April 9, 2000
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:22-24).
There are times when the place to begin is very clear. As I have studied these words of the Lord Jesus, the same question has come back to me again and again. When Jesus talks about a mountain being cast into the sea, how can we take him seriously? I am 47 years old and have never seen a mountain cast into the sea. I’ve done my share of traveling, have visited most parts of America, and have been to some amazing places. I’ve ridden a boat on the Sea of Galilee, floated down the Volga River, climbed a Mayan pyramid in Belize, visited the salt palace outside Bogota, Columbia. I even rode in a tiny rowboat to the very lip of Iguassu Falls on the border between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. And I took a ride on the Big Shot at the top of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas, some 900 feet above the desert floor. I’ve been amazed more than once and left speechless a few times. But in all my life I’ve never seen a mountain cast into the sea.
And that’s precisely our problem with this text. Jesus invites us to summon the faith to talk to a mountain and command it to be cast into the sea. Not only have I never seen a mountain cast into the sea, I’ve never talked to a mountain either. As I think about it, I don’t know anyone who has.
But it’s right there in black and white in Mark 11:23. What are we to do with this text? I am sure our first inclination is to find a way to explain it away somehow. As a friend of mine was discussing this text with his young son, the boy started looking around for things he could order to start moving, like a lamp or a bed or a couch. The father immediately (and properly) cautioned his son against tempting the Lord. But this much may be said in favor of the youngster’s exuberance: At least he took Jesus seriously, which is more than most of us do.
This week I happened to run across an Internet site called infidels.org. It is a huge site run by hardcore atheists and agnostics who are fervent unbelievers in the Christian faith. One page on the site is called “Bible Absurdities.” It is a long list of verses that allegedly prove the Bible is not the inspired Word of God. Mark 11:23 is cited as something so absurd that no one could take it seriously.
A Church with Parking Problems
But then just a few seconds later I found another site with a story about a church in the Great Smoky Mountains that built a sanctuary on a piece of land donated by a member. It turned out that the sanctuary was so large that the building inspector would not give the church a certificate of occupancy because they lacked sufficient parking. Evidently the new building took up all the available space. The only unused part of the property was a mountain adjacent to the sanctuary. The Sunday before the new sanctuary was to open, the pastor called for those who believed that God could still move mountains to come to a prayer meeting that night. Out of a congregation of 300, 24 people showed up. After they had prayed for 3 hours, the pastor said he believed that somehow God would remove the mountain and pave the area in the next seven days.
The next day a man knocked on the pastor’s door. He turned out to be a building contractor from a nearby county. They were building a shopping mall, he said, and needed some fill dirt in order to level the construction site. Could his company buy the mountain behind the church? He added that if they could have the mountain immediately, they would be glad to pay for paving and striping the new parking lot. The pastor readily agreed, and the new sanctuary opened on schedule the next Sunday. The person who wrote the story commented that there were far more members with “mountain-moving faith” that Sunday than there were the previous Sunday.
I. The Command
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered (Mark 11:22).
How simple this is. Only four words—”Have faith in God”—yet how revolutionary they are. A few years ago one of my favorite preachers, E. V. Hill from Los Angeles, preached a 40-minute sermon on just two words: “God is.” In his own unforgettable style, he pressed home the point that everything in the universe flows from this one truth. Figure this out and you’ve got a handle on life. Deny this and nothing else makes sense.
Either God is or he isn’t. And if he is, that changes everything. The voice from the burning bush told Moses to tell the people that “I AM” has sent you. And what precisely does that mean? The only further explanation is “I AM that I AM,” which points to God’s eternal self-existence. If you know that “God is” and that he is the great “I am,” you know the most fundamental truth in the universe.
In last week’s sermon I related something I said to a young couple waiting for God to show them where they should serve as missionaries. I basically told them “The reason you don’t know now is because you don’t need to know now because if you needed to know now you would know now but since you don’t know now it must be because you don’t need to know now.” People chuckled every time I told the story because the way I said it could be extended indefinitely. Later on I realized that I had forgotten four crucial words that I said to the young couple that day. Those four words are all-important and go at the front of that long statement. The four words are “If God is God.” That changes everything, doesn’t it? If God is God, then you’ll know when you need to know and not a moment sooner.
