Power, Weakness and God

This is my sermon from last Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday.  I wonder about power and the way we measure power, and how it’s completely different in God’s topsy turvy kingdom.

Last Epiphany — Year B

In this election year we are bombarded with ads, stories and sound bites telling us why each of the candidates would make a strong leader.  Their experience in their previous work life.  Or the way they take control in difficult situations.  The way they handle money and economic situations.  Their ability to stand firm in tough situations.  It’s about power, and strength and being better able than the other person to provide sound leadership.

And it’s obvious why: they’re running to become one of the most powerful people in the world.  So they project an image of strength and power.

But in the Biblical narrative strength and power aren’t validated in the same way.

This morning we heard the story of how Jesus was transfigured before the disciples showing God’s awesome power—he became dazzlingly bright, his clothes turned white, and he was transformed.  Yet notice that he doesn’t head right off from there to kick Herod out of Jerusalem.  In fact he tells his disciples not to mention anything about what they saw until after his death and resurrection.

It’s not about power for Jesus—although he had it in spades.  And I think that is why he is so clear on telling the disciples to not say anything until later.  He orders them, in fact, not to tell anyone about this display of God’s strength.  He knows that Peter and James and John might get the idea that if he could be transformed and speak with both Elijah and Moses, then surely he could overthrow the Romans and be done with their oppressive rule forever.  Jesus is very specific: don’t tell anyone about this until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.  I bet the disciples don’t get this at the time, but Jesus is being clear.  His strength isn’t to be used just to establish another earthly kingdom; Jesus came to be a different type of leader.  A leader that would be made perfect in suffering.  Strength shown somehow in weakness.

You see, strength for us isn’t to be found in flexing our muscles or showing our superior knowledge, it’s to be centered in our utter reliance on God.  What this means of course is that we won’t understand this until we hit moments of extreme vulnerability and call out to God.

Elijah is best known for his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Horeb.  He challenges these so-called prophets to a test: they will present a sacrifice to their deity and Elijah will do the same. Whichever god responds with fire will be declared the Almighty.  The prophets of Baal (dozens of them) dance and gyrate and call on Baal to come and light this fire.  He doesn’t.  After hours go by with no response, Elijah sets up his simple altar with his offering and pours gallons and gallons of water onto it and into a trench around the stones.  He calls on God, and an instant later fire comes down from heaven engulfing the entire altar and burning up the offering, the water and even the stones.  The people watching proceed to destroy the false prophets of Baal under Elijah’s order.

Elijah goes on the lam because Jezebel—the king’s wife—is a follower of Baal, and she’s upset that her priests have all been killed.  He flees into the wilderness, and after some days without food or water, Elijah falls under a tree praying for his death.  He’s at his weakest point and is utterly dependent on God. When he wakes up, Elijah finds a jug of water and a loaf of bread that have miraculously appeared.  God provides for him, has mercy on him and gives him strength for the journey.

He becomes an even greater prophet: he is both merciful to the needy and delivers God’s word truthfully and without fear.  Ultimately, as we heard this morning, he is caught up by a fiery chariot and taken directly into the Lord’s presence.

It seems that St. Paul was right when he said to the Corinthians, “When I am weak, then am I strong,” and “power is made perfect in weakness.”

It’s a paradox in following of God.  To think that power and strength are to be found in our weakness, in our utter dependence on God.  Often we see troubles, hardship—or our “growing edges” as some are wont to call them—only as liabilities, as hurdles to be gotten over as quickly as we can.  God sees them and says “I can use that for my greater good.”

Curtis Almquist, a brother with the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, describes this unlikely relationship between weakness and power.  A “metaphor for this transformation of weakness is a pearl, something about which Jesus was familiar.  Remember his telling the parable about ‘a merchant in search of fine pearls.’  A pearl comes from the lowliest of creatures, from a mollusk lost in darkness on the bottom of the sea.  Quite tragically, a grain of sand or a small pebble will typically wound the inner membrane of the mollusk.  The mollusk’s attempt to cauterize, and encapsulate, and heal this inner wound is what produces the pearl. Pearls come from wounds, and so will your greatest gifts.”[1]

The novel The Shipping News follows the life of a man plagued with insecurity.  Quoyle almost drowned early in his life as his father attempted to teach him to swim by tossing him in a lake.  He fears the water throughout his life, and dreams that he is drowning whenever life gets overwhelming.  His father never believed in him and constantly belittled him.  He eventually lands a job at a newspaper as an ink-setter.  He falls in love with a woman who is only looking for a quick fling, and ends up having a baby with her.  He cares for that girl with deep devotion while the mother runs off with another man.  This pattern continues until the girl turns 6, and then his estranged wife ends up dying in a car accident.  Quoyle ends up meeting his long lost relative—a great aunt—and decides to travel with her to his homeland, Newfoundland, for a new beginning.

The three of them live together in the dilapidated family home out on the edge of the ocean, and Quolye lands a job as a bit journalist for the small town newspaper covering the shipping news—the boats coming in and out of the harbor.  He’s terrified of the water, of course, “I’m not a water person,” he says.  But his editor replies that all of his relatives are water people, and just expects him to get over it now that he is living in Newfoundland.  Since it is his only prospect, he takes the job.

And slowly he begins to find healing.  He meets a woman in that small town that he finds new love with.  He becomes more sure of himself, and he becomes the man that he always could be, no longer beset by doubt and insecurity.  This broken man is healed by the water, the very thing he feared most of all.

As we look today on the transfigured Christ, I want to encourage you to see that it is not about strength or control.  While Jesus is transformed in front of the disciples’ eyes, the kingdom he ushers in is about the weak being lifted up, and those in need finding mercy.  It’s about the restoration of all things so that we all might experience God’s profound care and love for us all.

It is hard to fathom this given the world we live in and the way we understand leadership.  Yet I believe deep down that when we rely on our own strengths, gifts, and abilities we hinder the work of God in our life.  We somehow think that we are doing it on our own without God’s involvement.

But God is able to look at us as we truly are in our full humanness and brokenness and God says, “I can do something with this.  I can make this one a beautiful part of my kingdom.”  May we not lose faith in God in our weakness.  May we not think that somehow when we are fully exposed before God that God will reject us.  May we know that God desires to transform all of us, and to call each one of us as his beloved children.  Amen.

[1] Curtis Almquist, http://www.ssw.edu/sites/default/files/blandy_lecture_1_-_shadow_grace_of_disappointment_and_failure_0.pdf.  Accessed Feb 13, 2012.

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