A weak prophet. A weak apostle. A weak Messiah in His home congregation. If you’re looking for displays of divine muscle, you’re a week too late. Last week we had two healings for the price of one – a woman cured of a twelve year bleeding and a twelve year old girl raised from the dead.
Today we get the prophet Ezekiel, preaching to the exiles, without so much as a single miracle in his pocket. And we hear the apostle Paul “boasting” about how he prayed three times and didn’t get what he prayed for. (Try making a best selling book on prayer out of that one!) And then we hear about Jesus in His hometown of Nazareth, in the synagogue of His boyhood, greeted by skepticism, scandal, unbelief, rejection. Hardly the power and the glory we expect from the God who made the heavens and the earth with a Word!
We might be tempted to wonder here. Who needs weakness when you can have strength? Who needs poverty when you can have abundant life? Who needs defeat when you can live victoriously? Why struggle with prayer when you can “name it and claim it” and have it your way?
But before we stumble over that Rock of weakness, we need to examine it a bit more closely. This weakness turns out to be a hidden, awesome strength, the strength of the God who wins by losing, who conquers death by dying, who overcomes sin by becoming sin and its Sacrifice. The story of the Scriptures, from Genesis to the Revelation, is the story of the God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose idea of strength appears to be weakness. It’s the story of the cross – the cross in the history of Israel, the life of the prophet, the apostle, the church, in your life and mine.
Look at Ezekiel. Ezekiel was from a priestly family. He could have been a priest, had he been born at another time. The trouble was, Jerusalem was under seige by Nebechudnezer, the Babylonian king, who would eventually destroy Jerusalem and the temple, and carry the people off into 70 years of exile. 70 years – an entire generation – without a home, without the sacraments of the temple. (It would be the equivalent of 70 years without the Lord’s Supper!) 70 years with nothing but bare faith in the promise that God would raise His Israel from the dead and raise the temple from ruins.
Ezekiel was a priest without an altar, an exile among the exiles. His title was “son of man.” 93 times. Son of man. Mere mortal, flesh and blood descendent of Adam. Sinner. But God spoke to this “son of man” and called him to be His man. There was a place and purpose for Ezekiel, even if there was no temple. On the banks of the Kebar River, sitting among the exiles, appalled to the depths of his soul at the condition of God’s chosen people. That was Ezekiel’s place.
Ezekiel had a call no preacher would want. In our day, many pastors seek calls where success is assured, and congregations seek pastors who will succeed. Ezekiel was sent into failure and ruin, to a rebellious, stubborn congregation whose hearts were hard and bitter, turned away from God. People in revolt. “You preach to them, son of man,” God says to Ezekiel. “And whether they listen or not, and don’t expect them to listen, because they are a stubborn and rebellious house, you preach them anyway. And they will know that a prophet has been among them.” God will be heard, whether the people liked it or not.
Ezekiel’s head was filled with visions. Visions that few men are privileged to see. Remarkable visions of a new temple and a new nation and of resurrection. They were strange and terrifying visions, alternately distressing and comforting. Ezekiel embodied the Word of God in his own body. His wife, whom he loved deeply, was taken suddenly from him, stricken by sudden illness for God to make a prophetic point. She died the very same day the temple in Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Babylonian army. Ezekiel’s loss was Israel’s loss. And Ezekiel was forbidden by God to mourn openly as a sign to the people of their lack of grief. The cross cuts through the life and words of the prophet. Ezekiel’s power was the power of God perfected in weakness.
Look at the apostle Paul. Known by the Jews as Saul, he was a man at the top of his game, on his way to the top. Trained under the best rabbis, with pedigree background and education, Saul was going places. A Pharisee from the tribe of Benjamin with the papers to prove it and an unbridled zeal for the Lord. Zealous enough to go door to door and round up those infidels who claimed Jesus to be the Messiah and take them back to Jerusalem for torture and execution. He helped with the stoning of Stephen. He was on his way on the road to Damascus to put an end to this Jesus movement once and for all.
And then he met Jesus in a blinding vision on that road to Damascus. And Jesus asked him the fifty dollar question: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He would learn how much he would suffer for the name of Jesus. Still wet from his Baptism, Paul set out to Damascus, not to persecute Christians but to join in worship with them and to debate those who believed otherwise. All his learning and training and preparation he now turned in service of the One who died and rose again and who appeared to Paul on the road.
If you think that Paul’s life was a life of fame, fortune, and success, you haven’t been spending enough time reading your Bibles. His own people considered him a traitor. The old guard didn’t trust him. His credentials were always in question. Check out 2 Corinthians. The Corinthians were the kind of congregation that was impressed by success. They would have loved what goes on in the name of Christian television. They had it all right there in a first century congregation – a high-flying charismatic movement, a loose and liberal morality that tolerated, even boasted of, a man sleeping with his step-mother; easy associations with pagan religions; impressive speakers, persuasive teachers; you name it. They challenged Paul’s authority. They said, “We don’t need Paul. We have Peter and Apollos and Christ. Who’s this Paul anyway? Unimpressive, boring, not good with people.”
