God Chose What Is Weak
God surprises the world by displaying his power through weak people.
In the year 50, a short, bald man named Paul decided to start a church, and he did it in a city that was a large business city—a lot like Chicago, actually—called Corinth. After getting the church up and running for a couple of years, he moved on to start other churches, but he eventually got a bad report on what was happening in the first church he'd started, a church into which he'd poured so much of himself. He heard that the people there were having a church fight. I don't know if you've ever been through a church fight or a church split. It's incredibly painful. And not only were they splitting, but it wasn't like a clean split between two groups; there were actually four factions that had arisen in this church.
The first faction said, "We're following Paul." That makes sense. Paul had started the church. He was the apostle who got it going, and there were still some people who were loyal to him. But Paul admitted he wasn't that great of a preacher. He said things like, "There was weakness, fear, and much trembling when I came to you." He felt shaky as a preacher, so some people kind of dismissed him.
After Paul left Corinth, another person actually came in to help teach the church. His name was Apollos, and there was now a group of people following Apollos. Apollos had been trained in Alexandria, which was kind of the Harvard of the ancient world. He had a brilliant mind, he was a great public speaker, and he was a scholar's scholar. So there was a group following him.
Then to top that, there was a group that said, "You know what? We're following Peter. Peter was with Jesus from the very beginning. Jesus said he was going to build his church on Peter. So, sorry, but we're going with Peter."
And as if that weren't enough, there was a fourth group that said, "Well, we can top that. We follow Jesus." These people had their own little spiritual group, a group that was above all the other conflict.
But now there are four factions in this church, and Paul's head explodes. There are factions, cliques, and groups. There is "us" versus "them." So Paul writes a letter, the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. He uses the first half of the letter just to deal with this conflict in the church, because it's bothering him so much.
How does Paul solve this problem of four factions in a church? You'd think that he would say, "Excuse me. Remember me? I'm the apostle who started you. So maybe you could all get back under the Paul group." Or maybe he would say, "Hey, look, Peter and Apollos and I are all going to cede our block of delegates to the Jesus group. Okay? So why don't you all do that." But he doesn't say either of those things. Instead, he attacks the very fact that there are subgroups at all. The notion that you could live in a church, he says, and have this us/them faction thing going on shows that you have completely missed the way God works. So Paul basically does a Judo move on their assumptions and tries to tell them how God really works. And since we can act a lot like the Corinthians, we'd do well to listen in.
God hides his power in weak people.
The first thing that Paul says about how God works catches us off guard. He says that God hides his power in weak people. That is not the way we think he should do it.
Some years ago when I was a journalist, I was interviewing a mega-church pastor. He mentioned a church in the Twin Cities called Church of the Open Door. I was quite interested in Church of the Open Door, because our own church has had some interactions with them; they have many similar interests as we do in healing prayer ministry. Because Open Door was ministering to hurting people, they had attracted a lot of people with "issues," as we would say today. And this mega-church pastor told me, "Yeah, you can never build a church with those kinds of people." Well, Paul would rebuke that and say, "Are you kidding me? Not only can God build a church with those people, but that's precisely how he does it!" Notice verse 26: "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth." When God chooses and builds a strong church, he does it with the people that we wouldn't choose, and in the ancient world that was the slaves, the women, and the Gentiles. Today it's the outsiders, the voiceless, the refugees, and, yes, people with a lot of baggage. That's how God builds his church.
When I was in elementary school (this was before the day that gym teachers were sensitive about preserving each child's self-esteem), we would play kick ball. The gym teachers would pick two kids, usually the two best athletes in the class, and they'd make each one a team captain. Those team captains would choose the teams. And it always went the same way. The first kids picked would be the really big, strong kids who could kick the ball a mile away. Then when those kids ran out and were already on teams, the captains would pick the really fast girls. Maybe they couldn't kick the ball as far, but they could beat out an infield single with their kick. So all of those girls were divided among the two teams. And we always knew who was going to be last: all the kids who were weak and all the kids who were uncoordinated and all the kids who were slow. It went that way every time.
When God makes up the church, and he calls in the people from this new community around Jesus Christ, he flips it and he does it the opposite way. He says: First, give me all the slow people, the weak people, the uncoordinated people, and then I'll fill in with a couple of people with obvious talent. It's not the way we think he should do it. I've heard people say, "You know what we really need? We need more Christian voices in Hollywood. We need more evangelical witness on TV. Wouldn't that be amazing?"
