“Powering Up God’s Way” (Isaiah 40:27-31)

What kinds of strength or power does the world recognize and reward?

  • Physical power
  • Military power
  • Athletic power
  • Persuasive power
  • Glamorous power
  • Attractive power
  • Prestigious power
  • Seductive power
  • Intimidating power
  • Charismatic power
  • Racial/ ethnic power
  • Sizable power
  • Political power
  • Financial power
  • Intellectual power
  • Social power
  • Manipulative power
  • ???

Some of these powers are intrinsically good and helpful. Some of these powers are intrinsically evil and harmful. Some of these powers are neutral – the way we use them determines their morality.

God’s power is incomparably greater than every conceivable form of human power, but human powers are more tangible and more sensory, aren’t  they? Because God’s power functions subversively we can miss it, especially when we feel powerless in this world.

Isaiah wrote this prophecy to exiles, people whose nation had been swallowed up by the dominant empire of that day – Babylon. From Israel’s desolate and conquered perspective God was disregarding their troubles and ignoring their rights (Isaiah 40:27).

It’s easy to read God that way when our faith is in a weakened condition.

In the passage, God argues otherwise. Isaiah 40:28 says God is Almighty whether we see it or not. God’s resources are never exhausted. God’s perceptiveness never dims.

Isaiah 40:29 is one of the most encouraging verses in the Bible. According to this verse, we qualify for God’s strength when we own our weakness! This reminds me of the first three steps in the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

BRILLIANT!!! We own our weakness, we choose to believe in God, and we entrust ourselves to God.

Isaiah 40:30 gives us valuable information about people who epitomize humanity at its dynamic peak. That strength eventually declines. At our very best and even with our technologically advanced powers, we cannot compete with God’s power.

Isaiah 40:31 continues that line of reasoning by presenting the alternative. “But those who wait on (hope in, trust in) the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not get weary. They will walk and not faint.”

What does it mean to wait on the Lord? We identify primarily with passive waiting, like standing in line or being put on hold. But “wait” in verse 31 refers to active waiting. We entrust ourselves to God moment by moment, wrapping ourselves around God and tenaciously leaning against the wind into the solid hope that God is still faithful to His promises and is still capable, no matter what powers in this life have destabilized us or enfeebled us.

People who live in such intentional and trusting hope “gain new strength.” This means far more than God supplying a boost or a power surge to what we already have going for us. Rather, we come to an end of ourselves and we exchange our failing strength for God’s sustainable power (verses 29 and 30).

God’s strength manifests itself in three scenarios. In the first scenario we soar high on wings like eagles. There are seasons in life when we are effortlessly and transcendently gliding. In this scenario it is all good.

In the second scenario we run without getting weary. There are seasons when life is challenging and there is resistance (like hills during a marathon), but we are making progress. We hit our pace and keep moving. In this scenario it is not all good but we are okay.

In the third scenario we walk without fainting. There are seasons when life stinks, when faith wobbles, when we are disillusioned or discouraged or deflated, and the best we can manage is to shuffle one 5,000 pound leg forward and then move the other leg in generally the same direction or in no direction we can detect. In this scenario it is not all good and we are not okay but by God’s grace we are still standing. Success is defined as not totally shutting down and giving up.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could choose which scenario or season characterizes us? The faith journey does not work that way. We do, however, get to choose the source of our strength. We do not have to settle for human strength or power that is ultimately inadequate. We can own our weakness and exchange our ebbing strength for God’s strength.

God most emphatically demonstrates divine strength in the weakness of the crucified Christ. On the cross, worldly powers were broken from the top down and humble love secured our redemption from the bottom up. God offers us that kind of strength.

Are you soaring? Are you running? Are you walking? Are you collapsing? In the grace of the Gospel we come as we are, not as we should be.

May you and I exchange our powerlessness for God’s enduring and adaptable strength.

Grace and peace,

Rick Jordan (www.rickcarlajordan.com, rickjordankcmo@gmail.com)

 

“When God Says NO in Light of a Better YES” (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

Parents in every culture can relate to this common sequence…

  1. The child makes an urgent and impassioned request.
  2. Due to the experience and perspective gained by higher mileage on planet earth, the parent knows that what the child is requesting is not in the child’s best interest.
  3. The parent says NO to the request, disappointing and frustrating the child.
  4. The child pushes back.
  5. If the relationship is functional, the parent uses this NO to guide the child into a better alternative, a better YES. In effect, the parent is saying, “No, but….”
  6. The child usually cannot appreciate the wisdom of this “No, but…” response until the child becomes a parent and must dance to the same tune.

