Sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
On my first official songwriting trip to Toronto after having signed a publishing deal several years ago, I was set up in daily co-writing sessions with other songwriters and producers. It was my “dream come true” but it was feeling more like a nightmare! I felt intimidated. I was filled with anxiety and was really out-of-sorts. I was so incredibly nervous.
Not wanting to spend the rest of my trip feeling anxious, and being, frankly, confused by my fears in light of finally being able to work at what I love, I decided to take a moment at Café Crepe on Queen Street for some reflection. Having had moments in the past where I had felt God speak to me quite directly, I sought Him out. I asked Him what my problem was, my laptop open, fingers on the keys, waiting for a response. What came back almost instantly was “It’s the same thing as usual, Jaylene. You’re afraid that you’re not ‘enough’…And, guess what? You’re not!”
I am not enough? Whoa. That’s not what Oprah Winfrey had been telling me through the television! And what about all the magazine and internet articles, let alone the books written to boost self-esteem and help build self-confidence? This word from God was not what I expected, to say the least. But with it came a strange sense of relief – that kind of peace that could only come from God. I am not enough. I felt truth sinking into my heart; all I could bring to any circumstance was what I can bring at that given moment. I felt the Lord say that He would meet me in whatever I could offer and take care of the rest. To know that God’s expectation of me was just to do what I could – and that it wouldn’t be enough on its own – brought me a sense of joy that carried me through the rest of the trip – I was smiling ear-to-ear as I headed to my next session, and often found myself chuckling as I repeated God’s assuring words about myself: I am not enough.
I wonder if much of our lives is spent in denial of, or, at least, avoidance of the appearance of ‘weakness’, the term Paul uses liberally in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians; avoidance of that scary thought that we aren’t enough. Much of our culture is built around progress and strength, where “big boys don’t cry” and “never let ‘em see you sweat” seem like common sense ideologies. It’s survival of the fittest isn’t it? Winners, the successful, the resilient, the stoic are placed on podiums, admired, interviewed, written about. We all want to know how they did it – seeking strategies we might mimic in order to ensure our own success. Some of us are more inclined to build our lives around safety than risks; the sure thing versus the unsure, be that reflected in our emotional, physical or even spiritual lives. Emotionally, we strive to “keep it together”; physically, we try to optimize our health – to do our best and to look our best; and spiritually, we seek comfort in theology and communities that makes sense to us, not necessarily looking to be challenged too much.
When we are the first picked for the team, when we succeed, reach financial security, stick to our New Year’s resolutions and lose the extra pounds; when we manage to hide our pain, or simply to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps with a stiff upper lip; when we can turn the ears of others with articulate, intelligent speech; when we get the phone call, the job offer, the popularity – we, very naturally, feel accomplished. But the flip side of this can be a profound sense of failure, inadequacy, perhaps even depression when we don’t. In fact, don’t we do all we can to avoid these feelings? Advertisers bank on it.
Some, perhaps even some present, have lived their entire lives feeling like the underdog, the last picked, the unpopular, the “weak”. Maybe others among us feel a sense of relief if that’s not us. If we can look at our own lives and feel grateful that, all-in-all, we’ve done pretty well for ourselves. It can be tempting to try to be in a category that is set apart from those who seem more fragile than we are – the vulnerable, the feeble, the naive, the unstable and struggling, the poor. Identifying with “that camp” might bring us a little too close to those uncomfortable feelings we try so hard to avoid – to our own vulnerability.
But the truth is, as still others can attest, we are all an event away from a vulnerable state; one job loss, one betrayal, one disease, one financial downturn, one natural disaster, and, of course, the fragility and inevitability of aging bodies and, ultimately, death. There are things beyond our control and our strength, and perhaps the very ideas of “control” and “strength” are merely that – ideas, perceptions.
A resounding theme of the Bible, expressed in so many different ways is that God is strong and we are not, but God is glorified in our weakness. It is, in fact, through this weakness, through our acknowledgment and awareness of our helpless humanity, that God is able to most powerfully work. Let the weak say I am strong! (Joel 3:10) To enter the Kingdom of God, we must be born again, and become like a vulnerable child! (John 3:3-7;Matt 18:2-4) A broken spirit he will not despise! (Ps 51:17) God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble! (Prov 3:34) Moses was called to lead but had no eloquence – he was a stutterer! (Exodus 6)) Gideon was a weakling from a lower class family and God called Him to be a warrior and save Israel from Midian! (Judges 6) Paul said he took pleasure in sickness, reproaches, needs, and distresses for Christ’s sake – for in his weakness he was strong. Examples in scripture abound.
Other than the person of Jesus Himself, who took our human form to identify with our every weakness, and to ultimately reconcile us by enduring vulnerability and pain unto death on a cross, there is, perhaps, no more profound expression of this theme, the theme of God meeting us in our feeble humanity, than the Beatitudes. The beautiful words of Jesus are seemingly paradoxical – but that’s the mystery of the Gospel; the foolishness of the Cross, as Paul writes. Jesus describes people as BLESSED when they are in what could be viewed by the world as various states of “weakness” – humility, grief, meekness, spiritual hunger, those who would choose mercy over justice and peace over strife, the innocent and naïve, those who are mocked, persecuted and have lies told about them because of following Jesus. The Greek word used in the Beatitudes for “blessed” (as described in the Amplified Bible) means: happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous—with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of outward conditions; happy “with a happiness produced by the experience of God’s favor and especially conditioned by the revelation of His matchless grace”. This shouldn’t make sense, but anyone who has come to the end of themselves and received God’s grace and power will understand it. This is a promise of God.
God’s heart is not to abandon us in our weakness, but to meet us in it, and to demonstrate His power through us that He might be glorified. This is why Paul says to the Corinthians, a church fragmented, with some believing themselves to be quite on top of things – in control, strong, wise – with others relegated to various lower spiritual and social ranks: (from the Amplified Bible)
… the foolish thing [that has its source in] God is wiser than men, and the weak thing [that springs] from God is stronger than men. (v25)
…For God selected (deliberately chose) what in the world is foolish to put the wise to shame, and what the world calls weak to put the strong to shame. (v27)
And God also selected (deliberately chose) what in the world is lowborn and insignificant and branded and treated with contempt, even the things that are nothing, that He might depose and bring to nothing the things that are (v28)
So that no mortal man should [have pretense for glorying and] boast in the presence of God. (v29)
…Let him who boasts and proudly rejoices and glories, boast and proudly rejoice and glory in the Lord. (v31)
Like the seemingly foolish way that the almighty God chose to manifest the power of His salvation on the earth – dying like a common criminal to give us eternal life, God chooses, deliberately, to show His power through our weaknesses, not our strengths. That is not to say that we are not given gifts, talents and abilities, but to say that all we have is nothing apart from Him; strength and glory is God’s alone. Whatever we have or do not have is not enough, nor could it ever be. But enviable happiness is ours when we recognize our frailty and believe and trust in God to be God – God who delights in being our Hope and our Strength. We are not expected to be more than we are, but to let God be more in us. God, who loves us so much, and who never gives us more than we can handle with His help. I am not enough – but God is more than enough. May we find joy and comfort in this truth.