4/26/2020 for Remsen Bible Fellowship
I want to paint a picture for you. You’re walking through a garden, and it’s late. The night has a definite chill. You look over to your left, and there is a man, kneeling in prayer. Tears stream down his face and roll off his beard. His prayer seems almost feverish, and his stress eventually rises to a place where the capillaries near his skin begin bursting. He’s experiencing a condition known as hematidrosis: sweating blood. Does this strike you as a man full of strength, embracing the power of positive thinking, or claiming his best life now? Or does he come across as vulnerable, perhaps weak?
Many of you will, of course, recognize the man in our story. It’s Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, just hours before he heads to the cross. Jesus is the one imploring the Father to change the circumstances he is about to face. Jesus is the one who needs God to send an angel to comfort him. And Jesus is the one, who after being comforted by an angel (Luke 22:43-44) is still in such a state that his sweat becomes blood. If you have a Bible, go ahead and grab it. We’re going to cover quite a bit of territory this morning, but I want to begin in Hebrews 4:14-16.
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
I don’t intend to do a thorough examination of this passage. Rather, I want to fix our minds on one particular word within verse 15: weaknesses. Have you ever felt weak, helpless, or infirm? We’ve all had those moments that feel as if life were an 800 pound brown bear and you’re just a little salmon caught between its jaws. Where it seems circumstance and events outside of your control dominate and all you can do is ignore it, because ignorance is bliss; deny it, and pretend you are in control; or just give in and cry.
The topic of weakness is one which occupies much of Scripture, but this morning I want to limit our thinking to three principles of weakness from God’s word.
Principle #1: We Should Admit Our Weaknesses
What does our society think of weakness? Remember back to the presidential debates of 2015-16. Now before I make this reference, let’s be clear that I’m making a social point here rather than a political one. In those debates, now President Trump made it his bread and butter tactic to label opponents with derogatory nicknames. Think “Little Marco” or “Low Energy Jeb”. How do these insults function? They draw our attention to, and fix our minds upon, perceived weaknesses. And the reason he used this tactic was that it, by and large, worked. When we think of others as weak, we see ourselves as superior. Weakness is seen as something to be despised. Consider a couple of quotes:
“Never apologize, mister. It’s a sign of weakness.”
-John Wayne as Nathan Brittles
“What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Our world hates weakness, and devours it at every opportunity. Think about the weakness you see around you-how do you respond to it? It can be easy to pile on those we perceive as weak and to remove the attention from ourselves. Then, in contrast, we want to project an image of strength to those around us.
And Christians are not exempt from this trap. We fall in just as easily. It’s possible to think of “believer” as synonymous with “strong” or “put together” or “never doubts or struggles.” But does the Bible agree with this assessment of our condition? Far from it. The Bible has absolutely zero illusions when it comes to human nature, including our lack of strength.
The Bible is full of weak “heros.” Let’s look at one of them. Matthew 11:11,
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
That might be a familiar statement to you. Jesus calls John the greatest man ever born of a woman. And it makes sense, right? The dude is crazy dedicated to God, living in the wilderness, preaching about the need for repentance, baptizing and teaching followers, living on honey and locusts, doesn’t he just seem like the sort of holy guy that Jesus would call great? And his humility! When Jesus is gaining in popularity and John is shrinking in comparison, John’s followers are freaked out. And yet John says to them, he must increase, I must decrease (John 3:30).
But what is the setting of Jesus’ comments about John? John, the very man who sent his own disciples toward Jesus and said, behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who makes comments to Jesus such as, you should baptize me, this same John is now in prison. And in prison he hears reports of Jesus ministry. And it seems that rather than being overjoyed, he just doesn’t know what to believe. So he sends messengers to Jesus. Are you the one? Or should we look for someone else?
The Bible never shies away from human weakness, and neither should we.
It might be helpful here to distinguish the various categories of weakness we experience.
Finite creatureliness. Some of what we experience as weakness is simply the reality of life as a created being. We are finite. And often this feels weak. Is there anything weaker or more vulnerable than sleep? How often have you been frustrated by your body needing to eat or have water? Life aa a being who is not God, being a creature dependent both upon the Creator, and even other creatures is a form of weakness which is built into humanity. Some extent of weakness is intentionally built into us by God.
