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Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Sunday, June 19, 2005

The power of weakness

2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Preached Sunday morning, June 19, 2005
Lexington Church of Christ

At Lowe’s yesterday I talked to a retired Army command sergeant major from New Jersey. He told me proudly that he got his job at Lowe’s with only one reference on his application. Folks in this area of the country, he said, don’t like you to blow your own horn too much. Is that really true? Too bad the Christians in Corinth couldn’t have gotten by with so little. But without their stubbornness, I suppose we wouldn’t have much of the wisdom Paul wrote in Second Corinthians.

First a little background for today’s text. At the beginning of 2 Corinthians, Paul tells of his experiences in Asia (1:8,9). There, Paul writes, he was burdened beyond his abilities, to the breaking point, and God didn’t relieve his suffering. Why? God let Paul suffer so he could learn to rely not on his own strength, but on God’s strength. Wow. Think about that — the apostle Paul still learning lessons of discipleship.

Now, as he writes this letter, Paul is trying to help the Corinthians grow in the faith. But they’re resisting. They’re questioning Paul’s power and authority. Paul’s letters may be bold, some say, but when you actually see him, he’s of no account (10:10). So, to get through to these people, Paul is forced to boast of his qualifications as an apostle, even though he realizes that when he does he sounds like a madman (11:23). I’m a Hebrew, I’m an Israelite, I’ve been persecuted, Paul tells them (11:21-26). He has a long list of credentials, but his greatest is this: in Paul’s own personal weakness is the power of Jesus Christ.

Why does Paul spend so much time developing that idea? Why do the Corinthian Christians need to hear that message? Well, it seems the Corinthians fancied themselves as especially strong. In 1 Corinthians 1, which we looked at last week, we learned that the Corinthians thought themselves strong in worldly wisdom. In 2 Cor. 8-9 we have indications that they’re strong in cash. As a large, cosmopolitan port city, we know the Corinthians were strong in Mediterranean culture. Unfortunately, they were also strong in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:21). They seem to have spent too much time comparing themselves to other people rather than to God’s holiness (2 Cor. 10:17), and they were plagued by the presence of “super-apostles” teaching a different gospel (2 Cor. 11-12).

How did Paul deal with these problems? Well, as always, he proclaims Jesus Christ first and foremost. Paul also does something that he doesn’t often do: he holds himself up as an example of authority and power. As in the first letter, however, he lets the Corinthians know that true Christian strength comes through weakness, because in our weakness we learn to depend on God.

As we saw last week, God chose the weak to shame the wise (1 Cor. 1:27). Shame was an important word in Paul’s day. Our culture today is all about money and fame, but in the first century everything revolved around honor and shame. Certain actions produce honor, which you wanted to get as much as you could, and others produced shame, which you wanted to avoid at all costs. An utterly radical element of the Kingdom of God is that God turns everything upside down (and still does, by the way). In weakness is strength. In dependence is power. In dying to ourselves is eternal life. Earthly power, worldly strength, visual beauty have nothing to do with honor in the Kingdom of God. In fact, all those things can be an obstacle to true honor.

That’s why God may sometimes break us to help us learn to depend on him. Now this is not a boot camp thing — you know, breaking someone down to build them back stronger. No. This is about breaking Christians down to make us weaker! Have you ever experienced a situation like that — being broken down to learn dependance on God? Most of her life my mother was a very strong, independent woman, raised in the Church of Christ in North Carolina. But when she had heart bypass surgery, something changed in my mother. By her own testimony, her heart became softer. I believe that being forced to see how much she depended on others for her very life forced my mother to see her own weakness. I pray that God doesn’t have to put any of us under that kind of ordeal to break through to us.

But whatever form it takes, this breaking is a source of blessings to the Christians. Please read Mt. 5:3-11. Notice how all those blessings are upside-down from a worldly perspective? That’s because what Jesus is talking about is not simply a ticket to heaven for each Christian. When we become disciples of Christ we’re entering a new Kingdom that is already taking shape right here, right now. And the rules are like nothing else in the world around us.

Now here’s something to consider: In a practical sense, how does suffering and weakness really bless us? Well, first of all, when we finally admit our weakness, we don’t have to try to be strong enough for God. The effort to be strong enough to please God, by the way, may be one of the most harmful elements of Christian discipleship. What do I mean? These kinds of things: keeping our distance from other Christians by telling everyone “fine” when they ask how we’re doing; dressing well and grooming with great care to give the impression that all is right with us and our family; trying to act like we didn’t scream at each other getting ready for services this morning. All of that is dishonesty, retrograde motion. The more we become like Christ, the more we see where we fail — and admit it! And that’s not to draw attention to ourselves (“Oh, look how pathetic a disciple I am people!”) but to draw attention to the God who loves us anyway and can use even broken vessels like us. You see, God doesn’t accept us because we’re good or useful to him, but simply because he loves us. Let’s remember that.

