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A Distraught Dad, His Demonized Boy, and a Faith that Moves Mountains

Mountain-moving faith is a faith that accepts only God can resolve ‘this kind.’

Author’s Introduction: If Mark 9:30-50 defies interpretation, as commentator Eugene Boring claims, the verses that immediately precede are only slightly less difficult for the preacher to navigate.

Jesus’ exorcism of a demonized boy at the foot of the mountain where he was moments earlier transfigured appears in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 17:14-21; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:37-43). Only Matthew includes the line about a faith capable of moving mountains. Mark’s record is the longest. The following sermon retains Matthew’s imagery but expounds Mark’s account.

Careful readers will notice that all quotes come from the New King James Version. The reason being that the NKJV includes the textual variant “and fasting” in verse 29, omitted by the ESV and NIV.

The punctuation in verse 23 is another translational matter that separates the three versions. Rather than delve into whether Jesus was scolding the boy’s dad for questioning Jesus’ abilities, as indicated in the ESV and NIV, the sermon accepts the NKJV’s more restrained translation.

Verbal contractions are common throughout the message, hoping to capture the emotionally tense and dialogical nature of the pericope itself. The text is raw. The crowd is incensed; the scribes are arguing; the disciples are confused; the boy is sick; his dad is desperate and disappointed, angry and accusatory; and Jesus appears agitated while not sounding like himself in his rough response to the distraught dad (v. 19, NKJV).

Presented on Father’s Day, the sermon interweaves the themes of children and their parents, particularly dads, and mountains and faith throughout.

On the surface, it is structured traditionally in three points with the third presenting the “big idea,” creating an inductive arrangement. Beneath the surface, readers familiar with Paul Scott Wilson’s “four pages” of sermon development, will detect the sermon opens with trouble (identified here as mountains) in our world, proceeds to trouble in the text, turns to God’s action in the text, and concludes with God’s action in our world. It is no accident that the lengthy illustration found under the third point is taken from a book penned by three of Wilson’s former students in honor of his life’s work.

The long illustration about a dramatic healing is followed by two shorter ones to show that mountain-moving faith sometimes moves mountains that are not as visible or immediately displaced. Returning to the distraught dad’s prayer serves as a fitting conclusion.


A faith … that moves … mountains. Three times in the Gospels Jesus speaks of that kind of faith. Nowhere more famously than in Matthew 17:20, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Wonder what that kind of faith would look like today? What it would feel like to possess it?

“Now don’t go making a mountain out of a molehill!” people say. I know molehills. They’re a common sight in my northwest Mississippi neighborhood, including my own backyard. I’ve tried everything to get rid of those moles. You name it: battery-powered buzzers, poison, sprays and pellets, and grub killer to eliminate their food source. I even brought in some muscle by adopting a dorgi to deal with the problem. Rusty is half dachshund, half corgi. Wonderful dog! Terrible hunter! Forget a faith that moves mountains. I’d be happy with a faith that moves molehills.

Got any mountains that you’d like moved?

My dad is in the mid to late stages of Alzheimer’s. He must now sit on a stool to dress himself. He can disappear into the bathroom for a shower and not reemerge until an hour or two later, spending most of that time standing around and trying to figure out what to do next. Most days, he can’t recall his own address. His tools lie silent and gathering dust in his work shed. There was a time that my dad could fix just about anything—around the house, in the yard, or on a car. Now, he can’t figure out how to fill a cup from a restaurant’s soda fountain. Alzheimer’s is a mountain.

A member of my wife’s family is married to an abusive man—not physically abusive, but verbally and emotionally abusive. He tries to control her. She has suggested they see a marriage counselor. He refuses, happy with himself just as he is. Being married to someone like that is a mountain.