Alexander the Great wanted to reward a philosopher who had rendered great service to him. “Ask what you want of me,” said the emperor. The philosopher took the offer seriously and told the royal treasurer he wanted 10,000 pounds of gold. Shocked by such an enormous request, the treasurer refused, then went in anger to the emperor. “This man has asked too much. His request is unreasonable.” Alexander the Great listened patiently and then instructed the treasurer to give the philosopher what he had asked for. “He honored me three ways. First, he believed my word. Second, he believed my wealth. Third, he believed my willingness to do what I said I would do. Give him the money. He has honored me by his great faith in my words.”
In Psalm 81:10 God gives a wonderful invitation to his children, “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.” Ask what you need, God says, and I will do it for you. Years ago I heard someone say that Jeremiah 33:3 is “God’s telephone number” because it contains a very clear promise: “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (NASB). This week I was praying with some men and heard someone say, “Lord, teach us to pray big prayers. So much of what we pray is just details.” I found that a helpful and challenging thought. It’s not that the details don’t matter. They do, but sometimes our prayers suffer because our vision is so small. If we truly want to honor God, we will believe what he says and then act on that belief by praying large prayers that require an Almighty God to answer them.
II. The Example
“I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him” (Mark 11:23).
To cast a mountain into the sea seems impossible. To deal with this difficulty some have supposed that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, i.e., that he uses an absurdity to point out the great possibilities of prayer. However, I tend to think the words of Jesus are quite literal. When he says “this mountain,” I think he was standing on or perhaps pointing to the Mount of Olives, a very literal mountain that the disciples had traversed many times. That particular mountain might be cast into the sea.
For a disciple to cast a mountain into the sea, two conditions must be met, both humanly strange:
He must talk to the mountain.
He must not doubt in his heart.
So I ask this question, what’s the hardest part about casting a mountain into the sea? Most people would probably answer, “Having faith,” or “Not doubting in your heart.” And in truth those things are very hard to do at times. But I submit the hardest part is having the courage to talk to the mountain in the first place. What kind of person looks at a mountain and talks to it? If you do that on a regular basis, people will begin to question your sanity. Yet that’s exactly what Jesus tells his disciples they must do.
Years ago I read a fine little book by Elmer Towns called Say-It Faith. He argued (on the basis of this text and many others as well) that God honors those who dare to say out loud what they are asking God to do. Great leaders (he offered many examples) galvanize their followers by actually saying out loud, “This is where God is leading us.” It might be to send missionaries to an unevangelized tribe or it might be to raise $10 million for a new sanctuary or it might be to ask God to heal someone of cancer. They talk about their impossible dreams openly and they pray openly about what God has been speaking to their hearts. This releases God’s power in a unique way because it puts the impossible issue out on the table where everyone can see it. As long as you keep silent about your dreams, Towns said, they are much less likely to come true.
That has always made perfect sense to me. It’s like Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield and calling his shot just before he hit that legendary home run at Wrigley Field. When you speak to the mountain of impossibility, you are doing what Jesus said to do. Along that line, here’s a fine definition of faith that comes from Phillip Yancey: “Faith is believing in advance in something that will only seem logical when seen in reverse.” Sometimes (often, in fact) God calls us to believe him for things that humanly speaking makes no sense. But when we dare to believe God, we see in retrospect how logical it was. But we have to believe God first even when it defies “common sense.”
We all have mountains of difficulty in our lives. Sometimes they are great tasks laid before us and we have little personal strength with which to meet them. Sometimes those “mountains” are broken relationships and habits of sin. Your “mountain” may involve believing God regarding a health issue or a loved one who is far from the Lord. Or it may mean trusting God in the midst of a failing marriage.
One major part of seeing the mountains move in your life is having the courage to speak to the mountain because you believe that God is able to cast it into the sea.
III. The Application
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24).
This promise has three parts. It is comprehensive: “Whatever you ask for.” It is conditional: “Believe that you have received it.” It is definite: “It will be yours!” And note the change of tenses: There is the present: “whatever you ask for.” There is the past: “you have received it.” There is the future: “it will be yours.” As the kids like to say, What’s up with that? We are to pray in the present, with the assurance that God has already granted our request, even though the answer will not come until the future.
