2021-07-04 6th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
We’ve all done it. Visit someone in the hospital or have been that person ourselves. There is no shortage of health problems and issues. Kidneys fail and fluid is retained. The heart grows weak and ankles swell. The prognoses may not be great at all. The older we get, the tougher it gets. The “Golden Years” aren’t all they are cracked up to be it seems! Many of you suffer with physical ailments and aches and pains and so you can understand how frustrating it is when your body just starts shutting down on you, even betraying you, with creaking knees, stiff, stubborn hips, pinched nerves and other unfriendly painful visitors. Bodily pain becomes a messenger, telling you that something isn’t right in the body. It is symptomatic of a greater problem at work.
St. Paul, the great Apostle of the Christian church speaks of this precise issue when he talks of his own “thorn in the flesh.” Nobody for sure knows what St. Paul meant by this. Perhaps it was a chronic physical problem like migraine headaches or arthritis or a slipped disk. It might also have been deluded Christian leaders who were constantly attacking Paul and his call as an Apostle, continually questioning his authority and teaching. Or, it might have been the hard-hearted Israelites who simply refused to believe that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah, the true Meshiach who would save their people from their sins. Either way, Paul viewed this thorn as a “messenger of Satan” – something in complete opposition to God. It was a horrendous experience, whatever it was.
The other remarkable thing here was that three times, St. Paul says, he called out to the Lord asking that this thorn would leave him. Three times this Apostle, the very man who saw the Lord Jesus Christ in a vision on the road to Damascus, prayed that God would take it away. If anyone should have been in God’s “in group” it would have been St. Paul! It’s like if you have a rich uncle who owns a car dealership, you’d hope that he’d give you a break on a new set of wheels, right? The deal would be sweet because you are family. You’ve got the connections! Or if your aunt is the mortgage broker at the bank, you’d expect her to hook you up with a special VIP only interest rate! That’s what we’d expect here between St. Paul and God! He drops to his knees and prays more earnestly than we could ever hope to three times and yet the answer came back the same. “No. My grace is sufficient for you. You don’t need what you think you do. You have everything you need in God’s mercy and favor in Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected for you. This grace will carry you through the toughest times of your life. Trust me. My power is made perfect in your weakness – not in shows of strength – in weakness.”
Man, do we struggle with this one! It goes against every single grain of our sinful selves. God is all powerful! He is strong and mighty! He calmed wind and waves! He parted great seas so that His people could walk through on dry ground! He lead His people by a huge pillar of fire and smoke! He is splendid and awesome and stunning and wondrous and formidable in every way! – Yet this power is perfected in weakness. The cross. The full power of God to save the world in the very fullness of time. It’s the power to trample down death by death and to those in tombs bestow life. The fullness of the power of God is hidden in the humanity of the God-made-flesh Jesus Christ, it is hidden in the water and the word of Holy Baptism, it is hidden in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, it is hidden in the soft word of comfort spoken to a dying man on his death bed. It is power hidden in weakness. It is victory disguised as defeat! God hides the creative and redemptive power of His Word under the weakness of a discouraged Church.
In congregations who just don’t seem to get it, no matter how many ways it’s preached to them. Pastors who don’t seem to get it, no matter how many times they preach it. People whose lives look anything but victorious, more like a group of broken, ailing, hurting and messed up people. But there’s power hiding there, hidden in weakness like buried treasure. Trust it. Take God at His Word. Believe it. And so St. Paul boasts in his weaknesses. Because “when I am weak, then I am strong,” which is another way of saying, “when I am dead, then Christ is most alive in me.” When we’ve got problems and issues and struggles, we expect God to jump into a blue suit with a red cape, soar down here and make our lives overflow with everything we’ve ever wanted! Make all of our problems and difficulties and struggles disappear. And in response to our heartfelt prayers, He sends us a crucified carpenter. … ‘Lord, did my prayers get lost in translation?!!? What gives?!’
How humbling this is for us though when the Word of God finally starts to make it’s way from our head to our heart and in the midst of calamity, pain and suffering, we have His peace that surpasses all human understanding. We begin to realize and accept that even our Lord Jesus wasn’t accepted in His home town. That the great Apostle Paul struggled in his ministry and with a thorn in the flesh. The prophet Ezekiel beat his head against the concrete wall of Israelite hard-heartedness. Life isn’t perfect. It simply cannot be on this side of heaven. Christians, God’s people, aren’t the real hard-cores who have no issues or problems or struggles in life or people who have it all together because they’ve “named it and claimed it” and God loves them for their spiritual progress and richly blesses them with the goodness of earthly things!
True Christians are the people who encounter the various messengers from Satan in this life –sin, sickness and death – and remain faithful to the promise of the Resurrected Christ. And His promise is simple. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). St. Paul boasted not of pomp and credentials and status, but rather of his weaknesses so that the power of Christ may continue to rest upon him. This is the true hidden power of the Living God. “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (2 Cor 12:10) Says St. Paul.
It becomes a process of stripping away the self and exchanging it for our Savior. Look to the Old Testament story of Gideon for another example of this. Gideon had a mighty army, some 32,000 fighting men. The Lord spoke to Gideon and got him to dismiss almost all of that fighting force, whittling it down to just 300. By all earthly accounts, it would be crazy to go to war with 300 when you could have had 32,000! But he deliberately made his army weak in order to demonstrate the divine power in weakness. They could have won the battle with a stronger army, but their very strength would have led them to boast of their own power instead of relying on the Lord.
All of human history has demonstrated the truth of this paradox over and over. The mighty Greek and Roman Empires hated weakness and loved strength, and they conquered the world by brute force. Yet, it was the weak and despised Christians who ministered to the slaves, outcasts, widows and orphans and the masses of nobodies of the world, who eventually conquered both Greece and Rome, and carried their values into the future and all the globe.
In the very middle of this sin-sick world of hardship and struggle and health problems, suffering and death, we can be content. We can have the peace of God that brings quietness to the mind and joy to the heart. Thanks be to God that we are weak and deficient in ourselves and our own power. For as we are, the strength and fullness of God’s grace, mercy and love fill us and carry us through. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Thanks be to God. Amen!