Text: 2 Corinthians 12:7-10††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††W 7th Sunday after Pentecost
Christís Power Perfected in Weakness
††††††††††† In the name of him who brings down
the proud and mighty and raises up the humble and weak, dear friends in Christ:† I am reminded almost daily that there are a
lot of misconceptions out there concerning what the Christian faith is all
about and what it really means to be a Christian.† Perhaps the most common mistake that people
make is to think of Christianity as nothing more than a higher standard of
conduct and a program of moral development aimed at helping people to live up
to that standard.† In this view of
Christianity, Jesus is seen as the ultimate teacher of righteousness.† He came to tell us how to live and he also
served as the primary example for us to follow.
He told us to be kind, loving, and concerned about each other, and then
he went out and did it; therefore if you want to call yourself a Christian, you
should too.† What often gets attached to
this general idea of Christianity are all the things that people with certain
strong opinions think that Jesus probably would have said and done if he
were still around today.† Sometimes Iíll
hear things like:† ďSince Jesus was such
a together sort of guy, weíre absolutely sure that he would protest the war in
††††††††††† Hereís another example of misunderstanding what it means to be a Christian, and specifically in this case, to be a Lutheran.† I received an entire box of these last week.† Itís a sixty-five page booklet that calls itself The Lutheran Message.† I thought, ďGreat.† This should have some solid theology in it.Ē† I was sadly disappointed.† Sure, there are a few Bible passages scattered here and there throughout its many short articles and poems; but for how they are actually applied this could just have easily been named the Mormon Message, or the Unitarian Universalist Message, or even the Muslim Message, because thereís nothing in here that anyone from those faiths would disagree with.† Only once in the whole thing does it even hint just a bit that Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice of some kind whereby we may triumph over death and sin.† But itís very vague about it.† And then, after that hazy reference to the Gospel, just a couple of sentences later the same article goes on to say (Iím quoting now): ďSome Christians join Godís elect through the exercise of faith alone. That is the teaching of justification by faith, where Godís grace envelops us in return for submission to his will.† For other Christians, personal good works seem recommended by the teaching of Jesus as points of entry into the kingdom of heaven.Ē† Thatís what it says.† So, in other words, some Christians are saved by faith alone; but only if they follow Godís ordersówhich means that they arenít really saved by faith alone; but rather by faith and their obedience.† There is nothing Lutheran about that statement.† In fact, itís precisely because some people were teaching that that the Reformation had to happen.† But even worse is that it goes on to say that ďother ChristiansĒ find their way to heaven by the route of good works.† Either way itís your choice because one is as good as the other.† Both are equally valid Christian paths to heaven. My friends, this is the doctrine of demons.† Did I say that I have an entire box of these that I will not be handing out?
††††††††††† Things like this should raise red flags for us.† They remind us that just because something is labeled Christian in general or Lutheran in particular doesnít mean thatís what it is.† The food items you buy at the grocery have to list the contents of whatís inside accurately, and advertisers have to be truthful about the claims they make for their products; but there are no such laws that govern the use of religious terms.† When it comes to matters of faith, spirituality, and theology, the old adage caveat emptor applies:† let the buyer beware.† Itís up to you to test the content of what you read or hear to ensure that itís true, reliable, and that it conforms to Godís Word.
With this in mind, Iíd like to challenge another common misunderstanding that is often found falsely claiming to be a sound Christian teaching.† The basic idea can be stated like this:† God loves you.† He loves you so much that he sent his Son to die for you.† He wants to bring you to heaven through faith in his Son and bless you richly for all eternity.† And letís be clear: †so far, thatís absolutely right; but the idea gets messed up when it goes a step beyond and asserts that not only does God want to bless you richly for all eternity, he wants to begin right now by blessing you in every material way in this life.† That is to say he wants you to be healthy, rich, and successful at all times.† He wants to bless you up, down, and six ways from Sunday with all the perks and benefits this life has to offer.† He wants to ensure that everything comes up roses for you at all times, and that thereís never any conflict or challenges for you to face.† And these blessings can be yours if only you believe strongly enough that God wants you to have them.
