The Sixth Sunday After Trinity July 18, 2004
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
224, 342, 373(723), 51
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
Take just a moment and in your mind form an answer to the following question: Who is the strongest man you’ve ever met? Don’t just read over the question, really answer it. Your answer will give you insight into yourself. Now ask yourself this question: Who is the strongest woman you’ve ever met?
Interesting, isn’t it, how our thought process changes when we change “man” to “woman”? When asked about strong men, most of us think in terms of physical strength. When asked about strong women, most of us mentally shift gears to a different kind of strength, not so much physical as mental or emotional strength, and strength of character. Even more interesting is the fact that we shift gears yet again when asked: Who is the strongest Christian you’ve ever met?
The insight these questions ought to give us is the realization that our priorities are probably more befuddled than we realize. When we hear the words “strong” or “tough” we tend to think first of the physical, then of the mental or emotional, and only finally of the spiritual. This is exactly backward in order of real importance. The order we have adopted is dictated by our society and its values, not by God and His values. When the bad guys “ride into Dodge,” for example, the last person we want to see stride out to meet them is the pastor of the Dodge City Church. Nor do we care to see the philosophical school teacher. We want the biggest, fastest, meanest, toughest hombre that ever strapped on a six-shooter. According to the world’s way of thinking, big and strong and tough is the combination that gets the job done. Anything else is pretty much a waste of time.
Once again, we can use the world as a counter-indicator, a reverse barometer. If they think in those terms (which they do) then God probably thinks in opposite terms (which He does). This is the great and powerful message of our text for this morning, found recorded in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, the 12th Chapter:
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
These are the words of our God—His very words! With every confidence that these are indeed His words, and therefore true and right in all that they teach, we pray: “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
Dear fellow servants of the Lord Jesus, what is all the fuss about here? So what if it is true that we think first about physical strength, and only secondly or thirdly about mental and spiritual strength? The problem is that our backwards prioritizing of the different kinds of strength poses a rather substantial threat to our souls. How so?
Our Gospel lesson today gives us a most striking example. In Mark 6 we hear about Jesus’ return to His home country where He grew up. This is one of only two occasions when the Bible records that Jesus “marveled.” The other was recorded in Luke 7 when Jesus marveled at the faith of the Centurion. This time Jesus marveled for the opposite reason. Jesus marveled at the lack of faith of those in His own home region, so much so that He could perform almost no miracles among them. The key to our meditation comes in understanding why the people of Galilee (probably the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Nazareth in particular) immediately doubted that Jesus could be anyone truly special. The reason for their immediate skepticism and doubt was that Jesus was familiar to them. He was common, known, and, above all else, he was unimposing. Because he had no uncommon physical strength or stature, they dismissed Him as ordinary and rejected Him even as a leader, let alone a Savior.
Christians are not immune from such thoughts. We very often confuse physical, mental, or emotional strength for spiritual strength. We also tend to misread spiritual danger signals. We tend to think of apathy, for example, as a symptom of spiritual strength. In other words, if I don’t feel like I need to go to church, read the Word of God, attend Bible Classes and the like that means that I am already strong and don’t need those things. I wish that each one of you could accompany a pastor when he visits delinquent church members. I don’t remember one such visit I’ve made in almost twenty years where the individual said, “You know, Pastor, you’re right. I’m just hanging by a spiritual thread because I have all but cut myself off from the source of my strength.” Nor have I ever heard, “I agree, Pastor. I am starving myself to death because I am taking in no spiritual sustenance whatsoever.” The response is always: “I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.” The thought behind such words is that such a one has deep spiritual reserves—inner strength—that will carry him through. The first message of our text is: You are not as strong as you think you are.
The Apostle Paul was obviously one of the strongest Christians in the history of the Church. Yet, Paul was also thoroughly human and therefore, thoroughly sinful. He too had fallen victim to the world’s ideas of how things get done on this earth. Paul no doubt believed that the Gospel message he preached to the world would have a much greater impact and enjoy much greater success if only God would remove from his life the “thorn in the flesh” that He had allowed to torment him for some time. Paul’s logic might make sense to us, but not to God.
What exactly was this “thorn in the flesh”? We don’t know and therefore we can be certain that it doesn’t matter what it was. Paul recognized it as the measure employed by God to keep him humble and to continually teach him a supremely valuable lesson.
