Sexagesima: Boasting in Weakness
February 12, 2023

Sexagesima: Boasting in Weakness

Passage: 1 Corinthians 11:19-31, Luke 8:4-15
Service Type:

Septuagesima: Boasting in Weakness
1 Corinthians 11:19-31 & St. Luke 8:4-15
by William Klock

 

Last week we read from Matthew.  Speaking to his disciples, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and then he told them a story about men working hard under the hot sun harvesting grapes.  Last Sunday’s lessons reminded us of the grace of God, but they also reminded us that to follow Jesus—to be his disciples—is to actively and purposefully pursue the discipline of grace.  The Lord pours out his grace freely on his people, but we must put our hands out to receive it.  He graciously provides the manna for today, but we must gather it.  He offers us his grace at his Table, but we must put out our hands and take the bread, we must open our mouths and drink the wine.  And of course, there’s a mystery there, too, because even the discipline we put into pursuing God’s grace is itself a gift of grace.

 

Now today, as we continue to prepare for the season of Lent, we hear Jesus tell another story.  “The kingdom of heaven is like…”  Except today we’re listening to St. Luke and that’s not how he introduces Jesus’ parables.  That’s St. Matthew’s “thing”.  But Jesus could very well have launched into his story that way.  Like last week’s parable, today’s parable is a story about Israel.  And so Luke says that a great crowd had gathered, people coming from all the surrounding towns and villages, and Jesus spoke.  “A sower went out to sow his seed.”  And immediately these people, who knew the Old Testament inside and out, backwards and forwards, so much better than us, they knew right away what this was about.  The “seed” is the remnant, the faithful and true Israel.  As Jesus began his story people would have been thinking about passages from the Prophets like Isaiah 55:10-13.

 

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven

         and do not return there but water the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

         giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

         it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

         and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

“For you shall go out in joy

         and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and the hills before you

         shall break forth into singing,

         and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;

         instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;

and it shall make a name for the Lord,

         an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

 

The Lord would sow his word and instead of thorns and briers, cypress and myrtles would sprout and thrive and his people would rejoice.  Even the mountains and the hills would sing his praises.  This is a song of God’s new creation breaking into the dark sadness of the world, breaking into its sin and idolatry. And, most importantly, all of this, Isaiah wrote, “shall make a name for the Lord.”  People will hear and see and know the faithfulness of the God of Israel and believe.  So everyone listening to Jesus knew all about sin and idolatry and darkness and sadness.  They lived it every day.  Their ancestors had been unfaithful to the Lord, so he disciplined them and let them be taken into exile.  And even though the exile was technically over, it wasn’t, not really.  They’d rebuilt the temple five centuries before, but the Lord’s presence had never returned.  And the Lord’s voice had been silent all that time, too.  And they were ruled by pagan Gentiles, first Greeks and then Romans.  Theirs was a world of thorns and briers and they cried out to the Lord to hear and to deliver them as their ancestors had done from their slavery in Egypt.  That’s what Jesus’ story is about.  A sower—the Sower—went out to sow his seed.  “And,” Jesus says, “as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it.  And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture.  And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it.”

 

It's Israel’s story in a nutshell—or a basket of seed.  But Israel’s story was never meant to end in exile.  Everyone knew—and Isaiah had proclaimed—that the Lord’s word does not return empty, that it accomplishes what he means for it to accomplish.  One day the knowledge of the glory of the Lord would fill the earth.  So there has to be more than his word being eaten by birds or burning up under the hot sun.  The Lord would surely set things—including his own people—to rights just as he had always promised.  Someday the thorns and briers and the sad darkness had to come to an end.  And so Jesus’ story goes on.  He said, “But some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.”  And, Luke says, Jesus called out to the people, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

 

So much of the story made sense to them.  They knew the players and the imagery.  They heard the hope in the story.  The Lord would do what he said and fix this broken world and fix his broken people.  But how was Jesus saying anything that Isaiah hadn’t said already?  How did this relate to him.  Even the disciples had to ask what it meant.  And so Jesus explained, beginning at verse 11:

 

“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.”  I think they all knew this.  They knew the prophets too well to miss it.  The seed is the word of God, but the seed is also the people of God and the two were always inextricably linked, because they knew that God’s word creates God’s people.

