Pastor Drew Williams
Last summer, when my daughter, Emmy, was only two and half years old, we took her to her first little amusement park, Adventure City. And she rode all the little rides, but she is a thrillseeker and pointed to the biggest ride in the park, the roller coaster, and begged me to take her.
Now, I come from a long line of thrillseekers. My grandpa on my dad’s side loved to drive fast, and would often take us to the tallest hill in Laguna Beach, and just floor the acceleration all the way down. My dad and my uncle loved amusement parks, especially the roller coasters. To them, the more intense, the better.
But when I was a kid, I was terrified of roller coasters. Honestly, I was terrified of most rides that went too fast, or too high.
I mean, I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but for a while, I didn’t even like going on swings at the playground. Because when we got going too high, it would make my insides fluttery and twist around. And I didn’t like that feeling of not being in control.
And even as I got older and came around to like rollercoasters, my least favorite part was still the drops. I could handle going fast. I could handle the twists and turns, and even the loops. But every time we would begin that long, slow climb up a hill, and you see the world get smaller and smaller beneath you, I would just agonize over the coming drop.
And so when my daughter asked to go on the rollercoaster, I had a moment of pause. But she was too excited, and she was tall enough, so we went on it together. This is a picture of Emmy riding her first roller coaster ever:
All smiles, all giggles, loving every minute. Loving the highs and the lows, and especially loving the speed.
In life we experience some of the same things. We experience highs and lows, and times of speed, and times of agonizing waiting. But I’d like to think that if we remember that we’re riding WITH Jesus, it changes our perspective on it all.
So today, we’re going to see how Jesus handles the highs and lows, and how he invites and challenges those who follow him to exercise their faith.
PASSAGE Luke 9:37-45
I told you that this story was going to talk about highs and lows, and it starts with them literally travelling from a high place, the mountain where they witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus and the voice from heaven declaring his divine identity, travelling DOWN to where the rest of the disciples are interacting with a large crowd.
Peter, James, and John are flying high after having seen and heard those amazing things, and they are still trying to process what they experienced. Meanwhile, the rest of the disciples have been a little overwhelmed by the demands of the crowd in the absence of Jesus. They’ve fallen short on at least one request, so they’re probably anxiously awaiting Jesus’ return.
But notice that they aren’t the first ones to talk to Jesus. Instead, a man calls out from the crowd, “Teacher, I BEG you to look at my son, my only child…”
If you’ve been paying attention and following along during our journey through the gospel of Luke, your mind is probably being transported back to a few previous stories.
We’re reminded of just last week when the voice from heaven identified Jesus as “my son.” We’re reminded of when Jesus entered the town of Nain and saw the funeral procession for the “only son” of a widow, causing him to raise that boy to life and restoring him to his mother.
And here again is a man who is desperate for the healing of his only child. We find out from his description of what ails his son that the boy is experiencing something that sounds a lot like grand mal seizures, also known as tonic-clonic siezures, where the person experiences phases of stiffening and then jerking.
The father then lets Jesus know that he first asked the disciples to help, but they were unable to do anything. Maybe that’s why they’ve been silent up to this point. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that Jesus commissioned them and gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases. That was literally at the beginning of chapter 9!
That was when Jesus had sent them out on their OWN to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. And they had done just that! They preached the good news and healed people. But this time around, they are unable to.
Now, Luke’s version of this story doesn’t contain as many details as Matthew and Mark include. Matthew’s recollection of this story includes Jesus pointing out that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains and cast out demons. Mark’s rendition of this story has the father admitting that he needs Jesus to help him in his disbelief, and the disciples finding out that this type of healing requires prayer.
But our text today doesn’t include those details. Luke doesn’t seem as concerned with HOW Jesus is able to do the healing. Instead, Luke focuses on WHO Jesus IS that he has the power and authority to cast out a demon, heal the boy, and restore him to his father.
Because THAT’S the amazing part of this story. While the father is bringing the boy to Jesus, the boy experiences convulsions and is thrown to the ground, but Jesus REBUKED the spirit, HEALED the boy, and GAVE him back to his father.
Jesus demonstrates his divine power over the dark, harmful presence. And, with Jesus, divine power leads to physical healing, which then leads to the restoration of relationships. Once again, we see that Jesus brings TOTAL healing, not just for those who are ill, but healing for their families, and healing for their community.
This was the type of healing that Jesus’ disciples were not able to do on their own before he came back down the mountain. Maybe that’s why Jesus said what he did before he performed the healing. I got a little ahead of myself and skipped over Jesus’ words, but when the father tells Jesus about his son and about the fact that the disciples couldn’t do anything about it, Jesus offers some words that sound a bit harsh:
“O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?”
