The Advantage of Weakness
(Part 2 of 2)
Audio Sermon + Transcript
Speaker, Alistair Begg
Sermon given on Sunday, September 12, 2004
As a vast horde of Moabites and Ammonites advanced against God’s people, the King of Judah was powerless to save his kingdom. Aware of his limitations, King Jehoshaphat sought the Lord in prayer, calling to mind God’s faithfulness and promises. Examining the King’s response, Alistair Begg reminds us that times of greatest weakness are opportunities to seek the Lord and rely on His might.
Father, we pray that as we turn now to the Bible that the Spirit of God will be our teacher. We are earnest in our desire to hear from you, we are honest when we say that the inclinations of our hearts are such that we are in desperate need of your enabling, and so we pray that you will come and meet with us in the study of the Word as we thank you now in Christ’s name. Amen.
Now, I invite you to open your Bibles at 2 Chronicles 20, and the portion of Scripture that was read for us by Pastor Kennedy a little while ago.
I think that most of you know by now, because I have iterated this a number of times, that I had to wait until I was sixteen to experience my first American football game, which I know must be regarded as a great hardship by many of you. But nevertheless, thirty-six years ago I, at an Air Force base in Bushey, in Hertfordshire, was introduced to this amazing event, spectacle. And I recall very little except for two things: One, that the Air Force trounced whoever it was they were playing. I’ve forgotten who they were playing; I think I did so deliberately to preserve them from shame, lest over the years I would continually announce it. But anyway, the air force gave them a royal drubbing. But that wasn’t what I remembered. What I remembered most were the cheerleaders. Actually, not the cheerleaders—some of your minds are completely warped—but I remembered not the cheerleaders but the cheer, and one particular cheer. And they kept taking their pompoms and saying, “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can! You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” The problem was, they couldn’t. And the further the game went, the more incongruous the chant became. It was just patently obvious that they couldn’t “do it.” And they were being annihilated, but it didn’t prevent these girls from bouncing up and down and declaring the fact that apparently victory was just around the corner.
It’s, of course, not an unfamiliar refrain in all kinds of areas. As the week has passed, many of us have perhaps read literature, listened to CDs and tapes, gone into business meetings or educational establishments, and essentially been told a story that is summarized in that cheer: “You can do it, you can do it! You really can!” And indeed, some people have become used to going to church in order that they might hear that story told to them again, despite the fact that it wears very quickly thin. It is apparent to all who are paying attention that it is a chronicle of despair. Coming out of a week in which we haven’t done our best, and even our best has not been particularly good, and facing all the challenges that are before us in a new week, opportunities and responsibilities, the last thing we really need is for some well-meaning individual to tell us what we know isn’t true—namely, that we have within ourselves the capacity to “do it,” and we “really can.”
Certainly Jehoshaphat would have fallen foul of that notion and would have been very unprepared to accept that kind of counsel. He, executing the role of leader amongst the people of Judah, is prepared to acknowledge that which is not common in leadership then or now—and namely, that he hasn’t got a clue what to do and that he feels himself to be totally powerless. That, if you allow your eye to run down the text, is there in verse 12, where at the end of his prayer he says, “Lord, I may as well just acknowledge exactly how things are. Here I am, representative of your people, and we are powerless and we’re clueless.” It’s a wonderful illustration of Paul’s phraseology in 2 Corinthians 12, where he says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
Now, I hope that our study this morning and in these next couple of weeks will be a particular encouragement to those of us who have been made aware of, or need to be made aware of, our own inadequacy when it comes to living for and serving God. Some of us may have come today on the threshold of the new responsibilities of the coming months here at Parkside or in other areas of our lives, and we are painfully aware of the fact that the challenge before us is daunting and one that we sense ourselves recoiling from. We also have grown weary of people telling us what we can do when we know that we can’t, and if you find yourself in that predicament, then I want you to know that you should take courage, because you’re not alone.
The background to the encounter here in 2 Chronicles 20 is fairly straightforward. I’m not going to try and dazzle you with all the details, but if you read for homework the preface of the event here—and you’d really need to begin reading from about chapter 17—you’ll discover that under the leadership of Jehoshaphat, Judah had experienced a time of reformation. Jehoshaphat was a wise leader, and he put in place various changes. And at the heart of all that is taking place there is a return on the part of the people to biblical preaching. It doesn’t actually say “biblical preaching,” but that’s exactly what it was: they had rediscovered the Law of God, and they had brought the Law of God before the people of God, and they had said, “This is God’s Word to us, and we need to understand it and obey it.” And you will find all the way through these chapters that that emphasis recurs.
Jehoshaphat had then gone on to appoint judges, to appoint leaders in various places of responsibility, and he urged them, in assuming a position of leadership, to serve God faithfully, wholeheartedly, and courageously. It’s a good exhortation, isn’t it? Anyone who is responsible for people and putting together a team of individuals who are going to serve in any capacity will surely be well-served by reminding the team that if we’re going to do anything that is of use, then faithfulness and wholeheartedness and bravery, or courage, will be constituent elements of what takes place.
As is so often the case in our lives, we find ourselves urging others to an area of activity, only to realize that very quickly we ourselves are going to have to heed our own counsel or to take our own medicine. And so it is that, having called upon his colleagues and those who are serving with him to act with courage, in relatively short order he is called to face this vast army.
Now, the crisis is there in the opening verses of chapter 20: “The Moabites … [the] Ammonites with some of the Meunites came to make war on Jehoshaphat.” And the fact of Jehoshaphat and the people’s need is reinforced by the Chronicler—that is, the one who has written 1 and 2 Chronicles—it’s reinforced by saying again and again that this army was a “vast army.” He says, you’ll notice, in verse 2, that “a vast army” was coming; it comes again in 12, and in 15, and in 24.
Now, the point is obvious: the Chronicler wants us to understand that the response of Jehoshaphat, which is one of alarm, as we’re about to see in verse 3, is a perfectly understandable response. After all, the news comes: “The numbers that are attacking you are just unquantifiable, they are united in their approach against you.” And despite the fact that Jehoshaphat has been effective in the reforming principles of the nation, despite the fact that Jehoshaphat has a profile that many would regard as one of significance in leadership, neither the profile that he enjoys, nor the position that he has fulfilled, nor the procedures that he has put in place, prevent him from responding as he does to the news that he receives. He was not immune to fear.
I’m looking forward to getting very quickly now, in short order, the book that has just come out by the young man whose name I can’t recall but who in a rock-climbing accident a couple of years ago was forced, having been trapped after a fall, to cut off his arm in order to save himself. The book is now out, and I’ve heard it recommended, and so I look forward to buying it. And I can only assume that we will discover upon reading it that this individual gives to us the nature of courage: that courage is not the opposite of fear —if we’d said to him, “Were you afraid?” I’m sure he’s going to say that he was afraid—that when the prospects that were before him of cutting off an arm or of bleeding to death or dying there were presented to him, he was overwhelmed by them, but somehow or another he had the quality of character that enabled him to act despite fear or in the absence of peculiar confidence. And when we read what takes place here in relationship to Jehoshaphat, then we find very much the same thing.
Now, with all that by way of introduction, I want to notice three things concerning the weakness that is before us in this chapter. For those of you who may be at wits’ end, this will prove to be, I hope, of encouragement, and for those of us who need to be brought to our wits’ end, then this will provide to us the answer to the dilemma when we get to where we need to be.
First of all, I want us to notice that weakness is admitted. Weakness is admitted. That’s, again, the statement in verse 12. It’s pivotal: “We have no power, and we don’t know what to do. We’re powerless and we’re clueless.”
