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Luke 17: Miracles, Faith, and Changing the Mind of God

Good morning, church. Please go with me in your Bibles to the book of Luke, chapter 17. If you don’t have a Bible with you this morning, just raise your hand and we will bring one to you, which you are welcome to keep.

We’ve been in a series for about four weeks now asking the Lord to teach us to pray. Jesus assures his disciples, over and over again: when we pray, God hears us. Every time we come to him, even in the middle of the night, even if the need is small and unimportant, like a good father responding to an upset child, every time we come to him, he opens his door to us, every time we knock. Every time we look for him we find him, because he wants to be found.

Jesus assures us God hears us, but I’ll admit to you, it’s hard to believe sometimes, at least for me. I’ll speak for myself. This morning we’re going to talk about miracles, faith, and changing the mind of God in prayer. We already talked about prayer’s ability to shape us, to raise us up as mature believers. A lot of prayer is about shaping us as Christians, rather than shaping the world around us. We don’t control God, and we don’t control what he does. But also, the God we worship is a God of miracles, a God of signs and wonders.

I want you to know this morning that I am a skeptic, one who questions, one like Thomas who refuses to believe things without good reason. I was a science teacher. I once had a youth minister beg me to stop asking my questions in front of other people. I earned a masters degree in apologetics mainly to get good answers to doubts I had. I don’t say that as a brag or a confession, but as a help to you to understand what I am about to say. I believe the miracles of the Bible actually happened—that’s why people talked about them and wrote them down and passed them to their children.

I believe Christ really rose from the dead; it’s probably the most historically attested event of all time, and his followers died for the belief. We would be foolish not to believe it. And if Christ was raised from the dead, that changes everything. Not only do I believe the miracles of the Bible actually happened, I believe that the God of the Bible, who is alive again today, still performs miracles constantly throughout the world.

Nothing has changed about his character or his work in the world from that time until now. Nothing about the Spirit of God has ceased in the world. I’ve been a part of miraculous things happening. Everything we are about to read is not just possible in the world today, but because of the character and activity of God in the world, I view the miraculous as inevitable in the course of the coming of the kingdom of God, and his kingdom draws near.

Read with me, Luke 17, staring in v.5 [Luke 17:5-19]. This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

Let’s start with v.6 and what it means to pray in faith, because I’m going to say praying in faith is not what most of us think it is. There is a widespread false teaching that faith is like money, where if you’re a good enough person, you earn faith and get to spend it however you want, on happiness or cars or success. That’s not what Jesus means at all. He’s not telling you your faith should grow like a mustard plant, or an investment account, in order for you to be a good Christian, in fact he’s saying about the opposite.

The sister passage of this one in Matthew is famous, where Jesus teaches faith is able to move mountains. This one, he’s talking about uprooting a mulberry tree, and I understand why we usually preach about this out of Matthew. The mulberry tree image is way less dramatic. Also, what’s a mulberry tree? It’s this. I had to look it up. Looks delicious, though. If I were to move a mulberry tree with faith telekinesis, I’d use faith to move those berries to my belly.

But the idea in both passages is the same, faith the size of a mustard seed—which, mustard seeds are tiny, like the ball of a pen—faith the size of a mustard seed is able to do incredible things in the world. You can move mountains and mulberry trees, neither of which we have in New Orleans, so that just makes it all the more impressive. What is he saying with this teaching?

In Matthew, the conversation is framed differently. The apostles try to heal a child who is possessed and having seizures, need all around. And the apostles are baffled. Probably like us, today, oftentimes if I meet someone who has a whole lot of overlapping need, it’s hard to know where to start. Do I pray for you? Give you food? Take you to a doctor? Therapist? Exorcist? Do you need to be Catholic to perform an exorcism, or do they sell like a kit?

The apostles can’t heal him, so his father pushes past them to bring the child to Jesus. Jesus heals the precious little boy and gives him back to his father. And the disciples, instead of rejoicing with the people that this child of God, who was lost, is found, they are upset. They question Jesus about why their prayers didn’t work to heal the boy, and Jesus tells them the problem with their prayer was that they lacked faith, and if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they would be able to move mountains.

