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2018.11.18:“My Grace Is Sufficient For You:” Power Made Perfect in Weakness

Preached at First Presbyterian Church, East Aurora, NY, November 18, 2018, by Langdon “Buddy” Hubbard

“My Grace Is Sufficient For You:”

Power Made Perfect in Weakness

Matthew 11:25-30; Psalm 105:1-6

2 Corinthians 12:1-21


            The Apostle Paul begins with a rather strange recollection of someone he knows who had an ethereal experience of being taken up into the third heaven – I think that must be really high up in the heavenly spheres – into Paradise.  While he says it’s somebody he knows, we know it’s just a disguised way of saying it was actually him.  This was Paul’s incredible adventure and it really transformed his life, except for the fact he had to come back down, as we always do whenever we’ve been on some emotional or spiritual high.  Paul just didn’t think it was appropriate for him to talk about his own stellar spiritual experience, maybe because most people don’t have such experiences.  


But I know someone who does.  My granddaughter Zoey and every other baby.  Yesterday while Jan was feeding Zoey her apples, which she always enjoys, she suddenly broke into a sense of ecstatic reverie.  Looking up at our chandelier she gazed with a wide open mouth, a broad open smile, and uproarious laughter.  We kept looking up to see what she was looking at but only saw the light fixture.  There was a tiny angel affixed to the bottom of the light, but certainly that couldn’t be the source of her untold pleasure.  We finally looked at each other and said, “It must be angels.”


            That wasn’t the first time we had come to that conclusion.  When our son Dan was about the same age, at 8 months, he also suddenly became incredibly joyful and excited about something we couldn’t see in the corner of our bedroom which was entirely empty.  We attributed it then as now to angels.  We are convinced that babies see things we grown ups can’t see when it comes to the spiritual world.  Jesus did say we had to become like children if we wanted to enter the kingdom of God.  Oh that we could see like children see, right into heaven itself.


            The Apostle Paul did but ironically he decided that was nothing to boast about.  Instead, he said, rather oddly, that if he was going to boast it would be about his weakness.  And then he describes some “thorn in the flesh” that tormented him and would not let him go.  What could this have been?  We really don’t know, but there has been speculation that it might have been poor eyesight because in another letter he says, “see what large hand I write with.”  Or possibly epilepsy, depression, headaches, leprosy, malaria, stuttering, or spiritual temptations, even powerful women.  Whatever it was it drove him crazy and brought him back down to earth.  No matter how incredible his spiritual experiences might have been they didn’t remove this thorn in his flesh.  For all the spiritual highs, he lived much of his life with a great sense of powerlessness and weakness in his flesh, that reminded him always of just how much he depended on God for everything.


            Three times he asked God to remove this thorn, which was a way of saying he kept asking God to remove it day in and day out, but to no avail.  He lived with a permanent reminder of just how weak he was.


            But that is exactly what opened up an opportunity for him to enter into a more intense and intimate relationship with God’s suffering servant, Jesus, and hear an important message from God, that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Paul embraces the message, takes it to heart, internalizes it, and allows it to form his life through acceptance.  He experiences a paradigm shift and comes to the conclusion: “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  Why? Because they are not strong who are strong in themselves.  The strong ones are those who are weak in the things of this world, but understand that God is their strength.  Those who think they are the source of their own strength have no strength at all. Paul sees it now.  He sees what has been true from the beginning of the biblical story.  This is how God works.  God chooses the weak and powerless to do God’s will.


            Think about it. Who are the people God used in the Bible?  Not the strong but the weak.  Abraham and Sarah were really old when God decided to use them to give birth to the nation of Israel.  We’re talking really old, like 100 years old.  Only God would come up with a plan like that.


Moses couldn’t speak well, possibly because of a stutter, but he is exactly the one God wanted to be, of all things, God’s chief spokesperson before Pharoah to tell him to let God’s people go. 


            Eli, the high priest, whom God called to raise and nurture Samuel to be the high priest who would anoint David to be the great king of Israel, was extremely overweight.  But God used him.