Not exactly what you learn at business school, is it, gentlemen? You are given a new opportunity, you’re given a small group of individuals to care for, perhaps you are involved in a sales team with a biotech company, and you’re going, Miss Jenkins, for your first morning, and they all gather in the staff room, and you’ve got fifteen or twenty of them, and you sit them all down, they’re all gazing at you expectantly, and you say, “Well, I’d like to begin by just frankly acknowledging that the challenge that is before us is so daunting that, frankly, I’m pretty clueless and totally powerless.” And the people just gazing back at you saying, “Haven’t you ever read a business book? Where did you come from? What is your problem?” And if the manager gets to hear of it, then you’ll probably yanked out very quickly out of the room: “Goodness, gracious! That’s not why I put you in there. I put you in there to tell them, get them going, get them going! Get the pompoms out! I want to hear the refrain, ‘We can do it, we can do it! We can, we can!’ Then I’ll know how effective you are.”
“Come along now, Pastor. Step up! Look at all those people before you. Get the pompoms out. Let’s get the refrain going. Let’s let Cleveland know, ‘We can do it, we can do it! We can! We can…’” We can? No, you see, despite contemporary preoccupations with human effectiveness, Jehoshaphat takes a very different route: “‘We [don’t] know what to do … our eyes are upon you,’” and “all the men of Judah”—verse 13—“with their wives and [their] children and [their] little ones, stood there before the Lord.” It’s a wonderful picture, isn’t it? All of them standing there before the Lord. I’d like to paint it, but I can’t paint, and I don’t know what I would paint in terms of their eyes. Maybe you do, and maybe you will.
The people coming on the fringe of the crowd, saying, “What are the people of Judah doing now? Why the big assembly?”
“Well, they’ve all come together, and they’re standing there.”
“Yes,” says the observer, “I can see that they’re standing, but what are they doing?”
“Well, they’re standing there.”
“Well, but why don’t they do something?”
“Well, they are actually doing something: they’re standing there.”
“Do you mean there is significance in the fact that they are standing there?”
Yes. They are standing still until they discover how and where they should move. They are standing still in the awareness of the fact that they are both powerless and clueless in light of the circumstances confronting them. They are standing still at the behest of their leader, who has been humble enough to say, “I don’t know what to do, and I’m powerless to do anything, but I invite you to stand with me as we seek God.”
“Well,” says the bystander, “it’s a very interesting approach. I don’t see it myself. I’m not sure that there are many models that fit this. I really think they ought to be doing something. Doesn’t someone have a strategy?”
It’s a similar circumstance throughout the whole of biblical history. You can fast-forward all the way through to Corinth, and before Paul acknowledges that his own arrival in Corinth was the arrival of somebody who came “in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling,” he says, “There’s an illustration of the way God’s power works, not only in my own ministry,” he says, “but also if you think about yourselves. Think about it,” he said. “Not many of you were mighty, and not many of you were noble, but God chose to put you in position. And the reason he chose to put you in position was so that nobody would boast before him.”
I’m reading a book at the moment that some of you will have read. It’s a business book, I suppose, but it’s more than a business book; it’s called From Good to Great, written by a Stanford business professor as a result of five years of analyzing, “What was it that took good companies from being good companies to being great companies?” And despite their expectations, they discovered that the companies that went from good to great, and those who led the companies that went from good to great, were not leaders who understood immediately exactly what to do and who were immediately unfolding a dynamic strategy, but they were leaders who said, “We need to get the right people on the bus, with the right attitude, sitting in the right seats, and then we will proceed. But we will not proceed until we have the right people in the right seats with the right attitude.” I commend the book to all who are interested—has some fascinating insights!
Now, people would have come along, said to Jehoshaphat, “Come along, Jehoshaphat, aren’t we going somewhere? Aren’t we doing something? Don’t we have a strategy here for dealing with the great advancing force? Is this the best you can do, Jehoshaphat? Saying to the people, ‘We don’t know what to do, we’re powerless, but we’re seeking you, God,’ encouraging the people to come to this religious assembly, to come before God and stand?”
See, Jehoshaphat is clearly not the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the Old Testament. Jehoshaphat is a reminder to us that the kind of contemporary picture of effective Christian leadership is in the strong, rugged, ruthless, handsome quarterback. When you read the Bible, what do you discover? That the men and women that God picks up and uses are so often marked by hesitancy and timidity and caution, uneasiness, a sense of their own personal inadequacy—in other words, unlikely people.