Did you know that the first weekend in June every year has been designated as the World Weekend of Prayer for Children at Risk? It’s when Christians are asked to pray for the 1.2 billion(!) vulnerable children in our world and those who minister to them. According to UNICEF, the International Labor Organization, and other groups that deal with children:

  • Every day, 30,000 children under the age of five die of preventable diseases like diarrhea, measles, and malnutrition.
  • AIDS has orphaned more than 40 million children. Without parents to care for and protect them, they are at increased risk for neglect, abuse, and malnutrition.
  • Every year, one million children are forced into the commercial sex trade to join the 10 million children already trapped in it.
  • There are 246 million children engaged in exploitative child labor.
  • Around the world, there are more than 150 million street children.
  • Worldwide, there are approximately 46 million abortions each year.
  • More than 674 million children live in absolute poverty (lacking resources to meet basic human needs).
  • Ninety percent of casualties in armed conflict around the world are civilians, and half of these are children. (Data from Nazarene Compassionate Ministries.)

Now that, that is a mountain.

The kids and their parents at St. Jude’s Hospital certainly have some mountains they’d like moved. That’s how moms and dads are. They’ll try anything, even if it involves moving heaven and earth, to help their sick child. It’s no accident that when Jesus spoke those words in Matthew 17:20, he spoke them to the father of a very sick boy. You’ll find the fullest version of that story in Mark 9:14-29 (NKJV).

A faith … that moves … mountains. Wouldn’t you like to have that kind of faith? I know I would. You’d have to possess a heart as cold as ice to see all the suffering in this world and not want a faith that was strong enough to do something about it. What does that kind of faith look like?

Mountain-Moving Faith Was not the Faith Demonstrated by Jesus’ Disciples

When begged by a distraught dad to cast a mute spirit from his bedeviled son, Jesus’ disciples tried. They really tried. And it’s not like they hadn’t enjoyed success in casting out demons and healing people in the past. Mark 6 recalls that when Jesus sent out his disciples on a short-term mission of mercy: “He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits … So they went out and preached that people should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them” (vv. 7, 12-13).

They’d done it before. Why couldn’t they do it now? Maybe it was precisely because they had done it before. They were experienced. They had been empowered by none other than Jesus himself. Maybe that’s what they were relying on. If so, it was their undoing.

Three times Samson lied to Delilah about the source of his strength before telling her the truth. When she at last knew his secret, she lulled him to sleep on her knees and called in a barber. This time when she shouted, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson,” Judges 16:20 reports: “So he awoke from his sleep, and said, ‘I will go out as before, at other times, and shake myself free!’ But he did not know that the Lord had departed from him.”

It happens all the time. We enjoy a measure of success and soon start to rely on our natural talents, learned skills, past experiences, and spiritual gifts. When the call comes, we shake ourselves to duty, assuming things will work out as they did before. But we do not realize that the Lord’s good hand has departed from us. Afterwards, with shame and confusion burning our cheeks, we wonder what went wrong.

The disciples had failed, spectacularly(!), and the crowd let them hear all about it—particularly the scribes. The scribes were experts in Old Testament law and qualified to draft legal documents. In that sense, they were lawyers. Can you see it? The disciples had failed, and the lawyers were already circling.

Isn’t that how it goes whenever we Christians fail to live up to our ideals? The world pounces and somebody threatens to hire a lawyer.

Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that the disciples failed. After all, twice in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus said to them, “O ye of little faith.” Clearly, they didn’t demonstrate a mountain-moving faith here in Mark 9.

Mountain-Moving Faith Was not the Faith Demonstrated by the Afflicted Boy’s Father Either, at Least not at First

He started out well enough but somehow got sidetracked. He told Jesus, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who has a mute spirit … So I spoke to your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” Did you catch it? “I brought YOU my son… So I spoke to YOUR DISCIPLES that THEY should cast it out.” He had settled. He meant to get his boy to Jesus but settled for something less than Jesus.

