The Surprising Strength in Weakness (Ken Pennings)

We are never stronger than when we’re depending on God!


Early one morning, a mother went in to wake up her daughter. “Wake up, sweetheart. It’s time to go to school!”

“But why, Mom? I don’t want to go.”

“Give me two reasons why you don’t want to go.”

“Well, the kids hate me for one, and for two? They all make fun of me!”

“No reasons not to go to school. Come on now and get ready.”

“Give me two reasons why I should go to school.”

“Well, for one, you’re 52 years old. And for another, you’re the Principal!”


We’ve all been there, haven’t we? How often we’ve wanted to pull the covers over our head and go back to sleep rather than to face the challenges and responsibilities of the day!

I was definitely there this week. ‘I don’t want to preach on Sunday morning. Nothing’s coming to me! And I’ve read some of my back sermons, and they’re all terrible! I’m going to make a fool of myself on Sunday morning, and everyone will hate me and make fun of me!”

Why can’t I just stay in bed this morning?! Because you’re the pastor! Now, preach your sermon the best way you know how!

I’m exaggerating a bit, but it’s true that I was painfully aware of my weakness this week. Which is precisely why I knew I needed to stick with the one idea that DIDcome into my head – “The Surprising Strength in Weakness.”

In the book of Judges is the story of Gideon. He’s remembered as a hero, a deliverer of Israel. He’s held up as an example of “the power of one.” But the irony of the story is that he was a weakling! He said so himself! “How can I deliver Israel?  My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Judges 6:15).

Not only does Gideon feel weak, but he feels sullen, disillusioned and abandoned by God. He reasons with the angel, “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us? But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.”

I love Gideon. So weak, so ordinary, so pathetically human! And a bit of a whiner and complainer, just like me!

Yet, when Israel gets serious with God and calls out for help, how does God respond? By sending someone like Gideon!

In the history of Israel’s heroes, there is a long line of nobodys!

Nobodys who need tons of reassurance before picking up the trumpets, empty jars and torches of heroism.

Look how God reassures the unlikely hero!  1) meal (Is it really you? – Judges 6:17-24); 2) fleece (Will you really deliver Israel by my hand? – Judges 6:36-40).

Now that Gideon is convinced that he has truly heard from God, and that God will give the Midianites into his hand, he stages for battle with all 32,000 soldiers available to him. But God says to him, “The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, “My own hand has delivered me” (Judges 7:2). So God whittles his army down to 300, and through a brilliant military strategy, only 300 soldiers defeat the 135,000 Midianite soldiers.

If Gideon is remembered as an example of “the power of one,” his tiny army is held up as an example of “the power of a few.” What were the chances that 300 could defeat 135,000 unless God were with them?!!!

And now a little of my interpretation of the text:

It’s important that we look beyond the culturally bound perspectives and language of ancient times which would suggest that “God is on Israel’s side,” and pay attention to the hidden wisdom that human beings are always at their best when they humbly acknowledge their weakness, vulnerability and dependence on God and one another.

The story of Gideon and his band of 300 men conveys a powerful message to us when we are feeling weak, small, and vulnerable. Whenever individuals, groups, or nations find themselves in disadvantaged situations, they can nevertheless rise to redeem themselves and others through faith in a higher power.

The Bible is full of these surprises in which God’s strength is made manifest through weakness!  Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah all said, “I can’t speak Lord, find someone else to become your prophet.” Elijah couldn’t hear God in the whirlwind, fire or earthquake, but only in a small still voice (or in a gentle whisper). David, the lowly shepherd boy defeats the giant Goliath. Deborah, a woman, conquers the Canaanites. Joshua’s army destroys the impenetrable city of Jericho by simply circling the city in silence for six nights, then on the 7thnight shouting until the walls came tumbling down. John the Baptist says of Jesus, “I’m not worthy to untie his sandals.” Jesus encourages little children to come to him for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Jesus succumbs to the weakness of death on a cross rather than rise up legions of angels to save himself. Paul writes, “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness….When I am weak, then I am strong.”

According to the Bible, where do we find God, the One before whom we bow in awe and amazement?

Not only in the prominent and magnificent,

but in the hidden and unimpressive.

Not only in the flashy and showy,

but in the ugly and undesirable.

Not only in the high and mighty,

but in the lowly and weak.

Not only in the knowledge and wisdom of the elders, but in the innocence and inquiry of the children.

Not only in the wealthy, but in the poor.

Not only in those who are whole and well,

but in those who are sick and differently-abled.


Ill. Last summer, as I was sunning myself on a beach, I witnessed God’s strength manifest in the weakness of a young boy. This little lad looked all around him, and oblivious to anyone around who might be in ear-shot, exclaimed, “I love you, lake! I love you, tree! I love you, sky! I love you, ducks!” If that isn’t strength in weakness, I don’t know what is!


Discovering God’s strength in weakness is not only surprising, it’s counterintuitive.


In his book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God,” Rob Bell explains, “To talk about what God is like, let’s talk about waterskiing. If you’ve water-skied before, I assume you remember your first time, floating in the water, teeth chattering, life jacket strangling you up to your jawbone, being told to keep the rope between your skis. And the advice from the people in the boat ‘Let the boat pull you up!’ …which can sound like complete nonsense.

Lean back—to go forward?

Stay down—to get up?

As a result of this confusion, many people, on their first attempt, get pulled forward out over the front of their skis; they ignore the advice from the boat and follow their natural inclination, which is to try to get themselves up onto the surface of the water.

Learning to water-ski requires a person to make the counterintuitive leap from trying to do what seems natural, which is to get yourself up onto the surface of the water, to trusting that the boat will do that work for you.

Most of us have been conditioned or trained to trust in our own power, ingenuity and initiative, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but might we make a counterintuitive leap to trust God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves?

Rob Bell sees this same wisdom at work in the recovery movement. Those who are working the twelve steps of recovery begin by admitting that they are powerless over their addiction and that their lives have become unmanageable.

Some might invest lots of time, energy and effort making sure everybody knew how strong, smart,  competent, or capable they are. But in AA, no one has energy for that sort of thing.

In AA, by admitting powerlessness, by coming to the end of oneself, a person may begin to fully experience God, as he/she understands God to be.

Whether in recovery or not, we are never more powerful than when we are depending on God.

For most of us, the idea of trusting God, depending on God, “letting go and letting God” is problematic. Because we’re asking, “What do we mean when we use the word God?” “How can we trust in a God who must be greater than the god of any institutional religion, including the religion of ancient Israel?”

God, as I use the term, is in all things, not only the good, loving, peaceable, and just things, but the bad, painful, and chaotic things. God simply IS, including all that is good and all that is bad.

God is the Wisdom of the Universe, manifest in the stars and in Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, died and gave themselves back to the universe. God is Ultimate Gift!

God is Being itself, the field of all possibilities, pure consciousness. God is Wholeness, Oneness, Connectedness.

It is in THAT God I trust. What do you mean when you use the term God? In what ways have you come to trust THAT God?

Musing about God is both exciting and frustrating. But one thing I know, just when I think I have very little, if anything, to offer, Divine Mystery turns me into a hero! I’ve experienced it innumerable times! And I’ve observed this in you. Just when you think you have very little, if anything to offer, Divine Mystery turn you into a hero!

In the life of our congregation, this is indeed a time for heroes. We’re having to say goodbye to our senior pastor who is dearly loved and deeply appreciated. We’re wondering how we will manage without his extraordinary presence, giftedness and leadership. At the same time, we’re engaged in an intensive process to hire a new senior pastor, a task not for the faint of heart! Reflecting on all this, Susan Watson, our Moderator, reminded our Leadership Team, “We’re not doing this on our own! This is God’s doing!”

We shall all be surprised by God’s strength in our weakness!   AMEN

Text: Judges 6:11-16, 7:16-18




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