“I am the least in my family, my clan is the weakest of all the clans!” God says, “That’s right, Gideon. You’re my man.” “I can’t speak. I don’t know how to speak. I’m only a child.” “That’s right, Jeremiah. You’re my prophet.” And when Paul writes to the church in Corinth, commending to them Timothy as his young lieutenant, he doesn’t say to ’em, “If Timothy comes, make good use of him, elevate his profile, see that his influence is felt.” No! He says, “If Timothy comes, put him at his ease. See to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you.”
Do you see how antithetical this is to contemporary models? You don’t have to go outside the church to see that it is antithetical to contemporary models. I had the privilege yesterday of being with a company of men in Indiana, and two or three of those men were pastors. And one of those gentlemen with whom I spent some time was a pastor, and I said, “How long have you been here?” and he said, “I’ve been here for thirty years.” Thirty years of unerring faithfulness, without notoriety, without peculiar commendation, without undue reward, just marked by faithfulness, by wholeheartedness, and by the necessary courage that would enable a man in that position to keep going Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
You see, when the record books in heaven are opened and the story is unfolded, then it will come out very differently. That’s why this is a necessary reminder—always a necessary reminder. Because God’s purpose is that we might depend upon him entirely. That’s why the story is one of the supremacy of the enemy and of the inadequacy of the people. And it’s because of this perspective that God brings things into our lives. It’s because of this perspective that God gives us children. You say, “Well, what do you mean by that?” Well, you obviously don’t have children, otherwise you don’t have to say, What do I mean by that? Is it not interesting how those whom we love the dearest and long for the most can be the greatest challenge to our own walk with Christ? Isn’t it strange how God uses these very objects of our love and affection to show us how powerless and ineffective we are, to remind us that the grace of God does not flow through human genes?
Why is it that some of us limp through life? Why is it that some of us have a “thorn in the flesh,” at least one? Why is it that there is that anxiety of heart and spirit? Why is it that there is that restlessness? Why is it, that sense of “quiet desperation”? It is so that we might know that we are absolutely powerless and that we are absolutely clueless.
You see, but the temptation is to go to the bookstore to find a book that tells me how I may not be powerless and clueless. That will be a bad book! That will be an unhelpful book! Because it is in my very powerlessness, and it is in my very cluelessness, that I come to stand before God and say, “I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are upon you.”
“A Christian,” says [Berridge] in the eighteenth century, “A Christian never falls asleep in the fire or in the water, but grows drowsy in the sunshine.” All kinds of cares and troubles may come and will come against us, but if they drive us to God in the awareness of our own helplessness, then they’re good. Old hymns get this. [Anna Waring], in her hymn “My Heart Is Resting, O My God,” she says,
Glory to you for strength withheld,
For want and weakness known—
For fear that drives me to yourself.
She says, “I’m thankful that I’m not strong. I’m thankful that there are things I don’t have. I’m thankful that I’m aware of my weakness. I’m thankful that I am fearful.” Why? “Because it casts me upon you.” And it’s only when we’re confronted by the facts of our own personal inadequacy that we will then be enabled to call upon God for all the adequacy that he provides.
I fell asleep yesterday afternoon on a table. Driving back from Indiana, I was so tired; I’d driven there the previous evening, and then back again, and they told me the short route, which didn’t seem to be working. And I pulled into a rest area, and it looked very nice under a tree and in the grass, and I thought, “If I fall asleep there, I may miss tomorrow morning’s services, and they’ll send the police out for me.” That’s how tired I felt. So I decided I’d sleep on a table. I know you’re not to sleep on those picnic tables, and I can tell you which one it was in case you need to wipe it off with Lysol. But I fell asleep on the table, and I woke up twice, and I said “Oh!” like that, and I thought, “I’m gonna… I’m falling on the floor!” And I said, “No, I’m okay,” and I then I went off again, and said “Whoa! Oh, I’m falling on the floor again!” As best I know, it is difficult to fall asleep on a table. Maybe in the forces or something you learned to do that because you had to, but by and large it’s hard to fall asleep on a table. You can fall asleep in the grass under a tree, cozy down with a blanket. How immature is this perspective on Christianity? “Lord, I want to fall asleep under a tree, in the grass, with a blanket.” And God says, “I want you to sleep on a table. I want you to sleep on a knife edge. And the reason is because I need my people to get to the point where they’re prepared to stand before me and acknowledge, ‘We can’t.’”