Fallen sinfulness. Human beings have rebelled against God (see Gen 3), and in doing so have brought upon the world the curse of God. As a result of our rebellion the original human limits have been compounded by that most final of limits: death. As human beings who stand under God’s wrath, we will all face judgement for our sins. But before that we will often face earthly consequences for the sins we commit. And this often reminds us of, or even increases, our weakness. For example, if I were to wrong my wife and then argue with her about it, and I know in the middle of the argument that she is correct, there is a weakness and a vulnerability I feel in the midst of that situation. It’s so easy to think of our sin, our ability to choose “what we want” as a source of strength, or a demonstration of strength. And yet Jesus says in John 8 that “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” Slavery is not a position of strength. Our weakness is compounded by our sinfulness.
Fractured brokenness. Living in a sin-riddled world, we not only experience death, but all of the weakness and brokenness that precedes it; sickness, the decay of our bodies. The man born blind in John chapter 9 wasn’t blind because of anyone’s particular sin. The disciples ask Jesus about this, was it his fault or his parents? To which Jesus replies, neither, wrong category. But while that blindness wasn’t the result of particular sin, it wouldn’t have existed were sin not in the world. The fact of sin in the world creates a general suffering that leads to and accentuates weakness. We also experience pain that is due to the sin of others. The rape victim is not suffering for her own sin. The sins of others can leave us feeling broken, helpless, and weak. We live in a world where we feel the impacts of sin’s presence.
We often respond to these various weaknesses in backward fashion. Those weaknesses for which we are culpable we tend to downplay. “Maybe I shouldn’t use cutting words, but I just can’t help speaking my mind.” We want to downplay our sin to the category of mistake or stupidity, or in the words of that great philosopher Lady Gaga, we’ll say, “I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way.”
On the other hand, sometimes we feel guilty for those limits which simply are. Consider the busy mom, she has several kids running around, diapers to change, meals to cook, an infant to console, laundry piling up-and then she feels overwhelmed and guilty because she doesn’t have 37 hours in a day. But is the inability to accomplish literally everything a moral failing? Or think of the aging grandfather, whose health is failing. He feels like he’s letting people down when he can’t lift the feed sacks into the back of the pickup anymore. But is morally wrong to age?
Psalm 103:14, For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
God knows your frame. He knows your weakness. Therefore, we can and should admit these weaknesses to ourselves.
Principle #2: We Should Feel Our Weaknesses
There is a substantial difference between being forced to acknowledge a very obvious fact, and allowing ourselves to feel the weight of our frailty. But we should again ask, is the Bible as squeamish as we are?
We’ve been looking at the Psalms in recent weeks, and as you read the Psalms, it is striking how frequently the writer (typically David in the first part of the book) is quite blunt about his own feelings of weakness and questioning. Let’s take a sampling.
Psalm 6:3-7, 3 My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O LORD—how long?
4 Turn, O LORD, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
5 For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?
6 I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
7 My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes.
Psalm 10:1, Why, O LORD, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
Psalm 13:1-4, How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
I wonder how you would respond if someone in your Bible study started talking like that? Or if you were visiting a friend in the hospital and they were praying like that? What if they quoted Psalm 22:1? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Ponder for a moment that the Psalms are not simply the record of individual prayers, or the soundtrack of the writer’s walk with God. The Psalms are actually intended to instruct us. They teach us how to pray. They also teach us how to feel. If we are clear eyed about the world around us-and inside of us-, then it is right to see the immense measure of suffering, pain, and sin and to then feel weak and helpless in response.
Let’s read Romans 8:19-26 together,
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Christianity is not stoicism. We feel the weight of our weakness. Abraham felt that weakness, as did Moses. Gideon knew his insufficiency, and David did, too. Peter did, and Paul did. What makes this feeling distinctly Christian is where we turn with it.
Principle #3: We Should Embrace Our Weaknesses
Is there any good news coming in this sermon? That’s how I felt reading over it. But while the New Testament is just as clear on our weaknesses as the Old Testament is, it also wraps a lot of good news around this. For whom did Jesus come to save? The weak.
