What do you boast about?
If this seems to be a bit of an odd question – we are so used to the idea that boasting of any kind is not quite the thing to do. But this was not the case in Roman times, when Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, which we have just heard. Indeed not only were the Romans great boasters about their strengths and successes, but they employed people to wax lyrical on how marvellous they were to everyone. It was a patron/client relationship. In exchange for boasting about their patron in the public square, the patron would look after the client, protect them and make sure they got on well in the world.
But even if the boasting in the public square was a bit exaggerated, it had one common feature, it always concentrated upon the patron’s strengths and tended to bury the patron’s weaknesses. But Paul in this passage from Corinthians turns this on its head and boasts of his weaknesses. Where the Roman orator would boast of his patron’s respectability, Paul boasts of his trials and arrests; where the Roman orator would boast of his patron’s wealth and power, Paul boasts of his weakness and vulnerability.
What do you boast about? Come on think about it – we all do it from time to time. Maybe achievements of the past – when you were at the height of your powers? What you used to do when you were working, maybe? Or perhaps now what your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren are doing and achieving, perhaps?
But perhaps we don’t boast about much that we are doing now. Now that we are older. Now that we are crippled with arthritis or losing our hearing or sight. Perhaps we have plenty to complain about – but to boast? Maybe we are now wondering what it has all been for – all these years; as we may feel that we have been left on the scrap heap of life – disregarded and impotent – consumed by our weaknesses and suffering.
Paul had a lot of experience of suffering. Not only did he have to put up with shipwrecks, stonings and floggings, but also the indignity of being bundled into a basket from a city. But worse of all he describes a unique personal suffering that he calls the ‘thorn in the flesh’. Paul says in chapter 12: ‘Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me’.
I would be very surprised if there are any guests here today who have not pleaded with God to take away their particular pain or suffering. But the Lord is saying to you as he said to Paul ‘my power is made perfect in weakness’. It is only when we recognise that we no longer have control; when we are at the end of our own strength; when we are no longer able to cope, that the Lord can act to change the situation. Sometimes for us but certainly for others. And we, despite our infirmities can be part of something amazing – God’s work in the world.
Peggy and Christine Smith were eighty four and eighty two years old respectively. They lived on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides at the end of the 1940s. Peggy was blind and her sister bent double with arthritis. They were unable to attend church. But they did what they could. And what they could do, was pray. And I don’t mean ‘saying their prayers’ before they went to bed, like a child. What I mean is pleading volubly with God to change the situation in their parish – pleading with God to send revival to the island. Often praying for several hours into the night.
Then God sent Peggy a vision. She saw their church crowded with young people. The parish minister had tried so many things to get the youth of the parish interested, but not one single teenager attended the church. Peggy told the minister what she had seen and she suggested that he told the elders of the church to pray two nights a week for revival. The minister and the PCC started praying regularly for several months.
Then extraordinary things started to happen. All sorts of people found themselves convicted by their own sinfulness, repenting and feeling totally released and forgiven. The minister who felt called to Lewis at the beginning of these events, Duncan Campbell, described it as ‘a power which was let loose’, which literally shook Lewis. He said that ‘God stepped down and the Holy Spirit began to move amongst the people….God seemed to be everywhere….a consciousness of God had gripped the community’ Services which began in the evening carried on into the early hours of the morning…..people came from all outlying villages, so convicted were they by their own sin, that they felt that the only thing they could do was to rush to the church to get relief from from the overpowering feeling of guilt. Duncan Campbell’s recorded account of the revival is on You Tube.
It is fascinating, even though he does sound a bit like Corporal Fraser, in Dads’ Army.
One of the stories he tells is about a dance which was happening one evening with about 100 young people. A profound sense of the Holy Spirit suddenly swept through the dance hall. The young people fled and rushed to the church. Peggy’s vision had been fulfilled – a church full of young people. Even at the police station, next to Peggy’s cottage, a huge crowd gathered. Young men kneeling by the roadside asking for forgiveness….nine of whom Duncan Campbell describes as subsequently having become ministers. Many of those who were converted had not been near a church in years.
Now we could really do with some help. And we need the help from the praying people of CAMEO. We could really do with is an Itchen Valley revival. As our church community ages, we are faced with young people (and I include in that the young married with children) who do not have time for the things of God or the inclination to worship him.
If two old ladies in Lewis one blind and one with arthritis can be the catalyst for the divine process by which so many people came to faith – then what might God be expecting of you – despite your age and infirmities? Help us. Pray for revival. Pray for the people of the parish to have a conviction of sin. Call on God to change the situation.
And when he does – that will be really something to boast about!