 

Jesus went on, “The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.  And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy.  But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.  And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”

 

Think of Israel’s history.  The Lord spoke, he called his people to repentance and faith.  In many cases his word fell on deaf ears.  Some people, despite all the past faithfulness of the Lord, simply had no interest in him.  Some heard the word of the Lord, repented, and believed, but when hard times came, their faith shrivelled up like rootless seedlings on a hot day.  Instead of trusting in the Lord, they put their trust in horses and chariots, in foreign kings, and in false gods.  Others heard, but were simply too concerned with the concerns of today to care about tomorrow.  There were rich people so intent on holding onto their wealth and powerful people so intent on holding onto their power, that they simply couldn’t be bothered with the Lord.  And there were others who had fought their way to the top all on their own, life was good, they didn’t care about anyone else, and they heard the Lord speak and thought, “Oh, that’s nice,” but saw no need to take it to heart.  Many were just too invested in the systems of the present age to have any interest in the age to come.  In fact, some were downright frightened by the thought.  It was as source of hope to many, but to everyone sitting on the top of the world in the present age, it meant upset and loss and judgement.  King Herod was willing to murder the infants of Bethlehem to keep it from happening.  The Sadducees were willing to hand Jesus over to the Romans if it meant stopping this revolution of the word.

 

And that points to another of Jesus’ tellings of this story.  This wasn’t the only time Jesus told this story and this wasn’t the only way he told it.  If we turn over to Luke 20:9-18 we read another version of the same story.

 

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while.  When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed.  And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed.  And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out.  Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’  But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’  And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?  He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!”  But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected

         has become the cornerstone’?

  Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

 

Notice that three times the man sent a servant to claim what belonged to him and three times he was rejected—like the hard-packed path, the rocks, and the thorny ground on which the seed was sown.  But the word of the Lord does not return void.  And so the man sent his own son.  And even though the wicked tenants threw him out and killed him, this is how the Lord finally accomplishes his purpose, this is the key to those words “The Kingdom of heaven is like…”  The son will be rejected, and here Jesus quotes Psalm 118, which everyone would have known just as well as they knew Isaiah 55, the rejected son is that stone rejected by the builders that ends up becoming the cornerstone—that ends up becoming the centre, the basis, the foundation of everything—of God’s new age and God’s new creation.  And that imagery from Daniel.  That stone will remake everyone who falls on it—will give them new life—but will crush—will fall in judgement on those who reject it.

 

The word of the Lord will not return void.  And so, back to today’s Gospel, Jesus says in verse 15, “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.”

 

This is the remnant, the faithful and true Israel.  These are they who fell on the stone rather than the stone falling on them.  These are they who embraced the son when others killed him.  And remember what Jesus said about them in the parable itself, back in verse 8: “And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.”

 

