4th Sunday of Lent – Orthodox Homily on Answer to Prayer

We hear in the Holy Gospel of St. Mark today, “Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit.  And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.”

If God desires to give us everything we need, why then does it seem that our prayers sometimes go unanswered, that healing remains such a mystery, that some who beseech the Lord for healing, don’t receive it?  Today’s Gospel is instructive in this regard: A despairing father comes before the Lord, beseeching Him on behalf of His mute and demon-possessed son.  The father describes a heart-breaking image of the evident pain the demon is causing his son as it seizes him, throws him down, and leaves him barely alive.  Those of us who are parents can especially identify with the father’s anguish at his son’s ailment.  The father confesses to Christ that he brought his son to the disciplines but they couldn’t cast out the demon.  In utter desperation, the father comes to Jesus himself when all other avenues for his son’s healing have been exhausted.  

So how does Christ respond? First, Christ isn’t indifferent to the child and his father. Rather, He is saddened by the state of the son even as He laments the faithlessness He sees around him, saying, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Not only could the disciples not cast the demon out, but the child’s father, pleading with Christ, says, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”  If?  If Christ can do anythingIf the Creator of all, the Giver of Life can do anything?  

Christ tests the father’s faith so that He can push him toward greater faith. This is one of the keys in terms of our own requests for healing in soul and body, as well as for answered prayer in other regards.  Faith in God is necessary for our answered prayer.  It is in drawing closer to God, availing ourselves of Him, His truth, His healing, that we see and are open to God’s work in our lives.   Christ God indicates to us here that the father, through his mustering of greater faith, has a part to play in whether or how his child is healed.  The Lord responds to the father pointedly, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”  And it’s at that point, that the father understands and gives an answer that bespeaks the humility indicative of a deeper understanding and faith, saying, “Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief!”  Christ heals the boy at that very moment, casting out the demon.  

Learning to give ourselves, our physical and spiritual needs, over to the Lord is indeed a journey of faith, of greater trust in God.  This trust is certainly needed with regard to our material provision and physical needs, but also, certainly, for our spiritual provision and needs also.  God works through such persevering prayers, which deepen our faith and trust in the living God.

But how else do we come to possess such faith?  Jesus Himself gives us the answer: The disciples are bewildered as to why they could not cast out the demon.  They come before Him to ask, “Why, Lord, could we not cast him out?”  Christ answers, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” It is evident by our Lord’s response that the disciples did neither. Lent is the season of prayer and fasting, meaning, that it is also the season of great potential progress in opening ourselves up to repentance and growth in faith, communion with the God of all who became incarnate to save us, and yes, heal our souls.  When we fast, we’re more vulnerable, open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit for change, growth, and yes, healing.

Just as our fasting needs to be prolonged and consistent during the 40 days and Holy Week, so too our prayers need to be strong and consistent as we cry out to the Lord for the change He would work in us, for the faith we need to heal and grow.  This act of contrition, humility, patience, perseverance, is precisely the door through which our faith is strengthened as we cooperate with the Lord in His response to our prayers, our pleading.  For this reason, the virtues we need to gain and the vices we need to expunge, are repeatedly prayed through the Prayer of St. Ephraim and repeated in the Old Testament readings provided throughout the Fast.

The fact is that this cooperation, this humbling of ourselves as we come before the Lord to beseech Him for what we need, opens our hearts to Him, to His gracious work in us, pushes us to faith, without which no mountains—either physical or spiritual—can be moved.  

This is true for all that we need in Christ for our healing and salvation: God can take the stingy person, and with faith, can make him generous; God can take the prideful person, and with faith, can give him a humble heart; God can take the obstinate and self-willed person, and with faith, can make him obedient, implanting in him a teachable spirit; God can take the lustful person, and with faith, give him purity and whole-mindedness.  God can take the most hopeless situations and infuse them with fresh hope for nothing is impossible with God.  

With fervency and consistency of prayer faith increases.  When combined with fasting, our prayers are strengthened.   When we’re put to the test, as this father was, our faith grows if we avail ourselves of Christ and the Church.  I think many of us have seen this in our responses to the epidemic that threatens all of humanity.  When we don’t immediately receive what we believe we need, we pray more.  Don’t give up!  Expect that God will work through your prayers as you ask the intercessions of the Saints.  Through such prayer, our communion with God the Holy Trinity is furthered and we are conformed more into His likeness.

“Everything is in the power of the one who believes” (Mk. 9:23).  These are words of truth, consolation, and encouragement offered us in today’s Gospel.  St. John of Kronstadt asks of these words, “Do you see what power the Lord gives to faith and to the faithful?”  But you have to ask yourself the following question: how much do I really desire Christ and His Kingdom?  How much do I believe?  Most of the time, we’re like the father in today’s Gospel who says to the God of the universe, the Maker of heaven and earth, “If you are able to do anything.”  Often, people say, “well, if nothing else, we can pray,” as if prayer is the last resort along the lines of “Well, if nothing else works, I might as well try prayer.”  “If You can do anything, Lord…”  “O faithless generation, how long shall I bear with you?”

The father’s faith didn’t stay in that place of doubt.  We hear his heart-felt confession: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  The cry of the heart is enough.  The Lord responds to his tearful cries, the faith that begins with a desire for the healing work of the Lord is received as cooperation with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives too: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  

Brothers and sisters, If we want to see the Lord at work in our lives, giving us healing, hearing the cries of our hearts, then we also need to make use of prayer, fasting, worship, and alms to defeat the evil one’s influence over us and find freedom from the passions, the materialism of this world, and our reliance on all that’s temporal.  The power that Christ gives to the one who believes, the one who desires the faith to believe, is more powerful than the one who tempts us, deceives us, and wars against us.  “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”  Remember His final victory before us, His divine answer to the defeat of sin and death, as He reminds His disciples today: ““The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.”  Beseech the Lord and know that He loves you and hears you, and that He desires more than anything else to bring you to that point when He can hear you cry out, “Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief.” 

Fr. Robert Miclean

Holy Archangels Orthodox Church

29 March 2020/Sunday of St. John Climacus

Epistle: Hebrews 6:13-20

Gospel: Mark 9:17-31