The Power of Weakness
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The Power of Weakness

2 Chronicles 20:1–37  (ID: 2386)

If asked to list the qualities of an effective leader, most people wouldn’t include “weakness.” When confronted by enemies, however, King Jehoshaphat stood before his people and admitted his helplessness and absolute dependence upon God for victory. Alistair Begg reminds us that if we confess our own weakness, God will address our need and answer it with His saving love. When dependence is the objective, weakness is an advantage, enabling us to lead from our adequacy in Christ.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 4

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23004

Basics 2004

A Conference for Pastors Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23504

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, good morning. Let’s turn to 2 Chronicles and chapter 20. Second Chronicles chapter 20. I usually give out the page numbers, but I’m going to assume that that’s not necessary this morning. And for those of you who are currently looking up the index…

Chapter 20 begins “After this,” which in some ways is quite unfortunate if we haven’t been reading it, because it immediately demands that we know what it’s after. And I’m going to leave that to you, largely, for your homework. I’ll say something of it. But you would really need to begin at chapter 17, and, in point of fact, we would end up beginning in Genesis to get the whole flow of things, so… That would use up a considerable amount of time, and so let me read from 2 Chronicles 20:1:

“After this, the Moabites and Ammonites with some of the Meunites came to make war on Jehoshaphat.

“Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, ‘A vast army is coming against you from Edom, from the other side of the Sea. It is already in Hazazon Tamar’ (that is, En Gedi). Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. The people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him.

“Then Jehoshaphat stood up in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem at the temple of the Lord in the front of the new courtyard and said:

“‘O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you. O our God, did you not drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? They have lived in it and have built in it a sanctuary for your Name, saying, “If calamity comes upon us, whether the sword of judgment, or plague or famine, we will stand in your presence before this temple that bears your Name and will cry out to you in our distress, and you will hear us and save us.”

“‘But now here are men from Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir, whose territory you would not allow Israel to invade when they came from Egypt; so they turned away from them and did not destroy them. See how [they’re] repaying us by coming to drive us out of the possession you gave us as an inheritance. O our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army [that’s] attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.’

“All the men of Judah, with their wives and children and little ones, stood there before the Lord.

“Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite and descendant of Asaph, as he stood in the assembly.

“He said: ‘Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the Lord says to you: “Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. Tomorrow march down against them. They will be climbing up by the Pass of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the gorge in the Desert of Jeruel. You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you.”’

“Jehoshaphat bowed with his face to the ground, and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the Lord. Then some Levites from the Kohathites and Korahites stood up and praised the Lord, the God of Israel, with [a] very loud voice.

“Early in the morning they left for the Desert of Tekoa. As they set out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, ‘Listen to me, Judah and people of Jerusalem! Have faith in the Lord your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful.’ After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying:

‘Give thanks to the Lord,
   for his love endures forever.’

“As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated. The men of Ammon and Moab rose up against the men from Mount Seir to destroy and annihilate them. After they finished slaughtering the men from Seir, they helped to destroy one another.”

It’s really a quite incredible story, isn’t it? And, anyway… and verse 24:

“When the men of Judah came to the place that overlooks the desert”—these are the ones who were really upset and concerned about what was going to happen—“[when they came to the place] and looked toward[s] the vast army, they saw only dead bodies lying on the ground; no one had escaped. So Jehoshaphat and his men went to carry off their plunder, and they found among them a great amount of equipment and clothing and also articles of value—more than they could take away. There was so much plunder that it took three days to collect it. On the fourth day they assembled in the Valley of Beracah, where they praised the Lord. This is why it is called the Valley of Beracah to this day.

“Then, led by Jehoshaphat, all the men of Judah and Jerusalem returned joyfully to Jerusalem, for the Lord had given them cause to rejoice over their enemies. They entered Jerusalem and went to the temple of the Lord with harps and lutes and trumpets.

“The fear of God came upon all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard how the Lord had fought against the enemies of Israel. And the kingdom of Jehoshaphat was at peace, for his God had given him rest on every side.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Well, I think it would be pretty obvious that our title for this morning’s study is, quite simply, “The Power of Weakness.” “The Power of Weakness.”

I had to wait until I was sixteen before ever I saw an American football. That speaks to a rather impoverished childhood, I understand. But the first time I saw the ball, it was in motion, because I was taken to an American Air Force base in Hertfordshire, where a school team was playing against some of the US forces—a very bad decision on the part of whoever took their school team there to meet this robust group of airmen.

I was there as a spectator, and my lasting memory, as I’ve told some of you, was not of the game itself. It was a very lopsided affair; I remember that clearly. The Air Force destroyed this other team. The thing was so unbalanced it was quite embarrassing.

But my lasting memory is not of that. My lasting memory’s actually of the cheerleaders. Your laughter gives you away, men. Because I remember the cheerleaders not because of the leaders but because of the cheers. I’d never encountered such a bizarre thing in all my life as this little cluster of individuals with pompoms, parading up and down the sidelines as if they could do anything meaningful to influence the outcome of the event.

