And he could do no deed of power there

And he could do no deed of power there.

May I speak in the name ….

Power and success, weakness and failure, these are the themes for this morning.   Ezekiel is sent to speak the word whether he succeeds or not. Paul writes that it is when he is weak that he is strong. And even Jesus is powerless in Nazareth. He could do no deed of power there.

And so, what a strange religion it is that we believe – where success is not measured by results, where weakness is seen as a great strength, and where Jesus, the one whom we follow, could do no deed of power in his own home town. A religion where Jesus became so weak, and such a failure in the eyes of others, that he was crucified as a common criminal.

he could do no deed of power there.

And yet – even with these familiar words of Scripture ringing around my ears – I – perhaps like may people – pray for the very opposite. I pray for success – I have never yet prayed for weakness or vulnerability or for failure.

I pray that I might do well. I pray that healing might happen, or that people may be happy. I pray that this cathedral church may grow in faith and in numbers and in mission. Sometimes I even pray the very opposite of what St Paul tells me to do: I pray that people might think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me : I desire success, not failure. I want strength, not weakness – and when failure comes I feel let down, despondent, and to some extent I feel guilty because I have failed – that I have failed you, that I have failed myself, that I have failed God.

And yet :   even he could do no deed of power there.

And somehow, I don’t think Jesus felt guilty because he had failed in Nazareth. I think we have probably got it wrong.

I am not alone in my desire to be successful, or to be thought well of, or to be powerful.

So be it Lord, thy throne shall never,
as earth’s proud empires pass away;
Thy kingdom stands and grows for ever,
Till all thy creatures own thy sway…..

The church, over the centuries, has shared my desire. And before we condemn the Jesuits and the great Anglican missionary societies of the 19th century, we see the same thing in the tele-evangelists successfully preaching to tens of thousands in conference centres and to millions on the television – and – yes – it is still the song in my heart, when I pray that we might have more people in church, that we might be a successful, vibrant and prosperous cathedral: when I pray to be a successful dean.

And yet: it is when I am weak that I am strong : writes St Paul – as if to remind me, as if to remind all of us when we pray that we might do well, that it’s not like that – that we’ve been seduced by the world and that we’ve got it wrong – that happiness, grace, and life are not to be found in success – material, physical, personal – as the world sees it.

And I know that whenever I pray for growth in faith and in numbers and in mission, – for success, for results – and, yes, I do pray for it – then God always speaks to me, but does not tell me what I want to hear. God unfailingly sends me the image of the crucified Christ on the cross – the ultimate weakness and failure and powerlessness at the hands of others. I hear the voice of God reminding me – against my wishes – that Oscar Romero was closer to the kingdom when he was shot dead at the altar than he was when he was a powerful bishop wielding episcopal power, that Mother Theresa was closer to the kingdom when she was weak and tending to the smelly and leprous poor, than when she met those who had money and power and authority in their gilded living rooms, and that the martyred Syrian and Egyptian Christians of our own day are closer to Christ than most of us who live in safe houses here in the West.

And yet : at the same time I know even more certainly that I do not want to be shot, nor do I want to live the rest of my live in a third world hospice with the dying poor, nor do I want to be martyred for my faith. Personally, I would rather be successful, comfortable, and I would rather see results which make me feel good, and you know, in spite of what St Paul writes: I do want people to think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me. The Scriptures are a challenge I do not want to hear !

St Paul had much to be proud of. He writes of a person who has an extraordinary spiritual experience, being caught up in a prayerful ecstasy – and most commentators think that this is Paul writing about himself and of his own experience – and then there is Jesus, who had so much more even that St Paul to be proud of. …. and yet both teach us without compromise that it is weakness, giving in, loving our enemies, giving to those who ask and inviting those who do not invite us back in return, it is – in fact – in losing our lives that we find the heart of our faith, the way to genuine living, to abundant life, to the wholeness and healing we crave.

Jesus could do no deed of power there. Perhaps he was glad, as he walked away.

And so I wonder how we, as individual Christians, and as a community, can meaningfully boast of our weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in us.   I wonder what that phrase means to each one of us wherever we are on our journey as followers of Christ, whether we are able to recognise the thorns which pierce our own flesh – our addictions and our repeated human temptations, our repeated behaviour patterns and our sadnesses as we fail to bring about the changes in our own lives and in the lives of the people we love, the very changes that we hope for and dream of, and somehow can’t make happen. I wonder if we can see them as a place for God’s grace to grow, a place where the power of Christ may come to dwell in us – the chinks in our tightly knit armour where God is able to get in and touch the real us, and be with us, and love us, and heal us.   I wonder if our weaknesses and our failures – if we open them to God – can become the very place, the fertile ground, where we will discover the real meaning of our lives – I think perhaps it is so.

Jesus could do no deed of power in his own town of Nazareth, because his own people were closed against him and they took offence at what he said and did – except of course, for a few sick people – those who knew where they were hurting and knew that they needed his touch. For he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.   And they were the ones who found life.

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