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Strength in Weakness
primarily based on 2 Cor 12:2-10
by Mike

 As I prepared for our sermon this morning, I have to admit I got a little melancholy. Not just my normal melancholy, but this time an extra one, based on our lessons. Our Scripture readings this morning focus on weakness, and inability, and things that we can’t do.

Isaiah begins by being sent on a mission to the Jewish people, a mission that the Lord tells him he will fail at, because the people won’t listen to him. The Gospel tells us how Christ came home, and his own, who, rather than celebrate his return, questioned and mocked him, refusing to believe that he was even a prophet, not to mention the Son of God.

The Epistle brings us to one of Paul’s greatest struggles. In fact, it is a two-fold struggle, for in his one struggle with the Corinthians, he reveals another struggle, or thorn, which revealed even more of his weaknesses and limitations.

Just about every day, we are confronted with our limitations, and just about every day, we grumble about them. Why are we given so many limitations in our lives? Wouldn’t it be much easier to serve the Lord if he just made us perfect now, and took away all of the weaknesses which we have?

Our epistle text brings us to Saul of Tarsus, whose name was changed to “Paul” which is Latin for “short.” The Corinthian Church considered him a poor speaker. Once he was so long winded that a little boy fell asleep in the window listening, and fell to his death two stories below, later to be revived by a miracle. Throughout Paul’s ministry he seemed to be a magnet for trouble. Riots and divisions constantly swirled about him. Barnabas, known as the son of encouragement, split up with him on his journeys.

The Roman authorities and the Jewish officials each, it seemed, took turns arresting Paul. Beaten, whipped, stoned, imagine what he must have looked like, covered in face and body with scars.

Just think if you were on a pulpit committee and this man was candidating at your church. Short, bruised and maimed, a jail record, a history of division, single, long winded, and yet considered a poor speaker. Who would want that? Why would God give the man to whom He gave so much authority and responsibility so many limitations?

Status is a thing that everyone wants. In the Corinthian church certain individuals had been trying to show the importance of their status by telling stories of their importance to the church, their status as great believers, and by begging for testimonials to put them on the same level with men like the Apostle Paul. To do this, they many times tried to show how they were more important, and more accredited than Paul was.

In his 2nd letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul is trying to show the errors and dangerous influence of his opponents, and to defend the authenticity of his own apostolic credentials.

In both this chapter, and the previous one, Paul chooses to engage in a style of boasting that he characterizes over and over as foolish. He is doing this to show that his authority is properly established, but he constantly is drawing attention to the foolishness of such bragging, to show that it is not him, but Christ, who has filled him and enabled him for the work for which he was sent.

In verses 2 through 4 of chapter 12, Paul speaks of a man who was given an incredible vision of heaven. Two clues in this general passage, however, give us the impression that this man is Paul, himself. First, Paul’s whole argument in chapter eleven was to establish his position as a worthy teacher, and he is there responding to the claim of many of the false apostles about their visions.

Secondly, in verse 7, Paul points out that he was given a thorn in his side to humble him, because of the abundance of the revelation that was given to him in the vision. He certainly would not be disciplined for a great revelation given to him second hand, especially when you consider that Paul described the revelation in verse 4 as being of words that were inexpressible, and not lawful for a man to utter.

As we begin the twelfth chapter, we find Paul in the middle of what he identifies as reluctant boasting. While others were using their boasting to draw credit to themselves, Paul uses three important devices in his comments to downplay it.

First he uses the third person to say that he too had the sort of wonderful experiences that others claimed, but he did not want to boast in them. Secondly, he refers to his vision as being snatched away, taken not by his wanting it, but by an outward calling.

Thirdly, Paul emphasizes the phrase in Christ in terms of the vision. The vision was not a result of who Paul was of himself, but of Paul’s being in Christ. If the point of all the bragging that we do is to shine the spotlight on ourselves, then absolutely nothing is accomplished by focusing on our weaknesses. But for Paul the question here isn’t so much what will further his own cause, or better promote his image.

His primary concern is to state that which will serve best to bring glory to God. “Boasting in weakness” makes clear the fact that who and what we are is not our own doing, but rather the work of One much more competent, infinitely more proficient and skillful than ourselves.

Who would be foolish enough to boast in their being weak or deficient? Precisely the one who is wise enough to recognize that God is the source of all that is good and special and unique and important about us. To “boast in power” is to point to ourselves, to make ourselves the center of the universe, whereas to boast in weakness is to take the spotlight off of ourselves and to allow it to shine on God.

