Welcome to Christ Lutheran Church on this 4th Sunday of the Advent season. And thanks for joining us if you’re listening on the radio!
I want to begin by thanking you for all your prayers and concern during the illness and loss of Stephanie’s Dad. We grieve his death but at the same time we are so grateful to the Lord for his gift of new life.
We went to Florida to see Dad in mid-November and he wasn’t doing well that week. Heart problems---he needed oxygen to breathe---pain from the open wounds on his legs from several complications---confusion some of the time.
But we still had a great visit with him that week. Lots of laughs and remembering together. A priceless time. As the week ended, Stephanie had a sense that she should stay a little longer and that was a real blessing. As I was flying, home Dad took a real turn for the worse and only lived a few days longer.
But then we had a wonderful celebration of Dad’s new life in Christ and a great family gathering.
As we went through some of his things afterward, I found this booklet “The Strength of Weakness” by Pastor Dan Schaeffer.
It was printed in 2015, so, recently, it was something Dad ordered, probably as he was trying to make sense out his situation. And I’d like to share some of his story. My intention is not to draw attention to Dad---that would horrify him, but instead to focus on the one who gave Dad strength. Countless others have experienced Christ’s strength in weakness, but Dad’s story is the one I know best.
Dad was a life-long Swedish Lutheran Christian. He retired as head of pathology for a hospital in western Pennsylvania. Retirement became a time for him to use his skills and faith in new ways.
As I look back, the ways he and Stephanie’s mom served others had nothing to do with strength, but with serving people in times of weakness. Leading Bible study in a prison. Providing hospice care to the dying. Transportation to those who needed a ride. A helping hand for their neighbors. Visiting people in the hospital and much more.
But the last year or two, health made that kind of serving impossible. The walk from their apartment to the dining room in their retirement facility was all the physical effort possible.
These last few months for Dad had to be lived in the skilled nursing care unit because of his medical needs. It wasn’t what anybody would have chosen, but it was needed.
The strength of weakness---Dad was applying this little booklet to his life. And he was an inspiration to me.
The strength of weakness ---Instead of his regular job as an usher at their church, he would worship in a wheelchair at their retirement home, but still greet everyone and brighten their day. Instead of driving people places, he was driven in a wheelchair, but would joke with the staff as they rolled him along. Instead of physically helping his neighbors, he prayed for them often. Instead of caring for friends in physical need, he was cared for by nurses and aids. So he cared for them by trying to make their jobs as easy as possible---even to the fault of not calling when he really needed help, because he didn’t want to bother anybody. One of the nurses said he would listen to her and give her advice on her problems as she changed his bandages.
He struggled with the fact that he could no longer be the father who took care of everybody else. But he still ministered to all of us. His prayers at mealtime were filled with gratitude and faith and were more eloquent than anything I ever manage. We were all deeply blessed to hear the strength of his faith reverberate over his weakness. We hated to see him struggle physically. But he still had work to do---blessing all of us.
He seldom complained, though in his last weeks he had much that was worthy of complaint. When he did have a negative word, it was usually about the food! He would be the first to tell you that he wasn’t perfect, but he was best friends with his perfect Lord.
The strength that he showed had a great impact---on the other patients he visited and joked with, on the nursing staff, and on his family. Great strength in his weakness. And if he knows that I’m saying all this about him, he is mortified. But he also would say, there is only one reason he could do what he did--- because of the strength that was his in Christ.
I’m grateful for all that I learned from Dad over 40 some years, but I’m especially grateful for what he taught me in his last few weeks on earth.
Dad lived by the strength of God in the midst of human weakness. Isn’t that what Jesus’ incarnation teaches us? Jesus entered human life as a helpless infant. The king and creator of the entire universe took on the limits of human flesh. That’s what incarnation means.
The incarnation is a validation of the worth of human life in all its forms---from before birth, through all the stages of life, even if lived with severe disabilities, to the last stages of life that can be so limiting. The incarnation shows that God doesn’t reject human weakness but desires to be part of it---to live and suffer with us---and to save us from it and finally to lead us to new life.
John 1:1-3 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
The Word---Jesus---was not an afterthought, he was God from the beginning. He enjoyed the close fellowship of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the mystery of three persons yet one God.. But Jesus left the strengths of heaven behind for the weakness of human life.
John 1:14 “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Jesus entered human form and lived among us---embracing all people, especially the outcast, the sinful, the weak and we are all of those things in one way or another.