Just a few years back I remember several people were really abuzz because there was a believer on a reality show—Kate Gosselin of Kate Plus 8. "Isn't that amazing?" they said. "The gospel's going to go forward through her!" Can I tell you that usually that ends in a disaster? Think about what has been the most profound Christian witness to the culture of America in the last ten years? Was it the release of The Passion of the Christ? Maybe it was Rick Warren hosting a presidential debate. You know what I think it was? I think it was the Amish response after the shooting of their children at Nickel Mines. The Amish don't have televangelists. They don't have celebrities. All they've got is this lowly community of humility and forgiveness. And when people saw them attending the funeral of the murderer, they said, "I don't even know what that is, but I don't have what those people have. I need that." God hides his power in weak and lowly people.
Why would God do that? Paul tells us in verse 27: "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things … and the despised things—the things that are not—to nullify the things that are." Basically, God said: I want people to learn a little humility. We all get caught up in the people with talent and public appeal, and we form followings and cliques around them. God doesn't want that. He wants us to focus on him, and so he hides his power in weak people. When you realize that, you move from competition to collaboration. You move from pride to humility. You move from comparisons to unity, because you realize that God can use anyone. And he does. We just don't recognize it.
When a friend of mine named Roger Thompson was in high school, he got a job working for the Brinks armored company in San Bernardino, California. They would bring over from Vegas all the coins from the slot machines, and Roger's job was to run a coin wrapping machine. He would wrap quarters in bags of a thousand dollars each. One day he was wrapping quarters when his boss Larry got a frantic call from Bank of America in downtown San Bernardino. The bank was all out of coins. Larry looked around and all the armored trucks were out on their routes, so he backed his old Ford pickup truck into the bay and shouted, "We need $25,000 worth of coins in here right now!" Larry and Roger started throwing eighty-pound bags of coins into the truck bed, and when they had enough Larry told Roger to hop in with him. When they pulled up in front of Bank of America, Larry said, "You stay here and guard the stuff while I go get a dolly." Roger was thinking, I don't have a gun! I'm only wearing a t-shirt and jeans! Pay no attention to the $25,000 in the back of this old Ford pickup.
This is the way God does it. He puts $25,000 of spiritual power in a person who's like an old Ford pickup truck. And we miss it, because we go, "Hey, that person's got bad breath," or, "That person's got low social skills." But God is right then and there answering their prayer and moving in a profound way in your life or in his church because of it. God hides his power in weak, weak people.
God hides his power in weak preaching.
Not only does he hide his power in weak people, but he hides his power in weak preaching. God decided to transmit his power in a weak medium with a crazy message. Paul applies this idea that God works through weakness to preaching because there had been a lot of painful comparisons in the church at Corinth already. People were basically saying, "Sorry, Paul. You're kind of weak and shaky when you preach, but Apollos is brilliant. I'm going with him." And Paul knows this. He says to them in chapter two, "When I came to you … I didn't come with eloquence of superior wisdom …. I came in weakness and fear … with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words."
What Paul is saying is not anti-intellectual. Paul himself was an intellectual. It's not anti-rhetoric. Paul's actually using masterful rhetoric right here. But it is anti-confidence in rhetoric. Paul is saying, "I know that God has chosen to put his power into preaching, and it's not based on how smooth I am. It's based on his promise and the power of God."
A few years ago, back when postmodern Christianity was kind of the big thing, I went out to California for a conference. Everybody there was talking about emergent and missional ways of doing church, and one person stood up in the conference and said, "Preaching is so passé. Preaching is completely outmoded. I mean, first of all, no one has that long of an attention span anymore. This is the age of social media. And not only that, but it's so one-way; it's so autocratic and imperialistic. It's not a dialogue. So we ought to get rid of the sermons, blow up preaching, and have just two or three people during the service stand up and share for a couple of minutes, and then everyone else can respond." Obviously, I disagree with that guy. But it's easy as a preacher to realize how outgunned you are, because preaching is as low-budget and as low-tech as it gets.
When you go to a movie theater, do you realize that the majority of the movies playing there have a budget of 100 million dollars? If a movie is 100 minutes long, that comes out to a million dollars a minute. And think about Super Bowl commercials: three million dollars for 30 seconds, which is six million dollars a minute. I'm going to be up here preaching for twenty-five minutes. Would it surprise you to know that I do not have a budget of 150 million dollars? What it cost to get this sermon was a couple cups of coffee and some printer ink. And you feel that. You think, God why would you choose something like this—preaching—to communicate your truth to us? But it is this crazy, weak, lowly thing that God has chosen to send his power through. It is through preaching that drunks get sober. It's through preaching that the self-loathing open their lives to the love of God. It's through preaching that suburban hearts awaken to the plight of the poor.