Whoah, these seem like strong words, and without being able to hear the tone of voice Jesus is using, they come across as negative and biting. But who is Jesus speaking to?
We know this isn’t directed just at the father, because when Jesus speaks of a “generation,” and when he asks “how long shall I stay with YOU and put up with YOU,” he’s speaking to plural people. Generation refers to a group of people, whether grouped together by ethnicity or age, and the two times he says “YOU” are plural, so they can be translated “y’all” again. How long shall I stay with you ALL, and put up with you ALL?
So who is this directed at? Well, there is some disagreement among Biblical scholars. Some believe that Jesus is indicting his disciples for not being able to cast out the demons. Jesus has been slowly raising up his followers to join him in the work he’s doing, and he’s actually given them all they need to preach and heal, so when he comes back from a night of prayer and finds out their lack of ability, finds out how NOT ready they are to continue his work without him, then maybe he calls them out.
Other scholars think that Jesus is actually making a general chastisement against unbelieving Israel, who are unwilling to receive their Messiah and the healing he brings. But honestly, it’s not super clear in the text which one is right. And as your pastor, I’ve got to admit to you that I don’t fully know. However, I lean more towards the first reading, where Jesus is calling out his disciples. And that’s because of what comes next in our passage.
The disciples have tried and failed to heal this kid, and apparently they’ve either moved on to other people or just given up, since they aren’t coming to Jesus for help with it when he arrives. Jesus seems to scold them for this, and then he heals the kid and returns him to his father.
And our text says that the whole crowd that was present was “amazed at the greatness of God.” And this makes sense. This is a familiar scene for us. We’ve seen it happen before: Jesus comes into a town or a village, and teaches and preaches with such authority that everyone is drawn to him, including people who are outcasts or needy in some way. Jesus heals and restores them, and the whole town or village is amazed, knowing that God is present in some incredible way. Usually, they want to celebrate or crown Jesus as king, but he stops those attempts at upward expansion and turns the conversation towards the sacrificial nature of the kingdom of God, where justice comes through service, not the sword.
So here we go again, Jesus has just done something incredible, and the people are all marveling at him. But Jesus doesn’t let the disciples get caught up in the reveling of the crowd. Instead, he points forward to what is waiting for him in Jerusalem: betrayal and death.
In fact, our text tells us that Jesus said, “Listen CAREFULLY to what I’m about to tell you…” But this falls a little short of the emphasis Jesus is using when he pulls his disciples aside. If you translated the Greek a little more literally, it might say, “You MUST put these words in your ears.”
Jesus knows that in the midst of the celebration of the crowds, the most important thing he has to remind his followers in that moment is that this type of admiration is short-lived. Jesus knows that the concept of sacrifice and suffering isn’t one that comes naturally to his followers, so he chooses to teach it plainly and repeatedly so that they can learn.
Jesus is trying to teach his disciples that following him isn’t always safe.
But the disciples don’t get it. They don’t understand how betrayal can happen to someone they just confessed as the Messiah. How can such a popular person, that is clearly chosen by God, be someone who is subjected to suffering? How can that be God’s plan?
And I don’t know about you, but I can relate to this. I don’t like to think of the fact that following Jesus isn’t always safe. I often let obstacles stop me. I’ll feel a prompt from God to reach out to someone, or to start praying for something, but when it gets difficult, or when I come up against resistance, I quickly shrink away, just like the disciples who shrunk away from the father and his son who was experiencing convulsions.
We all do this to some extent, don’t we? We take our cues about whether or not God is “in” something, or whether or not we’re on the right path, from whether or not we feel successful or safe.
Is the new Bible study going well? Praise God! Isn’t this great?! Did that conversation with our neighbor seem to be smooth, and they were open to you? That’s great! God is leading the way!
But if it’s not going well… If our friends start to get flaky and don’t come to our Bible study every time… If the neighbor seems a bit closed off to you… then maybe it’s just better to protect ourselves. Maybe it’s better to NOT put ourselves into a difficult situation, where it’s hard.
But following Jesus isn’t always SAFE. If it were always safe and easy, it wouldn’t require FAITH.
Jesus didn’t promise OUR victory. He didn’t promise us a life of ease if we follow Him. He proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and he DEMONSTRATED the kingdom of God with his downwardly mobile life of sacrificial service.
And that’s why he’s taking the disciples aside at this moment, explicitly telling them that his identity as the Messiah involves BOTH his exalted status as the chosen son of God, as well as his rejection by humanity. And he’s inviting them to trust him, challenging them to have faith in him both in the face of success as well as possible failure.