Oh, that our Lord would not only give each one of us our own “humbler,” but also the spiritual insight to recognize and thank Him for what it is!
Paul needed such a reminder not only because of the great things that had been shown to him, but also because of the great things accomplished through him. When Paul in our text refers to “the abundance of the revelations” [v.7] he is most likely referring to the special visions of heaven that had been given to him. These visions obviously set him apart as something special. Therefore, Paul recognized the need for something from the Lord’s hand to humble him. Paul came to refer to this humbler (whatever it was) as his “thorn in the flesh.”
Note the measure of Paul. He did not ask for the “thorn” to be removed so that he would not have to suffer from it any longer. He asked that it be removed so that his message of the Gospel might be delivered with more strength and power. Again, God’s message to Paul was clear: “Your strength does not accomplish my will. I accomplish my will through you.” To make that point clear to all in Paul’s day, Paul’s “thorn” was left to humble and remind him of the words of his God: “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” [v.9]
Dear Christians, do not pass these words over lightly for they are precious jewels from our God. Study them and meditate upon them until you understand them. When God says, “My grace is sufficient for you,” he is telling Paul and each one of us through Paul that we do not need and therefore should not expect anything from our God beyond His grace—His undeserved love. This is not because God is stingy with His gifts, it is because there is no greater, longer lasting, more valuable gift to be given. Physical strength will fail. God’s grace will not. The most stubborn determination will come to an end. God’s grace will not. Even the most interminable stamina will finally play out. God’s grace will not.
While this would have been comfort enough for Paul, God continued with those truly powerful words: “For My strength is made perfect in weakness.” A better translation would be: “For My power is brought to completion in weakness.” The word translated in our text as “made perfect” comes from the same root noun as the word used by Christ on the cross at the moment of His death when He said, “It is finished!” The “strength” or power of God is already perfect. It does not need man to make it perfect. Yet the goal of that power of God in man is brought to completion only in complete and utter weakness. Only when man is stripped of the last of his own strength and pride is he a fitting instrument for the Lord’s service.
Paul goes on: “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” [v.10] A light came on for Paul when the Lord refused his third plea to have his thorn removed. He learned that he can only be strong in the Lord when he is weak in himself. It is then, he says in our text, that “the power of Christ takes up residence in me” (Literally: “the power of Christ is spread over me like a tent.”). When I am the weakest, Paul says, that is when the power of Christ is the strongest in me and through me. “For when I am weak,” he concludes, “then I am powerful.”
Now while it is most certainly true that we are actually much weaker than we think, in acknowledging this fact “for Christ’s sake” we are then stronger than we will ever realize. It is then that the power of Christ lives and works in and through us.
I can think of no better example to illustrate this lack of appreciation for this strength that covers us like a tent than when a Christian lies helpless on a sickbed, seemingly at the mercy of the doctors and the medication he is given. While the backsliding Christian does not feel the need for the visit from the pastor when things are “going well,” he often craves such a visit in times of crisis. The irony is that we are actually the strongest at those times—those times when we are flat on our backs and must cast ourselves fully and helplessly upon the Lord. It is then that you are the strongest, not as the world reckons strength, but as God sees it. At that time when you despair of your own power and turn to God for your strength (ironically) you actually need your pastor the least. It is then, in your weakness, that you are the most powerful for then the power of Christ rests upon you, and works in you, in fullest measure.
What then is that power of God? What exactly is it good for? How does it manifest itself? It is the simple joy and peace which comes in knowing that every single sin has found full and complete payment in the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Sin lies at the very core of every single problem here on earth. Jesus Christ offers the full, perfect, complete solution to that greatest of all problems. His simple solution is that he took our sin upon himself, and credited His own perfection to our account. God the Father has accepted Jesus’ payment as sufficient to pay for every single sin the whole world over. Not one sin has been left without a payment. Jesus died for every single sinner and he paid for every single sin. You too have been rescued, ransomed, cleansed, forgiven.
Yet such great gifts can never be the possession of the strong and proud man who imagines that he can solve his own sin problem. To even attempt to pay for our own sins with our own good works is to reject Jesus Christ, the one true path to heaven.
How difficult to cover a proud man standing tall in his own strength with the tent of Christ’s power. Yet how truly powerful is the child of God who recognizes that in himself he is utterly weak and helpless. God grant such “weakness” to each one of us for then we are truly strong. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.