God goes through this sequence with us all the time.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 finds Paul the apostle defending himself. Paul spent years of his life traveling throughout the Roman Empire, introducing Christ to a diverse mixture of  people who had no exposure to the Gospel. They also were not Jewish. During these journeys Paul was at odds with a group of people called legalists. Legalism is the name for any brand of Christianity that decides God’s grace and our faith are not enough, that a surplus of do’s and don’ts must be added to the life of faith in order for that life to pass inspection. The legalists, of course, are the self-appointed inspectors.

A pack of these legalists (called Judaizers) followed Paul from place to place. When the Judaizers entered a town or city Paul had just left, they would locate the brand new Christians and ask them what Paul had taught them. When the brand new Christians answered by describing the breathtaking simplicity of relationship with Jesus, the Judaizers would sadly shake their heads and tell them Paul had left out some important information. In order to follow Christ, these brand new Christian also had to start living by Jewish laws. Grace and faith were not enough. The Judaizers tried to convince these new Christ-followers that Paul was a fake and that Paul had no authority to be doing what he was doing. These legalistic Judaizers had come in the nick of time. They had come, in fact, to help the new Christians become more like Jesus AND become more like them.

Yikes.

In 2 Corinthians chapters 10 through 12, Paul defended himself and his calling from these opponents. Toward the end of this defense, Paul enhanced his credibility by recalling an ecstatic spiritual experience. Years earlier Paul found himself swept into the highest heaven, in the very presence of Almighty God. During this heavenly encounter, God confided in Paul! In order to counterbalance this ecstatic experience and in order to prevent Paul from developing an over-inflated ego, Paul wrote that he was given what he called “a thorn in the flesh,” a chronic and harassing attack from Satan. It might have been poor eyesight. It might have been recurring malaria or epilepsy. It might have been the residual effects of being stoned to death and surviving. The passage’s context tells us it most certainly included the people problems referenced earlier.

God would not remove this thorn even though Paul begged God on three occasions to remove it. In essence, God responded by saying, “No, but….” The chronic condition (the thorn) was going to remain in Paul’s life because God had something better than relief in mind. God’s grace was more than enough for Paul. In fact, God’s power would show up best in and would even be fulfilled in Paul’s chronic weaknesses.

The Wuest translation renders 2 Corinthians 12:8 this way – “My grace is enough for you, for My power is moment by moment coming to its full energy and complete operation in the sphere of weakness.”

Ever the extremist, Paul reacted to this answer from God by becoming a fan of his chronic condition, boasting that when he was weak he was actually strong. Carla showed me 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 in The Voice Translation, which says, “So ask me about my thorn, inquire about my weaknesses, and I will gladly go on and on – I would rather stake my claim in these weaknesses and have the power of the Anointed One (Jesus) at home within me. I am at peace and even take pleasure in any weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and afflictions for the sake of the Anointed (Jesus) because when I am at my weakest, He makes me strong.”

Many of us contend with something I call a theology of evacuation. We come to believe God’s primary role in our lives is relief, that God is obligated to always say YES to us by getting us out of unpleasantries or by getting unpleasantries out of us. Eavesdrop in on your prayer life and you may catch yourself in the act. But with God, evacuation is more the exception than the rule. God loves us too much to give in to our emotionally charged appeals for relief. Instead of removing the hardship, God may leave the hardship in us or God may leave us in the hardship. Why? Because it is the ideal environment for God to become our strength. The sufficiency of God’s grace is the BETTER YES. With the thorn still imbedded, we discover that God’s grace is more than enough.

Isn’t Jesus Himself the ultimate example of this truth? In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus writhed on the ground praying for evacuation three times. The Father said “NO, but….” Jesus emerged from the garden strong and proceeded to become vulnerable and helpless, all the way to an unspeakably brutal death.

God’s power was more than enough to raise Jesus from the dead. That being the case, is there any chance God might have what it takes to be more than enough for us in our area of greatest weakness?

Catholic author and speaker Brennan Manning (1934-2013) once said, “Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.” (The NIV Ragamuffin Bible, page 1330)

Brennan Manning also said, “…the question no longer is: Can I do it? Am I able? Can I overcome my moodiness, my laziness, my sensuality, my grudges and my resentments? The only question is: Is Jesus Christ able? Can my Savior, the Lord of my life, revive my drooping spirit and transform me?” (The NIV Ragamuffin Bible, page 1331)

What are your strengths?

What are your weaknesses (or challenges)?

How do you typically handle a “no” answer?

What is your “thorn in the flesh?” Do you have more than one “thorn in the flesh?”

When has God answered your prayer with “no” in favor of a better “yes?”

What would it look like for Christ to show up strong in your greatest weakness?

What would it look like for Christ’s grace to be perfected (fulfilled) in your weaknesses?

Are you willing to embrace the miracle you were not seeking, the miracle where God gives you more grace instead of less discomfort?

Grace and peace,

Rick Jordan (www.rickcarlajordan.com, rickjordankcmo@gmail.com)