Unconventional Power

Sermon delivered on Trinity 3B, Sunday, June 21, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 17.1a,4-11,19-49; Psalm 9.9-20; 2 Corinthians 6.1-13; Mark 4.35-41.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We live in a world that sometimes seems to be going completely mad. The latest high profile example is the murder of nine saints during Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Worldwide we are witnessing an unprecedented level of persecution and atrocities committed against Christians. Then there’s all kinds of evil we deal with in our daily lives: sickness, addictions, broken relationships, death of loved ones, our fears and anxieties about the present and future, guilt over past behavior, and much more. How can this be? How can this kind of evil exist in God’s good and beautiful world? And more importantly, do we have any resources available to help us not only fight against the various evils that afflict us, but to prevail against them? After all, as we saw two weeks ago, Paul reminded us that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the dark powers and principalities, against the spiritual and cosmic forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6.12). All of this is enough to make us lose heart and hope and wonder if God really has abandoned us. Fortunately, our readings this morning provide some timely lessons for us to consider. Whether directly or indirectly, each of our readings speak to our fears about the various kinds of evil that confront us and remind us that we do have power at our disposal to fight against evil, whether the evil is outright persecution or the personal challenges we all face. But it is not the kind of conventional power that the world values (and sadly many of us who call ourselves Christians value), and this is what I want us to look at this morning.

Think for a minute about the kind of conventional power the world values. Nations equate military strength with power because might makes right. We can’t afford to let bullies push us around or interfere with our national interests, and the only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to carry the biggest stick. Let your enemy become stronger than you, i.e., let your enemy develop more firepower and manpower than you, says conventional wisdom, and you’ve already lost the war. This, of course, explains the arms race madness between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War years, a race that is apparently heating up once again with Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine and Crimea.

Likewise on a personal level. A lot of people spend a lot of time working out in the weight room so they can defend themselves or have the physical tools to help assert themselves over others. After all, who wants to risk tangling with someone physically stronger than you? And if we can’t be the strongest person on the block, we arm ourselves with weapons so that we can protect ourselves and our families. On other fronts, we strive to earn as much money as we can because, well, money talks. Everybody knows that. At work, if we want security or desire to get things done, we strive to rise to the top of the organizational food chain where we can impose our decisions on others rather than have them impose their decisions on us. I could go on but you get the point.

Now let me be clear. I am not arguing that these things are right or wrong. I am simply observing that we all value what the world calls conventional wisdom and power, and in one way or another we all seek to accumulate at least some forms of that power, whether it is on a personal, economic, social, or political level. But here’s the thing about conventional power. Try as we might, we are eventually going to run into someone who is bigger than us, faster than us, stronger than us, smarter than us, has more money than us, is more powerful than us, or who is better armed than us, and when that happens, if our interests come into conflict with that person’s interests, we and our interests are toast. Conventional power has its limits.

We see this illustrated in our OT lesson with the story of David and Goliath. As we saw two weeks ago, God’s people Israel wanted a king for themselves so that they could be like the other nations. Careful what you wish for, you may just get it, and here we see that coming true in spades. God indeed gave Israel a king. His name was Saul and he was an imposing physical specimen who stood head and shoulders above his fellow Israelites (cf. 1 Samuel 10.20ff). But now Saul and his forces were confronted by an enemy who had a bigger stick than they did and a mightier warrior than Saul. The Philistines had Goliath who checked in at an impressive 9’9” tall. Here is a man that even LeBron would have trouble handling on the basketball court!

But the text does not focus on Goliath’s stature, jaw-dropping as that was. Instead, the writer focuses on Goliath’s armament. His body armor alone weighed 126 pounds and the tip of his spear weighed in at 15 pounds! Here is conventional power at its finest. Here is the man who literally and figuratively carried the biggest stick and was therefore not to be messed with! The intended effect of this weaponry was to intimidate and it succeeded in doing just that because there was not one man in the entire Israelite army, mighty king Saul included, who dared answer Goliath’s challenge to them. Goliath’s stature and conventional power is also what allowed him to curse God’s people and God himself. But there was no one who dared call Goliath on his blasphemy because the Israelites were afraid. They allowed conventional power to intimidate them. You want to be like the rest of the nations, Israel? Welcome to the real world.