The wonderful fact is, our weakness doesn’t have to discourage us, because we already have God’s power. As Paul told the Ephesians, God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). Jesus told us that when two or three are gathered in his name, he is with us (Mt. 18:20). That means we have his power with us—not simply in you, not in me, but in us, the church. That’s why gathering together is so important: not only that you yourself won’t be condemned, but so the church can be full of the power that God intends for us. I don’t know about you, but I want to be part of that and to help others be a part of it.

So we already have God’s power, but we still need to acknowledge it in order to put it into action. Doing that is really very simple — just back off trying to do things with our own power. It’s as simple as the words of “Jesus Loves Me”: “Little ones to him belong/They are weak, but he is strong.” Isn’t that encouraging? What? could it really be that simple? Well, yes, it’s very simple, although putting it into practice may not be easy if we’ve spent our whole lives trying to be the strong ones. So how can we learn to live like little children before our loving Father?

Looking over 2 Corinthians, we can find at least five clues. I’ve organized them here in a way to help us remember them; the first letter of each clue spells out what putting these ideas into practice will bring to God.

So how do we learn to find strength in weakness?

Paul begins 2 Corinthians (1:3-5) by Giving glory to God (we got that first letter in there three times!). That’s Paul’s practice in all his letters, by the way. He talks about himself only when he has to. He doesn’t write much about his own obedience, and he rarely talks about his own testimony. He does have a passion, however, for proclaiming the goodness and mercy of God. Can we do the same thing? Can we proclaim the love of God out of the overflow of a grateful heart?

Next, when we are suffering, we need to Look to the “eternal weight of glory” (4:15ff) that awaits Christians one day. When our own burdens weigh us down, we don’t have much energy left to glorify God. But as Paul reminds the Corinthians, “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory.” There’s nothing like persecution and suffering to help us see the big picture—that we are weak but God is in control and will one day dry every tear. Can we learn to trust God in that way without having to endure serious, excruciating suffering? I think a better question is: Can we learn to trust God even with it?

Here’s another clue: Only Jesus (4:1-5). We are called to be faithful to God’s Word (in both senses), and to proclaim Jesus Christ as his slaves. It’s easy to become burdened with many side issues, but at the center of our hope, our mission, our good news and our life is Jesus Christ. He’s the master. Period. (And that’s a good thing, by the way).

Why? Because of what we Remember: Christ died for us (5:14-17). Our faith, our doctrine, our worship, our hope and strength and life all flow out of that fact, that Christ died for us. That’s why Paul determined when he was with the Corinthians to know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Meditating on that thought alone will change us in practice into what God has made us in fact: new creations.

Finally, we need to remember that Jesus Christ is “Yes” (2 Cor. 1:18-22). And what, exactly, does that mean? The Corinthians seem to have criticized Paul for his fickleness (“Yes he will, no he won’t”). And how does Paul respond? To paraphrase: “Fine. You can call me yes/no, but Jesus is always yes.” Which means that Jesus is always dependable, always trustworthy, always effective, always loving. We can depend on him — stake our very lives on his steadfast love. The sad fact is that the best Christians may let us down. Even worse, the church may hurt us and prove itself untrustworthy. But we can count on Jesus. And the more his church draws near to him, the more we can count on each other.

See what those letters spell? Glory. That’s what we bring God when we learn to trust him in our weakness.

All Christians are called to weakness before Almighty God. Some Christians are blessed with the ability to acknowledge this fact rather easily. Too often these are the Christians the rest of us look down upon, but they’re the ones Jesus blesses in Mt. 5:3-11. But most of us, I think, find it very hard to let go of our own little power and submit ourselves to the overwhelming power of God.

Letting go of our own strength is nothing more than what Jesus himself did,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8).
As someone has said, the crucifixion isn’t simply Jesus getting what we deserve (although of course he did); it’s God the Father finally getting what he deserves. God deserves all of us, our whole lives. That’s what Jesus calls Christians to do— give up ourselves to find eternal life. And here’s the upside-down part: in doing so, we’ll be exalted, too.

Have you admitted your weakness? Or have you tried to convince others, maybe even yourself, that you’re strong enough for whatever comes your way? Can you fall at Jesus’ feet and acknowledge him as all your righteousness and strength? Please do, and be blessed.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley


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