Sermon For Sunday, January 7, 2018
Have you ever been troubled by an apparent contradiction between different verses in the Bible? I suspect that if you have never had to seek both human, and divine, counsel to understand the incredible truths that the Bible expounds upon, you're probably just not trying hard enough. Doubt and confusion and pain, among many other things, struck seemingly every great person, prophet, and apostle, so why should we be any different? Think about that. If people who were blessed with the physical and spiritual presence of Christ, every day, could doubt, then we should not be afraid of doubt but use it as a tool of deeper understanding and faith.
I was struck this week with the tension(I use this word because I literally and physically felt this while preparing this blog and praying about these issues) between the ideas of strength and weakness. When I read the teachings of Jesus, I am taken by the great responsibility He places on his followers within the spirit of his words. The bar is set so high, the stakes are so great, and our role model is so incredibly present in His Truth. Look at Luke 9:23-
23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
It's one thing to read this as an ideal for followers of Christ. It is powerful just on the face of its declaration. However, if you really apply this to yourself, everyday of your life, sit with the ideal set forth in this verse in deep prayer, and truly put yourself as the one Christ is literally speaking to, how can you not wonder if your are strong enough to be a true follower of Christ?
This brings up a potentially troubling feeling of contradiction- Christ is at once calling us to take on the greatest challenge anyone could ever face while, at the same time, we are left knowing how weak we can be, how lofty a goal it is to try to follow Christ. I can't even do my taxes on my own but I'm supposed to take up my cross daily? In fact, the Lord tells us that His strength is made perfect in weakness in 2 Corinthians 12:9.
So, what gives? Are we supposed to be strong or weak? Does Christ abandon us if we are not strong enough to do as he says? It can be frightening and discouraging to be called to do something you feel totally unqualified for. You want desperately to live up to Christ's expectations, but you also know, without a doubt, that although sometimes you might feel up to the challenge, there are other days you will feel absolutely defeated and unable to live up to such lofty goals.
Before I talk about the specifics of these issues, let me make one thing clear- Christ will NEVER abandon you. NEVER. Only you can close the door to God. Please stop, hear that, and then continue on knowing you have that promise forever.
Well, how does one answer the call to follow Christ's incredibly lofty example while at the same time understanding Christ also stands with the weak, the poor in spirit, the sick etc who may not seem able to live up to such goals? Note that, in the verse from Luke above, there is no mention of success. Christ does not say 'you must be successful at taking up your cross daily'. It's not like human endeavors we apply our judgements to. There aren't a a bunch of ribbons and trophies for different places. Christ simply calls us to the effort. He directs us to where we should be striving and where we should put our faith. There is no mention of winning, victory, succeeding in worldly terms. You may go to take your cross up one day and feel like you have failed miserably. The fact remains that you did just as Christ directed you. Your apparent success or failure is irrelevant.
You see, Christ knows you. He knows everything you have done and everything you will do in a way we cannot comprehend. He does not lament your weakness but understands it fully. He lived it himself so you would know without any doubt that he understands your pains and weaknesses. When you strive to follow Christ, you will fail. You will doubt. You will struggle. Christ knows this and is present in those trials- if you can just stay in the moment and not look to something other than Christ to guide you through.
It is here where the tension I mentioned becomes a great teacher. The conflict between our great effort to follow Christ and our acknowledgment of our weaknesses, our falling short of Christ's great example, is where God's power is perfected. At the very moment you feel like you could never be these great things you are being called to be, and in that weakness and realization you go to Christ, His power is realized. Your weakness will be transformed through faith, by Grace. You will find strength and wisdom that transcends your situation, your name, your history. It is truly a communion with God.
Examples of this abound in the Bible. Apostles doubted and lacked faith at points in their life(note the story of the storm on the sea in which they didn't recognize Jesus). John the Baptist, whom Jesus calls the greatest of men, was not without affliction while in prison. Paul asked to have his 'thorn' taken away and was told God's grace was enough for him. The constant theme, however, is not that these men were perfect, that they always won, were wise beyond every other man, but that they sought out Christ. In their weakness, God's power was made perfect.
Many of the greatest teachings of Jesus to the apostles involved failures of the apostles to live up to what He was teaching. Don't be so quick to run away from doubts, apparent contradictions in scripture, challenges from those who don't believe the same things you do. Let the tension be a teacher. Instead of justifying, denying, pretending, relying on yourself or your worldly safeties, let God's power enter into your life through your own weakness. If you do this one thing, go to God, no matter what, in strength or weakness, doubt or faith, His promise will become real in your life.