            God called Samuel to be his servant when he was just a baby.  God was patient and watched him grow up until he was ready to serve.


            David was just a small shepherd boy when God called him to be the King of Israel.  No one believed he could be the one, except Samuel, who said God doesn’t look on the outside but on the inside, on the heart.  And he became the greatest King of Israel.


            David grew up to be great, not only at being King but in sinning too.  He’s the one who took another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and had her husband killed on the front line of battle to cover up his sin, since he got her pregnant. But David repented and turned back to God, and God forgave him and used him again.


            Queen Esther was a Jew, in a nation hostile to Jews but God placed her right in the most dangerous place she could be, the King’s palace, where she rose up for just such a time as that to risk her life and save her people.


            One of my personal favorites was Elisha, who received a double portion of the spirit of the great prophet Elijah.  You know why I like him, right?  He was bald!  The story tells how a bunch of boys made fun of him because he was bald and then got eaten up by a bear!  Don’t mess with bald guys.  We’re powerful in our weakness, you know!


            And then there’s the whole Christian story, of God coming to a young girl from a poor family in a tiny town, and telling her she was the one who was chosen to bear the Son of God into the world!


            And Jesus the Son of God came into the world not with great power but as a vulnerable baby.


            Jesus grows up teaching God’s way of the kingdom, God’s powerful way of life in the Spirit, only to be crucified and buried – total powerlessness.  But that’s how salvation was to come, when God raised the powerless Jesus back to life.


            And who would God choose to see the Risen Christ first and tell the world that he was risen?  None other than women, the last persons anyone would trust in that patriarchal culture where women were nothing more than property.  No one would believe their word, except God.


            But the stars of the Jesus’ show were just that, the outcasts:  prostitutes, hated tax collectors, rough and tumble fishermen, weak and timid people like the Apostle Peter whose name means “rock” but who usually acted like “sandstone” until God’s power took over his life, and black people like the Ethiopian eunuch, who would become the first missionary to Africa.


            As Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (I Corinthians 1:27-28) And that is what Paul understood God to be telling him, that God’s grace is sufficient for us – it is all we need – because God’s power is made perfect in weakness.


            There are so many contemporary stories that reaffirm Paul’s message.  Like the simple man who wasn’t very strong in speech or intellect but loved Jesus and wanted everyone to know him.  So he went door to door sharing his faith only to come to a college professor who found him quite ignorant.  But that’s just what God used to persuade him to give his life to Christ.  He said, “I figured anyone who loved God that much, to go out in spite of his weaknesses, and tell others about Christ must have something that deserves a hearing.”  And he was convinced not because of his power but because of his weakness.  


            Or the story Tony Campolo tells about being a speaker at a summer camp for children, in which big name athletes were brought in to share their faith.  One day a young camper with developmental disabilities asked if he could give the morning devotional.  They let him but everyone knew it would be a disaster.  He got up and tried to talk.  It probably took him 5 minutes to get out his message as he stumbled over his words.  All he said was, “I…love…Jesus…And…Jesus…loves…you!”  Tony said there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.  This young man spoke to the hearts of the other children more than any of the high priced athletes could have. 


            Because God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.  Our weakness.  All of our weakness.  Do you ever think you just don’t have what it takes to do something.  Maybe to be a Sunday School teacher, or Elder, or Deacon, or serve on a ministry team, or share your faith in Christ with someone in need, or to be a healer to someone who is broken in body, mind, or soul?  I’ve got some good news for you and some bad.  First the bad.  Your weakness doesn’t disqualify you so you don’t really have an excuse why you can’t be of service to God.  And now the good news.  You are exactly the kind of person God is looking for!  Not perfect, not powerful.  But available for God to use you and do powerful and wonderful things through you.  Because God’s grace is sufficient for you, for God’s power is made perfect in weakness.


            We just might respond with Paul: “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  Are you feeling a little stronger?  You should.  In God’s hands, your weakness is your strength.  And God is ready to supply all the power you need to do this think called life.