Muck and Majesty at the Base of a Mountain
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
If you have a Bible, please turn with me to Luke 9:37–43a. After I read, we’ll pray and then study this together.
37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. 39 And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. 40 And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astonished at the majesty of God.
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. Please pray with me. “Heavenly Father . . .”
Some of you, if given a choice between mountains and oceans—whether to live by either mountains or oceans; or whether to vacation by either mountains or oceans—some of you would choose the ocean. And some of you would be wrong; not in God’s eyes of course, just in mine.
I fell in love with them as a boy on several vacations to Colorado. In the former city we lived in, I loved to ride my bike up all 26 miles of Mt. Lemmon. One winter, I rode to mile 18 until the snow made the roads impassable. It was majestic. As I rode down the mountain at a considerably faster speed, however, my toes nearly froze to my pedals, which not so enjoyable.
Here in Harrisburg over the last few years, I would guess that over 250 times I’ve ridden my bike up one of the several roads that get to the top of the Blue Mountain Ridge to the north of us. I just love mountains.
When we read the Bible, you’ll see that significant things frequently happened on mountains—from Mount Sinai where the Law was given, to Golgotha where our Savior died, and lots of other mountains in between. And not only was there God-sanctioned worship that took place on mountains, there was also renegade, rebel worship that took place on “high places,” which is a euphemism in the Bible for the idol worship that too often took place on mountains as well.
So significant is the imagery of mountains, that today we can even speak metaphorically about “mountain-top” experiences, those times when God seems to draw especially close. Likewise, we can speak of coming down mountains and walking through the valleys, times when God, perhaps, feels more distant.
I bring this up because in the passage we just read, the disciples come down from a mountain-top experience with God—both literally and metaphorically. In last week’s passage, Jesus showed a few of the disciples a greater revelation of himself, a greater revelation of his majesty. We call it his transfiguration. But now, the next day, they have to come down the mountain, both literally and metaphorically. And when they do, they encounter sin and evil, fear and failure. But that’s not all they encounter. There is a special majesty to Jesus at the top of a mountain, but also a special majesty at the base of a mountain and in the muck of life.
As I teach through the passage, I want to point out three things: 1.) the gravity of the situation, 2.) the inability of the disciples, and 3.) the majesty of God.
1. The gravity of the situation
Let’s start with the gravity of the situation. Rereading vv. 38–40,
38 And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. 39 And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. 40 And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
Do you see the gravity of this situation? The man uses the word beg twice, first towards the disciples then to Jesus, and the passage says he “cried out.” There is nothing polite or genteel about this. The father’s desperation is plugged into an amplifier. His son is under nearly constant spiritual attack. And he can’t fix it. He’s tried. The other gospel accounts tell us that his son has been like this for many years (Mark 9:21).
And did you note the detail about his son being his only son? That’s heavy. Was this man Jewish or was he a Gentile? Was he married or divorced or widowed? We don’t know. But we know it’s his only son. This aspect of someone’s story has occurred in two other healings already in Luke. In chapter 7, we met a widow and her only son who needed Jesus to act (v. 12). In chapter 8, we met a man named Jairus and his twelve-year-old daughter, who happens to be his only child and who also needed Jesus to act (vv. 41–42). While Jesus is helping many people, Luke seems to be emphasizing the way Jesus moves toward the most broken and desperate.
Allow me to pause for a moment on another detail, the detail about the attack coming at a child. This demon goes after a child—how cowardly! Evil really is evil. In another place in the gospels, Jesus says of Satan, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10a). Sin and evil might promise something sweet and tasty, but don’t believe it. Satan cares nothing for you but to destroy you. As Jason and I talked about this passage, he mentioned to me that as we often, but wrongly, think of God as less good than he is, so also we can think of Satan as less evil than he is. The passage says that the evil spirit takes this child and seizes him, causing him to suddenly cry out. Suddenly? There is no warning. The dad and his boy are playing catch or working in the field together, and it happens. The passage says it makes the boy foam at the mouth, shattering him and hardly leaving him. The parallel accounts speak of the spirit throwing the boy into fire and water (Mark 9:22). It’s not too much of leap to imagine that this has severely disrupted life, perhaps making the father afraid to leave his only son alone. He can’t go work a normal day.
I don’t know what sins might be tempting you today, but even if it looks pleasing to the eye, even if a serpent tells you it will make you wise, don’t believe it! He’s lying. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
On top of all the difficulties of this situation, another thing that makes this so grave is that the father can’t seem to find anyone who can help. Let’s go to the next point: the inability of the disciples.