When the disciples finally understood this, it had to have been an immense source of comfort.  As in Israel’s past, so in their own day they saw Jesus—the word himself come to set Israel to rights—they saw him preaching and ministering the kingdom and the word fell on hard-packed earth where the birds snatched it away; and they saw it fall on rocky soil where it took root for a little while, but died once push came to shove; and they saw people like the rich young ruler eagerly coming to Jesus, but going away empty-handed because they just couldn’t bring themselves to let go of their wealth or their power.  How could the kingdom of God possibly amount to anything in this world, in the midst of all the sad darkness and the thorns and briers, when hardly anyone would listen and even fewer would actually take Jesus to heart?  Even they lost faith and hope when Jesus was crucified.  They spent that first Good Friday and Holy Saturday holed up in fear that the authorities would come for them next.  That was it.  Hope crushed.  And then the empty tomb and then Jesus, risen and made new himself, appeared to them and hope came flooding back.  The word took root in them.  They were surely the seed, even though they were so few.  How it would happen, they didn’t know.  And so after Jesus’ ascension they went back to Jerusalem and they waited and they prayed and on Pentecost the Lord poured his Spirit into them and it all made sense.  The stone that the builders rejected really was the cornerstone of this new creation and its new temple.  And it made sense now that God’s word would not return void, because the word himself had come, not only to proclaim the kingdom, but to die and rise again to defeat the old powers of sin and death, and then he sent God’s own Spirit to indwell this new people, to give them this gift of faith, to fill them with love, and to turn their hearts to God.  This is how God’s word would accomplish what he purposed.  In fulfilment of his promises, he backed it up with his own power.  And on Pentecost that little group of disciples saw the seed take root.  Luke writes in Acts 2 that about three thousand were added to their number that day and that the trend continued day by day.  As Jesus said in another parable: The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  The smallest of seeds, but it grows into a great tree and the birds make their nests in it.  God’s grace at work through the humility of his son and the humility of his people.

 

Brothers and Sisters, that’s the lesson the Church reminds us of with today’s lessons.  Last Sunday we were reminded that grace is a discipline.  Today we’re reminded to stand humbly before the grace of God.  And not just to stand humbly, but to stand in hope-filled faith.  The Epistle gives us St. Paul’s example.  He was one of the greatest of the Pharisees and a member of Sanhedrin, but when he was met by the risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus, he gave up everything to be part of this renewed people of God—something he thought was the height of foolishness—and blasphemous—only the day before.

 

And things, at least by worldly terms, did not go well for Paul.  He poured himself into kingdom ministry with the hope of God’s future before him.  Paul’s ministry was to the gentiles, to the pagan world of the Greek and Romans and if the disciples were overwhelmed by their seeming smallness and insignificance in Judea, imagine how overwhelmed Paul must have felt as he went off for the first time as a missionary to the wide world, to declare the glories and the faithfulness of the God of Israel made manifest in Jesus to people and nations who had never heard of Jesus and who would question how the god of a conquered people could possible be worth anything.  But off he went.  One tiny, tiny point of light into the great darkness and wherever he went he preached the word and the Spirit worked and little churches full of new believers began popping up to challenge the darkness.  Brothers and Sisters, take note: That’s how it works.

 

Paul knew that it wasn’t he who made this happen.  It was the grace of God working through the word and the Spirit.  He was merely the messenger, the royal herald, called to proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord.  The Lord himself would do the rest.  When Paul wrote today’s Epistle to the Church at Corinth, they had forgotten this fundamental truth.  They heard the good news about Jesus first from Paul, but since then he’d become persona non grata in their church.  Other preachers had come to them who were better rhetoricians and better looking and who preached a different gospel.  They became tolerant of sin.  They became less disciplined about grace.  They abused the Spirit’s gifts and used them for selfish purposes.  And they’d forgotten that the gospel is empowered not by human means or power, not by gimmicks or flash, but by God’s word and Gods’ Spirit.  And so Paul wrote to them.  This is 2 Corinthians 11:18 and following:

 