To prevent his heavenly visions from becoming an “ego trip,” Paul was given a “thorn” in the flesh. It was a messenger of Satan sent to batter Paul around, to keep him from thinking that because he had received this tremendous vision, that he was of his own strength now immune to dependence on Christ, and sufficient in his own makeup.

Paul, of course, gives no details about what this thorn that buffeted him, which has led to great speculation, but also to great strengthening of others, who have looked to their own thorns, and drawn a kinship to Paul in his weakness.

To be buffeted, or beaten, is a severe indignity. As a kid, I remember one of the most humiliating things that happened to me was getting a black eye. If you got one, you know, you tried to figure out creative ways to hide it. Things like that force you to become humble against your will.

Many times when we labor under weakness, or what we perceive to be a shortcoming, it might be that we are being buffeted by the Lord to make us ashamed, so that we, like Paul, may learn humility. On this point, St. Augustine says “What a dreadful poison pride is, so that the only antidote to it is another poison.”

In his weakness, Paul three times calls on the Lord to relieve him of this thorn, and after this plea the Lord responds, but not as Paul had hoped. The Lord tells Paul “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Pride is to be feared because of its connection with the best deeds that we perform, and also because it naturally clings to us with such obstinacy, and is so firmly rooted, that it is only with the greatest difficulty that it can be removed. We see this problem among all people, and even Paul has to be warned to avoid it.

Paul had overcome many torments and perils and other evils. He had won triumphs over Christ’s enemies. He had driven out the fear of death and renounced the world, and yet he had not completely subdued his pride, so that there still went on in him a conflict so doubtful that he could not conquer it without being buffeted from the Lord.

What Paul once viewed as a thorn to be removed, he then understood as an opportunity for Christ’s power to work more effectively. And here is where the whole story changes.

It is this, his weakness, which Paul wishes to boast. Strength in weakness. Earlier in 2nd Corinthians, Paul refers to us as earthen vessels carrying around a great treasure, that of the Power of God, but not our power. In realizing that we are weak of our own ability, we become strong in Christ.

Like St. Paul, our prayers go out to God to remove the illness, reinstate the job, reconcile the relationship, restore the faith, or remove the Thorn! Perhaps one of the most excruciating faith struggles people face is making what we think is a spiritually mature request of God, only to find that nothing happens. Understanding the silence or absence of God is very confusing. One other important thing which our limitations do, is drive us as Christians to each other. Every image of the Church in the New Testament is a corporate image. Servants of God working together, dependant on God and one another, for the tasks that he has given us. We as believers were not brought together to be a collection of one-man bands, but rather to work as a symphony, filling in one another’s weaknesses with strengths as the Lord allows.

The Gospel lesson, and our OT reading show us the same principles. Although some saw wisdom and deeds of power in the figure of Jesus, the people of Nazareth could only see “the carpenter, the son of Mary.” They see God at work in Christ, and then deliberately turn their eyes to Joseph and Mary and all His relatives, and let this veil over the manifest light present in Jesus’s teachings and miracles.

They were not able to perceive in this ordinary and to them completely unremarkable person, potential for God’s power to be at work. They looked as man looks, on the outside.

Matthew and Mark say, because of the impiety of His countrymen, that Christ did no miracles among the people. He had already given them some taste of his power; but they willingly rebel against Christ. However, later Mark adds that some sick people were cured. We see that Christ, faced with the rebellion, fought their malice, and triumphed over the obstacles they put before Him. Calvin here says:

We have experience of the same thing daily with respect to God; for, though he justly and reluctantly restrains his power, because the entrance to us is shut against him, yet we see that he opens up a path for himself where none exists, and ceases not to bestow favors upon us. What an amazing contest, that while we are endeavoring by every possible method to hinder the grace of God from coming to us, it rises victorious, and displays its efficacy in spite of all our exertions!

The Sixth Chapter of Mark shows us a lot about unbelief and weakness, within the people gathered in the synagogue, within Herod, and within the hearts of the disciples. Their love for the persons to whom they ministered good news and healing begins to wear thin as a hungry crowd presses in on them. Anxious and overwhelmed by the colossal needs before them, the disciples can think of only one option: send the people away and let them take care of their own needs for food. Jesus responds to them by saying “You give them something to eat.”

The longer we follow Jesus as his disciples, the more we realize that God places us in impossible situations like these, in order for us to learn that we can not do this work of ministry on our own. God is the one at work. Jesus is the one who provides. We are invited to co-labor with God, giving only what we have received from Him.  Amen.