Sexagesima Sunday February 7, 1999
2 Corinthians 12:7-9
1, 49, 521, 372
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Here ends our text.
In Christ, Who provides strength for this life and salvation for the next, Dear Fellow-Redeemed,
I read once about a woman who was an avid gardener. Flowers were her specialty; and she was especially proud of her roses. She entered every flower competition she could, and with her beautiful roses, she ended up winning a lot of them. Eventually, she worked her way up to the finals of an important regional competition. She chose the most perfect rose in her garden, confident that such a beautiful flower could never lose. That’s why she was so bewildered when the judges passed her by in favor of another finalist’s entry. When she asked for an explanation, one judge told her, “The flower of your rose is perfect, it’s true. But the particular specimen you chose has no thorns, and without thorns it’s not a perfect rose!”
Like a rose, every well-rounded Christian life contains not only flowers, but thorns as well; not only the beautiful fruits of faith, but the thorns of trial and hardship, too. You know, Christians in general are notoriously forgetful people. We tend to forget very easily Who it is who supplies all our wants and needs, day by day. We’re especially forgetful when it comes to our most important need—salvation. Well, God often sends “thorns” into our lives as His own way of reminding us where these blessings really come from. They’re little memory refreshers that are often painful, but necessary. The Apostle Paul found that out in his own life, and he shares his experience with us in our text for this morning. Let’s take a closer look at that word of God. With Paul, let us -
I remember vividly the experience of hiking into the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area in the northern part of the state. A friend and I camped at an alpine lake, high up in the mountains. We were all alone. There was something exhilarating in knowing that there we were the only humans in a radius of fifty, maybe a hundred miles. It was almost as though we were “going where no man had gone before!” The Apostle Paul was in a rather unique position that way. I mean, think of it! He had the honor of being the first missionary to bring the good news of the Gospel to the world! He was a pioneer in the missionary field. The fact that there had come to be Christians in nearly every part of the civilized world was, in a large part, due to the work he had done for Christ. What a feeling! He must have been sorely tempted to feel proud of his accomplishments, to boast about his special revelations, to consider himself a pretty exceptional human being!
God saw how great that temptation would be. So God gave Paul a reminder. Just a little something to jog his memory from time to time. Something to bring him up short, and remind him just Who was the Creator, and who the creature; Who the Master, and who the servant; Who the Employer, and who the employee. Paul says, Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me. Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh.” Over the centuries, lots of people have speculated about what that “thorn” might have been. Some think it might have been a nagging illness, like recurrent malaria, or a mild form of cerebral palsy. Some even think it may have been a speech impediment—you can imagine how annoying and discouraging that would be for a man who’s full-time job is preaching!
Whatever it was, it troubled him. It bothered him so much, in fact, that he begged God over and over again to take the “thorn” away. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. God did not take it away. He left the painful thing in place, as a necessary reminder to Paul. Eventually, the Apostle learned to thank God—even for his thorn!
Does all this sound familiar to you? It ought to, because God uses the same system of painful reminders in your life, too! Sickness, trouble, sorrow, and guilt—These are all bad things that are incorporated by God in a good purpose—to remind you of a couple of facts that it’s absolutely essential you remember! The first is that He’s the one who supplies your earthly needs. The second (and most important!) is that He’s the one who provides you with salvation!
A father and his young son were watching the final stages of the building of a bridge near their home. The bridge spanned a deep river, and the boy was startled when the wooden supports of the bridge were systematically blasted away with dynamite, one by one. He asked his father why the workers were doing that. The father replied, “The wooden pilings were only temporary supports. Now they’re being removed, so that the weight of the bridge can settle on the permanent, stone pilings that lie behind them.” Sometimes we Christians are bewildered when the things we trusted in—our money, our jobs, even our health—seem to collapse underneath us. God sometimes allows these artificial supports to be removed from our lives, in order to remind us to rest our confidence on Him for all our earthly needs. It’s no fun when it happens; in fact, it’s another of life’s thorns. It’s a painful reminder that we finally have to rely on the Lord to provide health, safety, money, happiness—to provide everything. He is the rock-solid foundation that will never collapse!
