Friday, July 21, 2006

“Unlikely Heroes”[1]

2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Frodo Baggins is an unlikely hero if there ever was one. For those of you not familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic tale, The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is a Hobbit. Hobbits, the leading characters of Tolkien’s tale, are called “Haflings” because they are half the size of humans—under 4 ft tall at most. They mostly mind their own business and remain unnoticed and insignificant in the eyes of more powerful characters like Sauron the evil lord or Saruman the treacherous wizard. Nobody would have guessed that Frodo could have borne the fate of all “Middle Earth.”

Frodo’s hidden strength revealed itself only in his weakness. In fact, it was his doubtful stature as a potential hero that enabled Frodo to slip into Mordor and carry the Sauron’s ring of power into the heart of Mount Doom to be destroyed. More valiant warriors, like Aragorn the heir-apparent to the kingdom of men, dared not try to carry the ring. Even Galadriel the elf queen and Gandalf the wizard refused it, because they knew that the ring would use their power for evil. Only Frodo, insignificant, weak, and unlikely Frodo, could save “Middle Earth” from certain destruction.

An Unlikely Hero. Jesus was an unlikely hero as well: he was an unconvincing messiah, an improbable savior.[2] He was so unlikely that the people of his very own hometown of Nazareth not only refused to believe in him but actually tried to kill him!

It may seem hard for us to imagine, but Jesus was nothing like what most of the people of his day looked for in a savior. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day expected a king who would lead them to freedom and prosperity by overthrowing the yoke of their oppressors. Jesus came as a humble servant, a teacher of righteousness, a friend of outcasts and sinners. Ultimately, he broke the grip of the “powers that be” by submitting himself to the worst they could do—a violent death.[3] But by his vulnerability, he overcame not only their power, but also death itself.

Paul was also an unlikely apostle. By his own admission, there was nothing special about him. According to church legend, he was short, balding, had a crooked nose, and walked with a stoop.[4]

In fact, Paul the Pharisee had devoted his life to destroy the Christian faith. By his own testimony, he compelled Christians to blaspheme the name of Christ, and even killed some of them. But Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ was a different man altogether. He renounced the ways of coercion and instead followed Jesus’ example of sacrificial service. Rather than ruling his churches “with an iron fist,” he cared for them gently like a nursemaid. He allowed himself to be made a fool; he subjected himself to hardships and afflictions; he gave himself away willingly and freely.

Strength through Weakness. In our lesson for today, Paul speaks about a “thorn” in the flesh that was given to him to keep him humble. While he doesn’t define what that was, it is clear that it made his life more difficult. Paul asked the Lord to remove it and received the promise: “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). I like the way the New Living Translation renders it: “My gracious favor is all you need. My power works best in your weakness.” The Lord not only promised to sustain Paul in his affliction, but to use it to make him a better channel for God’s grace!

From the very beginning, God’s redemptive purpose has been achieved through unlikely means: a wandering, homeless immigrant named Abraham; a reluctant lawgiver named Moses; a suffering messiah named Jesus; a servant apostle named Paul. The same is true for us today.

What that means is that it is not our abilities that promote the Kingdom of God. In fact, I believe that our “abilities” have as much potential to interfere with the work of the Kingdom as to promote it. The problem is that we tend to rely on our abilities instead of the power of God. We think that the only way God’s Kingdom will come is if we have the talent, the persistence, or the energy to make it come.

But that is precisely not how God works! God’s Kingdom does not come into this world through human achievement or talent.[5] It comes only to the extent that the Spirit of God creates it.[6] “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty”(Zech. 4:6). “The Spirit of God makes the impossible possible; he creates faith where there is nothing else to believe in; he creates love where there is nothing lovable; he creates hope where there is nothing to hope for. … he makes enslaved creation live and fills everything with the powers of the new creation.”(Moltmann, CPS, 191) And the Spirit, like God, works best through our weakness.[7] The Spirit works through those who make themselves vulnerable, through humble service. The Spirit overcomes evil in the world through sacrificial love, just like Jesus did.

Today is set aside in the PC (USA) to recognize the work of small churches. As a “small church” we must recognize that the success or failure of the Kingdom of God in our community is not dependent on how hard we work, or how talented we are, or how well we use our abilities. Rather, it depends wholly and solely on the work of the Spirit.

So what are we to do? We are to actively cultivate the presence of the Spirit in our lives through regular practice of the spiritual disciplines. We are to rely on God’s grace to sustain us in our weakness. We are to seek to become channels of God’s grace, submitting ourselves to God’s purpose. We are to allow God to use our weakness to display God’s power. And the good news is that God will do so!

[1] A sermon preached 7/9/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 102; cf. also Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 164.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 131, 195, 212

[4] The Acts of Paul, 3.2; W. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2, 239.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.4, 396-97.

[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 191, 205

[7] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV,3, 742-45.

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