Signs and Wonders and Real Change

Last week’s passage (Mark 9.14-29) ends with a statement from Jesus that reframes the meaning of the passage, like watching The Sixth Sense. But we hardly notice it because we’ve heard this passage so many times and have cultural construct of faith healings that tells us what it means. We imagine all of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms as a show designed to convince people of his power. When he says, “This kind [of demon] only comes out through prayer,” we seldom notice that he never prayed. He does not mean to pray in that moment, but to commit to a practice of prayer to develop oneself spiritually so that we might be empowered to go out and help people become whole, to find peace. It is not journey for the consumption of other, requiring theatrics, but an internal journey that requires introspection and intimacy with God and others.

In this light, we can go back and read it again. When Jesus comes down from the mountain after the Transfiguration, he is annoyed. There is a ruckus in the valley and we can imagine why. First, Jesus has earlier complained that “this generation seeks a sign, but they won’t get one.” Here, the scribes are probably cajoling the disciples to attempt a healing and the disciples, always looking for power and prestige in Mark, are all too willing to oblige. And it fails. This is their big moment, when everyone will see their power and follow them.

Second, Jesus is supposed to on the DL. Every time he does something miraculous, he tells people not to tell anyone about it. And yet, here we are with another crowd. Someone’s a snitch. Jesus knows that transformation happens, not on a stage, but face-t0-face and hand-to-hand. Notice that he goes inside as soon as this is all over.

Jesus gets to the root of the issue and speaks directly to the father of the boy who needs help. I imagine this as an intimate conversation, like an EMT ignoring a gathering crowd to understand what is happening from those involved: “What’s the problem? How long has he been like this? It’s going to be okay.”

The father responds with his own intimacy and trust. When asked if he believes, he says honestly, “I believe; help my unbelief.” We sometimes imagine that faith means to simply accept what we are told uncritically. But it’s really about trust and risk-taking, being vulnerable to possibilities that might not make sense to us initially. The father’s faith is in admitting that he does not know, telling this man who is said to be the Anointed One of God that he’s just not sure. What he does know is that he loves his son and can’t bear to see him suffer. That is faithfulness – to his son and to God.

I won’t deny that there are sometimes big moments in our journey of faith. Sometimes, whether by a great sermon or hitting our own personal bottom, we need that big moment to shake us out of our old patterns. But there are dangers. In our Gospel story, we see that those big moments involve a lot of ego and very little change. In the story of the Exodus, we find that the changes are short-lived. It never takes long for the Israelites to forget the signs and wonders, the plagues, the parting of the Sea of Reeds, the water from the rock, or the manna from heaven. It’s never enough to sustain their faith on that long journey.

I wonder if God learned something in that march to liberation. In the first record of the event of the incarnation, Jesus works in secret. He’s not interested in giving a sign, but in changing the material reality of people’s lives so that they are empowered to participate in their own liberation. After those big moments, we can only ask, “What now?” But Jesus’ mission in Galilee was so compelling that people could not help but tell others. Their lives were changed permanently because he gave them what they needed for life to flourish.

We can learn the same thing. Our inward journey matters because it empowers us to go out and make the outward journey of faith, the journey to a world of peace and justice. The inward journey gives us compassion and the ability to be vulnerable on the way, so we can see the need of the world and have clarity about how to act. We’ve talked before about three questions for interpreting Scripture: Who is God? Who am I? What do I do? These work for life, too. It’s not the big events that will give us those answers, but what we do every day in the privacy of our own heads and hearts and relationships.

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