Old Testament Reading 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Epistle Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Gospel Reading: Mark 6:1-13
Sermon: “Strength in Weakness”
The Southard family spent the week over at lake Fort Gibson with the Pauls (my older daughters in-laws). There were about 14 us – including my two year old grandson, all in a cabin. Its amazing to watch him grown and learn – and particularly what he will accept help with and what he won’t and from whom. There could be several sermons from just watching a toddler. We all get along very well, but getting ready to embark on such an adventure involves. A lot of preparation: tons of food, life preservers of all different sizes, sunscreen by the buck load, beach toys, and all the rest. Detailed packing lists really help with such endeavors, some of which even get texted to potentially forgetful travelers like me. What really struck me this week was the huge contrast to the instructions that Jesus gave his disciples when he sent them out on their first missionary trip.
The lack of material support and any kind of spares is amazing, particularly when compared to the car loads of stuff that we prepared. Listen again to those instructions: (Mark 6:8-9 NLT) He told them to take nothing for their journey except a walking stick-no food, no traveler’s bag, no money. He allowed them to wear sandals but not to take a change of clothes. How would you like to start out on a journey like that? For that matter, why did Jesus insist on it with his own disciples? The answer to that question brings us to the theme of today’s readings – Strength in Weakness. Now I know that sounds like an oxymoron – sort of like advertising Jumbo shrimp or saying someone is clearly confused or noting that a particular bit of information is an open secret.
Jesus has just had an unsettling experience – after traveling all over the region, performing miraculous healings, exorcisms and even raising the dead, he had taught thousands and now comes home to Nazareth, his own home town. Instead of people clamoring to hear his message, he is met with cynical skepticism: “Hey, we remember you – the carpenter from down the street.” You’re Mary’s son. James and Judas’ brother, just where did you get all this fancy wisdom? It’s horribly ironic that those who felt them knew him best, actually knew him the least. He found he couldn’t give them much of anything, because their arms were full of themselves and what they thought they knew, but didn’t really at all.
Jesus didn’t sulk or argue with them at all. The text just says he was amazed at their lack of faith and then simply moved on with his ministry. But when he sent out his disciples, he sent them out with a curious mixture of security and vulnerability. It was a training mission as much as an outreach. Jesus did not send them out alone, but two by two; in and with the power of God. That is true strength, isn’t it. Wonderful things can be done by those in fellowship with each other and with God. And wonderful things did happen too. Many were healed, demons were cast out and many heard the call to repent and to turn to God. Wonderful things indeed.
But Jesus made sure that they knew they were to rely fully on rely on God and not on their own resources. He did this by the simple packing list that he dictated to them. Now folks, there is virtue in packing light, but Jesus takes it to the maximum degree. They were sent out on the journey with only the clothes on their back and the shoes on their feet. Nothing else except a walking stick to help them on their way. Now that may seem like a risky way to set out on a trip, and it was and still is. Their physical support was to be found only the hospitality of those whom they met, and taught and helped. And they weren’t even allowed to hunt around for the best accommodations either. They were to simply stay wherever they were first welcomed. Jesus even warned them what to do if they were not welcomed – the same as he had done at Nazareth, just move on and take nothing of that place with them. No recriminations, no bad feelings, no lingering resentment, not even the dust from their feet!
Now the point of this was to make sure that those freshly minted disciples weren’t distracted by anything, of course leaving them potentially vulnerable to many things – hunger, lack of shelter, a simple change of clothes. It was a powerful lesson teaching them to trust in the grace of God – grace for themselves and grace for those they healed and taught. Its the same lesson demonstrated when he fed 5000 from a little boy’s lunch. It shouldn’t have been possible, but with the grace of God, it was. Much later, just before his arrest, Jesus looked back on this experience with them: (Luke 22:35-37 NLT) … Jesus asked them, “When I sent you out to preach the Good News and you did not have money, a traveler’s bag, or an extra pair of sandals, did you need anything?” “No,” they replied. “But now,” he said, “take your money and a traveler’s bag. And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one!” For the time has come for this prophecy about me to be fulfilled: ‘He was counted among the rebels.’ Yes, everything written about me by the prophets will come true.”
Why the difference? The first experience was to teach them to trust God, the later one was to advise them on dealing with powerful opposition. It is interesting that he mentioned the sword. I almost trimmed that verse when I was building this message, but on second thought, it helps make the point. You see, the disciples seized on that one item too (Luke 22:38 NLT) “Look, Lord,” they replied, “we have two swords among us.” “That’s enough,” he said. It would be only a few hours later that Peter would be sternly rebuked for using one of those two swords.
You see, we serve a sovereign God. The One who created and sustains all that is. The One who holds history in his hand. It is a dangerous thing to begin to believe that we are dependent on our own laws, intellect and physical abilities to accomplish the work of the Kingdom on God’s behalf. I realize I’m about to raise some eyebrows when I say its even more problematic to insist that civil society must be regulated and legislated to reinforce “Christian values”. Our true strength does not come from such things, it comes from faith and hope in God alone through the grace won for us in Jesus Christ. And that my friends in much easier to say than to live. But it is how God has chosen for his children to live. Not by superior planning or strength or our own resources, but by faith and by grace. If I’m honest, I must admit It’s a little bit scary.
We have another example set before us in the readings this morning – Paul the Apostle and the author of this interesting second letter to the church at Corinth. These words come at the end of a highly interesting and irony filled chapter of two where Paul insists that all his personal credentials and experiences are worthless compared to the grace and power of God. Now, we surmise from his words that several false teachers have been through Corinth with flowery speeches and dramatic accounts of personal mystic experiences which they used to claim superior religious status. They then used that status to impose their own rules and traditions that ran counter to the Gospel that Paul had taught them. In response, Paul does a little of his own bragging all the while telling them how foolish it is to behave that way. Its a wonderful piece of ironic writing with a serious point:
2 Corinthians 11:20-28 NLT
 You put up with it when someone enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of everything, and slaps you in the face.  I’m ashamed to say that we’ve been too “weak” to do that! But whatever they dare to boast about-I’m talking like a fool again-I dare to boast about it, too.  Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.  Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again.  Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea.  I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not.  I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.  Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches.
This is the leadup to our reading today where Paul boldly proclaims that (2 Corinthians 12:10 NLT) “That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul, like his Lord and Savior, suffered many things in his ministry, yet he was lead by God to play a central role in the formation of the early Christian Church. We are who we are today because of the work of Paul. He had many joys as well as sorrows. Paul did not seek out these various difficulties that came his way, but he found that God was with him through it all. He could have looked back and said “what a mess! Poor persecuted Paul!” Instead, he found great strength in spite of his setbacks and persecutions. Paul felt himself in the grip of a power not his own and far, far greater than his own. And in that power he found joy and security just as Jesus earlier disciples had.
There is a profound paradox in these texts, the humility of Paul challenges and inspires us. The vulnerability of those disciples sent out two by two amazes us as much as the power demonstrated through them. We too are here to learn to trust God and to offer ourselves as disciples. How wonder it is that God uses our weaknesses and even opposition and rejection to draw us closer Jesus and to teach us to rely more fully on the immeasurable grace lavished on us. We go into the world in that strength.