Turn please to Matthew 17. We're looking today at verses 14-21.
I want to make four points from this incident that Matthew records. I've tried to express them simply. But speaking for myself, I find they give a deep challenge to the way I see life. As I've been trying to absorb what Jesus says here, I've found myself having to think afresh about the future. I've been asking myself: 'Just what does the Lord want us in this church to accomplish for him and by his power in the years ahead?' And surely that's the right way to frame the question. The question this passage raises is not 'What will God do, while we sit back and watch?' Nor is it, 'What can we do on our own?' The question is, 'What are we going to do, by his power, for him?'
And the reason that question is forced on us is there in v 20. What Jesus says there is the climax of this whole passage. Jesus says to his disciples:
"I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."
Now obviously we must watch out for misunderstandings here. Is Jesus saying that if only we were good disciples we could have half the Lake District shifted across the country on to the Town Moor in time for Christmas? No. Is this a promise that if we have faith Newcastle will stay at the top of the Premiership? No. What Jesus says must be properly understood, in the context of all of his teaching.
But we mustn't explain away the force of this. If we take a fresh look at this, and take it on board individually and as a church, we will see things happen for the Kingdom of God and for the gospel that we would not have thought possible.
So there on the outline are my four headings, which we'll consider in turn.
First, PEOPLE NEED TO BE RESCUED FROM SATAN
Satan is God's enemy, opposed to God's rule and God's ways. He is evil and a liar. And he is powerful. Satan has a strong grip on people in many different ways. What we see here is just one example of the effect of the deep influence of Satan on someone's life. This boy is demonised. In this case the effect of the presence of the demon in his life is epileptic symptoms.
Look at verses 14-15. A word about the context first of all. Peter, James and John have been up on the mountain with Jesus, where they saw him transfigured before them and talking with Moses and Elijah. And they heard the voice of God the Father telling them to listen to Jesus, his beloved Son. This was all too much for them, and they ended up like a gibbering mass of terrified jelly on the ground. There's an impressive contrast between the divine glory of Jesus and a frailty in the disciples that we know all too well. Anyway, they come down from the mountain to rejoin the others. Verse 14 takes up the story:
When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 'Lord, have mercy on my son,' he said. 'He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water…'
This father attributed his son's distress to demon possession. How do we know? Because the account in the parallel passage in Mark's Gospel tells us. It also has a graphic description of the boy's symptoms. The father said to Jesus…
'… [my son] is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.'
Now of course symptoms like that are not necessarily the consequence of demonic oppression. They may just be the result of a physical condition. So was the father right to identify the cause as a demon? Yes. We know that because Jesus cast out the evil spirit and the boy's symptoms ended.
Now presumably we could still encounter a case of this sort, though I have never done so. But surely the importance of this for us is that this boy is a particularly dramatic example of much wider Satanic oppression under which people live their lives.
Satan is very active in the world. And perhaps the most deadly of his strategies is all-out opposition to the gospel of Christ. Satan hates people coming to faith in Christ. At every stage he fights God's plan to save people by faith in the death of Jesus for our sins.
So even through Peter himself, just before this incident, Satan tried to trip up Jesus on his journey to the cross. Do you see that – top left hand side of the page. Jesus tells the disciples that he's got to be killed. Verse 22:
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 'Never, Lord!' he said. 'This shall never happen to you!' Jesus turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me…'
Satan failed at that line of defence and was forced to fall back. His next line of defence is to try to prevent effective evangelism. He closes people's minds to the truth of the gospel. 2 Corinthians 4.4:
The god of this age [that is, Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ…
When people hear about Jesus, Satan does all he can to prevent them from acting. So Jesus warns in the parable of the sower that Satan will cause people to ignore the gospel message that they've heard, like a bird snatching seed from a path as soon as it's sown.
When people do come to faith, Satan falls back again to a new position, and waits for any new opportunity to destroy people's faith. Peter knew this from bitter experience and later wrote:
Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
Satan hates it when people trust in Jesus. His whole purpose is to kill faith and destroy life. He is a liar and a murderer. He was two thousand years ago when he tried to destroy this boy. He is today.
This boy's dramatic experience of demon possession is a powerful reminder of the everyday, undramatic, if anything even more devastating Satanic oppression under which millions who reject Jesus live their lives.
All around us, people are in desparate need of being rescued from Satan's clutches. That's the first thing we need to be clear about.
Then the second thing is this.
Secondly, IF WE LACK FAITH WE HAVE NO SPIRITUAL POWER
Spiritual power is what it takes to release someone from the chains of Satanic oppression. And on this occasion, that power is precisely what those disciples did not have. So in verse 16 the boy's father says to Jesus:
'I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.'
Satan's demonic underling had a stranglehold on this man's son. It was trying to throttle the very life out of him. And the disciples couldn't set him free.
They should have been able to deal with this. Jesus had given them explicit authority to handle situations like this. So back in 10.1 Matthew records how Jesus …
… gave [the twelve apostles] authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
He said …
… 'Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.'
There was no question that this was what Jesus wanted them to be doing. But there was nothing new about this failure of faith on the part of Jesus' followers. Matthew has already recorded a painful series of failures even among the leading disciples like Peter. We've seen one of them already - Peter's failure to listen to Jesus amd accept what he said. Back in 14:30-31, Peter boldly goes after Jesus walking on the water. But (I quote)...
When he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out 'Lord, save me!' Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'You of little faith,' he said, 'why did you doubt?'
One chapter later Jesus says to an uncomprehending Peter, 'Are you still so dull?' And then another chapter beyond that finds Jesus rebuking the disciples again: 'You of little faith.' It always seems to be two steps forward and one step back as far as their faith is concerned. And I imagine that when we step back and look at our faith we can easily identify with the clowning around of those disciples - standing one moment, flat on their spiritual faces the next.
But the frequent failure of those disciples' faith should not be any comfort to us. The response of Jesus to their failure is really chilling. Verse 17:
'O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?'
Looking back from this side of the cross and resurrection, we know what the answer to that is. Jesus will stay with us as long as it takes. He will not give up on us. But that's no thanks to us. That's thanks to his self-sacrificial love and grace and patience.
When we examine our own lives, it's as well to be aware of this deep frustration that Jesus expresses. The more clearly we see just how much Jesus has to put up with in his dealings with us, the more surprised and grateful we'll be that he doesn't walk away from us and leave us to stew.
If we lack faith we have no spiritual power. The disciples tried to deliver the boy. But they weren't acting from faith. Over these next few weeks – and not least this evening - we're going to be pulling out all the stops in an effort to rescue more people from Satan and bring them safe home to Christ. We're planning and organising and inviting and cooking and singing and soon setting up I don't know how many candles. But we can slog our guts out all we like – if what we do lacks faith at the heart of it, it will have no spiritual power at all. And that should challenge us to heed the next two points.
Thirdly, JESUS RESCUES PEOPLE FROM SATAN
Look how simply it's put in verses 17 and 18:
[Jesus says] 'O unbelieving and perverse generation, … how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.' Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment.
That is where the power lies: with Jesus. Evil powers are stronger than we can handle – but they are broken by a word from Jesus. He is the Lord of lords. He is not in competition with any other power. He doesn't wrestle with Satan to see who'll come out on top. There is no question about it. Satan and all his demons are subject to the power of Jesus. A word of rebuke – a word of command – and the demon is gone, and the boy is well again. And that's what Jesus does for people. He sets us free from Satan's oppressive power – from his lies and from his murderous intent. So Paul says in Colossians 1.13:
[God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness [that is, Satan's kingdom] and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
And later in the same letter he describes the victory of Jesus over all the forces of evil in these terms:
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
To be sure, Jesus paid a high price for our freedom – the price of his own life. But that was not because of any strength of Satan's. It was because of our sin. It was because justice had to be done. The penalty had to be paid. And even as it was paid, the power of evil was broken once and for all, just as God had planned.
Satan still thrashes around. But the damage he still does is his death throes. He is finished – thanks to Jesus. Jesus rescues people from Satan. So just as that demonised, suffering, boy is an image of the oppressive power of Satan in unbelieving lives, so that healed, released boy is a picture of what Jesus has been doing and continues to do in countless lives since that day. As Paul says, …
… All over the world this gospel is growing and bearing fruit, just as it has been doing among you, since the day you heard it.
Jesus is supremely powerful. He rescues people from Satan.
Fourthly, IF WE ARE TRUSTING IN JESUS WE CAN DO ANYTHING
Because it is Jesus who has the power, and not us, spiritual effectiveness comes from working with everything we've got for the sake of his kingdom, in obedience to his commands, trusting in his promises, and in total dependence on him to do the really hard part of opening blind eyes and setting people free from Satan's grip. That's what the disciples had to learn again and again in those early days with Jesus. Verses 19 and 20:
Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, 'Why couldn't we drive it out?' He replied, 'Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there', and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.'
Removing mountains was proverbial for overcoming great difficulties. But of course Jesus is not saying that with faith our every whim will be instantly granted, as if faith were some kind of genie, bottled up and ready to release power for us to do whatever we want. To think like that is to miss the point completely. Jesus is saying that faith will enable us to accomplish all everything for which he has given us authority. There will be nothing that God calls us to do that will be too hard for us – not because we will be strong, but because he will supply all the strength that we need.
And we don't need massive faith. We just need true faith. A tiny seed of faith will do. And what is true faith? It is a deep personal trust in God that leads to prayer and that expects him to work.
So what obstacles do you face to doing what God has called you to do? What obstacles do we face as a church? Do we lack the gifts? Are we short of workers? Are we tired? Are we afraid? Are we just too weak to cope?
We have to understand our call right. And that means we must listen to the Lord's promises and commands as they're set out here in this book. It means forming our plans according to them. But if we do that then no obstacle is insurmountable when we depend on Jesus. A word from him, and we're over it.
Now we have no specific promise that our evangelism up to Christmas will see hundreds of people coming to Christ. But we do know that the gospel works. As we persevere in telling others about Jesus, the gospel will grow and bear fruit. And the day will come when we will stand before the throne of God with 'a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language' crying out "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb [– to Jesus who gave his life for us]."
That's guaranteed. It's a promise. That doesn't mean we won't have to work hard – far from it. It doesn't mean that we won't have to struggle and suffer. We will. That's quite clear in here as well. But Satan will not stop us. Nothing will be impossible for us as we work for God's glory, in God's way.