If you have your Bibles with you, please up to 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 and let’s read it together. Those of you who have been following along with the sermon series so far are going to see some really important words in there and will, hopefully, recall some of the things we’ve already learned.
When you read the word “calling”, I hope it brings to mind this section’s repeated emphasis on how it is not we who choose God, but God who calls people to Himself. When you read the words “wise” or “foolish”, I hope it reminds you of the Greek people who loved nothing more than the pursuit of wisdom and feared nothing more than being considered a fool, and then remember the contrast between worldly and godly wisdom and worldly and godly foolishness which we’ve seen over the last couple weeks.
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about human weakness these days – specifically my own. Most of you know that I’ve been dealing with Bell’s Palsy for the past 5 weeks or so. It’s a lot better now, but it was quite a shock when I woke up 36 days ago and half of my face was paralyzed. I still have a way to go to call myself “fully healed”, but I’ve come along way. The day before I was perfectly fine, then the next morning, I couldn’t blink, move my lips, taste on one side of my mouth, or breath properly. I went to the doctor and he gave me a mess of pills, but had no real explanation of what happened or how long it would last.
A week later I was back in the ER in a huge amount of pain. The doctor looked concerned, said “Hmm, I don’t think that’s supposed to happen”, prescribed more pills and said she’d get me a cat scan. It’s been some time since then, and I’ve done a lot of healing. Thankfully, the pain has stopped, but I still have some issues with my face and can’t blink – which is the most annoying part right now.
This sudden illness has caused me to do some soul searching that I would never have expected, and has caused me to ponder the concepts of weakness and foolishness in ways I don’t think I would have otherwise. This experience reminded me of how weak and foolish I really am – and how frail humans are in general.
I know that rankles some people because they hate the idea of being considered weak. “Sure, Pastor Al – you’re weak – but I’m not. I’m strong! I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me!”
I’ve even had people argue with me when I’ve said that I’m weak. Maybe this has happened to you too. I’ll be going though a tough time, physically exhausted, mentally drained, spiritually down, emotionally fragile, and someone will ask me to do something, or something will come up and I’ll say, “I just can’t do that. I’m too weak to pull that off right now. Just forget about it. If you want me to do that, it will literally require a miracle.” And they’ll say, “No! You’re strong! You’re smart! You can do it! Just believe in yourself! You don’t know how tough you are until you try! Quitters never win and winners never quit!”
Have you ever been told that? You get to the end of your rope, or you find yourself in a dark place, your life feels like you’re trudging through the slough of despond, or the valley of death, and you just want to curl up there and quit – and well-meaning people keep telling you to “keep trying”, “suck it up”, “get going”.
The implication behind that advice seems to be that if we try hard enough, everyone is strong enough to deal with whatever life has to offer. No matter what life throws at us: sickness, death, tragedy, natural disaster, war, abuse, heartbreak… we all have the inherent capacity within us to push through it, get over it, break it down, or build it up. All we have to do is try. No human being should need anyone else! You can do it if you try!
What a ridiculous notion! Not only does it go against what we read in scripture, it goes against common sense, worldly wisdom and human experience! Ask any professional counsellor in the world, any politician, anyone with military background, any doctor, or lawyer, anthropologist, historian, accountant, teacher, poet or artist and they will say the same thing: everyone needs help. Everyone needs help. No one is born with everything they need to survive, thrive and conquer this world and the troubles within it. No one. Everyone has lack. Lack of stability. Lack of strength. Lack of knowledge. Lack of skills. Lack of wisdom. Lack of resources. Everyone has weakness.
And yet, somehow, though countless voices around us – from the medical establishment to the educational system to religious leaders – are telling us that we have weakness built into us, the voices we tend to listen to are the misguided ones that tell you “you’re just not trying hard enough” or the voice in own head that tells you: “I can do it on my own, I don’t need anyone, I should do it alone, no one understands, everyone else has it all put together, I’m the only weak person, I should be ashamed of myself for having weakness. Even God is disappointed in me. He expects me to be strong, good, helpful, joyful, gracious, kind, sinless, and perfect – and every time I mess up, every time I show my own weakness, He’s angry, or disappointed, or leaves me, or punishes me.
Therefore I must be strong – or if I can’t actually be strong, I must pretend to be strong! I must tell everyone that ‘I’m fine, I’m good, in fact, I’m great!’. I must hide all of the ways that I sin, and keep them in the dark, because then everyone will think I’m perfect. I must have the best car, the nicest toys, the cleanest house, the prettiest wife, the smartest kids, the greenest lawn, so everyone will know how successful I am and then they won’t think I’m weak.
If I study hard enough then I’ll know more than anyone else and they won’t realize I think I’m a fool. If I diet and exercise enough then I’ll look good so no one will know that I’m crumbling emotionally. If I earn enough and have enough things, then I can impress everyone and they won’t know that I think I’m a total failure. If I say all the right religious words, and do enough religious things, then everyone will think I’m a saint, even though I have massive struggles with my faith and am trapped in a cycle of temptation that I can’t see a way out of.”
What a total load of garbage we feed ourselves in our private thoughts, don’t we?
God’s Way is Backwards
This same pile of lies had infected the Corinthian church too, and in the first chapter of his letter, Paul is trying to shake them up with some truth. They had already forgotten some of the most critical things about their relationship with God, and had slipped into a bunch of false thinking. I’ve covered a lot of those things over the past weeks, but another set of false beliefs that had snuck into their minds was that they needed to overcome their weaknesses so they could be acceptable to God and the world.
They had started to listen to teachers that were telling them that they didn’t just need to believe in Jesus to be saved, but also needed to do a bunch of other things – have ecstatic religious experiences, follow the whole Law of Moses, and come up with ways to make the Gospel of Jesus look cooler to their neighbours.
The true Gospel of Jesus, where we are unable to save ourselves but need to turn from our sins and accept the free gift of salvation that comes only through believing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was making them look like fools to their neighbours – and it was making them look weak.
They were used to boasting about their leaders, teachers, religion, and selves – and Christianity wasn’t very boast worthy. The leader of the church was Jesus – a rural, Jewish teacher from the middle of nowhere, spent most of His life in obscurity, and barely left a 120 mile square during His whole ministry. Their main teacher, Paul, had a pretty impressive resume of education and experience, but he refused to talk about it, instead opting to preach simple messages and point people to Jesus.
Their religion was nothing like the ones around them. Corinth was full of beautiful temples, lavish decorations, crazy religious performances, and hugely popular speakers and personalities. Christians, on the other hand, gathered at some guy’s house, sang a few songs, and then sat quietly as a few people taught and prayed. And the teachings they heard, at least at first when Paul was there, kept telling them – from the wealthiest man in town to the slave who tied his sandals – that they were all foolish sinners in need of a Saviour, starving beggars in search of bread, wicked, hellbound people that experienced undeserved grace. They were told that God wanted them to be humble, their acts of charity and prayer should be done in secret. They were told that they would never be good enough, strong enough, wise enough, or smart enough to achieve the perfection that God desires – and that the only way to be accepted by God is to throw themselves at His feet, acknowledge they were spiritually bankrupt, and ask for mercy in the name of Jesus.
But, if you’ve been told that your whole life is about amassing knowledge, wisdom, riches, pleasure, honour, and status to impress the gods and everyone else – and that it’s the god’s job to give you all these things if you perform all the right rituals – the Gospel of Jesus comes as a shock because God’s version of knowledge, wisdom, riches, pleasure, honour and status are radically different than the world’s. They’re not boast-worthy.
If you’ve been told that you need to be stronger, better, smarter, and wealthier than everyone around you in order to be worthy of God’s attention, and know you have been blessed by God, then the Gospel of Jesus will come as a surprise because it says that the first step towards getting saved is acknowledging that you are too weak, too foolish, too ignorant, too poor, and too broken, to be able to do anything of value for Him – that you are spiritually dead inside, and that you absolutely need God to resurrect you before you can begin.
If you believe that you need to suck it up, pretend everything is ok, deny you are hurt, deny your temptations, and ignore your pain, so you can look happy, successful and spiritual, then the Gospel of Jesus Christ will challenge that belief by saying that you need to come to Him on your knees, and acknowledge to those around you that you are in need. You need to realize you are broken, lost, afraid and dirty; so He can pick you up, clean you off, put you on the right path, and give you a hope and a future.
The whole Gospel of Jesus Christ is backwards to most of our worldly thinking – and that’s kind of the point.
God Doesn’t Choose Like We Do
Look back at our scripture today and see what Paul reminds them of. He says, “Consider your calling… not many of you were wise according to worldly standards.” He reminds them that God didn’t call them (or choose them, or save them) because they were so wise and intelligent that they discovered His secrets. No, in fact, they were so off the mark that God had to go and get them because they were too foolish to find Him themselves.
He tells them, “not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth”. He reminds them that God didn’t choose them because they had so much to contribute to His church and Kingdom. He isn’t like us humans that look at wealthy celebrities and think, “Oh wow, if only that person would become a Christian, if only they would join our church… that’d be amazing!” No, God goes the other way, choosing the weak, the sick, the broken, the obscure, the afraid – and then He gives them His version of strength, His version of healing, His version of success, His version of courage.
Why? Why would God do that? It’s certainly not how we would pick our star team, is it? If we lined the whole of the world up against the gym wall and wanted to pick our teams for who is going to lead our religion and tell everyone how to get saved from Hell, who would we pick? The wisest, the smartest, the most powerful, the most influential… right? God’s upside-down kingdom is exactly the opposite!
Why? If you look back one verse it says, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” How can humanity know this is true? By God, “choosing what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Everyone looks at the person who has great physical or mental powers and is so very impressed – and God says, “That’s not strength. Do you want to see strength? Look at my follower here… they are in pain but full of joy, they have depression but still encourage others, they have anger issues but choose to be gentle, they are in the throes of addiction but choose every day to walk with me instead, they lost everything they had but are still generous with others.” That’s God’s kind of strength.
How else can humanity know that God’s way is “wiser” and “stronger” than ours? Because He “…chooses the low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are…” Our society idolizes people who are unique, talented, remarkable, overachievers and successes. We watch singing competitions to see who’s the best singer, talent competitions to see who is the most interesting, hockey tournaments to see who is the best player, and then hand out MVP awards to individuals who outshine even their winning team-mates. Our democratic process is largely a popularity contest, and our movies are dominated by a small group of people the industry has decided are the most marketable.
But God almost always does the opposite. God almost always chooses “the low and despised… the things that are not” to be the ones to carry His signature, be His defenders, show His glory, lead His people, serve His kingdom, do His work. He takes the drug dealer and turns them into a Sunday school teacher, turns the porn addict into a faithful husband and father (or wife and mother). He chooses the smallest group, the most socially awkward person, the one with the lowest score, the one that we would overlook every time – and chooses them to be one of His champions.
The prophecy about Jesus from Isaiah 61:1-4 ( which Jesus says is about Him (Luke 4:16-30)), says this:
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
Who has God chosen to be the ones who will populate His kingdom and rebuild the devastations of many generations? The brokenhearted, the captive, the prisoner, the mourner, the weak… That’s Jesus’ beatitudes from Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the hungry, blessed are the persecuted…” Why? Because in God’s upside-down kingdom, their poverty, sadness, meekness and pain is what allows them to realize their weakness and turn to Him for strength!
Why the Weakest?
Why does God operate that way? First, “…To bring to nothing the things that are”. In other words, to negate, invalidate, to deprive of all validity, every thought that says we are good enough, strong enough, and able enough to serve Him, save ourselves, and do good things in this world without Him. He wants to negate that thought completely in our minds.
He wants us to look at the strong, successful, proud, rich, famous person who does not know Jesus and watch them fall apart at the seams because they don’t have God holding them together. He wants us to watch a society built upon human wisdom turn and eat itself, corruptin everything that makes them human, because they have refused to acknowledge God. And then he wants us to contrast that with the weak, obscure, and powerless ones who know and trust God, and marvel in wonder as we try to figure out how they can have such inner strength, such spiritual power, be so kind, so joyful, so wise, so calm, and so patient. He wants to negate in our minds the thought that strength is found within ourselves, or within any human creation. He wants to bring that thinking “to nothing”.