A few years back, the United Methodist Church went around and interviewed their leaders who were working for the cause of racial justice, and they asked them this question: You're in one of the hardest types of work there is. You get shot at from all sides. It's thankless work. You can spend a lifetime in it and see very little fruit. What is it that would make you do this? Why did you choose this? And most of them said, "Preaching. It was a sermon I heard, and I knew this was the lifework that God had for me." God has consistently chosen to put his power in that. Paul knew that faith comes by hearing. He knew that even when his message and his preaching didn't have wise and persuasive words, there would still be a full demonstration of the Spirit's power.
Why would God do this? Why would he hide his power in weak people and in weak preaching? He didn't have to do it that way, but he did. To answer this I need to take you back to middle school. This realization dawned on me in sixth grade, and childhood kind of came to an end. It was in sixth grade when I realized that the ground was not level in life, that we all didn't start out with the same kind of benefits and blessing, and that what life was really about now was who were the best athletes. In that context, being a good athlete was worth a lot—and if you weren't one, then too bad for you. Soon after that, it was about who was best looking—who can really turn heads. Looking good is worth a lot, but if you're kind of plain-looking, then too bad for you. Or what about who is smartest? If you struggle and really have to study hard just to stay near the bottom, then too bad for you. Who has the nicest clothes? Who's got the best house? Who has the coolest parents? That's what life is about.
But Jesus had everything. He had power and divine privilege and divine prerogative, and he gave it all up. He emptied himself and came down until he was beaten, despised, and killed. He was the last kid in the class. And he did all this to strip away and wreck forever the basis for our comparisons and our competition and our cliques, so that when Jesus formed this new community around himself, it was built on something totally different. The church is built on weakness. It's built on community. It's built on the fact that there's only one place where we all come together, and that's at the cross. When Paul sees how the church at Corinth has already reverted to the old way of thinking, esteeming those who appear stronger, smarter, or better, he goes crazy. He cannot have that kind of thinking coming into the church. It's a toxic spirituality.
Here at our church, we've been enjoying a great season of unity, and we thank God for that. This passage of Scripture came to us through the lectionary, and we might be thinking, Hey, thank you, Lord. I think we're doing well on this. I know that to maintain the spirit of unity and the bond of peace we sometimes need to swallow hard and forgive someone. I want to affirm you in that work. Praise God for that.
But Scriptures also says, "Let him who stands be careful lest he fall." So I want to close with a few pastoral and practical ways that we can continue to apply this truth and avoid even the start of groupings and cliques, such as Paul was writing about here.
The first principle I would suggest is that we ought to beware any use of the word they to indicate some subgroup in the church that you don't agree with. When we hear ourselves saying that word, warning buzzers ought to go off. At our church, for example, we talk about how we're like three streams flowing together as one river. There's the stream of the traditional and the sacramental church that flows through our midst; there's also the evangelical and mission-oriented stream; and the third stream is the charismatic healing stream. Depending on your background and your particular temperament and mission in life, most people who come to our church love one stream, like another, and can live with the third. It's not unusual for you to be thinking or even saying, "I wish they weren't so into their way of doing church here."
Or maybe we're tempted to use "they" when it comes to musical styles. Our church has a blended style, so some Sundays you're going to have more ancient hymns, some days more modern choruses; some days the songs will be mellow, and some days they'll sound more like rock music. I guarantee you there's going to be some music you don't like. So when that moment comes, you have to discipline yourself to say, "I don't like this music, but I will love it because some people really do." That's the kind of humility in which we can reach across divides like that.
Or what about parenting styles? In a church as big as ours, you're going to have a lot of parents, and they're going to parent in a lot of different ways. Surely we can love each other enough around these things, right? I don't want Paul to have to write us and say, "My brothers, some have informed me that there are quarrels among you. Some say, 'I am of attachment,' and others, 'I am of structure.'" No, our love can transcend those differences here.
Finally, never let yourself get too solidly wed to a particular worship leader or a personal preacher. We have a preaching team here, which we think is healthier for our church, but if you really want to encourage any of us who preach, come up and say, "Here's how I'm trying to apply one thing you said." That is such a rich blessing. But don't say, "You know what? I really love it when you preach, wink, wink," because that's where competition starts. It's like a little chink in the sidewalk.
See, God does not work the way we think he should. He has decided to hide his power in weak people, so that we would cease competing for the strongest leader. God decided to hide his power in weak preaching, so we'd not divide up based on oratorical skill. And why did he do that? He wants us to leave those impulses outside, so that when we come in to the church, we'll find community. We'll find unity, and we'll find love.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Kevin A. Miller is the Executive Director of Ministry Advancement at Christianity Today and senior pastor at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois.