(I preached the following sermon at the annual Lifewatch Service [lifewatch.org] yesterday in Simpson Chapel in the United Methodist Building in Washington, DC. It is based on the scripture text, Hebrews 11:32-28.)
The Apostle Paul, in the fourth chapter of Second Corinthians, summarizes the experience he and his traveling companions had as witnesses and ministers to Christ: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” In spite of the qualifiers in this statement, most us would likely look at it and conclude, “I’m not up to that kind of witness.” But Paul went a step further, even boasting in his weakness.
Paul’s witness challenges us to stiffen our spines and renew our resolve. In the West, the church looks weak, weary, worn out, broken down, seemingly on the verge of defeat. We struggle to persist in living fully as Christ’s followers in what seems like an increasingly hostile culture. Some of us (many?) feel like the proverbial ninety eight-pound weakling. While we seek to do good, sooner or later someone comes along and kicks sand in our faces and makes us feel like, whatever it is we’re trying to do, we’re not very effective. The recent women’s march on Washington, which scorned the participation of pro-life women, is only one such example. If one were to pay attention to the dominant news stories about the church, it looks like bad news all the time.
But then, a Washington Post article indicates that the number of abortions performed in this country has fallen to its lowest level since the institution of Roe v. Wade. I’ll leave it to brighter minds to decipher the reliability of the statistics, but any reduction of this tragic practice surely is good news and we rejoice and give thanks to God for his great mercy.
Always Struggling, Always Advancing
It seems that the Christian faith is always struggling against apparently much stronger forces, always losing ground to the much better resourced powers. And then we look up and find that, in fact, the Body of Christ, filled with and led by the Spirit, constantly advances.
From the beginning, followers of our crucified and resurrected Lord faced opposition. In the early phases of the spread of that strange and, to many, loathsome faith, these fledgling congregations did things that neighbors found strange. They would take as their own the newborn babies, exposed and left to die, that others had discarded. When people fled Rome in the 160s because of an outbreak of plague, Christians stayed behind and nursed the sick, risking their own lives for the sake of sometimes total strangers. They provided loving care for the dying, but their simple ministrations also helped a significant number survive. The steadfastness of their faith under great pressures and the winsomeness of their witness bore fruit in every place such that by the middle of the fourth century, so many people had joined the faith that Christians made up more than half of the entire population of the Roman Empire. For the vast majority of those centuries, however, it would have looked as if the church were failing.
During another crucial time in the early 700s, St. Boniface, the apostle to the Germans, led his team deep into areas yet to be evangelized. Sometimes the locals were none too happy with Boniface proclaiming a rival god who came to displace their local deities. He stayed with it. He and his co-workers faced the risk and danger of the mission, until hundreds of new congregations had begun and many thousands of people were baptized into the faith. In 754, bandits murdered the aged Boniface and his fellow servants. Expecting to find gold or silver and other valuables, the thieves opened the trunks that and found nothing but books – the scriptures that announce Jesus as Lord and other writings to help catechize new believers.
Our Wesleyan tradition is replete with examples of faithful witnesses, who, though they were weak, were made strong. John Nelson, a bricklayer and early convert of John Wesley, became a bold and effective preacher. Though he refused on principle to fight in war, he was press-ganged (basically kidnapped) into military service. Since he refused to fight, he was held in camp as a prisoner. He continued to share the love of Christ with anyone who would listen, so much so that the commanding officer finally let him go just to get rid of him!
And in our generation, Dr. Fenggang Yang, director of the Center for Religion and Society in China at Purdue University has projected that, in view of current growth trends, the number of Christians in China could reach a quarter of a billion people by 2030. At the ascent of the Maoist revolution, the church in that great nation appeared to be all but obliterated. Now look at things!
The church has always struggled and it has always advanced. Around the world, at this very moment, faithful Christians are winsomely sharing the powerful love of Christ, many of them at great cost to life and limb. Out of weakness they share, but Christ’s power is made perfect in their weakness.