And the one cheer that this beleaguered team heard ringing in their ears again and again as they went further and further into defeat and oblivion with these girls was, “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” And the trouble was, they could not do it. The longer the game went, the more incongruous the chant became: “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” I was surprised that one of them didn’t come off the field and silence the motley crew and save them further embarrassment. The circumstances were such that bravado could not carry the day. Bravado could not carry the day.

Now, that stands in striking contrast to the picture that we have here in 2 Chronicles. Admittedly, the battle has not yet ensued, but the odds are stacked so heavily against Jehoshaphat and the people in Judah that it is clear that this vast army represents to them an insuperable foe. And faced with this vast advancing horde, Jehoshaphat clearly does not prove to be much of a quarterback. And although there was going to be singing later on, as we saw in reading the text, at this point in the proceedings there isn’t so much as a squeak coming from the potential cheerleaders that are represented in verse 13. And in the acknowledgment of the circumstances, Jehoshaphat speaks with striking humility, with great honesty, with clarity, when in verse 12 he acknowledges before God, “We have no power to face this vast army [that’s] attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”

When I come on a leader who says, ‘I’m powerless, I’m clueless,’ this is the man with whom I want to have a cup of coffee.

Now, I’m immediately drawn to this phraseology. I find, when I read something like this, I say to myself, “Now here is someone with whom I can identify.” I aspire to many of the books that tell me how it can be done, and how it is done, and how they have done it, and how they’re going to do it, and so on. But at the end of the day, I usually throw it down and say, “But I’m not that person. I have not done that, I haven’t been there, I’m not sure that I can accomplish any of that at all.” But when I come on a leader who says, “I’m powerless, I’m clueless,” this is the man with whom I want to have a cup of coffee.  This is the individual that I want to hear from: a king who doesn’t know what to do; a king who from his throne admits to his ineptitude and his personal inadequacy.

2 Chronicles 20 is surely one of the classic Old Testament illustrations of Paul’s phrase at the end of 2 Corinthians 12, where, in the statement concerning his own sense of weakness, he declares, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”[1] And he addresses for us in a classic way, there in the New Testament, what is not uniquely here in 2 Chronicles 20, but it is at least addressed.

It is a word of encouragement for those of us who have arrived at this Basics 2004 feeling—although we may not have said this to anyone; we haven’t had the opportunity to yet, we’ve been fighting back the tears—but feeling as though, in terms of the game, we’re losing 41–nothing. And it doesn’t look as though it’s going to be 41–7. It looks as though it’s about to be 48–0. And indeed, in a couple of telephone calls that we’ve already had, it may have passed the 50 mark in our absence.

It really doesn’t help that there is a small group of silly people who like us, and we can hear ringing in our ears the refrain, “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” And you’re sitting there saying, “I wish you would shut up with that, because I can’t, and you know I can’t, and I hate it when you stand there with your pompoms shouting like that. I do love you, wife, but… but Honey, I want you to know that I feel absolutely powerless. And I feel that although I’ve been doing this for a while, I am completely clueless. I was reading this morning in 2 Chronicles 20, Dear, and Jehoshaphat said, ‘We have no power,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s encouraging,’ and he said, ‘And we don’t know what to do,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s fantastic. Maybe there’s something that I can learn from him.’”

So I want those of us—and it may be only two or three of us; we can form a society later on, the Jehoshaphat Society—but I want you to be encouraged, I want you to take heart, and I want you to know that if most of us were honest, there’s more than enough for a secretary, a treasurer, and a chairman in our group. And I want you to know that you can pray the prayer of Jehoshaphat. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. I’m not sure that they could have marketed The Prayer of Jehoshaphat. It would have been so embarrassing to see it spelled with an f on the front, wouldn’t it?

The Story So Far

Now, let’s take a moment and sketch in the background. I’m adopting the principle of planned neglect. You should always say that when you’re preaching so that it makes the people think that you know more about the context than you actually know. In other words, I’m going to purposefully neglect a number of things that I might otherwise consider—which means either I haven’t a clue, or I didn’t do the study, or whatever else. It’s a useful device, it’s a rhetorical device, it’s used all the time, and if I’m going to use it, I might as well acknowledge it. The principle of planned neglect.

Because it’s very, very difficult to wade your way through 1 and 2 Chronicles without being completely dazed by the details. But if you read from the beginning of chapter 17—and perhaps some of you will choose to do that at some point in the day—it quickly becomes clear that under Jehoshaphat’s leadership, Judah had experienced a period of reformation. We might even say that there was a sense in which they had had the stirrings of revival. Of all the things that had marked this time, there had been a return, if you like, to biblical preaching—17:9: “They taught throughout Judah, taking with them the Book of the Law of the Lord; they went [round] to all the towns of Judah and taught the people.” The impact of this teaching ministry, in verse 10: “The fear of the Lord fell on all the kingdoms of the lands surrounding Judah, so that they did not make war with Jehoshaphat.”

