THE WORD II Corinthians 12:2-10 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
MESSAGE “The Weakness” Rev. James Renfrew
So before I begin, who here is feeling strong this morning? In your hands, in your arms, in your back, in your shoulders, in your legs and feet? Or do you prefer weakness? Strength or weakness, which one do you prefer?
Now, let’s turn to Psalm 48, that we read to open the service. It’s an old song, more than 2000 years old, celebrating the strength of God. Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God. His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King. Within its citadels God has shown himself a sure defense. Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers, consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will be our guide forever. Amen!
So we read the Psalm carefully. And it moves me to say to God, “Thank you, Lord, for the strength we find in our faith”. The strength of God is like a great heavenly city, a mighty citadel, an unassailable fortress, protected by strong ramparts. Does anyone know what ramparts are? Ramparts are mentioned in the Star-Spangled Banner, “O’er the ramparts we watched …”. Francis Scott Key describing the sight of heroic Ft. McHenry under bombardment in Baltimore Harbor, the flag standing tall in spite of the rockets and bombs raining down on the walls of the fort. I looked it up: ramparts , “a defensive wall of a castle or walled city, having a broad top with a walkway and typically a stone parapet., which means walls so thick that there is a wide walkway at the top”. No one is breaking through walls like that! And don’t forget the high towers lining the walls of such a citadel, projecting power that make invaders reconsider their plans even from fat off.
This heavenly citadel, the seat of God’s might and power, the Psalmist wants you to drop your jaw in complete awe at the strength of God, and not only in this moment but because the seat of God’s power will endure for eternity. The Psalm doesn’t go into this detail, but we can imagine that such a fortress with ramparts and towers is filled with armies and weapons ready to defend God against all invaders. Psalm 48 projects an image of God’s power that is unassailable, and that will last to the end of time.
I am deeply committed to finding non-violent solutions to the world’s many problems. But you may find it amusing to learn that as a boy I surrounded myself with an entire arsenal of weapons, guns, hand grenades, bazookas and lasers. There’s even an old black and white photo of me armed to the teeth, somehow carrying every weapon I had.
I also remember building a fortress in my bedroom one time, something just like the fortress in Psalm 48. I got out all of my building blocks and Lincoln Logs, and built a fortress. It didn’t seem big enough, even with all of my building blocks, so I started adding bigger pieces of wood from my dad’s workshop. I added shoe boxes and crates. I added anything that would add to the thickness of the ramparts and the height of the towers. Then I put all of my little plastic soldiers inside of it, along with jeeps, tanks, attack submarines and missile launchers.
Finally, my fortress was done. It filled at least half of my bedroom. At some point my mom came in and suggested that maybe it was time to clean up and put all of the toys away. I wouldn’t do that because I wanted this fortress to last for a long time. I was only six or seven years old and didn’t know much about the ways of the world, but my impregnable fortress made me feel strong, ready to handle any invaders that might have designs on my bedroom. I like to think that my fortress still stands in that bedroom, long after my family moved away, and that the new owners respect the incredible fortress entrusted to them.
At that age, six or seven years old, the idea that I would prefer weakness over strength would have seemed absurd. Who would choose to be weak, if you could be strong? Even now, sixty or seventy years old, it still seems absurd. Who would want to be weak if you could be strong? It’s easy to see why we would prefer strength over weakness. It’s because the world around us is so difficult. War, injustice, violence, crime, hunger, poverty, and it makes us feel weak. And so imagining the might fortress of God like the one I built in my bedroom makes us feel safer and less vulnerable.
Do you think the author of the Psalm got carried away a bit, making it sound like strength in the Lord is all about physical power: walls, towers, weapons, armies. I remember a sermon at our Presbyterian Church in Endwell, near Binghamton, where the minister told about a boy who upon returning home from Sunday School was asked by his father to tell what he learned there that morning. “Well there was this powerful general named Moses, who had a huge army with tanks and missiles, and he got into a big battle with Pharoah and won!” The father responded by saying, that’s not the story of Moses he remembered from the Bible, Moses didn’t have an army or weapons. And the boy responded by saying, “well who would believe a story like that? I had to fix it up!”
It’s easy for us to get drawn into a certain image of power, very physical power that crushes its enemies. Maybe that’s what happened in the telling of Psalm 48, who would believe in a God that has no weapons or armies, so we get the image of a nighty fortress.
Or maybe it’s us misinterpreting the Psalm, quickly taking the imagery of the heavenly citadel and assuming its all about pure physical power. Maybe it is telling us about a different kind of power?
Now all of this sets us up for the challenge of Paul’s Letter that contains this stunning statement: “my power is made perfect in weakness.” And thinking about those words for only a moment, we realize it’s not just Paul who thinks this way, that it comes from Jesus, and the evidence is there in Jesus’ life from start to finish. Jesus built no mighty citadels, he recruited no armies, and he had no arsenal of weapons. Even as he faced the Cross, and the certainty of death, he did not lift a finger.
In every respect Jesus exudes weakness. He has no armies, no weapons, no fortresses. All he’s got are words, but too many people twist his words to their own benefit, or claim they are the words of a madman, or just ignore him. All he’s got are his words, and they seem powerless.
Paul writes, “my power is made perfect in weakness”. It may seem absurd, unworkable, naïve, but here we are two thousand years later, and the one we are still talking about is Jesus. The weakest man in history is more powerful than we ever imagined. Two thousand years later, in his quiet, determined way, he continues to shape lives – yours and mine – toward the good and the better.
The power of God is not physical force, it is spiritual power. The power of God is based upon weakness, taking risks, being vulnerable, always giving more than receiving, reaching out instead of retreating or hiding. Apparently weak and powerless, yet shaping future like no other force.
Who would prefer weakness over strength? Anyone? Clearly, it’s still a teaching that we struggle to believe, struggle to follow. We’re not here because we’ve figured it out, but because we are trying to immerse ourselves in Jesus’ words more deeply, because the world’s future is at stake.