Sunday, July 23, 2006

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2006, 2 Cor 12:7-10

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, July 23, 2006
St.  John’s, Howard, SD
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.
It’s a good thing to be strong, isn’t it?  Well, that’s how we get along in this world.  That’s how we live life to the fullest, being stronger than the other guy; acting when he is afraid or too weak to act; taking opportunities that others are too timid to take.  The world was made by strong people; politicians, professional athletes, steel workers, firefighters, etc.  The world is being built by strong people.  In fact if you want to get ahead in the world you’d better be strong.  Life is no place for weaklings.  If you have a goal you’ll never reach it if you’re not strong enough to do whatever is necessary to accomplish it.  You’ve got to push every obstacle aside, every thorn that gets in your way has to be dealt with.  When bad things happen you’d for sure better not show any weakness, because there are wolves out there that are waiting to pounce on weakness.  Don’t get bogged down like weak people who always need a hand to get along.  Keep moving forward toward your goal.  Be strong.  That’s the American dream, isn’t it?  to be strong and self confident, like the Marlboro man.
Strong people are necessarily self-confident.  You can’t be successful if you’re not confident in your self and your abilities.  You hafta know that you are better than anyone else.  Of course that sounds a little conceited, so instead of that let’s call it confidence.  You’ve gotta be confident that you are better than other people, stronger than other people.  You’ve got to have faith in yourself that’s the strength you need to succeed.  It is the height of weakness to lack self-confidence and depend on anyone else to do things for you.  That only leads to failure.  Failure is for weaklings.
And worst of all, the most important thing to remember is this.  There is no room in the world for grace.  That’s having good things happen for you that you don’t deserve, getting stuff you don’t earn.  Well, it happens to people all the time, people win the lottery, or inherit a house or a farm, or even get lucky in love, but when that happens you can be sure they don’t appreciate what they’ve got.  They waste it.  Most of the time quick fortunes are mismanaged and lost quickly.  You’ve got to have blood and sweat invested to things you get to have value.  Grace is really a crutch used by people who aren’t strong enough to make it on their own.  Weak people depend on grace because of their weakness.  It’s rather gullible to sit and wait for anything good to fall into your lap.  
But wait a minute… I don’t think that’s what this text from St. Paul seems to be saying?  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Paul was a weakling.  He was constantly under attack, beaten, stoned and left for dead, jailed for years at a time, shipwrecked, struck blind, abandoned, and misunderstood.  It’s a pretty strong person who undergoes such punishment… it’s a pretty strong person who takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’, the way that Paul does.  But from what he writes here we’d better not be too quick to make Paul out to be the Super-Apostle.  I mean its easy to imagine Paul standing with his hands on his hips while the bullets of false teaching seem to bounce off of him.  We might even imagine him walking all around Greece preaching boldly everywhere he goes.  He seems strong and sure of himself even self confident.  And Paul even confronted Peter one time, when Peter wasn’t living up to what Jesus sent him to do.  Didn’t that take a great deal of strength?  To stare down one of Jesus own disciples in public! That took a certain kind of strength, don’t you think?  That’s why Paul got things done, right?  
Well, as often happens, God has different ideas about strength and weakness than you and I do.  He has different ways for us to live our lives than we naturally want to live them.  We think of strength, God speaks of weakness.  We think of honor, God speaks about being humble.  We think of getting the job done, God says he’s already taken care of it.  That’s our old sinful nature speaking.  Deep in our hearts we want to take care of the things that are God’s things to take care of.  God is not above slapping us down and putting us in our place when we need it.  He has our eternal future in mind.  Temporary sickness and difficulties in this life are small compared to eternity.  Even death is sometimes used by God to get us to focus on what’s important, to get us to see just how weak and short our lives really are.  God will use whatever is necessary to keep us focused on Him and what He has done for us in Jesus.  That’s what we see Paul talking about here.  He needed God to be strong.  Paul needed to be reminded that he lived only by God’s strength not his own.  Paul writes these words himself:
So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.  (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, ESV)
It’s that last phrase that I find most interesting.  It’s that last phrase the makes me scratch my head and say “huh?”  “…when I am weak, then I am strong.”  You see, if your like me you wonder just how weakness ever be strength?  You what know how can a weak person be strong?  I’ve been around when the big guys pick on the little guys.  I should have stood up for him, but instead I just stood there watched it happen.  I was happy I wasn’t the weakling that was being picked on.  I really had no excuse there were times when I was the weakling that was picked on.  But Paul says being weak is being strong.  That sounds like double speak!  And how can Paul possibly say and really mean it, when he writes, “I am content with weaknesses?” Nobody wants to be weak… right?
Well, Paul might not want to be week but he’s been told that it’s what’s best for him.  He says God gave him a thorn in the flesh.  Lot’s of ink has been spilt over those words.  Lots of people have tried to decide exactly what it was, what kind of trouble Paul suffered from, what kind of a thing he asked God to get rid of.  But he never tells us, in all his writings, this is all that we are told.  We studied this in school, I could make a list of possibilities but really it doesn’t matter what it was.  Paul himself tells us everything we need to know.  He tells us what is important about it.  He tells us the purpose.  “To keep me from being too elated.”  Whatever it was it had the ability to knock Paul down a peg, and keep him humble.  Whatever it was it took away Paul’s ability to boast his accomplishments.  When good stuff happened, because of what Paul was doing, this thorn made it abundantly clear, that it was all God’s work not none of Paul’s.  Paul couldn’t take any credit if he wanted to.  The thorn made Paul the super preacher dependant on God.  Really what Paul says is the most objectionable thing we Americans can think of.  What he says is really the most un-American thing of all, Paul the Super-Apostle, the person most humanly responsible for founding the Christian Church was really just an over dependant, weakling.  And more than that, he was proud of his weakness.  That just gets our goat… rubs us the wrong way… puts a burr under our saddle.  Couldn’t Paul have taken just a little bit of the credit?  But Paul must have known something we don’t know.  What was it?  What did he have that we don’t have?  How was he, weakling that he was, able to get done all these things that got done?  Everywhere he went new Christians sprang up like weeds.  Little churches even popped up in the middle of strong multi-god-ed cultures that hated the way Paul talked.  If Paul was a weakling, how did all this stuff happen?  Well, Jesus tells us.  He tells us through Paul’s pen, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  
Paul knew that with out the Grace of Jesus Christ, he’d be nothing, just a lost and condemned person.  He knew that the work God had planned for him to do was at its best when Paul was weak and Jesus Christ was strong.  When Paul was leaning on the crutch of Jesus Christ, when he was depending on Jesus to get him through, that’s when Jesus was most clearly seen in Paul.  You see; Paul was a weak man who depended on someone else.  In God’s economy of life there’s no room for conceit, or pride.  What Paul is saying here is that, he really didn’t have anything to do with all that he did.  With God, weakness and dependence is strength.  That doesn’t match up with how we are told life works, by the movers and shakers of the world.  But it shouldn’t surprise us that the world thinks that way.  After all in the world’s estimation the crucifixion of Jesus just one huge sign of weakness, one big failures sign out in front of God and everyone.  No reasonable person would see strength in humiliating, bloody, horrible public death.  A strong person would never allow that to happen.  A strong person would have put up a fight and been killed while taking an army of enemies into death with him.  But the reality of Jesus is that in all of human history no one has ever shown greater strength.  Jesus said it like this, greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends.  Jesus could have fought back, he could have taken out the whole band that came to arrest him, but he didn’t.  He showed great strength in the face of the terrible pain he knew was coming.  He faced suffering, even the extreme suffering of death on the cross, just to bring salvation to conceited human beings that hated him, and wanted him dead.  What’s more, that suffering and death, brings salvation to you and me, right here and right now.  Jesus the weakling gave his life to save you and me.  When we look to Jesus as savior we realize he wasn’t weak at all.  His strength just doesn’t fit the way we think, because he does what we never would have done.  Now, that’s what go Paul going.  He was a dependant weakling.  Paul didn’t deserve salvation any more than you or I deserve it.  It’s when people could see through Paul and see Jesus that things really started to happen.  When Paul was weak, people knew what was happening wasn’t from Paul but from Christ.  That’s what Jesus means when he says His grace is sufficient.  When we lean on God’s grace through Jesus, people see how good that grace really is, and they begin to lean on it too.
