hedge. The vicar wouldn't get it cut because the funds were not available! It has been cut now! This is the sort of thing that either amuses or disgusts the world. In the churches of my own little association there has been one spat after another leading people to leave one fellowship to join another. The world, insofar as it cares, concludes, 'How these Christians hate one another." There is no doubt that Christians who take the Bible seriously are challenged by scientific discoveries about the age of the earth. Too many fundamentalists adopt the tactic of the ostrich and confuse this with faith!

(c) Jesus must still be displeased by the inadequacies of his followers, the spite and malice of his opponents and the general public's shallowness.

(C) A Remedy. "Bring the boy to me."

Jesus redeemed the situation! The way Jesus took charge teaches that:

(1) There are some problems only Jesus can deal with.

Jesus said: "Bring the boy to me." Only he could rescue him from his dreadful condition. There remains a dreadful condition that only Jesus can remedy - our sin. Peter made this perfectly clear when he said: Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." Acts4v12.

(2) When disillusioned by fellow Christians it is vital to look to Jesus.

The apostle Paul had to say near the end of his life following a trial in Rome: At my first defence, no-one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. 2Tim4v16. But he was also able to testify: But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. 2Tim4v17and18.

My poor old father let his lack of remuneration as a Grace Baptist Minister get to him. He dwelt over much on the failure of God's people to provide for him. The fact is God provided for him. After graduating and getting a teaching job I went home to live and was able to give my parents the financial support they needed in retirement. My father might have had more peace if he had trusted the Lord to provide!

Whatever the shortcomings of our fellow believers we can always take the advice of the writer to the Hebrews: Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Heb12v3

Take comfort from the words of, 'What a friend we have in Jesus':

            Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
            Take it to the Lord in prayer;
            In his arms He'll take and shield thee,
            Thou wilt find a solace there.

(3) It is sound policy to face up to the full extent of a problem.

This is what Jesus did: So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy's father, "How long has he been like this?"

"From childhood," he answered. "It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."

Jesus saw for himself the extent of the boy and father's problem. I think the awful nature of the son's seizure drove the crowd back some distance because later as Jesus prepared to heal the lad the people ran forward. The reaction of the epileptic boy on being brought to Jesus certainly suggests some Satanic involvement in his final fit if not all those that preceded it. Jesus discovered that boy's epilepsy dated to childhood.

There are some parallel's here with man's fallen condition. Jesus in coming to earth certainly experienced the full measure of the problem. Satan is involved in it - never more so than when a sinful man or woman contemplates turning to Jesus for a remedy. Our falleness, like the boy's epilepsy, dates from birth.

Unlike Jesus the church is often unwilling to face up to serious problems. In the Middle Ages the reformation might have been prevented if the Roman Catholic Church had been willing to confront the abuses and errors that had crept in over the centuries - like the sale of indulgences. It is easy to point the finger at others!! Not so long ago the small fellowship I attend had a problem. Two of the congregation always walked out of communion when our lady deacon served the bread. This had the potential of causing a lot of trouble! I knew this but put off dealing with the situation. If I had acted quickly things might have turned out better than they did in the end.

(4) Submissive or saving faith is of the utmost importance.

There are two kinds of faith - submissive and serving. Submissive faith is the kind you have in the surgeon who performs a major operation on you. The patient having open-heart surgery commits his body to the surgeon believing he will heal it. Serving faith is the type I exhibited as a teacher. Each week I would work hard in the belief that my employers would pay me at the end of the month.

The father of the epileptic needed submissive faith. It is instructive to examine the interplay between the father and Jesus.

At first the man showed more faith in Jesus' pity than his power: "But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." Mk9v22.

Jesus was not impressed. He challenged the father: "If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes." Mk9v23. This retort is so typical of Jesus. There is a certain amount of indignation in the "If you can?" But what wonderful news for sinners - for the helpless and hopeless who scarcely believe anything can be done about their lives. "Everything is possible for him who believes."

The father submitted at once. Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief." The important words were, "I do believe." When he said, "Help thou my unbelief." I think he meant, "Show me that I was wrong to doubt you."

