The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews. (6:13-20) and The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (9:16-30)
These readings are given to us for the fourth Sunday of great and holy lent. We are more than halfway through the contest. But it still seems that the end is a long ways off. We begin to feel exhausted by the extra services and because we have fasted. Little things might frustrate us or make us feel anxious. Things that didn’t tempt us in the first few weeks of the fast may have worn us down and now we find ourselves feeling a bit defeated. Perhaps our passions have gotten the best of us. Perhaps our poor habits are trying to overwhelm us.
Now is precisely when the Church reminds us of why we fast. We see this clearly in the gospel reading. A young boy was demon possessed and his father brought him to the disciples to cure him. The disciples had done this many many times over the years. Our Lord Jesus gave them the power to do this. Yet in this particular case, it was all to no avail. The father of the young man was so desperate for a cure for his son and in his desperation he uttered beautiful words from the depths of his heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!”
Perhaps at this point of the fast each of us has had a moment or two where we feel the depth of this despair and where we want to cry out with the father, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” The Lord does not like to see us suffer, but we know that the Lord loves it when we understand our situation and turn to Him as our only hope. In truth we don’t have the power to solve our problems or fix our brokenness, but God does have this power. So we are given the opportunity to become like the man and cry, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” To this cry, the Lord responded swiftly with His cleansing words and healing touch and he healed the young man.
Later, after the crowds dispersed we are told that the disciples were surprised and wondered why they couldn’t cast out the demon and heal the young man. What the Lord Jesus tells them is an important thing for us to remember today. He said “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” He is acknowledging a spiritual reality that we cannot see with our physical eyes. Not all problems are the same. Not all spiritual issues are of the same strength or intensity. Some issues are far more stubborn than others and in order to counteract such stubborn demonic issues, our faith must be really strong, fully charged and ready for the warfare.
It is no surprise to us that the Lord tells us that the path to strong prayers and strong faith is through bringing our prayers together with fasting. God desires to give us control over our spiritual lives and to make great progress. Fasting is part of the path to spiritual victory. This is one of the reasons why fasting is a staple of Orthodox Christian living. We fast for over 200 days of the year. The Church is reminding us that while we are alive and in the flesh, we are at war and we have to be ready for the assaults of the enemy.
St. Theophan the Recluse writes, “Although there are a slew of demons and all the air is packed with them, they cannot do anything to one who is protected by prayer and fasting. Fasting is universal temperance, prayer is universal communication with God; the former defends from the outside, whereas the latter from within directs a fiery weapon against the enemies. The demons can sense a faster and man of prayer from a distance, and they run far away from him so as avoid a painful blow.”
My brothers and sisters, it is God’s good pleasure to help you and to heal you of all your spiritual infirmities. In fact this is exactly the message of today’s epistle to the Hebrews. It tells us that “when God made a promise to Abraham, since He had no one greater by whom to swear, He swore by Himself, saying, “Surely I will bless and multiply you.”” and it continues saying,
“So that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should prove false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…”
All of this is shared with us today to give us encouragement and boldness. God has promised to bless us, His children, as He promised to bless Abraham. Now is not the time to wilt like an old unwatered flower. Now is the time for us as Orthodox Christians to seek Christ even more boldly and to grow strong and courageous in this battle. If God is for us, who can be against us? The battle of Lent has lingered on but it will not go on forever. We will be victorious over our sins, our passions, our spiritual infirmities and weaknesses not because we are strong. Far from it. Because HE is strong. We will even defeat our final enemy, the final boss, who is death, because He has defeated death. Have faith. Be firm. Be ready to follow Christ now on the path that He has given us, with prayer and fasting. The struggle is worth it because Christ is worth everything in our lives. To Him alone be the glory with His Father and the Holy Spirit AMEN.