Sometimes in the Greek language the writers will use what is called a “proleptic aorist.” Romans 8:30 offers an excellent example when it says of the children of God, “those he also glorified.” Note the past tense. He speaks of believers as having already been glorified in heaven. That glorification is still future for those of us living on the earth. But it is so certain of fulfillment (because God has determined that he will do it) that the writer speaks of it as if it had already been done.
Two quick illustrations. A friend of mine has just been accepted into the doctoral program of one of the most distinguished Old Testament programs in the world. It will take him years to finish the program. But when I saw him recently I called him “Doctor.” He laughed and said, “Not yet.” “Proleptic aorist,” I replied with a smile, giving him credit in advance for work not yet accomplished.
As the NCAA basketball championship game between Michigan State and Florida wound to a close last Monday night, someone on the Michigan State sideline held up a newspaper with a huge banner headline: “Champions!” But the game was not quite over yet. Someone obviously had such faith in the Spartans that they printed the paper while the game was still being played. That’s faith!
Because God is God, we may be sure that he is at work answering our prayers even before we pray them. And because God lives outside of time, the prayers we pray today are certain of fulfillment yesterday even though we won’t receive the answers until tomorrow! Think about that for a while.
Believing in advance is like a young couple who puts up a nursery even before the wife is pregnant. Or it’s like a “hope chest” prepared by a young lady for the day she will be married. Ron Hutchcraft says it’s like buying a Christmas present in September but hiding it until December. We hide the presents in the closet and then get them out when Christmas draws near. You can’t give the presents early or it will spoil the joy. In prayer our part is to trust God completely while we wait for the answers to come. “If your Father wants you to have it, it may not be in your hands, but it’s already in the closet.”
One other point should be made. Sometimes when we pray, we have a promise of a specific blessing and we may then pray in total confidence. Often we pray not knowing what God will do. That is, not every prayer falls in the category of verse 24 because God doesn’t always give us that kind of faith. Jesus Christ is God. He is the King of Kings. He governs the universe. Sometimes when we pray, he gives us faith to believe for amazing things. Other times we pray with less certainty, still trusting that the Lord knows what is best and will do what is best.
I found this illustration in the pages of the Biblical Illustrator:
Prayer is the bow, the promise is the arrow; faith is the hand which draws the bow, and sends the arrow with the heart’s message to heaven. The bow without the arrow is of no use, and the arrow without the bow is of little worth, and both without the strength of the hand are to no purpose. Neither the promise without prayer, nor prayer without the promise, nor both without faith avail the Christian anything. What was said of the Israelites, “they could not enter in, because of unbelief,” the same may be said of many of our prayers. They cannot enter heaven because they are not put up in faith.
In light of Jesus’ teaching, we may draw the following applications. When we pray, we should:
Pray for something definite
Earnestly desire it
Not question God’s ability
Persevere in prayer
Add works to our faith.
Many years ago during a drought in England, a pastor called his church to a special prayer meeting to ask God to send much-needed rain. It was a bright and cloudless day and Mary came with an umbrella. Why? “Since we’re praying for rain, I thought I should bring an umbrella.” Everyone chuckled and the minister laughed and patted her on the cheek. As they were praying, the winds rose, the clouds rolled in, and sure enough, the heavens opened, and down came a torrent of rain. Mary was dry while the congregation went home wet. Let us pray, believing not only that God may hear but that he does hear, and will give us what we ask, if it is best for us.
Dave and Carol Fox
Years ago I read the story of Cameron Townsend, founder of the Wycliffe Bible Translators. As a young man he went to Central America to preach the gospel to the unreached. While ministering to some tribal people one day, his life was changed forever when a man asked, “If your God is so great, why doesn’t he speak my language?” That simple question led to the formation of a mission agency dedicating to translating God’s Word into every language on earth. In spite of many doubters who called his vision impossible, he clung to the words of an old chorus:
Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees, and looks to God alone
Laughs at impossibilities and cries, “It shall be done.”
I mention Cam Townsend and Wycliffe Bible Translators because in 1954 a young couple named Dave and Carol Fox went out from our church to translate the Bible for the Quich