Fourth Sunday of Great Lent
Sermon given by Deacon Ian, 29/3/09
Today’s Gospel reading – important though it is - is really only half a reading, and the second half at that. In order to grasp some of its implications we need to go back a few verses and recall what happened just a little earlier on. Jesus had taken Peter, James and John up into a mountain and had been transfigured before them. And the sequel – the passage I read – is a deliberate anticlimax. As dawn begins to break, Jesus and the three Apostles descend from the mountain to the plain. There is symbolism here, as so often in the Gospels. The mountain is a place of revelation: a place where one meets God, and where truth and glory are revealed. The plain, the flat land, is a symbol of this world, with all its sorrows and imperfections. It brings to mind the cities of the plain – not very edifying places. Hence, as Jesus reaches the plain and is surrounded by the multitude, what should chiefly strike us is the extraordinary contrast between ‘up there’ and ‘down here’.
There on the mountain the disciples were given a foretaste of heaven. All was radiant, divine, ineffable. Down here on the plain, things are very different. Here is a great crowd of mainly poor people who have brought their problems and their sick folk with them. There are scribes there too, who have come to spy on Jesus, to see if they can accuse him of any irregularity; also to try to turn the multitude away from him. ‘Good people, go home. Obey the law and don’t listen to this man who is only trying to deceive you.’ And at the centre of the picture is a grotesque, unfortunate boy and his desperate father. The boy is deaf and dumb and he has fits. He falls down and foams at the mouth. He tumbles into fire and water. His condition seems to symbolize all the heartbreak, all the tragedy, all the crazy senselessness of the world. Moreover, as the Gospel reminds us, it is, very largely, a helpless world. While Jesus was on the mountain the father brought his boy to the disciples and they couldn’t cure him. What a juicy story for the scribes to spread about. Jesus’s disciples couldn’t cure an epileptic boy!
Well, isn’t life like that? There are moments when we too seem to stand on the mountain. Perhaps we experience a memorable liturgy, or we are suddenly ravished by the beauty of the world. Or perhaps we are in love and everything seems radiant and transfigured. And afterwards? We’re back in the senseless old world with its hatreds, its bewilderments and its heartbreaks.
Must it always be like that? Can we not bring something of the mountain down into the plain? In fact the later verses of the Gospel point us in that direction. The father brings the boy to Jesus and pours out his sorrow. It is one of the most moving passages anywhere in the Gospels, especially the man’s plea for help. ‘But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ And Jesus’s reply, as so often, is at least partly ironic. ‘If I can!’ If we were to pause on that phrase we’d be here all day. But among other things, what he is saying is: ‘It isn’t just up to me. I need your help. All things are possible if you believe.’ And the man replies, with tears in his eyes, ‘Lord I believe. Help thou my unbelief. And here, he surely speaks for all of us. Faith – you don’t need me to tell you this – faith isn’t about certainty; it’s about trust. Always faith involves a battle against doubt because without doubt, faith wouldn’t be faith – it would be something far less significant and heroic. This man’s faith isn’t perfect. But he’s honest. He admits to his doubts and asks to have his faith strengthened. And because he asks, out of the simplicity of his heart: he receives. His boy is healed.
There are two other things to notice about this episode. First, the father asks on behalf of the son. That is so essentially Christian, what Charles Williams called the Doctrine of Substituted Love. What people cannot do for themselves, others can do for them: by prayer, by faith, by bearing one another’s burdens. It is the faith of the godparents that enables a child to receive baptism. At an Orthodox funeral it is the choir who become the voice of the dead person, saying the prayers that he or she can no longer say in this world. The central fact of the Christian mystery is grounded in the same principle, for on the Cross Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves, namely, take away our sins. We are members of one body. We depend on each other. It has to be that way because the world can only be improved by love.
The second point to notice is that when Jesus heals him, the boy falls to the ground and people assume that he’s dead. And then Jesus raises him with his hand, just as he raises Adam in the icon of the Resurrection. Healing is a kind of rebirth, or resurrection, because affliction is a kind of death. We tend to miss that half of the message. We rejoice that someone has been made whole. We tend to overlook the death that had to precede it. A symbolic death – but do we not all, at various times of our lives, have to die symbolic deaths? We have to cope with violent change, with failure, hatred, rejection, things unravelling. But let us have faith. Let us believe that at such moments, Christ stands ready to take us by the hand and raise us up to a richer, fuller, more blessed future.