Like and Unlike

We are weak, but he is strong; and yes, Jesus loves us! -- a sermon for Epiphany 5b

SJF • Epiphany 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?... Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.

Today’s Scripture readings begin with a passage from Isaiah that portrays God at his very most indignant. The passage is rather like the section of the book of Job, when God finally says, basically, “Just who do you think you are talking to?” Not Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith at her most indignant could raise her eyebrows high enough or purse her frown so low as to capture the indignation that God reveals in this passage. The short message in all of this, as someone once said, is: God is God and you aren’t.

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But what of God’s ministers — those chosen servants, like Isaiah himself, or like Saint Paul, or like any of us here today called to serve God to the best of our ability, with the strength that God provides? Of course we are not like God in his ultimate creativity and power. And yet he has called us and challenged us to be like him in reaching out to others to help them where they are. And in doing this we are called to be as much like our brothers and sisters who are in need of help, as we are to be like God who is the source of the power that allows us to help at all.

Saint Paul understood the importance of meeting people where they are if he was to reach them — you can’t stand aside in judgment against people if you really want to rescue them; and it is no good standing safely on the shore and shouting advice on how to swim to someone who is foundering and drowning out at sea. What you need to do is become like them by jumping into the water and swimming out to save them; but unlike them in knowing how to swim. And so Paul to the Jewish people reasserted his own Jewish heritage in order to win them over. To those under the law he became as one under the law in order to win those under the law. To those outside the law he became an outlaw in order to win those other outlaws back. Even to the weak he became weak; knowing that it was God’s strength and not his own that would help him in his mission of mercy and salvation.

For ultimately all of the strength must come from God — God who, as Isaiah assures us, does not faint or grow weary. God provides the swimmer with his skill, and provides those who are weak with amazing and reviving strength if they will wait for him, renewing them so that they rise up as with the wings of eagles, and run without weariness and walk without becoming faint.

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In the long run — especially when we remember our weakness or our need of help — it is great good news that God is not like us — for as the old children’s song so rightly says, “We are weak but he is strong.” And it is his strength that supports us in our weakness. As with rescuers trying to pull someone from a marsh or quicksand, if we were not able to stand upon the firm ground of his strength we could not lift ourselves or anyone else to safety. If God did not give strength and skill to the lifeguard, he couldn’t guard any lives.

This morning’s gospel shows us Jesus doing exactly this, from the moment he takes the hand of Simon’s fever-stricken mother-in-law, on through his healing of the crowds that gather around the doorway to the house. He comes to those who suffer where they are, and heals them with a word or with the touch of his hand. He is full of the power of God as no other human being ever was or could be — and yet he is also completely like us, completely one of us, completely with us where we are. In Jesus, like and unlike come together and coexist in the perfect unity of God in Man “made manifest in making whole palsied limbs and fainting soul.”

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And, as that children’s hymn reminds us, “Yes, Jesus loves me...” and you, and you, and all of us. It is for love and through love, the love of God who created the universe and made all that is. That passage from Isaiah shows God standing there, like an artist, and gently gesturing towards this earth that he is made, that makes its inhabitants look as small as grasshoppers; he waves a hand gently in the direction of monarchs, who rise and fall, and rise and fall; he then, as an artist in an exhibit showing those wonderful photographs from the Hubble Telescope showing the depths and powers and infinite riches of the starry universe, and then, without a need to make much of a show of it, basically says, “This is my work. Consider it; consider it, and then consider the power that rests in God — and which God has so graciously deigned to share with those who wait for him, reviving them even in their weakest moments and giving them the strength to fly like eagles. God loves us, and it is for that same love and through that same love that Christ who is strong comes to us to strengthen us in our weakness, out of his own strength poured into our weakness, clothing our weakness, that we too may run and not grow weary, may walk and not grow faint. For he has given us work to do, and wants us able and ready to do it.

Brothers and sisters, let us rely not on our own strength, but on his strength, which is boundless, and strive to be like him in devotion and service even if we cannot be like him in power and majesty. Let us thank God that God is not like us in our weakness, but is with us in his strength, and will strengthen our hands to serve and to minister in his Name. This service and this ministry have been committed to our hands, yet the power and the majesty is his and his alone, God the everlasting Father, Christ the co-eternal Son, and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.