To the Word

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

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Like Jesus on the cross

Luke 23:32-38
Preached Sunday morning, June 12, 2005
Lexington Church of Christ

Can you relate to this story: Once the leaders of a particular congregation were very unfair and hurtful to my family. What’s worse, these men knew that Carolyn was angry, and they tried to tell people she was angry at me instead of at them. That’s the time I want to pray the Psalms. You know the ones? Passages like Psalm 58:6—“O God, break the teeth in their mouths!” or even Ps. 137:9, “Happy shall be the one who takes your little one and dashes them against the rock!”

In the midst of that painful situation, one of my Christian brothers told me it was time to forgive. I couldn’t believe he would say such a thing. “But these men did my family wrong,” I protested.

I don’t dispute that,” my friend said, “But sometimes you have to be Jesus on the cross.”

My friend’s words just about knocked me out of my chair, because I knew he was right. Jesus on the cross is first and foremost our savior, giving his life to pay the price for our sinfulness. But here’s the hard part—he’s also our example. Four times in the Gospels ( Mt. 10:38; 16:24; Mk.8:34; Lk. 9:23) we read Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Take up you cross and follow me.” And those words aren’t just for the twelve. They’re addressed to anyone who would follow Jesus. Wow. that’s tough. But should we expect anything less if we’re really going to be Jesus’ disciples? Do we really expect to enjoy all the blessings of Christ without sharing in his sufferings? Do we really expect to take up the cross with Jesus and never be nailed to it?

In the most important sense, the work on the cross belongs to Jesus alone; only he could die to save the world. In a day-to-day sense, however, Christians are called share in Christ’s suffering. The cross holds two very different but closely related qualities: suffering and forgiveness. The suffering is the hard part, of course, but here’s the wonderful news: if we share in Christ’s suffering, then we have forgiveness through his blood and share in his triumph over death (Eph. 1:7; Rom. 6:5). And that forgiveness, as we will see, is a key to some of the richest blessings we can ever have in this life: right relationship with God; improved relationships with family, friends, and co-workers, and power and energy for getting through life. Let’s consider Jesus on the cross, then, and discover how by extending forgiveness to his oppressors Jesus brightens the path of life for us today.

First, a little background. One thing we see over and over in the Bible is that human beings resist God. In fact, the more forcefully God reaches out to the world, the more violently we resist him. The Old Testament prophets, for example, always seemed to fight an uphill struggle against the sin of Israel. Jesus himself, the Truth and the Word, was killed by those who didn’t want to hear the message he proclaimed. And of course, the ones who killed Jesus—the Jews and the Romans—might as well have been us, because Jesus died for the sins we have committed.

Today the temptation is still strong to resist God. I don’t have to tell you all the thousands of ways the world resists and rejects the Lord; just read the paper or turn on the news for a few minutes, and we’ll be overwhelmed by the wickedness and darkness that abounds in the world. But how about the church? We’re still tempted to resist God’s truth. That resistance may take many forms: holding on to tradition at the expense of the Word; being overly confident of our own righteousness; or by giving in to bitterness, rage, or the lust for vengeance when someone has wronged us. That last one, by the way, is the temptation I believe Jesus faced on the cross.

There is a price, of course, for giving in to the temptation of resisting God. In the Old Testament we see how Israel gave in again and again to idolatry and injustice and how God had to chastise them to bring them to repentance. That chastisement was never pretty. In the New Testament we see that sin can result in sickness (1 Cor. 11:27-30; Jas. 5:13-16) or even death (Acts 5). We still suffer today if we insist on resisting God, if we hold onto sin. And there may be no more harmful sin to our bodies on earth than unforgiveness. It’s the source of all manner of sickness—both physical and spiritual.

You know, most of our trouble really is our fault. We may pretend we’re suffering for doing good, even for the gospel itself, but nine times out of ten our own sinfulness, our self-centeredness, caused our problems in the first place. You see this kind of attitude in some of our papers on all sides of the doctrinal spectrum; men will say people are rejecting them because they tell the truth. Well, in many cases they’re being rejected because they cause conflict. As much as we don’t want to admit it, most of our trouble is our own fault. And if we can face up to that fact, our lives will be a whole lot more peaceful.

But some times it really is the other guy’s fault. Sometimes we do everything right and people still hate us or mistreat us. And the more obedient we are to God, the more likely we are to face this kind of unjust opposition. Do you know of anything more infuriating than to be mistreated precisely because we did the right thing? That’s when we may be tempted to pray for the Lord to call down fire and brimstone!

I have a feeling Jesus was tempted in that way on the cross. Remember that in the desert, Satan left Jesus so he could come back at a more opportune time (Lk. 4:13). One of those opportune times came when Peter tried to keep Jesus away from the cross (Mk. 8:31-33). Another one, I think, came on the cross itself. How could Jesus not be tempted to set right the awful evil being done in crucifying the sinless son of God? And yet he didn’t give in to temptation. He was obedient even to the point of death.

How about us? How do we respond when we’re mistreated? The answer to that question, more than any other test I know, shows how much Christ has taken charge in us—either in an individual heart or in a congregation of the Lord’s church. It should always be a goal for believers and congregations to grow more and more like Christ, and this picture of Jesus on the cross shows us the direction we need to go.