Now, that kind of aspiration and that kind of leadership is unusual, isn’t it? I hope you know how much I speak to myself here. I trust you sense it. Because the great temptation is to suggest to everybody, “Oh, yeah! Yes, we know! Yeah!”
Do you know the poetry of A. A. Milne? Well, you know Winnie the Pooh, don’t you? But A. A. Milne wrote a number of poems when we were were six or—I think it was when we were six—that little collection. And my favorite is “[Bad] Sir Brian Botany.” I won’t go through it all, for two reasons: one, it’s long; and two, I can’t remember it all. But it starts out like this:
Sir Brian had a battleaxe with great big knobs on.
He walked among the villagers and he blipped them on the head.
On Tuesday and on Saturday, but mostly on the latter day,
He called at all the cottages and this is what he said:
“I am Sir Brian!” (ting-ling)
“I am Sir Brian!” (rat-tat)
“I am Sir Brian, as bold as a lion—
Take that!—and that!—and that!”
People say, “Now that’s the kind of leadership we’re talking about! That’s what made GE what it is!” Exactly! That’s why GE isn’t one of the great companies in the book. That’s why Chrysler isn’t one of the great companies in the book: meteoric rise as a result of definitive, demonstrative, egotistical, Brian-Botany leadership, followed by decline, followed by Chrysler owned by Germany.
Apply it to Parkside: twenty-one years into the story, at least in my little piece of the puzzle, looking to the future, thinking how it’s going to be, asking God to take us where we need to be, to make us what we want to be, to change us into what we need to be. Do you realize how easy it will be for this place—unless God calls us to stand before him, powerless and clueless—how easy it will be for this place to be no place in no time? And do you know what will be the root of it? Leadership that thinks it can do it, it can do it, it can, it can. So for those of you who may be a little frustrated, a little concerned, a little warned at the absence of strategy and strategic thinking and purpose-driven principles that you can keep in the flyleaf of your Bible and stuff in your purse, this is the best we can do at the moment: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you, God. And we invite the people of God to stand with us in that posture.” Weakness admitted. Until we reach the point where we’re prepared to admit it, then there is no progress at all.
Then, of course, weakness is addressed. (As usual, I’ve spent far too long on the first point. You’d think after time I could figure out how to do this.) Weakness addressed. Let me give it to you in a thumbnail outline.
The reason that Jehoshaphat is able to be as straightforwardly honest at the end of his prayer is because he is so unbelievably clear at the beginning of his prayer. The expression of his own inadequacy is set firmly within the context of all that he knows God to be. Let me put it interrogatively in the prayer: “O Lord, God of our fathers, [aren’t you] the God who is in heaven?” Beautiful clear skies these past two or three nights, isn’t it? Haven’t they been? Fantastic. You lie on your back on a table, and look up into the sky, and just feel small, just feel little, and remember that “he [calls] out the starry host … by name.” And take all that is before us in terms of the daunting challenge of life and ministry and future and past, and set it, then, firmly within the framework of our awareness of who God is: “Aren’t you the God who is in heaven? Don’t you rule over the kingdoms?”—we’re still in verse 6. “Didn’t you”—verse 7—“drive out the inhabitants of this land and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham?”
You see the importance of all these words? “God, it looks like we’re about to lose this land. I’m actually feeling like there is more than a distinct possibility that we will. I’m not sure what to do, and I’m not sure that I have the power to execute what I finally discover to do. But the thing that’s really helping me here is, didn’t you make a promise to Abraham? Didn’t you say, ‘I’m going to give this to you forever’?”