The notion is sometimes called the health and wealth gospel; and even where itís not explicitly (and I daresay so crassly) taught, it is a general impression that many, perhaps even most Christians have.† We tend to think that if Iím a Christian, then I (or the people I love) shouldnít have any major problems Ė God should take care of all of them for me.† This is especially true with regard to our physical well being.† Many Christians think, ďWell, okay, maybe God doesnít want me to be rich and lie around in luxury; but surely he wants me to be healthy at least.† I mean, the healthier I am the better I am able to serve him.† And just think of all those people Jesus healed in his day.† It was a big part of his ministry back then; why wouldnít it be the same today?Ē† Why not indeed?† One very good answer lies before us in todayís Epistle lesson.
Paul the Apostle had a problem that he calls a thorn or a splinter in the flesh.† The word he uses describes something sharp and painful; heís not talking about a minor irritation.† Now, we donít know precisely what it was that he suffered from, and as a result many Bible scholars have tried to guess what it might have been.† For example, knowing that Paul was sick quite often, some think that he may have had a form of malaria, which is a viral disease that causes high fever, vomiting and diarrhea, and severe muscle pain. The symptoms last for several days at a time and then go away, leaving the victim weak and exhausted.† But then a week or maybe several weeks later, the symptoms return because the virus isnít gone Ė it never goes away Ė it just goes into periods of remission and dormancy.† And so the victim ends up in this perpetual cycle of sickness and health all the while becoming weaker and more run-down over time.† So malaria would seem to fit the description; but other Bible scholars have suggested near sightedness, arthritis, or some kind of digestive disorder.† Some have even thought that it might have been a spiritual condition, saying that perhaps Paul suffered bouts of depression or maybe a severe temptation toward a certain sin.† Still others have proposed that Paulís thorn might be a reference to his many enemies who were always trying to discredit him and sharp shoot his ministry.† If thatís the case then these people were a thorn in the flesh in the same way that we speak of certain people being a constant pain in the Öuh, neck.
For what itís worth, I personally favor the idea that it was a physical ailment of some kind; but the fact is that we donít know and that it really doesnít matter.† All we know is that it hurt Paul.† It made it more difficult for him to do the mission that God gave him.† Whatever it was, Paul hated it and wanted it to go away.† And perhaps itís better that we donít know what it was because then it could be anything, thus making what he has to say about it apply to all the thorns in the flesh that God sends to his people.
Yes, thatís right: †Paul says God gave him this thorn, this ďmessenger of Satan to torment himĒ.† Thatís a statement that shocks a lot of people. We normally think of God and Satan as being on opposing sides, so to speak.† Now we hear that God sent an agent of Satan to afflict Paul.† It almost sounds as if theyíre working together Ė and that doesnít sound right. †But itís important to remember that in an absolute sense there is only one side.† The Lord is in control of all things, even the devil.† And the Lord uses all things, even the evil ones, to accomplish his good purposes.† So even though Satan hates God and wants to destroy him, it turns out that whatever mischief he does to frustrate the Lordís purposes actually works to advance the Lordís purposes.† He canít win.† Heís quite literally damned if he does and damned if he doesnít.† But donít make the mistake of feeling sorry for him; heís still your enemy and would like very much to see you fall.† Blinded by his hatred, heís only too happy to bring affliction to any of Godís servants.† But itís important to remember too that the Lord sets the limit for the amount of damage that Satan can do.
Now, one of the readings we had last week said that the Lord does not willingly bring affliction or grief to people.† In light of that, someone might protest that thereís a contradiction here.† If the Lord doesnít willingly afflict people, then how can we hear today that he sent of messenger of Satan to torment Paul? Sure sounds like he did it willingly. But the idea is that the Lord doesnít sit up there in heaven thinking of ways to make our lives miserable because he gets his jollies out of it.† Rather if he brings things that cause us grief, he does it in the same way a loving parent provides discipline for a child.† Itís no fun to discipline, no loving parent enjoys it; but itís a job that needs to be done in order to ensure a child grows and develops properly. Itís in that sense that the Lord does not willingly bring affliction.† And itís important to recognize that not all discipline is applied to correct bad behavior.† Most discipline is designed to teach and reinforce positive behavior.† A loving parent makes a child do his homework, clean his room, help out with the chores, practice a musical instrument, whatever Ė even sometimes amidst tears of protest Ė not to punish the child for something he did wrong but rather so that the child learns how to do things right.
In Paulís own case, the thorn in the flesh was sent by God as a means to keep the Apostle from falling into sin.† Three times, Paul says, I pleaded with the Lord to take the affliction away.† The Lord answered him, ďNo.† Iím not going to take it away.† My grace is sufficient for you.† Thatís all you need.Ē† Paul came to understand that this thorn was given him for a positive purpose. Specifically, the Lord gave it to him to keep him from being carried away by the sin of pride.
Paul was a man who understood pride very well.† It was (arguably along with hypocrisy) the chief sin of the Pharisees.† You remember them:† they were the ones who thought they were better than everyone else because they committed themselves to a life of strict obedience to every letter of Godís law.† They were obsessed with it and imagined that they were closer to God than anyone else on account of their fanatic dedication.† Before his conversion, Paul was a man who described himself as a Pharisee even to the Pharisees.† Whatever it was they were supposed to be, Paul was more of it; and the rest of the Pharisees looked up to him with something like awe.† In addition to this, Paul was profoundly proud of the way he had defended the traditional Jewish faith against the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. He had hunted Christians down mercilessly thinking that by doing so he was pleasing God.
You probably remember the story of his conversion.† He was headed to
But Paul remained especially susceptible to pride, thatís what attracted him to the life of the Pharisees to begin with.† Now the danger was that he might fall into the same sin in the opposite direction. I mean here he was, hand picked by Jesus and given this special commission personally from heaven.† And now he was running all over the Roman world proclaiming the Gospel, performing miracles, making converts, and planting churches everywhere.† Even among the original Apostles, Paul was recognized as a leader and Bible scholar.† And now, whenever a theological question came up, all eyes turned to Paul for the answer.† It would have been very easy for him to have become full of himself and once again imagine that somehow he deserved Godís appreciation and praise on account of all the good work he was doing in his service.† But to do that, to harbor the notion that he was earning Godís favor by what he was doing, is to deny the very Gospel that he was sent to proclaim. †The Lordís grace and favor come to us by the work and merits of Christ, not by anything we do.† Paul could easily have lost sight of that.† In the process of helping to save others, he might have been lost himself. †And to keep that from happening, God gave him this affliction in the flesh.† It was sent to keep Paul reliant on the Lord and on his grace.† It was sent to cause him trouble, to make him cry out, ďLord, I canít do thisĒ so that the Lord could respond, ďThatís right; you canít.† But I can do it through you.† You have my grace in Christ Jesus.† Thatís all you need.Ē
††††††††††† And for Paul this was a breakthrough.† He knew that the Gospel of Jesus was the wisdom and power of God; but now in his affliction, he came to understand that the more dependent he was on Godís grace, the stronger he actually was because it was Godís power and not his own that he was operating with.† He came to see all of his afflictions and problems the same way. So rather than complain about the things he was suffering and beg for them to be taken away, Paul says that they were cause for rejoicing.† Whether they took the form of weakness and illness of the body, the insults he received from the hostile members of the church, the hardships he had to endure when he went without food and shelter, the persecutions and beatings he received from angry mobs of unbelievers Ö all these problems only made Paul depend more on the grace of God in Christ, and that made him stronger.† They kept him in the faith and made him a better instrument for the Lordís use. And by sharing these insights, Paul means to instruct us that we may see our own afflictions the same way.
††††††††††† Itís a completely different way of thinking about the problems and challenges we face.† It certainly overturns the whole health and wealth gospel thing.† God hasnít promised that everything will come up roses for us Ė not is in this life anyway.† What he has promised is that he will keep us in Christ Jesus and in the saving faith, and that he will bring us through this life and all of our problems to the next. Now, Iím not saying that we shouldnít be grateful for the blessings God gives us in this life.† Iím not saying we should go seeking problems.† Iím not saying that when problems come we shouldnít pray to be delivered from them.† What I am saying is that like Paul we should see our problems for what they are: evidence of Godís great love for us. God gives his grace to the humble. So in order to give us his grace, he has to humble us.† We have to feel the need for his forgiveness and strength.† And so we understand that in adversity, whatever form it takes, the Lord is working to make us more reliant upon his grace to us in Jesus. We understand that it is in our weakness that our faith and therefore also our strength in Christ is at its peak. And we understand that when God says ďNoĒ to our prayers for deliverance, that he has a good and loving purpose for it.† Heís saying, ďMy grace is sufficient for you.† Iíve given you my Son.† Thatís all you really need in this life and the next.Ē† May he make us strong in this faith that his power may rest upon us, in Jesusí holy name.† Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!