This was not as a result of their military expansion. This was not as a result of their political clout. This was not as a result of their numerical significance. This was as a result of the teaching of the Word of God. And in 19:4 we have the same point reinforced for us: “Jehoshaphat lived in Jerusalem, and he went out again among the people from Beersheba to the hill country of Ephraim,” and what was he doing? Well, he “turned them back to the Lord, the God of their fathers.”

And chapter 19 concludes with the appointment of judges, the establishing of a leadership structure. And as he does so, Jehoshaphat urges those who are put in positions of usefulness to do three things, or to exercise their leadership with these three characteristics prominent: number one, that they would act faithfully; number two, that they would be committed wholeheartedly; and then number three, that in all of this they would operate courageously.   In fact, you have just the imperative phrase there—as it is in the NIV, at least—down at the bottom of verse 11, is it? “Act with courage, and may the Lord be with those to do well.”

Now, in relatively short order, of course, having given these exhortations to those that he’s put in positions of leadership, Jehoshaphat is called upon to heed his own counsel. He’s called upon to heed his own counsel. It’s a reminder to us, isn’t it, just in the course of pastoral ministry, that we say lots of things; we provide under God, as we offer the Scriptures to our people, all kinds of exhortation and counsel; we often remind our people, as we seek to remind ourselves, that it is imperative that we’re not simply hearers of the Word but doers also;[2] but that also demands that we make sure that we are not simply teachers of the Word but doers also , and that we do not fall foul of the idea that, because we’ve studied it and declared it, that we are living in the benefit of it or that we are ourselves emblems of the very principles that we propound.

C. S. Lewis has a wonderful statement concerning this in his book The Four Loves. He says, “Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than we have actually reached. If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe that we have really been there, [and so fool both them and ourselves].”[3]

So Jehoshaphat puts these people in position and he says, “Now, I want you to act faithfully and serve wholeheartedly, and make sure that you act with courage.” You turn into chapter 20, and now it’s time for Jehoshaphat to have a spoonful of his own medicine. Because a crisis is looming; it’s described for us here in the advance of “a vast army.” And this little phrase “a vast army” comes, I think, four times—four that I’ve found. It comes in verse 2: “A vast army is coming”; again in verse 12: “We have no power to face this vast army”; in verse 15: “This is what the Lord says …: ‘[Don’t] be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army’”; and in verse 24: “When the men of Judah came to the place that overlooks the desert and looked towards the vast army…”

Now, the Chronicler is not just using phrases to fill in, the way some of us did when we were writing papers at college. He is clearly establishing the point. This is not a matter of marginal concern. This is not just something that could be passed over lightly. This is of deep significance. After this—after the teaching ministry, after the appointment of leadership, after, in one sense, Jehoshaphat had established things on a pretty even keel and had exercised leadership in a way that men and women were responding to—after that and in the framework of that, the vast army arrives.

And as the word comes to him in verse 2, his response is, again—for me, at least—very encouraging. One word here: “Alarmed, Jehoshaphat…” All the bells went off. All the buzzers started to ring—that something that happens inside of us. And that was the emotional response on the part of this king.

You see, there is a simple lesson, in passing, isn’t there? Namely, that his position and his profile and his willingness to turn the people to the Lord did not make him immune to fear . Now, I think the people in his population may have assumed, you know, if you have a throne and a crown and can do this kind of stuff, you presumably don’t feel any of these things. Now, Jehoshaphat was going to do another terrific thing for his people, because he was going to be honest enough to let them know exactly that he felt these things, and he was going to show them what he did in the experience of these things.

There’s something profoundly useful in that as we think about our responsibility. No, we’re not kings, we don’t have thrones, but we do have positions of leadership, and many of our people assume that we are not alarmed, that we do not experience fear—that somehow or another, we just fire Bible verses at the approaching hordes and we have an impervious shield that protects us from all of this. Well, maybe that’s you, but it sure isn’t me.

And to the extent that we create the impression that we are somehow or another the Teflon pastors, the Teflon leaders, then we make liars of ourselves, fools of ourselves, and discourage the people who are listening to us.  And again, they only need to check with our wives. Again, they only need to ask our teenage children. Again, they only need to get beyond the surface of what we say.

Courage isn’t the opposite of fear; it’s the quality of character which takes action despite fear or lack of confidence.

Courage, as we realized last night, isn’t the opposite of fear; it’s the quality of character which takes action despite fear or lack of confidence , allowing me to act although I am alarmed, although I am fearful, and although I feel myself to be diffident.

Now, it is not necessary that the sense of diffidence, the sense of fear, the sense of alarm is communicated constantly to our people. It’s sufficient that we know it and that God knows it, and they may not need to know it.