As he was in the process of being killed, Jesus prayed forgiveness for his murderers. Why did he do that? Well, for one thing, it was a fulfillment of prophecy (Is. 53:12). I suspect it may also have been necessary to prevent God’s wrath from taking hold of the world right then—after all, had there ever been a greater wrong done in the history of the world? Most importantly, though, Jesus’ praying forgiveness on the crowd shows us in the flesh what God himself is really like. He loves. He forbears. He forgives. That’s what God’s love look like. And if his church bears his Holy Spirit, our lives need to look the same way.

Jehovah is a God of holiness and righteousness, but also of mercy. One of the central themes of the Old Testament is that the Lord is holy and righteous, and that the only way human beings can have a relationship with him is by being holy and righteous ourselves. At the same time, the Old Testament tells us that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” That’s such an important message that we read it five times in the pages of the Hebrew scriptures (Ex. 34:6; Ps. 86:16; 103:9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). In the New Testament we see that truth expressed on the cross—forgiveness embodied in the flesh.

So Jesus is not merely our savior; he’s our example of forgiveness. He told us to forgive, even when we are treated unjustly (Mt. 6:14, 15; 18:21-35; Mk. 11:25; Lk. 6:37; 6:28) . We are to forgive over and over, even when we’ve been hurt so badly we can barely speak, even when we’re too tired and wounded to lift our heads.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I think it’s easy. In fact, forgiving may be the hardest act Christians are called to do. But if we can learn how, and put forgiveness into practice, then we will find tremendous blessings waiting for us.

So let’s be clear: what does it really mean to forgive? It means handing our anger, our bitterness, our thirst for vengeance over to God. Vengeance, we are told at least three time in the Scriptures, belongs to God (Dt. 32:35; Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30). As Jesus shows us, however, forgiveness involves another step. Not only do we turn over our bitterness to God, but we pray for blessings upon the very ones who have wronged us (Mt. 5:34; Lk. 5:27-35). And if God calls us to pray for and be at peace with our enemies, how much more for our own family, particularly the family of faith? And notice, too, that Jesus didn’t forgive only those who repented. He prayed forgiveness for those who were in the very act of doing evil.

That’s radical forgiveness. It’s also the kind of forgiveness that is tied to God’s forgiving us (Mt. 6:12-15).

Now, down to particulars. What does forgiveness look like in practice? Do I have to forgive terrorists who kill and maim innocent civilians? How about the elder in the church who tried to molest a young girl? What about the ex-husband who left his wife for another woman and now begs for forgiveness?

The answer is, yes, we must forgive. That doesn’t mean those who have wronged us don’t have to pay the consequences for their actions. The terrorist still has to go to jail, the elder faces church and legal discipline, and the ex-husband still has to pay child support. But as for the lingering, simmering, bitter wrath in the hearts of believers—we have to let that go.

But how? To a point we are called to forgive as an act of the will—we simply refuse to allow our own pain to cause the other person pain, either through direct attacks or through the poison of gossip. To an extent we have to “fake it till we make it,” which means acting toward that person as we believe Jesus would have us act. In many cases, simply behaving like we should helps us forgive in our hearts. And it is in the hears, after all, that Jesus calls us to forgive (Mt. 18:35).

But some wrongs we simply can’t “forgive and forget.” Some hurts are so painful that we may not be able to forgive without God’s help. In those cases we need to do what Jesus did: Go to the Father. When our anger and hurt won’t go away from our own efforts we need to take our bitterness before God and ask him to forgive and help us to forgive. I once carried in my heart a hurt so painful that I asked God every day to help me forgive. It took months, but it happened. We may not be able to forgive on our own, but through God all things are possible (Mk. 10:27).

And when we do finally forgive, our lives begin to change. To forgive is to put off a heavy burden of sin, and when we do that we open our lives to spiritual maturity, to living as God has made us as new creations in Jesus Christ. When we really forgive from our hearts, our Christian walk becomes more than a burden. It becomes a source of encouragement and joy. When we truly forgive, discipleship becomes more than a constant struggle to do the right thing, and doing God’s will becomes much easier (although I don’t think it every becomes easy). When we forgive we move beyond milk to the strong, nourishing meat of discipleship. When that happens we find that all the energy we were using for anger and bitterness and jealousy is now available to praise and honor God. We stop grieving the Holy Spirit through our unforgiveness and become more useful vehicles of God’s love and peace.

Forgiveness—this is hard teaching, but it is a path of blessing. When we forgive as God forgives us, we enter into a better relationship with God, we improve our relationships with others, and we find a peace and power that we could not imagine while we were slaves to unforgiveness. We find that the blood of Christ purifies our consciences “from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14).

God’s forgiveness is based on his love for us, for “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Yes, Jesus Christ will one day come in overwhelming power and wrath to destroy sinful forces on the earth (1 Cor. 15:24). But in the mean time, he’s been showing us love and mercy over and over. And if the Lord of all creation can show mercy, how about us? When we fail to forgive, we are rejecting Christ’s forgiveness of us. But when we open our hearts to forgive, we are blessed with the fruits of his forgiveness of us.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley