2 Corinthians 12:7-10
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
If your life is moving along perfectly, if everything is going your way with your finances and your health and your family and your work and your neighbors, if you have no stress or sorrows, then this sermon may not be particularly meaningful for you. If God has granted you blessings in those areas of your life, then you should rightly give him thanks and praise; every good gift comes down from Him. But this sermon is not going to be about how to have a victorious Christian life, where if you believe hard enough, good things will come to you; if you declare God’s blessing on your life and apply the right Biblical principles, then your troubles will go away. For that is not the way of Christ. False preachers who talk like that want to avoid the cross, just like the devil tempted Jesus to do in the wilderness. But the way of Christ is not to avoid suffering and go around it, but to go directly through it, for you, to bear the cross fully as the only way to bring you true resurrection and life and victory. To follow in the way of Christ is to believe, even against what we feel, that God is at work for your good precisely in and through suffering.
In today’s Epistle the apostle Paul was dealing with the church in Corinth that was in danger of being led astray by glory preachers. Responding to that threat, Paul says that even though he could boast of revelations and visions of the Lord, that would not be profitable or helpful. Instead he says that he will rather boast in his infirmities, “that the power of Christ may rest upon me,” that the eyes of everyone may always be focused on Christ and Him crucified.
Paul speaks of one affliction in particular. Because he had received an abundance of revelations from the Lord, lest the apostle become puffed up and proud in himself, he says “a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.” Notice the language that he uses. Even though this thorn in the flesh was a messenger of Satan, yet Paul speaks of this in the language of a gift; this thorn was given to him by the Lord.
That notion can be a bit troubling to ponder, just as Job struggled to understand why God permitted his suffering. But it should also bring us great comfort, too. We are reminded here that the devil, like rabid dog, is on a leash. If he had free reign, there would be nothing but destruction and death at every turn; there would be no relief anywhere. But Satan is restrained in such a way that even the evil and the harm he perpetrates cannot overcome the ultimate good that God is working in all things for His called and chosen people. The devil ends up destroying himself and actually serving God’s purposes. The affliction by which Satan wants to tear us down actually ends up drawing us closer to Christ and the life we have in Him that cannot be taken away.
Now, what was this thorn in the flesh that Paul had? Since it’s described as a messenger of Satan, some have thought of it as some sort of demonic spiritual attack. But I would suggest that since Paul speaks of his flesh, the delivery of this message is something Paul probably experienced as a bodily ailment and affliction. Various theologians have suggested that the apostle may have suffered from malaria or some other chronic disease. We know for certain that Paul had very poor eyesight that he suffered from. He says in his epistle to the Galatians, “I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.” And he concludes that epistle by saying, “See with what large letters I write!” as if to emphasize how bad his vision was. But again, whatever it was, all of this is described as a messenger of Satan.
When you are suffering intense stresses or physical problems, perhaps you can identify with that description. It can feel like the devil sending you a message, trying to slap you around and say, “Oh, you really think that God cares about you, that He’s with you, that He forgives you? Come on, grow up! Look at you. Why would He let this happen to you? You really should just give up on Him.” When we’re suffering physically or emotionally, that’s the message the devil wants to drive home and lure you to believe.
But notice what actually happens for God’s people. Paul says that this experience moved him to pray and to plead with the Lord. So it is for us. We may say our prayers of thanks when all is going well, but so often complacency sets in and we forget about the Lord and stray away to focus on all cares, riches, and pleasures of life that today's Gospel reading mentions. And so the Lord makes use of affliction to draw us back to Himself and into His life–not because He wants to do us harm, but like a parent disciplining a child in love, because He wants to do us the greatest good. He doesn’t want us to be lost.