I wanted to teach from Luke, because Jesus’s message is a bit clearer here. The apostles are focused, not on the glorious miracle Jesus performed, or the child rescued. Instead, they want Jesus to increase their faith; they want power to be the miracle workers. This is what we do. We focus more on the ability to perform a sign than on the person and kingdom to which the sign points. This child of God was possessed and now is freed, but we are more concerned about getting our miracle, being able to direct the power of God in the world. This passage, at its core, is a passage about humility, and we use it to stoke our pride.

Jesus tells his disciples, basically, don’t worry about enoughness with faith. In the kingdom of God there are no heroes of the faith. There are only two characters in this drama, There is God, and there are sinful, broken people, and you are not God. The smallest amount of faith is enough. Your faith in God, even if it’s like the smallest thing you can barely see, that amount of faith is enough for God to be able to work in and through you. You don’t have to have some great faith, be some great person who’s on tv or in the pulpit, who makes their bed and answers all their emails—you don’t have to be that person for God to work through you. Our God is able to work through broken people, with tiny amounts of faith, to move strong trees, to move mountains, to do miraculous, impossible things, and in fact our God often chooses the weak to shame the strong.

I have often asked Jesus the same questions his disciples ask in these two passages. Lord, increase my faith! Lord, why was I not able to heal this person? And because God doesn’t change, I believe he is answering me today in the same way he answered his disciples then. This isn’t about you, it’s about God and the person he is healing and restoring. You don’t need more faith, you need humility. You need to know this power doesn’t belong to you, and believe God is able to do whatever you ask of him. God is able, but he is also Lord. You are not in charge of the Holy Spirit, but he is still the major power of the universe, and nothing is able to stop him from accomplishing what he desires.

I remember at my first church in New Orleans, the pastors of the church gathered other pastors in the city, and they went to pray over a young woman, a student at Tulane, who had an aggressive, terminal cancer. They prayed for her to be healed, and she had a scan the next week to check the progress of treatment, and the cancer was gone. The doctors were baffled, they took another scan because the first one must have been a mistake, but no, cancer gone, this young woman was miraculously healed. Praise God from whom all blessing flow.

The same pastors a few months later got together to pray for my dear friend Landon, whose birthday would have been the day I wrote this sermon. He had cystic fibrosis, and they prayed for him, and I prayed for him daily for years, and he died about a year later the day I graduated from seminary with my degree in apologetics, as if Satan were asking me whether or not I was prepared yet to answer my own doubts.

It’s easy enough to believe in a God who performs miracles, but only for super-holy people who have the faith and the gift and if you just try a little harder, maybe God will show up for you, too. And it’s easy enough to believe in a God who just doesn’t work in the world anymore. What’s hard is believing in a God who is able to do impossible things and who doesn’t always do what you are desperate for him to do. That is both incredibly hard to believe and incredibly true of the God we worship. God is able to do impossible things, but he is Lord, not you. You don’t need to increase your faith, but you do need to know he is able to work in and through you.

When is the last time you prayed for something impossible to happen? Or do you wait for God to be the last hope before you place your hope in him? Or are you so afraid that he won’t do what you ask that you’ve learned not to ask? Are you afraid if God gets involved you’ll lose control? Because that’s always been true—you never had control of your life to begin with, you may as well invite God in.

I would challenge you to pray for impossible things, because nothing is impossible with God. Pray for mountains to move, and trees to uproot; for tyrants to fall and injustices to reverse. Pray for people to be healed—even yourself, even if you’ve been trying for years—for people to be raised from the dead. Pray for food to multiply when you don’t know how you will feed everyone. Or, teacher, pray for that student who is never going to change. Or, doctor, for the patient you are about to lose. Pray for whole cities to repent and believe and for peace to come with justice, for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. God is able to do the impossible. Pray in faith.

Secondly, this: praise the Lord, not his servants. Praise the Lord, not his servants. I don’t know if anyone was thrown off by Jesus’ comments about the servants and the Samaritan. Don’t be. He’s not saying this is a good way to treat your servant, and he’s not saying it’s a good thing that there is a cultural and racial divide between the Samaritans and the Jews of his day, he’s just pointing out that people do treat their servants this way, and his fellow Israelites did tend to look down on the Samaritans. He’s using what is real to contrast and point to the ideal.