But our problem is just like Paul’s… it’s just like everyone.  We want to be strong and self-reliant.  We want to make it on our own.  If we look at our lives we can find lots of things to be boastful about.  Our success stories are always me centered.  Look at what I did to solve this problem or that problem.  Look at the kingdom I’ve built for myself.  I’m something special because I’ve beat the odds and become successful.  We put ourselves ahead of God and trust our own resourcefulness to get us through our troubles.  In fact, we use God and religion as a resource; in stead of the source for life.  What we forget is that without the grace of God we wouldn’t even be here.  According to God’s justice the whole world should be destroyed.  That’s what we as the human deserve because of our sin.  Putting ourselves ahead of God makes him our enemy.  We deserve death and hell for it.  And the worst of it is that we can’t help it.  That’s who we are, and how our mind’s work.  God knows that about us and God knew that about Paul.  So God gave him a thorn to remind him who was really in control.  He gave him a thorn to make him dependent.  When Paul’s thorn made it impossible for Paul to function on his own, he turned to Jesus.  When Paul was down and out, when he was weak, Paul turned in faith to the One he knew was strong.  That’s what faith is, depending on Jesus’ strength and not our own.  
Got thorns in you life?  Of course you do.  They overwhelm you sometimes.  We’d like nothing better than to have them gone.  Paul asked God to take his away, too.  But he rejoiced in his weakness because of what happened when he was weak.  So, thank God for your thorns! Especially those that seem to be more than you can bear.  It’s the big ones, the ones that take you down a peg, the ones that leave you desperate, and out of control, it’s those that most often push you straight to Jesus.  Ever had a problem so big you couldn’t wait for communion to come around so you could see Jesus, turn to Jesus, taste and touch Jesus, and hold on the promises that he puts into the palm of your hand… right there with the very body and blood that He shed on the cross for you?  Maybe you don’t think about the Lord’s Supper that way, but maybe you should.  If you turn to God’s Word when you’re in trouble what is Holy Communion other than a visible, taste able, touchable form of Jesus Words with all doubt about who they are for taken away.  Sometimes it takes a thorn for us to see our need.  You hardly ever feel that way when you’re riding high.  You don’t think about Jesus at all when things are going good.  It’s when trouble stalks you you’re constantly in prayer, just like Paul.  When we’re in trouble our prayers get pretty simple don’t they.  “Help! Now!”  When you are weak and depending on Jesus, that’s when His power is being made perfect in you.  That’s where you see that you can’t be saved without Him.  It’s when you cling to His every Word and Promise that your faith is most noticeably growing.  It’s where the ‘rubber meets the road’ and you really understand what it means to be dependant on God.
God’s grace was sufficient for Paul.  God’s grace is sufficient for you.  But don’t think that God’s grace is a little thing, or of small account.  God’s grace is sufficient because it is… well huge.  While we face our own single death, Jesus faced suffering and death, the punishment for the whole world’s sin, for all people for all time, on the cross.  While we most often bear thorns of our own making, Jesus bore a crown on his head made from thorns.  But the suffering He suffered wasn’t His but ours.  But in a way it was of his own making too, because he chose it for himself.  We live our lives with pride, conceit and self-dependence pushing God away.  He lived life subject to God’s perfect will, in a totally dependant relationship with the Father, even though that meant He must die on the cross.  Such is God’s love for you.  Such is Jesus’ love for you.  Jesus takes all that He did , His whole perfect life, and He takes all that you do, your whole sinful life and He exchanges them.  In one wet moment He makes a great exchange.  Sin washes off of you and on to Jesus, and He dies for it.  God declares you to be holy and perfect just as Jesus is, and promises that just as Jesus rose from the dead you will, too.  That is God’s grace.  His undeserved love for you.  You see, it’s too big for you to handle.  Only God can do it.  Only Jesus.  We see it most clearly when we are weak.
So we started talking about being strong.  And we find out that it’s really good to be weak.  Weakness brings you to Jesus and His all sufficient grace.  The thorns are there, they will be your whole life.  Just remember when they stick you, rejoice and turn to Jesus in faith and ask for help.  That’s why they are there.  Because when you are weak, then you are strong.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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