Just so many have yielded to Jesus, been saved and given new life in him. There is no question about it. Millions upon millions could testify to it happening for them.

There are times Christians need submissive faith. Paul needed it on many occasions, none more so than when he asked God to remove his thorn in the flesh only to be told, "My grace is sufficient for you." 2Cor12v9.

(D) A Recipe. "Why couldn't we drive it out." Mk9v28.

The disciples went to Jesus in private and asked: "Why couldn't we drive it out?" This was a good question to ask. Whenever we fail it is right to ask, 'Why?' We need to learn from our mistakes. Jesus gave two recipes for successful service: "Because you have little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to the mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting." Mt17v21and22.

(1) Faith.

The faith that moves mountains is serving faith and not submissive faith. It is active and not passive. If I really believed it was God's will to move a mountain into the sea I would make a start. I wouldn't expect the mountain to move itself. I would buy a shovel and start digging.

Serving faith does move mountains. It overcomes hindrances, difficulties, barriers and obstacles. There are many examples of serving faith in the Bible and none better than Nehemiah and Esther. Both were faced by what appeared insuperable difficulties. Nehemiah did not expect God to miraculously build the wall of Jerusalem and Mordecai did not anticipate that God would intervene to save his people without Esther taking action.

Roy Hattersley in his biography of William Booth writes: The church of England denounced him. The Wesleyans ostracised him. The Establishment derided him. The brewers and publicans assaulted him. His physical courage was immense and his moral courage even greater. General Booth's whole life was a triumph for certainty. I would say that the secret of the General's success in founding the Salvation Army was his invincible faith in Jesus Christ.

In a small way I exhibited the nature of serving faith when I took on the responsibility of caring for my father who suffered from Parkinson's disease. Most people thought I would never cope but because I really believed it was God's will I did manage in spite of the many difficulties - just!

(2) Prayer

Jesus ascribed the 9 disciple's failure to heal the epileptic as much to their lack of prayer as their lack of faith. It is interesting that both Nehemiah and Esther combined faith and prayer to successfully accomplish their different tasks. When Nehemiah learned of the state of Jerusalem's walls he mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Ne1v4.

Esther after agreeing to intercede with King Xerxes on behalf of the Jews sent Mordecai this message: "Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do." Esth4v15.

The disciples in Jesus absence had not been fasting or praying but doubtless sulking and grumbling at being left behind. They were not in the right frame of mind to cast out a viscious unclean spirit.

Prayer helps to ensure effectiveness because by it we maintain:

    (a) Enthusiasm. The fires of enthusiasm are best stoked by prayer.

    (b) Dependency. It is possible that some of the disciples had begun to take their power for granted. They were like Sampson who after his dalliance with Delilah: Awoke from his sleep and thought, "I'll go out as before and shake myself free." But he did not know that the Lord had left him. Ju16v20

    When we face a difficult problem prayer brings us into the presence of God. It is there we have to acknowledge our dependency upon his grace, support and power. When Nebuchadnezzar sentenced his wise men to death for failing to both tell him his dream and interpret it Daniel joined with Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego to pray. Daniel urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery. When God answered their prayers and revealed the mystery to Daniel in a vision he acknowledged his indebtedness to his Maker: "I thank and praise you, O God of my fathers: You have given me wisdom and power, you have made known to me what we asked of you, you have made known to us the dream of the king." Dan2v23.

    Paul wrote to the Philippians: I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Phil4v13. However, God will not strengthen us without prayer.

    (c) Humility. When we prayer we remember and reaffirm that we are only servants - foot soldiers of the great Captain of our Salvation - glad to be in the ranks and available for the work Jesus wants us to do.

    Humility gives the believer freshness and winsomeness and is a quality often associated with real success in Christian service. Jesus achieved so much because he was meek and lowly of heart.

(E) Conclusion.

We are inclined to blame our lack of effectiveness as Christians on many factors. The passage we have been studying does teach us a salutary lesson. Our powerless may be the result of lack of faith and lack of prayer.