Hidden Strength

 

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The Word of God is a rejectable Word. People can take offense at it. People can mock it and laugh at it. People can close their ears and minds to it, literally walk out of the church, shut their Bibles. The Word is as rejectable as Jesus.

All three readings this morning testify to the rejectability of the Word, its vulnerability, the fact that God forces Himself on no one. The prophet Ezekiel is sent to a stubborn people, a nation of rebels, a people with a track record of disobedience. Yet God sends His prophet anyway, Ezekiel, the “Son of Man.” God insists on being heard, He insists that His Word go out and that people hear it. But He forces no one. “Whether they hear or refuse to hear, they will know that a prophet has been among them.”

The apostle Paul was under attack in a congregation he had planted. The Corinthians’ ears were being tickled by false teachers who had ingratiated their way into the congregation and were speaking against Paul in his absence. Paul might have boasted of his strengths, of all the visions he had, of the wisdom God had given him, of all his mission successes, but instead, Paul boasts in his weakness. He boasts about how God didn’t answer his prayer for relief. When was the last time you heard a Christian boast about unanswered prayer?

He says he’s been plagued by a “thorn in the flesh.” I think it’s a person, an antagonist, someone who dogs Paul around and undoes his work after he leaves with rumors and innuendos and all those little ways we have to undercut someone else. I imagine this person following in Paul’s shadow, pretending to be a supporter, a “friend of Paul,” but then undermining his ministry when he is away so that people begin to doubt that Paul was the “real deal,” a true apostle speaking the God-honest Gospel.

Now you would figure that if Paul, a chosen apostle of the Lord, is having troubles with some pesky antagonist or whatever his “thorn in the flesh” was, that a simple prayer should have taken care of it. After all, Paul is an important person. He’s the “apostle Paul,” doing the Lord’s work, extending the church to uncharted regions, boldly taking the Gospel where no man has gone before. You would figure that God would clear a path for Paul and not have such an important person have to put up with thorns in the flesh.

But here’s the shocker. Three times Paul prays for relief, and three times he gets the same answer. “My grace is sufficient for you.” Remember that the next time your prayers aren’t answered. And this is not a simple “no” from the Lord, this “no” is full of meaning. “My power is made perfect in weakness.” This is the hidden strength of the cross of Jesus. The power of God is perfected in weakness, and this throws our religious machinery abruptly into reverse. Paul is content (yes, content!) with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. This is not the kind of stuff that impresses the winners of this world, I can assure you! And what sort of principle is this? “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

This isn’t the kind of success-oriented Christianity you are accustomed to hearing, whether you tune in to the TV preachers or you get a load from church bureaucrats. No one likes to admit to being a loser, and here is the apostle Paul bragging about it – When I am weak, then I am strong. This is a Jesus way of speaking.

Jesus went to His hometown of Nazareth, the place where He grew up. They knew Him there. They remembered when He was just “knee high to a grasshopper.” He’d played with their kids in the streets. He attended their synogogue. They knew Mary and Joseph. They’d contracted for his carpenter’s work. And now here He is, an itinerant teacher come home. And do they throw a parade and celebrate? No! They’re offended. Where did He get His wisdom from? We went to the same synagogue school as He did. Where did He get this power to work miracles? He’s a carpenter. We know His family. They were offended.

What offended them was how ordinary Jesus was. Just plain old Jesus, the guy next door with the calloused hands who built our tables and chairs or whatever it was He built. They knew His folks, they knew His family, they knew all about Him. He lived in their neck of the woods for thirty years and no one thought anything out of the ordinary. He wasn’t like Tiger Woods. When Tiger was five years old swinging a golf club on the Johnny Carson show, you knew he was going places in the world of golf. But it’s not as though there was a glowing golden halo hovering over Jesus head when He was a kid. He was simply holy in a hidden sort of way. Imagine that – the sinless Son of God in human flesh goes completely unnoticed.

“A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” The Word is so deeply hidden in humility that even those who should know better overlook it. Mary forgot who Jesus was. His family forgot who He was and thought He had lost His mind. You see, we think holiness is something unnatural, something surreal, above and beyond us. That’s a testimony to how messed up we are with sin. We accept sin as “normal,” as just a part of being human. “We’re born that way,” we rationalize. And along comes God in human flesh, not simply a sinless man but God in the flesh, and He is unrecognizable.

This puzzles people, and well it should Our notions of holiness are completely trashed. Our notions about how God works are turned upside down and inside out. No displays of power, no coercion. Jesus couldn’t even do much in the way of miracles in Nazareth. He doesn’t use miracles to coerce people. The miracles are for the broken few, not the skeptical many. Jesus doesn’t put on a show. He’s not into celebrity. He even gives His sent apostles an exit strategy if they aren’t welcome – shake the dust off your feet and move on.

The Word is vulnerable and rejectable. It is like seed in soil that can be choked out or scorched or eaten up by birds. The Scriptures don’t impress the skeptic looking for the spectacular. No golden plates delivered by angels, no obviously supernatural origins other than the general editorship of the Holy Spirit. Not even a radioactive glow or something to make you go “Oooooo”, but that’s good or we’d read the Bible even less than we do. Like Jesus in the hometown synagogue, the Scriptures are easily dismissed by those seeking “something more.” It is simply a cobbled collection of sixty-six books assembled over 1500 or so years all revolving around one theme – God’s grace in His Son. Their glory is hidden under weakness.

Look at how the Word comes to us to weakness – Scriptures words, baptismal water, Eucharistic bread and wine. The strength is hidden. The glory muted. The gift is rejectable. Talk to anyone who rejects the Lord’s Supper, they all say the same thing: It’s only bread and wine. Or anyone who rejects Baptism: It’s only water. Or someone who rejects the Scriptures: It’s only the writings and opinions of men. Or anyone who rejects Jesus: He’s only a man, a carpenter from Nazareth who got crucified.

This is how God has chosen to deal with us – hiddenly, quietly, gently, humbly, rejectably. You may not have done it this way, but then you’re not God. You may want it some other way, but this is the way God has provided so that your faith, hope, and trust is not in displays of power but in the hidden strength of the cross. God has hidden His power and perfected it in weakness precisely to contrast His way with the world’s way, His power with the world’s power, His wisdom with the world’s wisdom.

But to those who receive Him, there is an infinite well of power, power to become the children of God. It is the power of sins forgiven, washed away by the blood of Christ crucified. The power of the open, empty tomb that conquers death forever. The power of the One who is seated at the right hand of God and reigning now over all things. That power perfected in weakness is the power that allows you to be content in any and all circumstances, to understand that God’s grace in Jesus truly is sufficient for you, that even in weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities, and whatever else gets thrown you way, you “more than conquer through Him who loved you.”

This is how the Scriptures depict the “victorious life” of the Christian. Not that our prayers get answered the way a can of Coke comes out of vending machine. Not that we have no ills or troubles in the world. Not that we don’t fail many times over. Not that we don’t suffer and even die. But that in all these things we are content in the fact that God’s grace, His undeserved kindness toward us in Christ, is sufficient for anything and everything.

In these days when success is measured by celebrity, by making a name for oneself (look at all the fuss over Michael Jackson’s funeral), our Baptism calls us to a different way of looking a things. To see strength in weakness, to see glory in the ordinary, to see our salvation in this humble carpenter from Nazareth and not to be ashamed of Him, for this seemingly weak Word is the power of God to save.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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