You apply it in your own Christian pilgrimage. Here you are, and you’ve had a bad week, and you’ve run up against some things, and you hear the insistent voice of the Evil One saying, “You know, you’re a complete disaster. You’re absolutely useless. Your protestations on a Sunday are more than matched by your declension in the rest of the week.” And you feel that very much, and you’re aware of that, and you’re not prepared to deny it, and you’re not going to try and counteract it by, you know, reading ahead in Murray M’Cheyne or something to try and offset your ineptitude and your disobedience. And so, what do you do? Well, you set it against the truth of the Word of God: “‘I am confident that he who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.’ I feel very much like I’m losing this battle, but your Word says that you will continue with me, that you will persevere with me, that you are a persevering God.”
See, it’s not offsetting one set of feelings by another set of feelings. It’s bringing our feelings under the tutelage of the facts as they’re given to us. Isn’t that what he does? “Aren’t you the God in heaven? Don’t you rule over the kingdoms? Didn’t you drive out the enemy? Won’t you hear us when we come to you?”—verse 9. And the answer to that is “Yes, yes.” “Well,” he says, “then in light of that, this is what we’ll do: we will stand in your presence before this temple that bears your Name, and we will cry out to you in our distress.”
“What’re these people doing in the crowd?” says the visitor.
“Well, they’re standing there.”
“Yes, but they seem to be saying something. What’re they saying?”
“Well, they’re just saying again and again, ‘O God, we’re entirely dependent upon you. O God, it looks as though we’re about to be driven out, but you have promised us an inheritance.’”
So the weakness that is admitted is a weakness that is addressed in the facts of God’s character and dealings.
And finally, it is a weakness that is answered when God brings his word to bear upon his people, who stand in expectation. You’ll notice that it is the word of God sent by the Spirit of God through the lips of the servant of God that finally gives to people the direction they require. And in verse 15 he says, “I want you to listen, king. I want all of the rest of you to listen. The battle is not yours, it’s God’s. So this is what you need to do: you need to get out there, and you need to march down and take your positions, stand firm and take your positions, and do nothing.” So hard for many of us, isn’t it? “Stand firm, take your positions, and you will see.” That ought to remind you of something. It should take you back to the story of the exodus. Isn’t that exactly what Moses said to the people? The armies of Egypt were coming against them—Pharaoh and his hordes, all the chariots—the wheels were churning, the people were coming, the sea was in front of them, their predicament was grave, and Moses says, “Stand still, stand firm, and you will see the salvation that God provides.”
I believe that’s a word from God for many of us today. I hope it is. That’s my sense as we begin this new time. All of us are seeking to make progress along the journey of our days. We’ve all got different responsibilities and different challenges. Some of us feel ourselves to be very unable and inept, and therefore we’re not involved, when in point of fact that very sense of ineptitude and inability may be the means of great usefulness.
Will you pray with me?
Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Paul said, “When [I’m] weak, then [I’m] strong.” And Jehoshaphat said, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.” Forgive us, Lord, our methodologies, our selfish preoccupations, the smugness with which we utter clichés that do not correspond with our experience. You’ve been good to us, Lord. There’s no doubt about that. The evidence is before us. But certainly, when we think about the challenges that we face, the odds are stacked heavily against your people. We pray that you will help us to learn what it means to bow before you and confess our need, to acknowledge our dependence, and to discover afresh your grace; to fulfill the roles that you’ve given us in life, and home, and in work, and in the framework of all that we might do or should do or can do in the realm of serving Christ.
Father, I pray that we might be a company of people who are daily, as it were, standing before you, falling before you, and are ready to discover the amazing intervention that you provide. We think of the way the story ends, with them carrying off all these provisions, the beneficiaries of a battle that they never fought, entering into the blessings that you provided for them.
Hear, then, our prayers to this end, and guide us, we ask you. And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be our portion, now and forevermore. Amen.