Israel’s reliance on conventional power is further seen in the almost cartoonish scene where Saul tried to make David wear his oversized armor. In trying to impose his armor on David, Saul was in effect declaring publicly that David’s only hope against Goliath was to use conventional power against him, and even then David’s chances of success were slim to none. Once again we see fear operating based on faith in conventional power. It was the same fear that probably made David’s brother, Eliab, so angry with him. David’s fearlessness in the face of conventional power, a fearlessness based on a living faith that God would be true to his covenant promises with his people, exposed Eliab’s fear for what it really was, a fear based on a misplaced hope and trust. Is this why God, who sees the heart, picked David over Eliab to be king? For you see, reliance on conventional power is all about self-help. In fact, conventional power is little more than self-help, the belief that only we can act to protect our self-interest because no one else can or will. Here we see human pride and self-reliance at its very worst and its very best.

But David would have none of it. His faith in God was simply too strong and vibrant for him to rely solely on conventional power. David was a shepherd, not a warrior, and so David chose the tools of a shepherd to fight the conventional power of Goliath the warrior. But David fought Goliath with a deep faith and trust in God. Notice this did not make David immune from danger or the various circumstances of life that confront all of us. What David’s faith and reliance on God allowed him to do was to prevail over the evil that confronted him.

So what can we learn from this lesson? The story invites us to look at several things. First, it reminds us that God’s power always trumps conventional power. That is why we are not to let appearances deceive us. To be sure, sometimes things look daunting and overwhelming, hopeless even, as they did to the Israelites. But evil is not in charge. Neither is it omnipotent. God is, and God is actively involved in the lives of all people, especially those who put their ultimate hope and trust in him rather than themselves.

Second, then, this story invites us to look at our faith as well as our beliefs about God. Do we believe God really is active in his world and our lives? Do we believe God loves us and and is faithful to his promises to heal and rescue us from all evil, including the ultimate evil of death? It is hard for us to answer yes to these questions because so often it appears that evil triumphs over good. But this is where we can learn from our story because one of its lessons is that looks can be deceiving. David entered the battle as a decisive underdog but emerged a conqueror, not because he had superior weaponry, but because he fought using the power of God, a power that was made manifest in the ostensible weakness of a shepherd.

This, in turn, leads us to a third lesson from the story. Our faith, while being a gift from God, ultimately depends on how well we know God. The more we know (not know about) this God who has revealed himself supremely in Jesus Christ, the more we will have confidence that God does love us and does intervene actively on our behalf, even when that is not self-evident to us. The more we know the heart of God as revealed in Scripture and ultimately in Jesus, the greater our faith and trust will be that God delivers on his promises. Jesus’ resurrection stands as the unique and supreme example that God’s power always trumps conventional power.

Last, the story of David and Goliath invites us to look at the folly of self-reliance. Don’t misunderstand. We are called to carry our weight in this world. It’s called sweat equity as we work with and for God. But that is different from self-reliance. As the name implies, self-reliance puts its ultimate hope in self, not God, and as we have seen, it leads us to put our ultimate trust in conventional power. But for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, this creates a dilemma for us. For example, in the coming days, we will surely hear voices clamoring for better security in churches (and probably elsewhere). Had someone been armed, perhaps those nine people would not have been murdered. And this is where it gets tricky because we are confronted with a choice. Do we go for conventional power or rely on God’s power? The problem many of us have is that if we choose to rely on God’s power we can feel terribly vulnerable. There’s a real chance that we could end up being killed! But that is the risk we have to run as Christians because we are called to hospitality and we all have seen what hospitality did for the nine dead at Emanuel AME. Isn’t it better, then, that we protect ourselves, i.e., that we rely on conventional power? Lives might be saved. Then we hear the words of Jesus. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16.25).

Again, I am not telling you what position to take on this issue. Rather, I am inviting us all to let our stories this morning be a catalyst for us to really examine our faith and relationship with God. One thing is certain, however. The more we know the God revealed in Jesus, the God who overcame our sin and death and who has given us a preview of the life to come, the more we will learn to trust his power rather than our own because at the end of the day, only God can call into existence things that are not and give life to the dead (Romans 4.17).