And what does Paul do? He boasts about his weaknesses! Imagine that on channel 40 or even in any of our churches. Imagine someone talking giving this kind of a report to a mission board:
“I’ve been imprisoned, more than any other apostle. Beaten, flogged, exposed, nearly died more than once. Five times I was convicted and received the 39 lashes from the religious courts. Three times I was beaten with sticks, once I was nearly stoned to death. I’ve been shipwrecked three times. I spent a full night and day floating in the open sea. I have no place to live, but I’m constantly on the move. And everywhere I go, I’m in danger – robbers, my own people who want to kill me, the Gentiles. I’m in danger in the city, in the country, at sea. I have false brothers who undermine me. I’m hungry, thirsty, naked, exhausted. And to top it all off, when I was in Damascus, the king put out an arrest warrent on me and I had to escape by being lowered out of a window in a basket.”
Any volunteers to go with him? I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking, “This guy’s dangerous just to be around. And he sounds like he’s in danger of burn out.” We’re talking about the apostle Paul, friends. St. Paul. One of those guys who probably has a prime seat at the messianic banquet. And yet his life is a life of weakness all the way to the day he had his head cut off in a Rome prison.
In today’s reading, Paul ionforms the Corinthians about his unanswered prayer, something most of us are familiar with. Three times he’s prayed about his “thorn in the flesh.” We’re not sure what this “thorn” was. Some think it was some sort of physical malady like migraine or bad eyes or some lingering aftereffects of malaria. I think it was a person, an antagonist. He calls him “a messenger of Satan” who torments him. I think it was someone who followed Paul and undermined his teaching. He names a couple in other letters.
Regardless of what this “thorn in the flesh” was, three times Paul asked God to deal with it. Three times St. Paul, the apostle, the one who saw the glorified Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, got down on his knees and prayed. And three times the answer came back the same. “No. My grace is enough for you. You don’t need that. You have everything you need in the death and resurrection of Jesus. You have my favor in Jesus, and that will carry you. Trust me. My power is perfected in weakness, not in shows of strength. In weakness.”
Power perfected in weakness. The cross. The power of God to save the world perfected, brought to fullness and completion in the weakness of one dark death on a Friday we rightly call “good Friday.” Don’t stumble over the weakness of the cross. That’s the power of God to swallow up sin and death. Your sin and your death. God hides that power, buries it in the humanity of Jesus, in the darkness of His death, in the water of Baptism, in the humble Word of forgiveness, in the bread and wine of His Supper. It’s power perfected in weakness, wisdom hidden in foolishness, victory disguised as defeat.
God hides the creative and redemptive power of His Word under the weakness of a hopelessly divided Church, a weak and ofttimes inept ministry. Congregations who just don’t seem to get it, no matter how many ways it’s preached to them. Pastors who don’t seem to get it, no matter how many times they preach. People whose lives look anything but victorious, more like those hopeless exiles on the Kebar River in Babylon. But there’s power hiding there, hidden in weakness like buried treasure. Trust it. Take God at His Word. Believe it. And so Paul boasts in his weaknesses. Because “when I am weak, then I am strong,” which is another way of saying, “when I am dead, then Christ is most alive in me.”
The weakness of the cross trips us. It tripped the people of Nazareth, Jesus’ home town. It should have been a great homecoming, like when celebrities come home or soldiers come back from war. A parade down main street, confetti, bands, keys to the city. Jesus’ home synagogue should have been buzzing with excitement. The local boy made good. The Messiah grew up in our town. What an honor.
But that isn’t how it happened. The hometown folks stumbled head long into that power hidden under weakness. They heard Jesus preach with divine authority, and they said, “Who does this guy think He is? We’ve know him since he was knee high to a grasshopper. He played ball with our kids. He’s the carpenter. He made our table and chairs. He’s Mary’s kid. These are his brothers – James, Joses, Jude, Simon. His sisters are here.” They were scandalized.
What scandalized them, and the world, and even you and me at times, is the ordinariness, the weakness, the everydayness of Jesus. When God appears to save the world, we expect Superman, or some larger than life extra-terrestrial, something not of this world – not a carpenter from Nazareth. That’s too ordinary, too much like us, too much a part of everyday life. We expect holiness to have glowing halos, not dirt under his fingernails and nail nicks and wood splinters in his hands.
“Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor,” Jesus said. Familiarity breeds contempt, especially when it comes to holy things. We who are lifelong Christians, and especially we “lifer Lutherans,” might confess an honest word about that. We are all too often like thatNazareth congregation. We’ve grown up around holy things. We’ve known Baptism and the Scriptures from our infancy. Our ears are accustomed to the sound of sins being forgiven. Our tongues are liturgicallly disciplined to pray, praise and give thanks. We easily take our place at the Supper of Christ’s body and blood. And we just as easily skip it when it isn’t convenient or “we have better things to do on a Sunday morning.”
It often takes the outsider, one of the exiles one who knows what 70 years without the Sacrament is like, to take hold of us and shake us and say, “Do you have any idea what treasures you have here?”
Do you? It’s all so ordinary. That splash of baptismal water, the sacrament of your rebirth in Jesus. The spoken Word that says, “I forgive you,” God’s absolution of your sins. That bread that is the body of Christ, the wine that is His blood, the sacrament of your union with Christ. That homely Bible of humble origins. This ordinary, often dull and sleepy congregation, with its distracted and inattentive pastor.
But don’t be fooled. And don’t stumble. There’s power here, buried under weakness. The power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to save. And the good news for you and me this morning is this: You don’t have to be strong because Jesus is strong. And when you are weak, then you are strong in Him.
In the Name of Jesus,