Strength Through Weakness
The Christians to whom the writer of Hebrews addresses his book were struggling to remain faithful. Some were flagging in their faith. They had begun to worry about whether Jesus was really the Christ, whether their faithfulness was worth the hassle, whether the pressures they were feeling from a hostile culture made their faith worth maintaining. The writer reminds them of all those who, by God’s grace persevered in the work, and won strength through their very weakness.
Some years ago the Christian artist Michael Card beautifully captured this mysterious outcome of strength won through weakness portrayed in Hebrews 11:
By faith one was commended for the sacrifice he made
Another out of holy fear built an ark the world to save
Another left his homeland and as a stranger he’d reside
But none received the promise then and so, in faith, they died.
Others conquered kingdoms, quenched the fury of the flames.
Some made strong in battle, some were raised to life again.
Many more were martyred midst the crowd’s loud clamoring.
By faith they would not bow the knee or kiss the emperor’s ring
They would not bow the knee to idols. They would not stop living for Christ and talking about Christ. They wandered in deserts and lived in caves, people of whom the world was not worthy. They suffered and won strength out of weakness.
Why? How? Because God is 100% faithful to his promises. This they knew. This we know. Let us never forget.
For Us, It is the Same
The witness that knows the strength won through weakness is as pressing as ever. This is a particular kind of knowing. We don’t expect service to be easy. In a sense, opposition to the Gospel and interference from many quarters is regarded as par for the course. No matter the resistance or the feeling of weakness that creeps upon us, we will not stop. At stake are the lives of many precious people.
To illustrate this point let me turn, if I may, to the context for my own ministry: college students. For a couple of years at least, we have been hearing about the “nones,” those persons who no longer claim a religious identity. Not just a religious preference, but literally no religious identity at all. Among those in the age range of eighteen to thirty five, that percentage of “nones” may rise as high as three in ten or more. Lay this statistic alongside those who claim the Christian faith, but who do almost nothing to foster and grow that faith, the picture looks pretty daunting.
But, as the research also indicates, marking “none” for religious identity does not mean that one is an atheist or an agnostic. Many “nones” believe in God, pray sometimes, read their Bibles and even on occasion, attend worship. We have in front of us, then, a generation desperately hungry for God. Let’s not let them down.
And there are many of them. More than 20 million students attend college in this country. Counting those in the same age range, but not going to college, the number swells to close to forty million people. They are, as one book title puts it, a generation on a tightrope.
If you spend significant time with young people, you will find some of the attitudes and behaviors that are the stuff of caricature. And caricatures work because they are partly true. Many emerging adults, as they are now known, drink too much and party too hard. There is such a thing as “hookup culture,” with young people engaging in risky activity even though they have had the “safe sex” training. Too many of them are anxious to the point of distraction. They seem to lack grit. They don’t know how to persevere through disappointments. They desperately fear “looking stupid.”
At the same time, a full twenty percent of college students do not drink alcohol at all. They know how to avoid the risks associated with party culture. The ones who get involved with campus ministries, who attend worship regularly and read their Bibles and pray and have fellowship with other believers, do much better than their cohort who do not. The young people who know Christ, who have adult mentors in their lives, who walk in integrity, you will not be surprised to know, are happier than their peers. They handle stress and disappointment more effectively. And they want to live lives of purpose.
These generalizations point to the need for us who are older to invest in our young. The faith that has been committed to us, we must pass on to them, just as our forbears in the faith handed on their faith to us. Those faithful witnesses on whose broad shoulders we now stand have shown us time and again that our strength will be won through weakness. If we risk letting our hearts to be broken by the brokenness around us, inevitably we will feel desperately inadequate. At times we will feel our energy flag and our vision go out of focus. Nevertheless, let us not grow weary. Let us not grow faint in the struggle. Let us continue to fight the good fight.
And let us always remember that in our weakness, Christ’s strength is made perfect. We are never alone and never left to our own resources. Ever. Thanks be to God.
 Michael Card, “Soul Anchor” (2000).
 Arthur Levine and Diane Dean, Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, (2012).