I mean, some of you may have come out of the airline industry, and you flew those giant birds across the sky. And I know you have that little thing there, the radar that shows you the weather patterns. And there’s green, and there’s orange, and there’s red. Some years ago, Jeff Mills and I were flying from France to Germany, and it was a Saturday afternoon, and there was virtually no one on the plane at all, and I poked my nose into the cockpit. It was pre-9/11 and pre- the experiences of today. And the French pilot and his copilot invited me in, and we talked to one another. Their English was very good, and I tried to sound sensible and ask questions, and I said, “What about the radar here?” And he said, “If it is green, you know, it’s okay. You can move around, you know?” And he said, “The… how you say, the orange? The orange is not so good. You don’t… you know, stay away.” He says, “And the rouge, the red? You’re a dead man.”

Now, that’s always stuck with me when I’m flying around these Great Lakes—you know, just being thrown about like a cork on the sea. And I marvel at these guys: “Ladies and gentlemen, just a slight turbulence, and… we’ve put all the drinks away, all the carts away, and all the stewardesses away.” Now, I think he clicks that thing off at that point and goes, “Whew!” Then he comes back on, he says, “Of course, there’s no reason to be concerned. This is just something else…” But the perspiration under his arms! And his copilot’s going ….

Now, it’s no help to me back in 12F to know that that’s all going on there. And there is a kind of naked preaching now, where the pastor comes out and wants everyone to know how sweaty his pits are and how dreadful and how hopeless and how wretched and everything. Forget all that stuff. That will become apparent in imperceptible ways. That will become apparent in helpful ways. It is sufficient that you and I both know that those are the circumstances we face: “The vast army is coming, and I’m alarmed!”

Weakness Admitted

Now, three observations. First of all, this weakness is admitted to. This weakness is admitted to: “We have no power.” And verse 13 is full of pathos, isn’t it? What a wonderful painting this would be: “All the men of Judah, with their wives and children and little ones, stood there before the Lord.” It’s not an unfamiliar picture; you have this in Nehemiah, where the people are gathered in the square from noon until a long, long time, listening to preaching. But you have this wonderful picture of all who are able to hear.[4]

But look at this group. You can imagine a bystander coming along and saying to somebody on the corner of things, “What are these people doing?”

And the answer comes back, “Well, they’re standing here.”

“Yes,” says the person, “I know they’re standing there, but what are they doing? Do you mean to tell me that they have come together from all of the towns of Judah, and they’re just going to stand there? I mean, shouldn’t they be doing something?”

You see, a pragmatist will never understand just standing.

“Well,” says the individual, “they’re actually seeking the Lord.”

“Oh. Oh, yeah. That’s the way to try and cover up your ineptitude. You’re just standing there, a big crowd of you, and now you’re going to tell me you’re ‘seeking the Lord.’ What a sorry looking bunch. Look at them! All standing there. Oh, I really think they should be doing something. Do something, for goodness’ sake. Why don’t you give them all a copy of The Purpose Driven Church and let them start on that? At least they could be doing something.” (It’s a good book. I just threw that in for fun.)

But get the picture in your mind. There they are; they all came out into the hill country; “Let’s get them all together,” they all get together, said, “The king said ‘Get together’; he’s the leader, he’s the man, he’ll know what to do. If we follow him, he’ll be fine; he’s got it under control, he’s the Bible answer man, he knows the answer to everything. We’ll get together with him, and it’ll all be fine.” They all get together in the place, and what’re they doing? Standing there.

You fast-forward to Corinth, you find another group standing there. What do they look like? Not particularly good. In fact, a motley crew: “Consider your calling, brothers, when you were called; not many of you were particularly wise, not many of you were mighty, not many of you were influential. You really weren’t much of a group, as I think about it,”[5] says Paul.

But we don’t need to go to Judah or to Corinth. We can just stay right here in Cleveland and think about your congregation, or wherever you are. Think about them. Get them in your mind’s eye right now. Now, don’t cry. Just think about them. They’ll never know what it’s like to stand in front of a group like this, will they? As they expose their tonsils to us in the first three minutes of the service, yawning in a cavernous way that makes them look as though they could be in SeaWorld or somewhere, you know, just swallowing gigantic fish. Leaning against people, and staring out into space, and…

Oh, yeah, but what do you think you look like? See, that’s the other side of it. Jehoshaphat, he doesn’t look real good himself. This is not exactly Arnold Schwarzenegger standing up here, is it? In fact, the posture of Jehoshaphat as he displays his weakness challenges the prevalent notion that effective Christian leadership is found in the strong, rugged, handsome quarterback. 

Even a cursory glance at the biblical record makes us aware of how often God’s man was marked by hesitancy, timidity, caution, uneasiness, and a due sense of personal inadequacy.

And even a cursory glance at the biblical record—even a random sampling of the evidence—makes us aware of how often God’s man was marked by hesitancy, timidity, caution, uneasiness, and a due sense of personal inadequacy.  Check the record, take the sampling, look in, pick people out willy-nilly; just grab them and haul them out and listen to what they’re saying.