Most of us don’t do a good job of facing weakness. I sure don’t. Now that I’m over 30, I have a growing assortment of weaknesses. And I can’t say that I’ve learned to embrace them yet. Someone I know and love has told me that I’m not doing a very good job of dealing with aging.
But no matter what age we are, we have many weaknesses. Relationships that could be better with spouse, children, parents, or friends. Jobs where we struggle to keep up with the pace of new technology, or realizing that we’re just not a good fit for the work we’re trying to do.
Internal weaknesses, struggles with addictions of all kinds, emotional malfunction, guilt and anxiety.
Physical weaknesses of hearing, vision, diabetes, heart problems, chronic pain.
Weakness of faith, doubt, struggles to believe God could really love you.
All of us can identify with many of those weaknesses. None are immune.
Dan Schaeffer writes that the common view of the world is that weakness equals lack of power. But the Biblical view is very different. For a Christian, weakness doesn’t equal lack of power. Instead our weakness is an opportunity to experience God’s power.
St. Paul learned that very well. When he wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, he had to respond to some people who were challenging his authority to teach the Gospel. He had all the credentials, including his first-hand encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.
And he shared some of his qualifications but then went on to put them in context.
2 Corinthians 11:30 “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
He knows that the greatest experiences of his life have come not from his strength but from God’s strength in Paul’s time of weakness. He knew that with those experiences came the danger of him taking credit for what the Lord was doing. And he explained about his struggles with his thorn in the flesh---an unknown affliction he never describes---
2 Corinthians 12:7 “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”
His thorn was meant by Satan to tear him down, but as always, God transforms evil and uses it for his purposes.
2 Corinthians 12:8-9 “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
My power is made perfect in weakness. Probably not a slogan the National Football League will adopt any time soon. It doesn’t make sense in human terms. But that’s because it comes from God.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 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.”
Julian of Norwich was a great saint of the middle ages and is reported to have said---“While God is proud of our strengths, for they are parts of our lives in which we have allowed his action---He loves our weaknesses more, simply because they need his love more.”
God wants us to give thanks for our strengths, because they come from him. But also to realize and accept our weaknesses, ask for his power, and then let him go to work.
We all have tendencies in how we face challenges. Some react with discouragement. “I give up! I can’t win! I’ll never get through this!”
Some react with determination. “I can do this! I will survive!” This can’t stop me!
But notice that in both cases the emphasis is on “I”. Neither way is what God intends. Because the answer is not found in our selves.
Dan Schaeffer writes---“In our weakest moments God can deliver us in mighty ways, and in our strongest moments he can do far beyond what our puny human strength and giftedness can accomplish.”
Human concepts of power focus on physical domination, or the ability to get your own way. And God has physical power---he created the universe after all. And God has promised that his will, will be done.
God uses his power in obviously miraculous ways. The Bible is filled with such examples. Moses parting the Red Sea. Remember Daniel surviving the lion’s den? Or Jesus being raised from the dead!
But often, God uses his power very differently than we expect. He transforms things in the ways he knows are best. For years the Berlin Wall created separation and death. And then almost overnight it fell as God worked through the conscious and unconscious actions of Christian and non-Christian people on both sides of the wall to bring freedom.
God’s power and strength come in obvious and also easily missed ways. But if we are focused on what we can do in our strength, we will always miss the presence of God’s strength.
“For when I am weak, then I am strong in Christ”
Are you willing to admit your weakness to yourself so that the Lord can give you his strength? When we are so wrapped up in relying on our own resources, God allows us to close the door on his strength. But he is always ready to respond.
Where do you need the Lord’s strength? We’ve all got numerous needs. Do you feel weak in your faith? Do you need his strength to fight off temptation?
Do you feel weak when you try to express your faith to someone else? Is there a relationship in your life that needs to be stronger? Are you facing weak health, physically or emotionally? Are you facing the death of someone you love or even yourself?
No matter the area of weakness, don’t look at it as something you have to defeat, or as something that has already defeated you, but as the opening for Christ’s strength to enter your life in new ways. Then pray that he will bring you his strength. He always will.
This Christmas celebration that is almost here is a celebration of many things about our Lord. But especially we can give thanks that his entry into human life as a helpless child is an unmistakable sign that human life in all its forms, weak and strong, from the very beginning, to the last breaths, is a treasure. And it is a gift from God that we often experience most fully when we are at our weakest.
“For when I am weak, then I am strong in Christ.”