We see this theme of strength being weakness and weakness being strength echoed in our epistle lesson. Paul has just declared that now is the time for all to put their hope and trust in Jesus so that everyone might embrace God’s eternal salvation. He maintains that he has done just that and continues to defend his apostolic ministry against the detractors in the church at Corinth. As part of his defense we cannot help but notice that Paul is bragging in the Lord. Bragging in the Lord is different from plain old bragging because the former blesses God while the latter attempts to bless us. Once again we are confronted with the biblical paradox of strength because Paul is clearly telling us that real power, God’s power, is made perfect in our weakness. Paul tells us that he and his gospel of Jesus crucified are the real deal precisely because of how Paul has made God’s strength known. He isn’t a world-famous teacher or scholar. He doesn’t have wealth or power or fame, i.e., conventional power, as some others who call themselves apostles have. Instead, he’s suffered beatings, imprisonments, riots, hardships, hunger, and the like for the sake of proclaiming the gospel. And Paul is perfectly good with that because his hardships and weaknesses have allowed the power of God to be made known in him. Listen to what he says: I’ve responded to my hardships with, “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God, [i.e., the power of the Holy Spirit]; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.”

In other words, Paul’s hardships and his personal weaknesses have provided a venue for God to make God’s power known through Paul in ways that are contrary to conventional power. As a result, even though others sneer at him and call him a liar or think he is as good as dead, Paul knows otherwise. He knows he is the real deal and is made alive in the power of Christ, even if he were to die, because death is part of the old creation, not the new, and new creation is the reality under which Paul operates. Therefore, Paul can rejoice even in his sorrow because he is manifesting the paradoxical and enigmatic power of God made known in human weakness. Paul says the same thing in 2 Corinthians 12.8-10:

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it [Paul’s thorn in the flesh, whatever that was] would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 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.

So what’s going on here? Is Paul just nuts or is he on to something else?

Again, this lesson invites us to look at our faith and ourselves. Paul is clearly not crazy. Instead, what we are seeing here is a living faith in the risen and ascended Lord. Paul understands clearly that Jesus’ death and resurrection have changed everything and represent how God typically works among his people. The power of evil has been broken decisively on the cross, if not yet permanently defeated. In other words, the power of God defeated conventional power, but it did so in a totally unexpected way. Conventional power was defeated by the power of love and in the appearance of weakness. But we would not have known this without the resurrection. So once again, Paul is inviting us not to accept appearances at face value because the story is not yet finished. The power of weakness, God’s weakness, has the power to overcome the conventional power of evil. Jesus Christ crucified is not dead but alive. The new creation has burst upon us, albeit only partially. Nevertheless, it signals the reign of evil, sin, and death is finished. And Paul understood that if we want to follow Jesus, we must pattern our lives after Jesus, who lived in ways that conventional power labels as weak and ineffective. Many of us have bought into this logic of conventional power more than we realize, and so folks like Paul tend to shake us up or make us want to dismiss them as irrelevant or crazy or both.

But once again Emanuel AME simultaneously validates Paul’s experiences and reality of living in the new creation while turning conventional wisdom and power upside down. If you have not yet done so, look at the video of the accused murderer’s bond hearing and listen to the victims’ families who confront him. In their grief and sorrow, they offer no evil for evil. They offer no hate-filled diatribes or desire for revenge. Instead, they offer forgiveness and mercy and a desire for the accused to come to a life-changing relationship with Jesus! Absolutely amazing. As you listen to the victims’ families, pay attention to your own feelings. If you are like me, there is a strange sense of peace and a power that will descend on you. On the one hand, you won’t be able to explain it. On the other hand, you will intuitively know that this is how the kingdom comes: In weakness, forbearance, mercy, charity, patience, and love. It is the weakness and strength of Christ dying on a cross and being raised from the dead to reign as Lord over this vast cosmos. The nine martyred saints at Emanuel AME have been slain, and tragically so. But they are gloriously alive in the life-giving power of Jesus Christ crucified and raised (this, BTW, is what the entire book of Revelation is about). Do you have a resurrection faith that is vibrant enough and real enough for you to embrace the seeming paradox of weakness and power?

Last, of course, is our gospel lesson and here we have to dig a bit deeper. We see Jesus calm a raging storm to save his life and the lives of his disciples. So where is the paradox of power and weakness? In terms of conventional power this story seems pretty straightforward. But let us look at this story a bit closer and put it into the broader context of Mark’s narrative. Prior to this story Mark reports three parables of Jesus: the mustard seed, the sower, and the growing seeds (Mark 4.3-20, 26-32). Immediately following this story Mark reports a series of miracles including exorcism, the healing of a hemorrhaging woman, and the raising of a dead girl (Mark 5.1-43). So why did Mark place the story of Jesus calming the storm where he did?