We can’t know and trust God’s strength until He shows us our weakness. And I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. Right now you’re probably thinking of a particular thorn in your life—Perhaps it’s a severe illness, or a disease, or an injury that you’ve suffered. There’s nothing like a serious health problem to make us realize how frail we really are, and to drive us back to God. It makes us cry out to God, with Jeremiah, “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.” Jer 17:14.
Perhaps you or a loved one has experienced an accident recently, or a near-miss—a close brush with death. That makes you think, doesn’t it! It makes you stop and think about who it is who is watching you around the clock, and who it is who protects you from hidden dangers. The Psalmist uses the picture of the immovable city of Jerusalem, which is protected on every side by hills: “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people from this time forth and forever.” Ps 125:1-2.
Have you been having money troubles lately? Wondering where the next meal’s going to come from, the next pair of shoes for your kids? How you’re going to cover your taxes this spring, or your next house payment, or your next insurance payment? That could be your thorn! Perhaps God’s trying to remind you that it is He, not you, who is the One who supplies your daily bread. Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”
And that brings us to a bigger and more important question. Yes, it’s a mistake to trust ourselves to supply our earthly needs. But it’s a much bigger mistake to trust ourselves for salvation! And God has a painful reminder for that, too. Did you ever think of your sins, and the guilt you feel over your sins, as a thorn that God uses in your life? The Bible says that the Lord will make “all things work together for good to them that love God;” -why not the sinfulness that we see and detest in ourselves?
Yes! Our conscience, the guilt and sorrow we feel over sin, is a device God uses! He uses it to turn us away from our own failed attempts at righteousness. That’s the only way He can lead us, in repentance, to Jesus’ perfect righteousness! Paul says, “Godly sorrow produces repentance to salvation, not to be regretted.” II Cor 7:10. That big “thorn” in our lives is called the Law. When we look down the list of God’s commandments, the reality that we haven’t kept any of them slaps us in the face. We realize that we haven’t got the power to please God on our own. Everywhere we turn, we see the reminders: the sins, the failures that confront us with how truly weak we are! And that drives us, as it should, to the grace of our God. He reassures us, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Paul says, Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Paul thanks God for his thorns—why can’t we?
God wants to provide your salvation, so let Him do it! Throw off your own righteousness, and trust in the power and righteousness of Christ! He’s kept all the commandments that you could never keep. In your place, He walked the narrow path of righteousness in life. In all the spots along the way where you stumbled or went astray, He kept God’s Law for you. As John says, “He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin.” I John 3:5. And when the time came for all the accounts to be paid, when all the sins of the world were totaled up, Jesus signed on the dotted line. The weight of the cross was heavy as He walked toward Calvary, but it was nothing compared to the crushing burden of the sins of mankind—your sins and my sins. Nevertheless, Jesus picked them up and carried them on and on. Every bloody, agonizing step, all the way to Calvary. And there He got rid of them, once and for all. For God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” II Cor 5:21.
Because of what Jesus did for us, we’re free from our sins, alive to God in righteousness! We’re ready and waiting to take our place next to our Savior in heaven—the place He earned for us when He shed His precious blood. He is the One who provides our salvation. And if God sees the need to send reminders of that fact into our lives, as painful as those reminders may be, we can rejoice with Paul that the power of Christ is resting upon us!
Did you ever wonder how “cultured pearls” are produced? A tiny grain of sand is introduced into the mantle of an oyster. The sand acts as an irritant, which the oyster reacts to by coating it with a smooth white enamel. When many coats of this enamel have been built up on the grain of sand, it becomes a pearl—a thing of extraordinary beauty that is valued the world over. God sends thorns in our lives—painful little irritants—to remind us of our weakness, and teach us to depend on Him for our physical and spiritual needs. God grant that we may see these thorns for what they are—gifts that lead eventually to the beauty of life everlasting. Then we’ll understand , with St. Paul, that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” II Cor 4:17. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.