The disciples weren’t Jesus. The saints to whom some people pray aren’t Jesus. Your pastor isn’t Jesus. (Run from any pastor who claims to be!) This church isn’t Jesus. No church is. No denomination, convention, fellowship, or movement is Jesus. That faith-healer on TV certainly isn’t Jesus. Accept no substitute! Only Jesus is Jesus.

One of the most important lessons you will ever learn in life is this: It is the object of your faith and not its size that matters.

Let’s imagine that you live in ranch style house of 1,800 square feet, one story tall. You decide that this year you’re going to clean out your own gutters instead of hiring someone to do it.

You borrow a truck, drive down to the local hardware store, and walk over to the ladders section. You could get by with a 12-foot ladder but decide to go with a 24-foot extension ladder just to make sure.

You drive back home, drop the tailgate, pull out the ladder, and promptly lean it against your neighbor’s house. What’s wrong with that picture? Obviously, you can’t clean out your gutters when your ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. It doesn’t matter how tall or sturdy you think that ladder is.

Faith is like that. It’s not the size of your faith but what you’re leaning it on that matters.

Is anyone besides me troubled by how Jesus responds to this distraught dad? “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to me.” Ouch. Some translations and commentators try to soften the blow here by claiming that Jesus wasn’t talking to the dad but to his own disciples or to the crowd. Personally, I think Jesus was speaking to all of them, and to us.

Since the Enlightenment, we’ve been living in a disenchanted world—a world devoid of the divine. Faith is now called superstition. Religion is placed at odds with science. The spiritual is absorbed into the physical. If you doubt that, tell me, what was this boy’s problem? Seizures? Epilepsy, perhaps? Not according to Mark. There was an “unclean spirit” (v. 25) in the boy.

Western interpreters would have us view it as a medical condition. Our brothers and sisters in Africa who don’t so easily separate the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of a person would have us see it as both a medical condition and something more. It’s that something more that makes it a mountain.

If it was only mental or physical, maybe we or a specialist somewhere could do something about it. But it’s more than that. There’s a spiritual component to it. That’s what makes it a mountain.

As if on cue, the demon manifests itself. The dad begs for Jesus’ help, and Jesus tells him to believe. Now, give the boy’s dad his due. He admits it. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” And Jesus did. He cast out the unclean spirit and freed him.

But that’s not the end of the story. “And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, ‘Why could we not cast him out?’ So He said to them, ‘This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.’ Here, at last, is mountain-moving faith.

Mountain-Moving Faith Is a Faith that Accepts only God can Resolve ‘this Kind’

This kind. The kind that human ingenuity can’t solve, can’t remove, can’t heal, can’t change. This kind. How do you get this kind to budge? You pray. Maybe you fast.

The Bible from which you’re reading may have a note attached to this verse indicating there’s a textual variant here. Some of the oldest manuscripts don’t mention fasting. Maybe “fasting” belongs here; maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know. But I know this: fasting done the right way pins all its hopes on God; fasting done the wrong way hopes to pin God into a corner.

How do you get this kind to budge? You pray. Maybe you fast. God moves the mountain. Always?

Terry was a recently retired philanthropist and business owner from around Chicago. Twenty years ago, Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, asked him to mentor a recently released inmate living in the city. Realizing that he didn’t know enough about prison life to help the man, Terry decided to visit the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola where his mentee had been incarcerated. It was our nation’s largest maximum-security prison throughout the 1960s and 70s, known to most people simply as “Angola” or the Alcatraz of the South.

During his visit at Angola, Terry attended a worship service led by one of the institution’s inmate-pastors. With 200 men packed into a small room overseen by a single guard, the meeting began with singing and prayer requests. The pastor asked Terry if he had a request. “No, not for myself, but you could pray for my daughter. She suffers from trigeminal nerve disease. It’s an extremely painful disease in her face.” The request was recorded. Others were offered.