“My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”[6]

God says, “That’s my boy. Gideon! Just the boy I’m looking for.”

“I don’t know how to speak. I’m only a child.”[7]

“You’re my man, Jeremiah.”

And is this how it sounded when Paul wrote to the Corinthians concerning the arrival of his lieutenant, Timothy? Did he say something like this: “If Timothy comes, do make good use of him, elevate his profile, see that his influence is felt”? No, this is what he actually wrote: “If Timothy comes, put him at his ease. See to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you.”[8]

“Oh, you mean Timothy’s a kind of weak character?” Well, he has a weak stomach. He doesn’t seem particularly good in a crowd. He’s clearly not a “take charge” kind of individual. But, you know, if God’s power is made obvious in weakness, I can see how he might be distinctly useful.

It’s true, but it’s good to restate it, that God’s purpose for us as his children is that we might depend entirely upon him —that we might depend entirely upon him. You remember, Jesus says, “Without me you can do nothing.”[9] That’s fairly categorical, isn’t it? See, I think the problem in evangelicalism is—or forget evangelicalism—the problem in me is that I don’t believe that in my heart of hearts, because I try so many things on my own.

So it is a mercy and a providence of God when into my life and into my circumstances he brings whatever vast army, whatever significant battle—whether emotional or spiritual or physical or familial—in order to remind me of the power of weakness.  

I mean, think about it, brothers: most of the time, the literature that comes our way is trying to give us the leg up on making sure that we aren’t weak, making sure that we are strong, making sure that we can do this and we can do that. And it’s not all wrong; I’m not suggesting for a moment that it’s all unhelpful. But I think in many cases it doesn’t start at the right place. If dependence is the objective, then weakness is an advantage.  And [John Berridge] from the eighteenth century says, “A Christian never falls asleep in the fire or in the water, but [he] grows drowsy in the sunshine.”[10] So God in his mercy makes us aware of our inadequacies—may give to us children who are a sore trial to us, who more than any other thing in life keep us on our knees, because God knows we need to be there.

It’s only when we’re confronted by the fact of our personal inadequacy that we are ever able to be quickened and enabled by finding adequacy in God.

And it’s only when we’re confronted by the fact of our personal inadequacy that we are ever able to be quickened and enabled by finding adequacy in God . Unless my posture is right before God in my heart of hearts, then I will be posturing before my people. 

You see, just think for a moment here of what was involved in Jehoshaphat doing what he did. This is gutsy! Gets all the people together, has them stand together. As we will see now in a moment, he opens his heart in prayer to the living God, and in doing so, he acknowledges his complete personal inadequacy for the task! “We,” he says, looking around at the group that are his own, “we have no power and we have no clue.”

Now, you’re not gonna find that in most church growth manuals. It just is not there. We’re supposed to make sure that we never get ourselves to that point. But what a wonderful picture of him out on the hill country there, in 19:4, out in “the hill country of Ephraim … [turning the people] back to the Lord, the God of their fathers.” The shepherd is out on the hills saying, “Come, now, to the Lord your God return,” you know? In the words of the psalmist, “Return to the Lord your God,” he says. “I want you to make sure that you’re depending upon him.”

Well, you see, the posture of his heart in private is the basis of his ministry in public. And if we are not with the shepherd on the hills, then the chances are we’ll be with the CEO in the boardroom or something. I don’t know what it would be.

I love poetry. Not difficult poetry. It has to really rhyme, for me. It’s the same with classical music: I can’t cope with the high-octane stuff very well, the banging of dustbin lids of Shostakovich and things like that. I don’t do well with that. I go out for ice cream when that comes on. And I know a little poetry. But I like children’s poems, and so I want to, just for your edification, read you one of my favorite poems by A. A. Milne. And the reason I’m doing this is, one, because I wanted to, and two, because what I’m trying to point to is the contrast between a shepherd on the hills with a posture of dependence and this gentleman in the villages in all of his pomposity.

The poem, some of you will know, is called “Bad Sir Brian Botany.” And it goes as follows:

Sir Brian had a battleaxe with great big knobs on;
He went among the villagers and blipped them on the head.
On Wednesday and on Saturday, but mostly on the latter day,
He called [on] all the cottages, and this is what he said:
‘I am Sir Brian!’ (ting-ling)
‘I am Sir Brian!’ (rat-tat)
‘I am Sir Brian, as bold as a lion—
Take that!—and that!—and that!
Sir Brian had a pair of boots with great big spurs on,
A fighting pair of which he was particularly fond.
On Tuesday and on Friday, just to make the street look tidy,
He’d collect the passing villagers and kick them in the pond.
‘I am Sir Brian!’ (sper-lash!)
‘I am Sir Brian!’ (sper-losh!)
‘I am Sir Brian, as bold as a lion—
… Anyone else for a wash?’
Sir Brian woke one morning, and he couldn’t find his battleaxe;
He walked into the village in his second pair of boots.
He had gone a hundred paces, when the street was full of faces,
And the villagers were round him with ironical salutes.
‘[You’re] Sir Brian? Indeed!
[You’re] Sir Brian? Dear, dear!
[You’re] Sir Brian, as bold as a lion?
Delighted to meet you here!’
Sir Brian went a journey, and he found a lot of duckweed;
They pulled him out and dried him, and they blipped him on the head.
They took him by the breeches, and they hurled him into ditches,
And they pushed him under waterfalls, and this is what they said:
‘[You’re] Sir Brian—don’t laugh,
[You’re] Sir Brian—don’t cry;
[You’re] Sir Brian, as bold as a lion—
Sir Brian, the lion, good-bye!’
Sir Brian struggled home again, and chopped up his battleaxe,
Sir Brian took his fighting boots, and threw them in the fire.
[He’s] quite a different person now he hasn’t got his spurs on,
And he goes about the village as B. Botany, Esquire.
‘I am Sir Brian? Oh, no!
I am Sir Brian? Who’s he?
I haven’t got any title, I’m Botany—
Plain Mr Botany (B).’[11]

Now, ask yourself the question. You read all the magazines. Which of these two pictures—a shepherd on the hills, turning people back to the Lord; and Sir Brian moving amongst the community, stuck on himself, proud of his influence, with his big spurs…? Am I wrong in suggesting that at this point on the threshold of the twenty-first century, evangelicalism is enamored with the Sir Brian model? Oh, I know that we have to couch it in different terminology. I mean, you’re gonna have to clean it up. You’ll have to give it a few Bible references. But by and large? And that, incidentally, is why some of our pastorates last as short as they do. ’Cause we are the Sir Brian: “Take that!—and that!—and that!

I think I’ve told you before, one of my friends in Scotland—I played golf with him; he’s a more senior minister than myself—and as we played golf together, I asked him what he was doing. “Well,” he said, “in the morning I’m expounding such and such, and in the evening,” he said—and I’ll never forget this, the look on his face—he says, “I’m giving them the five points of Calvinism.”

We played golf, and I went home, and Sue made me tea, and we’re talking. She said, “How did you get on with X?”

I said, “Oh,” I said, “fine.” I said, “Ah, you know,” I said, “he’s leaving his church.”

She said, “He told you that?”

I said, “No, he didn’t tell me that. I’m telling you that.” And he was, and he did.

Sir Brian had a battleaxe with great big knobs on.
He went among the congregation and blipped them on the head.
On Tuesday and on Saturday, but mostly on the latter day,
He moved amongst the congregation, and this is what he said:
I am…
I am…
I am…
I am…

My dear friends, look. Look at the potential in this room. Is it not distinctly possible that the reason for our patent ineffectiveness or our marginal usefulness, it rests right here: that we are unprepared to admit our total personal inadequacy ; that we need God, and that our congregations need to know that we need God, and that however that becomes apparent to them, it must become apparent to them. Otherwise we simply lecture them, or we cajole them, or we drive them.

Weakness Addressed

Well, that’s nearly the whole thing. Time’s running out, and I know Steve, he’ll come up here any minute now and pull me off. But that is weakness as it is admitted. Let me just show you how he addresses the weakness. This was the second point. We’ll go to it very quickly.

The weakness is addressed. How does he address it? How is he able to acknowledge weakness? How is he able to say with the people, “We don’t have the power”? The candor that he displays is because he recognizes who he isn’t, but he recognizes who God is. You see, we can admit to being completely useless provided there is one at our side who is completely useful. 

We can admit to being completely useless provided there is one at our side who is completely useful.

I mean, people ask us all the time, they say, “Do you cook?” Now, some of you do, I know. You may be gourmet cooks. But the majority of you are completely hopeless. You cannot make an egg boil and toast pop up and get the milk out of the fridge simultaneously, no matter how many times your wife leaves home. It’s impossible. How can I get myself in such an unbelievable mess? Why is it that the egg is soft, or the toast is hard, or… I can’t do this! But I flat out don’t care. I don’t need to do this! Let me introduce you to Susan. She makes it pop, and thing, and… Right! So I can say, “I can’t do it.” Because I have someone who can do it. But if I don’t have someone who can do it upon whom I rely, then I’m going to be saying, “Hey, I can do it.” Even when I can’t do it!

Now, Jehoshaphat says, “Listen, this is the deal: we’ve no power, we don’t know what to do.” But what gives him equilibrium? How does he address it? Well, he addresses it in what he knows of God. And that’s where this wonderful prayer comes in. I’m making a decision now about whether to make this a two-part message or whether just to steam to the end. I’m steaming to the end.

Four questions he asks. Look at this. Let me just give them to you. It’s important that we ask the right questions: Aren’t you, don’t you, didn’t you, won’t you? Aren’t you, don’t you, didn’t you, won’t you?

