As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Grace Through our Weakness, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday July 8, 2018. The Reading was 2 Corinthians 12:2-10.
Young, Old, Weak, Strong
Who here is celebrating a birthday today? No one? Are you sure? I have a list of Birthdays here, let me see who’s on it.
Well, I don’t have everyone, but you get the idea – we are all celebrating a birthday, because every day is another day since our birth. I heard someone once say that today is the oldest you have ever been, AND it is also the youngest you will ever be again. I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing to realise, but it’s true.
Last weekend, a number of my friends were up on the Gold Coast. They all went up there to compete in the Gold Coast Marathon. Some of them completed the Marathon, some – like our National Commanders – completed a smaller, but no less impressive, 5.7km. The Salvos have had a presence there for a number of years now, because there’s a fantastic program where a number of youths from Papua New Guinea take part in this program where they train to run in the GC Marathon. The regular discipline, the health benefits, and the camaraderie that they experience helps transform lives, and set them off on the right path for life. And for a number of years, I’ve wanted to go up there and support them, and I had always pegged it as my first Marathon. So I’ve decided that next year is the year. I’m going to build myself up to it and am going to complete my first marathon.
Now, while my desk doesn’t show it, I know that I do like to be organised, and so I put together a sheet with the training that I’m going to do between now and then. I’ve got it all mapped out – every kilometer, every gym work out, it’s all there. And I realised something the other day. If I was to think of running 42.2km tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to do it. No chance. I’m too weak. But, out of my weakness, there will come strength.
In order to get stronger, I must first acknowledge that I am weak. In order to grow old, we must first be young. In order to gain experience, we must first acknowledge our inexperience. In order to learn, we must first realise what we do not know.
We think our weaknesses are bad
Now, we often think that our weaknesses are bad. We’re told to be strong, to not show our weaknesses, to focus on the strengths and minimise the weaknesses.
It’s something that we see so often in society. We try to build ourselves up. Show others what we are capable of.
That’s what was happening to Paul in this letter. We know this is the second letter to the Corinthians. He’s already written to them once. But in the time following that letter, another group had entered Corinth, and had tried to pull the church in another direction. This was a group that would boast about their power, and their prowess. This was something that Paul didn’t do. And the reports that he had heard about the church in Corinth was that they were believing this boasting. This grandstanding was working. And so Paul challenges their boasting. In chapter 11, Paul has laid claim to everything that this group has boasted about. He says,
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.
If this group has a right to boast, then so to does Paul. He goes on to explain the suffering he has experienced because of his ministry. The times he’s been whipped, and tortured, and imprisoned, all because of the Gospel.
In all of the boasting in this section, it is countering the arguments given by this other group, in saying that everything they have done, I have done as well. But then Paul does an interesting jump.
In the section we read, Paul speaks of a person who was caught up to the third heaven. Some commentators will suggest that Paul is talking about his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. However, the timing given doesn’t fit. However, all agree that it is something that happened to Paul, and that he is talking in the third person. So it appears that this is an experience that happened to Paul that he has kept quiet for 14 years. Why?
Well, it seems it might be that he wishes to avoid boasting about himself. Throughout this section, Paul chooses to boast not of his strengths, but of his weaknesses. He could be boasting about his strengths, he could boast about this incredible experience – but he chooses not to. And so he chooses to boast not of his strength, but of his weakness.
God’s Grace works through our weakness
He even goes as far to say that he has been given a thorn in his side. Some sin, hanging over his head, in order to keep him grounded. Paul claims that he’s appealed to God 3 times – just as Jesus asked three times for his burden to be taken away from him – and found the response being “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
You see, God’s grace works through weakness.
We live sinful lives. We all have sin. And we can’t hide from that. And if we are completely honest, there is absolutely no reason that God should choose to love us. There is absolutely no reason that God would allow us into heaven. There is nothing that we can do to earn our way into heaven. If there was ever a power imbalance, this is it. God holds all the cards, we got nothing. We are in the weak situation.
And this is where the Grace of God comes into play. In that even though we don’t deserve it, God’s grace says that we are enough. God’s grace says, you are allowed into heaven. God’s grace says, you are loved. God’s grace says, even though God has all the power, it isn’t perfected until it is worked through our weakness.
We can boast in our weakness
As a result of God’s grace, we are able to boast in our weakness. We are able to say – Yes, I am a sinner, and I have no right to be here in this church, but because of the grace of God I am able to stand here as a beloved child of God. We are able to say, Yes, though I am weak, God will do great things through me. Though I have my faults, God sees me as perfect.
I see some of this playing out in the wider church and society these days. For a long time, the church – as a whole – has held a lot of power. In many ways western society was built around church. Our weeks were structured around having a day where everyone would go to church. There was almost an expectation that children would be taught Christian teaching in schools.
But that isn’t the case today. No longer is the community built around the church, but the church has to work its way into the community. No longer are our weeks built around the church, but we compete with many different activities. No longer do we hold the same privileged position that we once had with being able to enter schools. In many ways, the weaknesses that were always there have been thrust into the spotlight. Through the mistakes of some, we have been tarred with the same brush. There is now a sense of uncertainty about the church, in that the trust has gone. Church numbers are dwindling – church growth isn’t keeping up with population growth, and churches are becoming smaller and smaller, are dying out, and closing down.
Listening to this, it is easy to get disheartened. To think that a weak, small church is a bad thing. But Paul teaches us that power is made perfect in weakness. In order for us to grow, we must first know what is it like to be small. In order for us to speak with authenticity, we must know the pain that others go through. In order for us to be alive, truly alive, we must let the old self die. In order for us to be a central part of the community, we must build ourselves up from nothing. We must seek out ways to meet people where they are, not expect them to come to us. We must find new ways to share love, not with an expectation that it will be received, but because that is what God commands us to do.
It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s hard. But when we are weak, God’s power is working through us.
Change your language
I was watching a video by Simon Sinek the other day. He was reflecting on watching the Olympics, and how the reporters would all ask the same question to the athletes: “Were you nervous?” Every single one, it really annoyed him. But he also noticed that the response to that questions was universally the same: “No, I was excited”. You see, the physical signs of nervousness – heart racing, visualising the future, and clammy hands – are exactly the same as the physical signs of being excited. The athletes had trained themselves to interpret those physical signs as being excited, as opposed to being nervous. And when they told themselves over and over that they were excited, then they were! They weren’t nervous, they were excited, and their performances reflect that.
I think we need to be able to change out language. You’re not weak, you’re strong. You’re not old, you’re the youngest you’re ever going to be. Or maybe, you’re not old, you’re experienced. You’re not alone, you’re part of God’s family. You’re not hopeless, you’re hopeful. You’re not a deranged sinner – because of Grace, you are loved.
Let us boast in our weakness. Let us show how much can be achieved through this weak vessel, because through our weakness, the power of God is perfected in us.