Are the disciples truly with him? Are they willing to have FAITH through the highs and the lows? Through the healings and the droughts? Are they willing to have faith in him through the crowds AND the crucifixions?
Or are they only in it for the good times, and then they pull back when it gets hard, or when they fail?
I mean, did you notice who had the most faith in the beginning of our story? It wasn’t the disciples, since they weren’t really seeking out Jesus. Maybe they were busy moving on to other people they thought they could help. Maybe they were feeling sorry for themselves because they couldn’t help the boy.
But the father was the one who demonstrated FAITH. He sought out Jesus. His faith pressed FORWARD beyond the failure he had met with the disciples.
Does ours? Do we press forward beyond failure? Do we put our faith in Jesus even when it doesn’t seem “safe” to our well-kept and quiet lives?
Or do we have fairweather faith? Just like the “fairweather fans” of a sports team who are only around, showing up and declaring their allegiance to the team when the season is going well. But if they’re in a losing streak, the fairweather fans are nowhere to be found.
These last few years have really put a lot of pressure on followers of Jesus. We’ve been through a pandemic, political pressures, national crises, tension from so many sources, and isolation from each other.
And through it all, many followers of Jesus have decided that the church family that they had been involved with wasn’t the right fit for them anymore. Maybe they were tired of the fighting. Maybe they were tired of the waiting. Maybe they found a new church family to be a part of. Maybe they didn’t feel like they needed to be a part of one at all anymore.
And this isn’t new, it’s been happening for a long time, but the last few years accelerated this for many people. Many of us have friends and family that have stopped going to church, or have stopped being willing to talk with us about matters of faith.
Maybe YOU are someone who chose to detach from your church community.
It hurts. It’s really sad to lose those connections with people who once felt close. I have grieved it myself. And I have often wondered if people leaving has meant that they no longer want to follow Jesus. I easily assume that it means they have turned their backs on their faith.
And maybe that is true for some. But maybe for others, the hurt and tension in the church became too much of a burden on their faith.
And then I look at my own faith, and I realize how I’m susceptible to it, too. I easily let my faith in Jesus ride the waves of my feelings day to day. Some days, I’m feeling healthy, connected to my family, and I have a sense of purpose in what I’m doing. Those are good days. I feel connected to God those days.
Other days, I feel bored, or depressed, or listless. God feels distant. I don’t really want to connect with him. It’s easier to distract myself or zone out or find some other way to put in effort and create my own sense of meaning and accomplishment.
I can easily have fairweather faith. Can you?
But what if we didn’t keep our faith resting on our own effort or our own feelings? What if we remembered that our faith is in Jesus, the chosen son of God!
What if we remembered that Jesus already KNOWS how fickle we can be, and that’s why he accomplished what we could not accomplish on our own? Jesus has already cleansed us of the sinful nature that kept us enslaved, unable to follow God.
We were like that boy, unable to control ourselves when the convulsions came on, unable to speak, unable to breathe, unable to be helped by human intervention. But Jesus, through the power that he proved when he beat death and rose to life, has cast out that power of darkness in our life. He has healed us so that we can truly LIVE. And he has restored us to relationship with our heavenly father.
What if we responded in faith like the father in our story, who pressed forward in faith to seek out Jesus? Because even though following Jesus can be great sometimes, he promised that there would be lows along with the highs.
And we can get discouraged by setbacks, or loss, or hardship. But the father in our story kept pressing forward to find Jesus, even after meeting failure with the disciples.
So what if we pressed in to prayer when we’re experiencing lows? What if we recommitted to studying Scripture when we’re experiencing despair? What if we trusted that Jesus can handle our hardship?
Following Jesus isn’t always safe, but we can SEEK OUT JESUS in the lows.
But we can equally get distracted by signs of success, right? And everytime Jesus’ disciples were witnesses of incredible miracles and times of great success in ministry, Jesus always redirected them to not get caught up in that. He pointed them back to the Kingdom of God, shown in small, simple, slow demonstrations of love and care. Those who try to be first won’t win, but those who sacrifice for others and serve them are the ones of highest regard in the kingdom of God.
So what if we pressed into prayer and the word when we’re experiencing success and favor? What if we trusted Jesus to show us the true path forward to his abundant life in the kingdom of God?
Following Jesus isn’t always safe, but we can SEEK OUT JESUS in the highs, as well as in the lows, because Jesus has proven himself to be the chosen Son of God, the savior of the world. Jesus has already given you grace and forgiveness, he has already made you righteous before God, and he has already invited you into a life of following him each and every day, learning how to join him in mission, offering healing and restoration to the world that God loves. Isn’t that good news?