2. The inability of disciples
You noticed this, already, though. While on his knees begging Jesus to help, the man says, “And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
We’ve been saying that this collection of passages in this section of Luke are designed to make us answer the question, Who is Jesus, but we can’t answer that question well without thinking about who we are.
My wife and I have a number of children. Every one of our children was delivered as cesarean-section or C-section. And every time, I’ve stood on the north side of the operating curtain near my wife’s head. I hold her hand; I tell her everything is going to be okay. And, thankfully, it always has been.
But as I stand there, I’m also very aware that I can’t really do anything to help—not medically, not surgically. There are many unhelpful things I could do, but for the most part, I’ve been painfully aware that if things go sideways, it’s not like I’m going to scrub up and ask for someone to hand me forceps.
One of the dangers of mountain-top, spiritual-high experiences is that we can forget our inability. We can lose sight of what our role is and what is God’s role. Sometimes we think the spiritual victories in one area can be interpreted as “we got this” in all other areas of life. And that’s not true.
When things go wrong in the operating room, and you’re not a medical professional, you don’t just jump in to help; you first cry out to God. The disciples trusted too much in themselves and too little in God.
On top of this, in next week’s passage, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest (v. 46). Are you kidding me? One of the reasons I believe the Bible is true—not the only reason, but one reason—is because the disciples just look so, so bad. They look so, so much like me.
In the other gospel accounts of this story, Jesus focuses his critique on the prayerlessness of his disciples. He tells them that this demon can only be cast out by prayer. That’s an interesting statement from Jesus because Jesus himself never prays; he just casts it out without prayer. In the account we have in Luke, however, the emphasis seems to be unbelief in God.
But when you think about it, it’s really the same emphasis. Think about what prayer is. Pray acknowledges our dependence. It does more than this, but it does at least this. Prayer is the statement that you need help, that you can’t do it on your own, that you don’t trust yourself, but you trust Jesus.
I wonder what things in your life communicate self-reliance rather than trust in God. Perhaps for you it is prayerlessness. You don’t pray because you think “I’ve got this.”
As your pastor, one of the great concerns I have for us as a church is the undervaluing of the weekly gathering with God’s people. But it’s not so much the undervaluing that, I think, is the root. It’s rather the self-reliance that expresses itself in a lazifare approach to church attendance.
Perhaps your self-reliance is expressed in excessive worry or lack of generosity. But whatever it is, the point on display is that disciples need help. And the reason I make much of our inability is because there is good news for those who embrace this truth. For those like the father who know their inability, we hear the same good news, “Bring your son to me; I’ll take care of you.” “Bring your problem to me,” Jesus is saying to us. “I’ll take care of you.”
3. The majesty of God
We’ve seen the gravity of the situation; we’ve seen the inability of the disciples. Finally, we see the majesty of God. Look at vv. 42–43a,
42 While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astonished at the majesty of God.
It’s hard to place ourselves into the emotion of this scene because it’s said so matter-of-fact-ly. But it is such a beautiful scene.
The son is brought forward, perhaps by some friends or family members of this father. Perhaps the boy is carried in from off on the side where the religious leaders and disciples were arguing. The demon, perhaps sensing this is not going to end well for him, takes his last shot to destroy, throwing him to the ground.
Then Jesus yells, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again” (Mark 9:25). Then the boy goes limp, totally motionless so that most of the crowd gasps, “He’s dead” (9:26).
Jesus walks over, perhaps stooping down and placing his hand on the boy’s head, perhaps pushing his sweaty hair off his forehead, perhaps whispering something to him. Then the boy opens his eyes, and they smile at each other. Then Jesus takes him by the hand and walks him back to his father. “You brought him to me, and I give him back to you—healed, restored, fully alive.”
This is why v. 43a says, “And all were astonished at the majesty of God.”
As we close our service, we are going to celebrate communion together. Scott Dunford, one of our pastor-elders, is going to lead that. The Lord’s Table preaches to us the same sermon you’ve just heard: the gravity of the situation, our own inability, and the provision and ability and the love and the power and the salvation and the majesty of God.
I want to be a person and pastor who spends my life saying this one message in one hundred different ways.
One of my favorite places that this has been captured, is in a tweet from a pastor and author I’ve learned a lot from. If you go to Jared Wilson’s Twitter profile, you’ll see this tweet pinned at the top:
“You’re the preacher?”
“So you’re the guy with all the answers.”
“No, I’m the guy who points to that guy.”
This is one of those times you want to be “that guy” and “that gal.” And I want us to be “that church.”
Pray with me as Scott and the music team comes back up. Let’s pray . . .