The Wisdom of the Powerless

Sermon for Sunday, March 11, 2012
Lent 3B
Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25; John 2: 13-22
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

In the words of the psalmist this morning, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So I wonder how many of us were raised to believe that if we set our minds to it, worked hard enough, and just used our heads, we could do just about anything? I wonder how many of us still buy into the old line that, “where there’s a will there’s a way”?

But then life happens, and sooner or later we crash head first into the reality that there are things beyond our control—things that no amount of self-exertion, self-will, or self-mastery can effect: Physical and intellectual limitations, aging, loss, tragedy, grief…

“Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves…”

Those  are the words we prayed together just a few minutes ago in our Collect of the Day: “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” And, yes, Almighty God certainly does know that. God knows that without Divine grace, love, wisdom and mercy we are powerless.

But based on this morning’s readings, on our checkered history as a people on this planet, and on the contents of any morning newspaper, one might wonder whether we know it.  Do we know, deep down where it counts and in the forefront of our minds where it cannot be overlooked or forgotten, that without God we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves?

There is such a dramatic contrast between life in the Kingdom-world that Jesus taught us to pray for—the one where God’s will is done (for ever and ever, amen!)— and life on this little planet, our “island home” –where human will seems to reign supreme. There is such a dramatic contrast between the way God wants us live our lives, and the way we actually do.

The Litany of Penitence, with which we began this morning’s worship, and the reading of the Ten Commandments from the book of Exodus we just heard, are meant to be sobering reminders in this Lenten season of just how far short of God’s dream for us we have fallen.

Surely if we really understood– and could actually remember day to day– how powerless we are to help ourselves, we could do better at “letting go and letting God.” We wouldn’t rely on self-exertion, self-will, or self-mastery –but on God’s grace, God’s love, God’s wisdom, and God’s mercy.  We’d trust that God actually knows more about what’s good for us than we do; we’d believe that God wants more for us than we could ever ask or imagine; and we’d have faith that if only we would listen to God and cooperate, God’s will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

The law of the Lord is perfect” writes the psalmist, “and revives the soul…the statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart…the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes…” 

Ah, yes! Absolutely true!  But what the psalmist neglects to mention is that the law of the Lord is also impossible for us to keep!  Sure, if it were humanly possible to keep the Ten Commandments, then yes, all would go well for us and we would find them “more to be desired than much fine gold” and “sweeter far than honey in the comb.”  Because if we were actually capable of living into these commandments we would be in proper relationship with God, with each other, and with God’s creation. And if that were the case, we would be free of sin.  All would be right with the world, indeed.

But we’re not, and it’s not. Every day we fashion false gods out of the fabric of our lives; every day we give higher priority to a myriad more pressing things in life than our faith; every day we break the foundational commandment against idolatry, simply by forgetting about God and putting our wills and what we think is important, ahead of God.  The First Commandment alone is like a big “Do Not Pass Go” sign on our spiritual journeys, and as our prayer this morning reminds us, we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.

Enter Jesus!  Enter Jesus with what St. Paul calls “the foolishness of the cross.”   Enter Jesus, with “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Enter Jesus, the One through whom all things are possible and in whom is our hope and our salvation.

Jesus comes not only to be a good moral example and to show us what it looks like to live in accordance with God’s will, but he comes to free us from the bondage of self-importance, self-reliance, and self-will— and when all those fail, from the self-criticism and self-flagellation that invariably follow.  Jesus comes to free us from the bondage of fear, sin, and death.  Jesus comes to free us from anything and everything that gets in the way of our being free to be in proper relationship with God, with each other, and with God’s creation.

And he does all that by choosing powerlessness—the very thing from which we recoil and which by any earthly standard would be seen as a foolish choice indeed.  Jesus chooses powerlessness.  Think about that! He accepts all the evil and hatred humanity can hurl at him.  He accepts the incredible injustice of it all.  He even accepts his death.  And in so doing he wins life—resurrection life–for all of us.

In his powerlessness, is our power.  In his foolishness, is our wisdom.  No longer is our relationship with God dependent on keeping His commandments perfectly.  No longer is our relationship with God dependent on our ability to make the proper sacrifices at the temple. Instead, our relationship with God is dependent on one thing:  Christ crucified and risen.   And as that wonderful old hymn proclaims, “What a friend we have in Jesus”!

So here are three things you might practice this Lenten season to help you remember God and depend on Jesus:

1) Cultivate humility, by considering your powerlessness over people, places and things…over your physical and intellectual limitations…over aging, loss, and death.  For far too many of us, it’s only when we crash head first into the reality that we have no power in ourselves to help our selves that we are desperate enough to make God our number one priority and to accept the power offered to us in Christ.  Remember that it was by choosing powerlessness that Jesus won new life.  We have that choice too.

2) Pray, “Thy will not mine be done.”  Make it your mantra.  Pray it over and over in the course of your day until it becomes habitual.  Tape it to your bathroom mirror, make it your screensaver, send it to yourself in an email, put it on a sticky on your dashboard or refrigerator. Pray it at every red light, with your morning cup of coffee or your evening glass of wine, before each meeting and appointment or every time you enter a room.  “Thy will, not mine, be done.”  Burn it into the forefront of your mind.

3) Read scripture:  Keep a copy of the Bible next to your favorite chair or on your night stand.  Try randomly opening it to any page before or after you read the newspaper, or watch the news, when you wake up in the morning, or just before you go to sleep at night.  Feast on God’s Word.

Do these things, however imperfectly, and your Lenten journey will be richly blessed.  God really does know more about what’s good for us than we do; God really does want more for us than we could ever ask or imagine; and if we will only listen and cooperate, God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So I invite you to welcome God’s divine grace, love, wisdom and mercy into your life—and feel the power!  “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  Amen.

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