“Aren’t you the God who is in heaven? O Lord, God of our fathers, aren’t you the God who is in heaven?” “Who … measured the waters in the hollow of his hand … ? Who … held the dust of the earth in a basket? … Who has understood the mind of the Lord? Lift [up] your eyes … to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”[12]

Were you up early? Did you see the moon? Looked like it was in an envelope this morning in the sky. In the morning sky, around six o’clock, it honestly looked as though it was sticking in an envelope. I don’t know a thing about “moons and Junes and ferris wheels,” and “dizzy dancing way [it] feel[s].”[13] I don’t know much about astronomy. But I was fascinated by that little four-by-four thing, that little dinky toy that they landed on Mars, weren’t you? Did you watch NASA doing that? It brought tears to my eyes. I said, “This is incredible!”—that these guys can get that thing up there, and then when it gets down and it plops down on the little parachute, and then they make it go, and it starts to move. Did you see Britain’s attempt at it? Not good. They had the scientist on. I felt so sorry for him. Somehow or another, they hurtled that thing out of the outer space; I think it crash-landed and went into oblivion. The Mars Bar gone, you know?

But they were all there in Houston …. And I was intrigued, and I said, “This is great.” And then I said, “This is nothing! This is nothing!”

Who made the mountains, and who made the trees?
And who made the rivers that run to the seas?
And who put the moon in the starry sky?
Somebody bigger than you and I.
And who rights the way when the road is long?
And who keeps us company?
With God to guide me,
He’ll walk beside me,
Just as he walks with me.[14]

This is Mahalia Jackson singing, now—at least, in my mind I hear her singing.

Well, you see, I can say, “I’m powerless and I can’t do it,” provided I say, “Aren’t you God in heaven? Didn’t you drive out the enemy? Aren’t you the covenant God that has given us this inheritance? Won’t you”—verse 9—“hear us and save us? And don’t you”—verse 6—“rule over the kingdoms of the nations, power and might in your hand, and no one can withstand you?”

So he says, “This is what we’re going to do: in the awareness of our inadequacy and personal weakness, we will stand in your presence”—verse 9—“before this temple that bears your Name”—his mighty name salvation is—“we will stand in your presence, and we will cry out to you in our distress.”

And this, you see, is the answer to the cynic that we met earlier who was saying, “What are these people doing, just standing there? Do you really think that that’s the way forward for your people?”

The facts are as reported in verses 10 and 11; it’s straightforward, all the way through 12: “Apparently, God, they’re about to drive us out. You gave us the land as an inheritance. There’s an incongruity here between what your Word has said and how things are working out.” Well, that’s not unusual. That’s been true all the way through the story, and remains true. So, the weakness is addressed not by the bolstering up of the people or their position or their profile but by being recalibrated by the truth of who God is: “Aren’t you the God in heaven? Don’t you rule over all? Didn’t you give us this land? And won’t you hear us and save us?”

Weakness Answered

Finally, just a thought: How then is this weakness answered? All the men of Judah are standing there with their wives and with their children, the little ones, and then, in verse 14, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah.” And God sends his servant with his word. And here is the great power, if you like, in the prophetic word, the “thus saith the Lord.” “He said”—verse 15—“‘Listen, king.’” Oh-ho! Hey, that’s good, isn’t it? “Listen, king.” You’re not supposed to say, “Listen, king.” You’re supposed to say, “Hello, king. Nice to meet you, king. I bow before you, king.” He says, “Hey! Listen, king. And listen, people. This is what the Lord says.” What does he say? He says, “Don’t be afraid and don’t be discouraged.”

Well, if it stopped there, it’d be hopeless, wouldn’t it? The people would be saying, “That’s easy for you to say, Jazzy.” I mean, I just changed it to Jazzy. I abbreviated it, Jahaziel. Jazzy’s better. “It’s okay for you, Jazzy, coming here with that jazz. What do you mean, ‘Don’t be afraid, don’t be discouraged’? Where did you come from? Where have you been hanging around?”

“No,” he says, “you’re not listening to what I told you. The battle is not yours, it’s God’s. Learn what God does and learn what you’re supposed to do. When God works, you don’t do nothing. So,” he says, “I want you to march down, and I want you to stand firm, and I want you to see the salvation the Lord will give you. March down, stand firm, and watch.”

Well, there we have it. I’ll leave you to complete the story. It’s a wonderful end. Having staggered at the prospect of battle, they then stagger under the extent of the plunder and the bounty in verse 25—took them three days to gather it all up. As a result of that, no one was in any doubt about what had happened; no one was in any doubt about how it had happened.

The people had cause to thank Jehoshaphat for his leadership, but they could only thank God for the victory.

And in verse 18, the posture of the leader, once again: “Jehoshaphat bowed with his face to the ground, and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the Lord.” The people, our people, will not fall down in worship before the Lord until we learn to bow with our faces to the ground. The people had cause to thank Jehoshaphat for his leadership, but they could only thank God for the victory.  

Final word of application to ourselves in the context of exercising a gospel ministry: it would seem absurd, perhaps, from one perspective, to even think for a moment that we needed to be reminded of our own weakness, but the fact of the matter is that idolatry is so real in our lives and pride looms so large that we do need to be reminded of these truths. And God will go to all kinds of ends in order to make it clear for us.

But I think more than any other thing, just preaching the Bible to our congregation Sunday by Sunday ought to, if we have any sense of spiritual perception at all, bring us continually on a Saturday night, and a Sunday morning, and a Sunday afternoon, and a Sunday night, again and again and again, to the point where we say, at least in our heart of hearts and in the privacy of our own secret place, “Lord, we have no power, and frankly, we don’t know what to do.”

I mean, what is it like preaching? It’s glorious. It’s horrendous. And then, you stand… I have a little room up the stairs, and it has a couple of windows. And I watch the congregation come and go. And I have all kinds of emotions when I watch them. I rejoice in the arrival of little children; I see young mothers with their children; those young mothers were children when I came. Similar experiences to yourself. But I think more than any other emotion I have, I stand in my window and I watch the congregation, and I say to myself, “I can’t do this. I haven’t come up with a turn of phrase, I haven’t come up with a means of communication, I haven’t come up with any kind of mechanism at all to reach beyond their clouded hearts and veil-covered spirits.”

And the answer, the Spirit of God comes back, it says, “Well, of course you haven’t. And you never will. Because ‘neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything.’” That means, if we’re not anything, we’re nothing. “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow.”[15]

And time goes by. You’re forty, and then you’re fifty, and then sixty looms. And just when you thought you might be getting better, you’re getting worse. And just when you thought you might know what you were doing, you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing. And everybody sends you magazines and sheets and charts and junk that condemns you for your ineptitude. And a bunch of silly folks who are in your fan club are going, “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!”

In the Through the New Testament in a Year—I hope you all buy three of them to take home for members of your congregation—there’s always a proverb. And the proverb the other morning said this: “Better to be a nobody and have a servant than consider yourself somebody and have no food.”[16] Better to be a nobody, a nothing, and have a servant than to be Sir Brian and have no food.

This is supposed to be an encouragement. I hope it is. Because under God, and by his Spirit, and through his Word, and for his glory, we can do it. We can! Yes, we can.

Let’s pray together.

I want to use as a prayer the words of a hymn that was sung by the five guys before they went to their death in Ecuador. It’s an awesome thought—Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, the rest of them down there. And not with a sense of morbidity, but with a sense of expectation and great joy and zeal, they sang these words. We want to make them our prayer as we move on this morning:

We rest on thee, our shield and our defender!
We go not forth alone against the foe;
Strong in thy strength, [and] safe in thy keeping tender
We rest on thee, and in thy name we go.
Yes, in thy name, O captain of salvation!
In thy [blessed] name, all other names above;
Jesus our righteousness, our sure foundation,
Our prince of glory and our king of love.
We go in faith, our own great weakness feeling,
And needing more each day thy grace to know:
Yet from our hearts a song of triumph pealing;
We rest on thee, and in thy name we go.
We rest on thee, our shield and our defender!
Thine is the battle, thine shall be the praise
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with thee, through endless days.[17]

And Lord, we recall that by half past four that afternoon, the quiet waters of the Curaray River mingled with the blood of those singers. What an apparent waste. What an expression of abject ineptitude, folly, weakness. And yet out of that, look at all that has come to the praise of your glory, for they showed us again the power of weakness.

And there upon the cross, in that most tragic and weak situation of all, all of your power is made known.

Hear us, O God, and help us in these things, we pray. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] 2 Corinthians 12:10 (NIV 1984).

[2] See James 1:22.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (1960; repr., Orlando: Harvest, 1971), 140.

[4] See Nehemiah 8:2.

[5] 1 Corinthians 1:26 (paraphrased).

[6] Judges 6:15 (NIV 1984).

[7] Jeremiah 1:6 (paraphrased).

[8] 1 Corinthians 16:10 (paraphrased).

[9] John 15:5 (paraphrased).

[10] John Berridge to Samuel Wilks, Everton, August 16, 1774, in The Works of Rev. John Berridge: With an Enlarged Memoir of His Life, Numerous Letters, Anecdotes, Outlines of Sermons, and Observations on Passages of Scripture, and His Original Sion’s Songs, ed. Richard Whittingham (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Company, 1838), 396.

[11] A. A. Milne, “Bad Sir Brian Botany,” in The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, ed. Neil Philip (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 154–55.

[12] Isaiah 40:12–13, 26 (NIV 1984).

[13] Joni Mitchell, “Moons and Junes and Ferris Wheels” (1969).

[14] Johnny Lange, Hy Heath, and Sonny Burke, “Somebody Bigger Than You and I” (1960). Lyrics lightly altered.

[15] 1 Corinthians 3:7 (paraphrased).

[16] Proverbs 12:9 (paraphrased).

[17] Edith G. Cherry, “We Rest on Thee” (1895).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.