And then comes the even harder part about all of this: Paul says that he pleaded with the Lord three times that this thorn in the flesh might depart from him. Three times in fervent prayer the apostle begs for this affliction to be taken away. You would think if anyone’s prayer would be answered positively, it would be someone like Paul, this great missionary and preacher of the Gospel. But, of course, our prayers are not answered based on our own merits and worthiness, but on the merits and worthiness of Christ, and the good and gracious will of our heavenly Father. And in this case, that gracious will meant that the answer to Paul’s prayer was a gentle but firm “No.” No, Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you. For my strength is made perfect in weakness.” The discipline of that thorn in the flesh would endure for his earthly lifetime. It would be part of the way that Paul was brought to perfect fullness in Christ.
And so it is also for you. You may know in some sense that you need Jesus when you feel like you’re living a good, upright life and things are going well for you. But it’s when your sinfulness is driven home to the point that you’re terrified of losing your salvation, it’s when everything in life seems to be falling apart that you learn how desperately you need Jesus, and then you cling to Him with all your heart and look to Him to rescue and deliver you. And to cling to Christ is to be truly strong. For His is real strength that cannot be conquered or overcome. When you finally learn to give up on your own wisdom and good choices and good health and the good stuff you’ve acquired, when you realize that of yourself all of that is just dust in the wind, when you’re nothing, then Jesus is everything. His strength is made perfect for you in weakness.
In this vein Martin Luther once famously commented, “May God in His mercy save me from a Christian Church where there are only saints. I want to be with that little company and in that Church where there are faint-hearted and weak people, the sick, and those who are aware of their sin, misery, and wretchedness and who feel it, who cry to God without ceasing and sigh unto Him for comfort and help.”
Remember the apostle Paul, then, when it seems that God isn’t hearing your prayers, that He doesn’t care, or even worse, that He is against you. Remember, that the good and gracious will of our heavenly Father sometimes answers “no” to your prayers. You may not understand how or why, but like Paul you are given to say “Amen” to His will, trusting that His strength truly is made perfect in weakness.
For after all, isn’t that the heart of what we believe about Christ Himself? His strength was made perfect in His own weakness. His greatest power was not exhibited when He calmed the stormy sea, though that was great and divine power. The greatest force of His might was not shown when He cast out the legion of demons from the Gerasene man, though that was a wonderful example of how He came to save and deliver us. Jesus’ ultimate strength was shown when He chose not to use His power in a glorious way, but when He utterly gave up His strength for you on the cross, when He became completely weak with all of your sins and infirmities and sorrows, when He emptied Himself of His divine glory and power and was broken down completely, losing it all, even His very life. Jesus’ greatest power was shown by using His strength for sacrifice, to redeem you, to win you back, to conquer your enemies, sin and death and the devil. His perfect weakness was perfect strength, perfect power to save.
So then, this is the way of Christ for you. Despairing of yourself in your own weakness, taking refuge in Christ the crucified, you share in and you have His perfect strength, His perfect salvation. In the weakness of the baptismal water, the Lord clothed you with the strength of His own righteousness. In the foolishness of the Gospel message preached, that weak little seed scattered on the soil, the Lord saves you who believe; His Word does not return to Him void. And in the seeming powerlessness of bread and wine, the Lord feeds you and fills you with the divine power of His true body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of all your sins, that you may share in His bodily resurrection on the Last Day. By the power of these things, we who belong to this insignificant little congregation declare with St. Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
“My grace is sufficient for you,” Jesus says. In the end, this grace of your Lord Jesus is all that you need. It is sufficient, more than enough. For His grace saves you eternally; and it strengthens you to endure every trouble and affliction and cross that you must yet bear in this fallen earthly life.
The hymn writer Paul Gerhardt said it this way:
When life’s troubles rise to meet me,
Though their weight
May be great,
They will not defeat me.
God, my loving Savior, sends them;
He who knows
All my woes
Knows how best to end them.
God gives me my days of gladness,
And I will
Trust Him still
When He sends me sadness.
God is good; His love attends me
Day by day,
Come what may,
Guides me and defends me.
From God’s joy can nothing sever,
For I am
His dear lamb,
He, my Shepherd ever.
I am His because He gave me
His own blood
For my good,
By His death to save me.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