Luke 19:10, For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.
1 Peter 2:25, For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Titus 3:3a, For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures...
Ephesians 2:4-5, But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.
How does the New Testament refer to those who are in their sins? Lost, sheep, slaves, dead. Are any of these pictures of human power? Quite the contrary. This is so counterintuitive for us. We want to earn right-standing with God, we want to prove to him that we are worthy and valuable enough that he’d obviously want to have us in his family. Or perhaps we think we’re strong enough that we actually don’t need God at all. Karl Marx famously said that “Religion...is the opium of the people.” We want to think that we have a power and a goodness and a strength inside of us that either frees us of the need for God, or means that we have something to offer to him. But Jesus isn’t impressed.
Luke 5:30-32, And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
What do the Pharisees miss here? They are upset with Jesus for hanging out with sinners-apparently not remembering their own Scriptures, such as Psalm 14:3, there is none that does good, not even one. That there are none who are righteous, there are none who are spiritually well. The only way to “qualify yourself” for forgiveness, for life with Christ, is to admit that you can’t qualify yourself. The only way to be healed by the Great Physician and access to the strength provided by the Holy Spirit’s presence in you is to confess that you don’t deserve it, but desperately need it. You bring nothing but weakness to the exchange. You’ll only be rescued if you realize you’re drowning.
Principle #4: We Must Walk in Weakness
How tempting it would be at this point to say, and in embracing our weakness and receiving the salvation Jesus offers we can then receive the gift of a victorious life! Lay your weakness down and pick up the strength offered through Jesus. Many people preach this message. But brothers and sisters-it isn’t the message of Christianity. We must not only embrace our weakness, but even in being saved by Jesus, we continue to walk in weakness.
What I want to do in conclusion is to read three passages from Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church, and meditate briefly upon the last one.
1 Corinthians 1:25-31, 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
2 Corinthians 4:7-18, 7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
13 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10, 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul’s life is one that seems to have many human reasons for boasting. He had the best schooling, an impeccable religious pedigree, and came from God’s chosen people. After his conversion he had traveled far and wide proclaiming Jesus, received visions that earlier in 2 Corinthians 12 he relates as defying description. And yet what do we find here in verse 7? God has allowed Satan to give Paul a thorn in the flesh. God has deliberately allowed Paul’s weakness to be brought to his mind over and again. We aren’t told what this thorn is. A physical ailment, a struggle with a particular sin, an exceedingly difficult relationship? We don’t know. We do know that Paul begs to be relieved of this weakness. And God says, “my grace is sufficient for you.” Which is to say, when we are looking for God to solve our problems, to take away our struggles, he might say yes. Or he might not. He might let you walk in weakness. Why? Because that’s where God’s power is made perfect.
What does it mean that God’s power is made perfect? The idea of perfect in Scripture often has to do with completeness. And Christ’s power is demonstrated to be complete when we as his people live lives dependent upon his power rather than our own.
“In a very real sense not one of us is qualified, but it seems that God continually chooses the most unqualified to do his work, to bear his glory. If we are qualified, we tend to think that we have done the job ourselves. If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there's no danger that we will confuse God's work with our own, or God's glory with our own.”
― Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
This is surprisingly freeing. If I have to display my own strength, I am in a constant cycle of having to hide who I really am from those around me, trying to project an image that simply isn’t true. I will pull away from deep relationships, because if people can see in then they will see my sins, my flaws, my weaknesses. But if I know that I have a high priest who has passed through the heavens who can sympathize with my weaknesses, on whose account I have been made right with God, this frees me up. I don’t have to hide from people anymore, because instead of needing to portray my own strength, I can simply point to Jesus. I don’t have to be awesome. I know Someone who is.
So how then ought we relate to our weaknesses as humans? We ought to admit them, remembering, as God does, that we are but dust. We should feel the weight of our weakness, realizing that we can’t ignore the importance of this part of our being. We should then embrace our weakness, and receive the forgiveness Christ offers to all of the weak and needy sinners who come to him. And finally, we continue to walk in weakness, displaying the marvelous power of God, who is happy to use frail jars of clay as the vessels of his glory on earth. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly because of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.