He’s pointing out the irony that, most people, if they hire someone full-time, they are going to get that servant to do as much work as possible, and they’re not going to go around thanking them all day for their work either. Most of the time, you show up and you’re expected to do your job. You only hear about how you’re doing if you fail. We’ve probably all had that job at some point, and so had Jesus’ listeners.

But even in a healthy home or workplace, you don’t get praised for doing what’s expected. No one thanks me for raising up the kids who have come to us. Opposite, we take a lot of flack. No one knows about or thanks me for all of the texts and emails I send as a pastor, the conversations I have, the prayers I pray for you. And I’m not trying to be thanked by you, I want the Lord to see me. I’m trying to hear, at the end of my life, “well done good and faithful servant.” I’m trying to do what has been asked of me. So Jesus’ point in this parable is, if we are in Christ, we are his servants. So why should we expect people to praise us for doing the work of the kingdom? Why are we trying to be the miracle workers and gain honor? Do your job.

We’ve been talking about faith and prayer. In Jesus’ day, a lot of church folk would use church as a way to be seen. They would dress up, they would go to the temple in the center of town, make sure everyone saw them going to temple, they would take a long time washing themselves outside, then give heavy coins that would make noise going into the collection, and then stand tall and pray loudly where everyone could hear them. I’m sure their prayers were beautiful, and I’m sure, just like today, they had a plaque on the wall or a building named after them.

Jesus is basically saying, what, we’re supposed to revere these people for doing what God has asked of them? We’re supposed to go around thanking them for giving to the temple, when God has commanded them to give a tenth of what they have? We’re supposed to ooh and aah at their prayers when God, their Lord, has told them to pray? We should instead recognize that any goodness in them comes from their Lord and ours.

This is a parable against the idolization of fellow believers coming, I want you to see, right between this teaching on faith in prayer and the performance of a miracle where only one person turns to thank God for being saved. This parable is meant to remind us of where faith, and power, and miracles, and salvation come from. Where all of the things we are all hoping we can take part in in our work for the kingdom, from whom those blessings really come.

I, as your pastor, I pray for this church constantly. I pray for people to be saved, for lives, minds, and hearts to change, for our community to be one of a loving family, and we can set up to be healthy and sustainable long-term, and I am constantly reminded that all of those things I am praying for this church, everything I want as your pastor, they are all works of the Spirit. I can’t do any of them, and it is a healthy reminder for me in my pride that I am a servant being asked to do a task. The best thing I can be is faithful—not skilled, not famous, not trending. Faithful.

And if God works through a prayer you pray to perform a miracle, don’t consider yourself holy, but rather praise God for his ability to work through broken people, even me, even you. Or, teacher, when God answers your prayer, and all the kids who had no hope suddenly turn it around and change their whole trajectory, and people are bringing you to conferences to ask you how you did it, tell the truth. Even if they don’t believe you, tell them the Lord changed this child’s life.

Or when you’re sober for twenty years and people are looking at you like you’re stronger than they ever could be, tell the truth. Praise God from whom all blessing flow. Or when your business takes off and the money is pouring in, remember from whom all blessings flow. The point is, when prayer works, and the world changes, the miraculous happens, it has very little to do with any of us. We are servants. Praise the Lord.

The rest of the passage tells of Jesus healing ten lepers who prayed a simple prayer, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us.” Just that prayer in faith healed ten people, and only one of them thought to thank God for the miracle. We are all of these people. We are the disciples who cry out for faith, we are those whose faith is almost unnoticeable, but God in his mercy does great things through us. And when he does, we are those who want to be seen and praised for simply being a servant of the Lord, and lastly of course we are the nine who are cleansed and never thank the Lord.

Maybe, too, we can be the one who comes back to him and prays another simple prayer, not even recorded, and falls with his face on Jesus’ feet praising God. In all of our struggles with faith, in all of our misunderstandings and mistakes, God, please let us in the end fall at your feet and praise you because you are good. Because, like the Samaritan, we once weren’t your people, but now you’ve called us your people. Because we were once cast out of community, and you have welcomed us into your church, your temple. Please call to mind your mercies each morning that we might praise you.

Again, I would invite you this morning to pray. Pray in humility that God might work through you to heal and save you and people around you. And if he does heal you or others, go back and thank him. Pray for things you never thought possible, for people you can’t change, for things you cannot control. And praise God, who always hears us. Pray with me now.