Just as they were about to pray, a young man halfway back stood up. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I think that the Holy Spirit would like us to lay hands on Terry as we pray for his daughter.” The inmates gathered round, while their somewhat unsettled guest stood quietly under the collective weight of their hands—hands that had once robbed, raped, murdered, and done who knows what. They prayed, and the service went on.

Terry eventually returned home. Days passed. Nothing had changed, not that he expected it would.

Two weeks later, he was flying back to Chicago from a business meeting in California. Ordinarily, after his flight reached altitude, Terry would haul out his laptop and go to work. But on that flight, the woman sitting beside him beat him to the punch, dropping her tray table and flopping down a book that intruded into his workspace. He glared at her then glanced down at her book. It was opened to a drawing of something he immediately recognized.

“That’s a trigeminal nerve,” he said.

“Yes,” answered his surprised aisle mate. “Are you a doctor?”

“No, I have a daughter with trigeminal nerve disease.”

“Oh, I am a doctor and my job is traveling around the country educating other doctors about trigeminal nerve disease.”

As they talked, she told Terry about a new drug called Lyrica that had shown success in treating the condition. He wasted no time calling his daughter from the airport after his plane landed.

The next day, Terry’s daughter set up an appointment with her neurologist. Yes, he had heard of Lyrica, but she couldn’t take it and the narcotics she was taking to manage her pain at the same time. She would have to be weaned off the narcotics over a three-week period before trying the new drug. Those three weeks promised to be filled with excruciating pain from what was nicknamed “the suicide disease,” a condition so painful that people stricken with it often ended up taking their own lives.

At her doctor’s urging, Terry’s daughter took a day to consider the cost before deciding to go through with it. She prepared herself mentally for the agony that was sure to come but went through her first day without narcotics pain-free. Day two, still no pain. Thank God! Day three, day four, still nothing. Three weeks finally passed without any pain whatsoever. She never did start taking the new drug. She didn’t need it.

The inmates prayed. God moved the mountain. (Source: Joni S. Sancken, Luke A. Powery, and John Rottman, Getting to God: Preaching Good News in a Troubled World [Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2023], 84-87.)

Anita was my pastor’s wife when I was a teenager. Anita was dying from cancer. She had tried everything—chemo, radiation, vitamins, prayer, you name it—to get rid of her cancer. Eventually, miraculously it seemed, she was cured. But while she was still fighting it, my mom watched Anita. She saw how gracefully, how peacefully, she handled her hair loss, anemia, nausea, and everything else that attends cancer and its treatments. And because of that, my mom rededicated her life to the Lord. Even before God healed Anita, he had already used Anita’s faith to shake my mom’s world.

Cindy has cancer. Her husband Mark is one of my colleagues. For years, Mark and Cindy served as foreign missionaries under the oversight of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Mark sent out an email to our staff requesting prayer for Cindy. In it, he wrote:

As you may know, Cindy’s most recent treatment for multiple myeloma has ceased to arrest the spread of the cancer. Over the past seventeen years since her diagnosis, she has benefitted from half a dozen or so treatments. Failing the Lord’s intervention, only one or maybe two known options remain available moving forward. We are grateful to the Lord and have confidence of her full healing in this life or the next.

“In this life or the next.” Will Cindy be healed? Will God move that mountain? Mark and Cindy believe so, “in this life or the next.” That’s what you call mountain-moving faith.


Mountain-moving faith is a faith that accepts only God can resolve “this kind,” whether He chooses to do so now or later, in this life or the next. Mountain-moving faith doesn’t always move the mountains we see, but it’s the kind of faith that causes people to sit up and pay attention. It’s the kind of faith that shakes up cynics and shuts up skeptics. It’s the kind of faith that turned the world upside down two thousand years ago, and can do so again. Do you believe that?

I do. Well … standing down here in a valley surrounded by mountains as far as the eye can see, I think I do. I hope I do. I hope we do. I certainly want to. Don’t you?

“Lord, we believe; help our unbelief. Please, and amen.”

Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

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