Plenty of people are boasting in human terms, after all, so why shouldn’t I boast as well?  After all, you put up with fools readily enough, since you are so wise yourselves.  You put up with it if someone makes you their slave, or if they eat up your property, or overpower you, or give themselves airs, or slap you in the face.  Whatever anyone else dares to boast about (I’m talking nonsense, remember), I’ll boast as well.  Are they Hebrews?  So am I.  Are they Israelites?  So am I.  Are they the seed of Abraham?  So am I.  Are they servants of the Messiah?—I’m talking like a raving madman—I’m a better one.  I’ve worked harder, been in prison more often, been beaten more times than I can count, and I’ve often been close to death.  Five times I’ve had the Jewish beating, forty lashes less one.  Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; I was adrift in the sea for a night and a day.  I’ve been constantly traveling, facing dangers from rivers, dangers from brigands, dangers from my own people, dangers from foreigners, dangers in the town, dangers in the countryside, dangers at sea, dangers from false believers.  I’ve toiled and labored; I’ve burned the candle at both ends; I’ve been hungry and thirsty; I’ve often gone without food altogether; I’ve been cold and naked.  Quite apart from all that, I have this daily pressure on me, my care for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:18-28)

 

Paul begins with everything he once had—the sorts of things the Corinthians valued.  But then he reminds them that he’s given it all up for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, because the gospel is not empowered by those sorts of things.  And the gospel went forth, not because of how great Paul was, but because he was simply faithful to preach it no matter how much it cost him, and because God’s word and Spirit empowered it and transformed the hearts and minds of the people who heard it and believed.  And so he asks in verse 29, “Who is weak and I am not weak?”  But that’s just it.  This is just the point they needed to get through their heads.  They’ve allowed the values of the present age—love of money, love of status, love of power, love of things—they’ve allowed all this to shape their hearts and minds.  They’ve forgotten the power of the cross.  They’ve forgotten that the Lord reveals his strength when his people are weak, because it’s only then that the watching world will see things happen, not by our might and power, but by his.  Brothers and Sisters, this is the God who revealed himself in all his glory by raising Jesus, his Messiah, from the dead.  It’s never us.  Everything we do should point to and reveal the glory and power of God.  Even Jesus, in all he did, manifested not his own glory, but the glory of his Father.  And so Paul declares:

 

If I must boast, I will boast of my weaknesses.

 

Brothers and Sisters, do you boast in your weaknesses?  Paul wrote earlier in 2 Corinthians:

 

For the sake of Christ…I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.  (2 Corinthians 12:10)

 

It’s so easy to be swept up with the values of the world around us and to think, on the one hand, that when things go well for the Church, when our numbers are up, when people are believing and coming for baptism, when the church is sending out missionaries and accomplishing great things in our community, that we’re the ones responsible for it and to become prideful.  To say to the world, “Look what we’ve done!”  And, on the other hand, when things don’t seem to go well, when our numbers are small and we seem to be accomplishing little for the kingdom, it’s easy to become discouraged, even to give up, or to stop trusting in the power of the word and the Spirit and to turn to worldly means to grow the Church.  Brothers and Sisters, Paul reminds us to be humble and to find strength in our weakness, because it is only in our weakness that we encounter the grace of God and that we learn to trust in him to bring gospel fruit.  And when God does act, no one will point to us and say, “Look what they did?”  No, the world will see our smallness, our powerlessness, our weakness and say, “God did that!”  If the Church grows and many trust in Jesus as happened at Pentecost, we will have been privileged to have been used by the Lord, but ultimately we cannot take the credit, because it is his word and Spirit that accomplished the work.  And, on the other hand, if we have been faithful to proclaim his word and to live the life the Spirit has given, and yet we can see little fruit and the Church remains small, we must continue to trust in him, knowing that his word does not return void and, even if we never see the fruit, he will without doubt bring fruit from his word that we proclaim as he did with the prophets, even though they were rejected in their own day.  Brothers and Sisters, whatever happens, whatever fruit we see or do not see, whether our numbers are big or small, we can—we must—trust in him and live in hope and know that our work is not in vain so long as we are faithful stewards of his word and his grace.  As he promised, he will send his word out into the world, it will not return void, he will make a name for himself amongst the nations.  He will be glorified in all the earth.  May we never lose our faith and hope because of weakness, but rather trust all the more in him.

 

Let’s pray: O Lord God, you know that we cannot put our trust in any thing that we do: Mercifully defend us by your power, we pray, against every adversity; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

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