English Service on May 17, 2020 Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
II Corinthians 12:7b-10
“When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong”
Welcome again, everyone, to Open Door Chapel’s third-Sunday-of-the-month English worship. We are glad you are with us, wherever you happen to be.
As our journey through the COVID-19 crisis stretches on and on, one thing we are experiencing is a confrontation with our own weakness. Perhaps especially for those of us who have always had stable family backgrounds, been able to go to good schools, and had jobs, a steady income, and reliable health care systems to depend on, there is a strong tendency for us to expect things to go along, not perfectly, but pretty smoothly most of the time. We have enjoyed a certain amount of control over our lives, with at least enough freedom to go out of our homes daily and meet friends, go shopping, and do our work without fear.
Actually, that has not been true for many people in minority cultures, with health trouble, or in nations without political and religious freedom. But for many of us, our present life with the coronavirus is new. Now we are living daily with the knowledge that we could lose our health, safety, job security—anything we have. It comes as a shock. We aren’t used to it, and we are forced to find the ability to face it constantly.
A key part of our lives moving forward will be how well we learn to live with the reality of our weaknesses. Paul, who learned from the master teacher, Jesus, says that through his experiences with weaknesses, he has learned something very valuable. That is, God can actually use them to do something good, beautiful, and important. Paul’s weaknesses taught him to look for God’s help. And when he did, he found that he could receive it more and more. Weaknesses are real—we can’t escape them—but we are not alone in confronting them. God is with us, He loves us as His children, and He wants to help us in our weakness.
That’s the good news I am here to give you. Today I would like to do that in a little different way than I usually do. I am going to tell you my story, with the hopes that you can see an example of the way God works in the lives of ordinary people, even today. Some of you at Open Door have heard parts or all of my story at different times. But I am going to risk boring you with it again so that you may be able to get more hints about the ways God may be working in your life or the lives of people you know. That’s because parts of my story overlap with them. Together, let’s look at the way God can use the various weaknesses we have in order to show His power and put it to work in us.
First, God has saved me. When I was a boy, I wanted to be loved by my family and friends, and I wanted to be a good person. My parents took my brothers and me to church often, and I heard there and at home about God’s plan of salvation. I learned from Romans 10:9, “Say with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ Believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead. Then you will be saved.”
“OK, I will.” That’s what I decided when I was six years old. I joined my whole family in becoming a believer in Christ and was baptized on February 6, 1966. I still remember the thrill of knowing that I was loved by God, forgiven of sin, and on my way to heaven someday. I am still glad I made that choice, even at that age.
But as I grew older, questions about my faith began to form. I was immature personally and spiritually in many ways. When I was in high school, I looked back on that decision I had made at age six to follow Christ. Had I really understood well enough what I was doing? What if I had done it just to please my family members? How could I even know for sure if I was saved? Those questions came to bother me.
For a few years at the end of high school and beginning of university, I struggled with my faith. It was weak in many ways. I felt I had to be 100%, always sure, sure, sure that I was saved. But as I prayed, read the Bible more and more, and talked with people I respected in my church, I slowly began to see something. I wanted black-and-white, mathematics-like certainty that my faith was correct. But what I heard God saying to me was things like Romans 8:16, “The Spirit himself joins with our spirits. Together they give witness that we are God's children.” That’s not the kind of “proof” or formula I was looking for, but when I began listening to God more than my own questions and doubts, I step by step came to have a firmer sense of assurance of salvation. Doubting my salvation has not been a part of my journey of faith, really, since that time.
Second, God has called me. As I finished my schooling and began to decide what to do with the rest of my life, I wanted to serve Christ and follow wherever He led me. I knew that He had told us as His disciples, “. . . You must go and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a).
“Wow! That’s a great teaching. I want that to happen. But could I really do something like that? Maybe others would be better suited for that kind of work. I don’t have any confidence that I could.” My thoughts were like that. Not what I would call bold faith, exactly.
But God continued to work with me. He gave me a chance to come to Japan and study for one year at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka. I got to know some Japanese people. I gained some experience in learning the Japanese language, traveling around the country, and so on. As I did, I found that there were some pretty natural chances for me to share my faith, for example in conversations with friends and in groups of people who wanted to learn the Bible together. That seemed to fit for me, somehow. I felt it was right for me to spend my time and energy spreading the message of Christ. I think I was being called to the ministry of the gospel.
I still didn’t know if I could be a good missionary or not, but I came to feel that that was really the wrong question to ask. Of course I couldn’t do mission work well enough—not by myself. I certainly couldn’t save anyone—only God could do something like that. As long as I was worried about my abilities, I was mainly thinking about myself. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 4:5, “We do not preach about ourselves. We preach about Jesus Christ. We say that he is Lord. And we serve you because of him.” The whole point of mission work, I came to realize, is not to become skillful in some special way or to achieve particular goals. It is at its heart simply to be faithful in doing what God tells us to do. When we do what He calls and enables us to do, we are then free to leave the results in His hands. We have the great promise of Isaiah 55:10-11.
The rain and the snow come down from the sky. They do not return to it without watering the earth. They make plants come up and grow. The plants produce seeds for farmers. They also produce food for people to eat. The words I speak are like that. They will not return to me without producing results. They will accomplish what I want them to. They will do exactly what I sent them to do.
That promise of God gave me hope as I began telling the message of Christ outside my home culture.
Third, God has equipped me. To do this work I felt called to do, I wanted to have plenty of knowledge and the skills needed to face every situation and perform every task. The problem was that I had little understanding of the Bible, what working as missionary required, Japanese culture, or the Japanese language. Together, these weaknesses were like “a thorn in my flesh” (v. 7).
But God was not unaware of my need for support, and He did not leave me to do His work by myself. He gave me the opportunity to study for three years at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in San Francisco, California, USA. While there, I also gained a little experience serving in the Japanese congregation at 19th Avenue Baptist Church. Part of what I studied at school and experienced at church was the teaching and spirit in the words of II Corinthians 3:5-6.
In ourselves we are not able to claim anything for ourselves. The power to do what we do comes from God. He has given us the power to serve under a new covenant. The covenant is not based on the written Law of Moses. It comes from the Holy Spirit. The written Law kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Believing that God is able to do through me far more than I could do by myself gave me hope as I continued preparing to serve Christ in Japan.
Fourth, God has sent me. When I had finished seminary and was looking for the best way to do cross-cultural communication of the message of Christ, I wanted to be sent by a group of people that would support me in that work. I did not want to do it alone. I believed that the New Testament model for mission work was for the whole church to send people that it believed God had chosen and prepared.
My problem was that in my denomination (like many others), it was becoming more and more difficult to be sent to Japan, where I felt called to serve. The Japanese church was more independent than before and needed less support from abroad than in the past. The cost of supporting one family with the offerings of church members was very high. The number of new believers resulting from work like this had generally been low in the past. Mission organizations could send a typical mission family to another country and expect multiple times the number of new Christians for the “investment.” And (maybe the biggest obstacle) I was single. It was rare for single men in my denomination to be sent as missionaries to Japan.
So I was not in a strong position, in many ways. But I still somehow felt that God was leading me to actively look for opportunities. I also knew from Bible stories that God sometimes does outrageous things and makes a way where there seems to be no way. For example, He told Abram, the father of the Judeo-Christian faith (Genesis 12:1), “Leave your country and your people. Leave your father's family. Go to the land I will show you.”
I can imagine Abram answering, “God, I didn’t catch the name of the place I’m supposed to go. It sounded like you said, ‘the land I will show you.’ Could you be a little more specific, please? And who’s going to pay for this adventure? I don’t know how long my savings are going to last. Who’s going to be there to back me up if things get difficult?”
But if God answered at all, it seems like it was with words more like Jesus’ to His disciples: “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9). And that is really the whole point of God’s leading, isn’t it? He wants us to learn to “walk by faith, not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:7, New King James Version). So I bought a Japan Rail Pass, flew to Japan, and went all over the country looking for chances to work, live, and serve. What I found here in Sapporo was that there were opportunities for me not as a missionary of a sending and support agency but with direct links to a Christian school and church in Japan. So I began teaching English and the Bible at Hokusei Gakuen Women’s Junior College and working at Nishino Baptist Church. The times and my situation have changed a lot, but I’m still here doing basically the same thing, 34 years later. I have not been able to give these organizations the financial or organizational strength that traditional missionaries often have brought schools and churches. But what I think I’ve been taught is the truth of God’s promise in today’s Bible reading, “My grace is all you need. My power is strongest when you are weak.” Now I am glad things didn’t work out the way I was hoping they would.
Another day, when there is more time, I would like to tell you how God has supported and used and blessed me. But I think you already see the pattern of His work in my life. He has not always given me what I wanted, and I have had to live with weaknesses of many types. Yet He has found ways to use these very weaknesses to show His own power. He has used them to lead, teach, bless, and make me part of His kingdom’s work in more ways than I can count or even notice. For that, He deserves my praise, both in words here and even more through a life of grateful service.
Many of you have heard the following words here at Open Door. But let’s listen to them again at the end of today’s message and think of how they are a testimony we can give of God’s work in our lives.
Most Richly Blessed
by an Unknown Civil War Veteran
Displayed in the Lobby of the Shreveport, Louisiana, USA, Veterans Hospital
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might become wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need for God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given Life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers and true needs were fulfilled.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.
Father in heaven, thank you for your great love for us and wanting to live in us and make our hearts your home. We have many weak points, but help them to lead us to you. Help us to find you there in our weak areas, suffering together with us and working to raise us up, to give us your power for living each day. Help us to find, as Paul did, that your power is made perfect in our weakness. Make us able to accept and even welcome our weaknesses “so that Christ’s power may rest on (us)” (II Corinthians 12:9b). God, through your help, make us able to say from our hearts, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10b). This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Anonymous. (n.d.). “Most Richly Blessed.” Mother Bird Three. Retrieved May 23, 2019 from http://www.suddenlink.net/pages/jimhug/Most_Richly_ Blessed.html Watanabe, K. (渡辺和子). (July 15, 2018). 「苦しみを超えて」(“Overcoming Suffering”) in「神様に負かされて」(“Entrusted by God”). Katsutadai Church. Retrieved May 23, 2019 from http://katutadai-c.sakura.ne.jp/m27.html