Because Mark doesn’t want us to see Jesus as some kind of Cosmic Superman who flits around and does miracles to make us believe in him. No, this story comes on the heels of Jesus’ parables about how the kingdom of God comes. Think about it. The kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed that is planted. So from a conventional power perspective, it can safely be ignored. It can be trampled on or missed entirely, and it appears to be weak and insignificant. It is therefore easy for us to dismiss the kingdom’s power as being unreal because it does not live up to our own expectations that are driven by our embrace of conventional power.

But here again, Mark is reminding us not to let appearances deceive us because nothing could be further from the truth. The kingdom of God, while appearing to be as weak and insignificant as a seed, is just the opposite. It bursts in on God’s hurting and broken world and people in great power that manifests itself in healings of all kinds and the overthrow of evil. Mark also wants us to remember that the kingdom of God is within us as Fr. Bowser talked about last week. It is powerful, but that power is often hidden or made known in unconventional ways, at least for the moment.

This is why Jesus berated the disciples. Of course they should have paid attention to his previous miracles. But Jesus wanted them to see him not as a miracle worker but as a man in whom the kingdom of God is supremely made known. Yes, it is made known in mighty acts of power. But it is also made known in Jesus’ love and compassion for the least and the lost, and for his desire for sinners to repent and give their lives to God instead of themselves. This is surely the greater meaning of taking Jesus as he is, not as we want or expect him to be, and this is a challenge for us because Jesus ultimately made the kingdom of God known by going to the cross for our sake so that we could live as the healed and reconciled people of God. This was God’s power made perfect in weakness, the same weak power that was vindicated in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Is Jesus a miracle worker? You bet he is. Is the kingdom of God about power that we would recognize? You bet it is. When Jesus calmed the storm he declared that he was Lord over all creation so that even the forces of nature obeyed him. But Jesus is also our crucified Lord who gave himself in weakness and love so that we could learn to live in obedience to God and have the kind of relationship with God that we were created to have (cf. Philippians 2.5-11). This is the same Jesus who tells us we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. This is the same Jesus who bids us come and die, sometimes literally as well as metaphorically. This is how the kingdom comes on earth as in heaven, and this is what Mark’s story invites us to see and ponder.

As Christians, we are not immune from evil or suffering. In fact, the whole story of God’s people, especially in the NT, reminds us to expect suffering, not necessarily as punishment, but rather as a way to allow the power of God to work through us, just as it worked through David, Paul, and Jesus. Once again, if we do not know this God who revealed himself in Jesus, and if we do not know the story of God’s rescue plan for us and all his creation, we will likely not buy into that story. We will instead be content to pursue the futile path of conventional power.

But God wants better for us and invites us to trust him, to be weak for him so that his power can flow through us and we can demonstrate to the world that his kingdom indeed does live within us. Every time we choose to love instead of hate, every time we choose mercy over revenge, every time we choose to forgive those who persecute us or berate us or despise us, we open ourselves to the power of God living in us in the person of the Holy Spirit so that God’s strength is made known to the world and the kingdom continues to come. Like the saints of Emanuel AME, every time we choose to love in return for those who hate us, evil is diminished and ultimately defeated. This is terribly hard work and it is terribly hard for us to believe, precisely because it is so deeply enigmatic for us. And oh yes. It can make us afraid. But Scripture tells us constantly not to be afraid. In fact, that is the most common exhortation in the Bible! If that’s the case, it must mean there is plenty out there to make us afraid!

But our lessons today, each in its own way, encourage us to believe and remind us not to be afraid because Jesus is Lord and the powers of evil are not. Jesus is Lord because he died in weakness for our sake and was raised in power to rule over God’s old creation until the new comes in full. He is available to us each and every day in the power of the Spirit, in worship, in the sacraments, in our fellowship, and in Scripture. Most importantly, he loves us and wants us to enjoy real life in which we put our ultimate hope and trust in him, confident that he will use even our weaknesses to make us strong. Will you accept Jesus’ invitation to be weak so that his power can be made known in and through you? May our Lord Jesus Christ bless each and every one of us with ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts and minds to believe, so that we can experience the grace of seeing Jesus’ power working in and through our weaknesses to help bring in the kingdom on earth as in heaven. Then we will truly know that we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.