Those of you who have just graduated may feel that you’re on top of the world – or that the weight of the world is on top of you – or more likely, a mixture of the two. You have great possibilities in front of you: freedom to further your education, start your career, move somewhere new, make new friends, marry and have a family. You also have great responsibilities in front of you: finding work in a challenging job market, student loan debt, finding a place to live that you can afford, making a relationship work, raising kids.
It can be overwhelming. If you feel that way, I have good news for you. God is with you, to help you shoulder the burden. Even more, God will do more remarkable things through you. Paul put it this way in our reading from II Corinthians: “… when I am weak, then I am strong.”
That is the paradox of power. Paul – who was the best-educated and best-connected of Jesus’ apostles – could have seen himself as the power player in the fledgling Church. After all, Jesus had appeared personally to him after His ascension into heaven. So Paul could easily have become full of himself – but God allowed him to suffer from an affliction that kept him humble. Paul describes it only as “a thorn in my flesh”: it could have been physical, emotional, financial, relational, or spiritual pain – we don’t know. We do know that it taught Paul that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.
That is how we are strong when we are weak – because when we are weak, then we are not competing with God for control. We stop trying to be superheroes. Please forgive me for calling up an image from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – but think about the Black Knight. After King Arthur hacks off his arm, the Knight tells him, “It’s just a flesh wound.” After Arthur lops off the Knight’s legs, the Knight replies, “All right, we’ll call it a draw.”
We laugh at the absurdity of the Knight’s audacity – refusing to acknowledge that he is helpless. Much of the time, we don’t realize that we are helpless and we continue to fight God’s control over our lives and our circumstances. Often, life has to knock us flat or take us down to the last penny or the last minute before we turn it over to God.
In our story from the Book of Judges this morning, Gideon had a good-sized arm of 32-thousand men to go up against the Midianites. But God did not want the Israelites to forget that God was the One who gives them victory over their enemies. So the fearful were allowed to leave, cutting the army down to ten-thousand.
Then the men who knelt down to drink directly from the brook were sent home.
To say that Gideon’s army was weakened would be an understatement. He had three-hundred men left – and each was armed only with a trumpet and a jar with a torch inside. They were to go to the edge of the Midianite camp at night, blow their trumpets at the same time, smash their jars, and wave their torches while shouting,
“A sword for the Lord and for Gideon.” The Midianite army hear the loud noise, saw the bright lights, and fled in panic.
The Bible never tells us what would have happened had Gideon insisted on attacking with the full force of
32-thousand – but I suspect they would have suffered a crushing defeat, because they would have been fighting in their own strength. God wanted to show them that when they are weak, His strength is most clearly seen.
Our world places great value on strength and power – as well as comfort and ease – yet God calls us to vulnerability, suffering, and honesty about our limits. God works most powerfully through our difficulties, deficiencies, and disasters.
Consider God’s great plan for redeeming His people: it involved His own Son, giving up all the power and glory of heaven to join His God-ness with our broken human-ness and then dying as the perfect sacrifice for our sin. Many who heckled Jesus as He hung on the cross ridiculed His weakness. But in His weakest moment,
He accomplished a mighty salvation for us.
And we can access that salvation only when we realize our weakness – when we acknowledge our inability to save ourselves. It is in our brokenness that we depend most deeply on God and cling to his grace.
It’s also in our brokenness that we are most useful to God – for we stop resisting His will and His way.
We will see that in a physical form when we gather at the Lord’s Table this morning for Communion: It takes broken wheat to make bread. It takes broken grapes to make wine. And it takes broken people to make good disciples of Jesus Christ.
So Paul was broken – as he wrote in the previous chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians:
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
But as he wrote in our passage for today, verse 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.
“For when I am weak, then I am strong.” When we are weak, then the strength of the Holy Spirit is all the more powerful in us.
Do not be afraid of admitting weakness – to yourself or to others – for in doing so you open the door for the Spirit to demonstrate God’s power in you life.
We need to admit that we cannot save ourselves, we cannot better ourselves, we cannot be God’s faithful people with God’s help. Let us admit our weakness today, and watch God’s power flow into our lives.