Which leads to the second reason that God gives for why He chooses the weak: from verse 29, “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”… so that all of our boasting will be done “in the Lord”.
God wants us to realize our weakness, turn to Him, and say: “I need you because I cannot do this on my own. All that I have is not enough. I need Your Word to guide me, Your Son to save me, Your Spirit to protect me, Your church to care for me, because I am too weak on my own. And whenever I choose my own path, or design my own god, they fail me. I can’t be a good enough husband, wife or parent. I’m not strong enough to conquer this temptation. I’m not wise enough to know what to do. I need the One, True God.”
And then, as He strengthens you, and changes you, and cleans you, and remakes you, and teaches you, and uses you to do His will, you return to Him the glory. “I didn’t do this, God did! I didn’t conquer that sin, God did. I didn’t become less angry, or proud, or vain – God changed me. I didn’t conquer that sin, God did. I didn’t make that wise decision, God lead me.” You get a life that is touched by the blessing of God, He gets the glory. It’s actually a pretty good deal.
And so, let me close with this: You’ve probably heard the scripture that most people call “The Great Commandment” which says “Love the Lord your God with your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength” (Matthew 22:37-38), right?
I want you to use that scripture to consider your weakness today, and let that acknowledgement of your weakness drive you to prayer, asking Him for help.
Some of us are weak in Strength. Some here are physically weaker than others. You have illness or some kind of handicap. You are not as strong, or tall, or well as others. You cannot run as fast, jump as high, go as far, or do as much as you want to. Acknowledge your physical weakness before God and turn it over to Him. It was His idea. He has chosen to make you weaker so that you will lean on His strength. You are not less of a person because of your health status – you have been given a greater opportunity to show that God can do amazing things through someone like you.
Some of us are weak in Mind. Some here have learning disabilities like dyslexia, or are forgetful, can’t do math well, can’t spell properly, can’t read well, and struggle to pick up concepts well. Does that mean you are less valuable to God? That you can’t serve in His Kindom? Of course not! It means that you have been given a greater opportunity to show what God can do through you! Turn to Him, acknowledge your mental weakness, and ask Him how you can use the gifts he has given you for His glory. Stop trying to be who you are not, and allow God to work with who He has made you to be.
Some of us are weak in Heart. Some have a really hard time with things that most people don’t see – your brain chemistry and emotions. There are people that suffer from Depression, Anxiety, Bipolarity, OCD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, PTSD, Social Anxiety, Eating Disorders, Sexual Disorders, Insomnia, or other things that you didn’t ask for, came out of nowhere, are a constant burden, require medications and doctors and treatments and make your life miserable. Does that make you unfit for the Kingdom of God? Does that mean God is disappointed in you? Does God expect you to suck it up and get strong before you can come to Him? Does God expect you to get healed before you can worship or serve Him? I hope you know by now the answer is “no”.
Though I can’t tell you why, I can tell you that God has given you that so He can use you to shame the wise, shame the strong, and negate everyone who has ever said that people with mental illness are a problem to be solved and a burden to those around them. He has created you exactly the way you are so He can use you in a way that He can use no one else. Acknowledge your weakness, and that you need help – not just from meds and doctors, which are fine by the way – but ultimately from God, the only One who can give you the “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” that you need to live with what the burden you carry every day (Gal 5:23).
And finally, consider that we are all weak in our Soul. None of us have what is necessary to fix that which is most wrong with us. The Bible says “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), which means that everyone who has ever done, thought or said something wrong is spiritually dead (Eph 2:1) and in need of the miracle of a resurrection. God promises to do that for all that call on Him. Only God can raise the dead, and it is only by faith in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Lord and Saviour of the world, that we can experience that healing.
As long as you are trying to save yourself, as long as you think that you are a ‘good enough person’, as long as you think you are better than others, as long as you think that you deserve to go to heaven – you will never call out to God and never receive His healing. It is only when you acknowledge that you are a sinner in need of a Saviour, and turn to Jesus, that you will be saved.
And so, I implore you to acknowledge your weakness, and then turn to God for strength, so He will provide what you need – and then as He does, give Him the worship and praise He deserves.