Sunday, July 5, 2015

Power made perfect in weakness

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
At first glance today’s scripture is a daunting one.  It offers up many more questions than answers. What is all of this talk about a third heaven? Why does Paul mention it and then not tell the whole story? What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” anyway? I’ll admit that after struggling with this text for nearly a week there are still aspects that I don’t understand, so perhaps this morning we can wrestle with it together.
The scripture lesson begins with a cryptic telling of an “out of this world” experience. Paul tells the Corinthians that he knows a man who three years ago was caught up in the third heaven. Paul writes about an experience he himself had in the third person. This is about the same as your child coming home and saying “I have a friend who has this problem. . .” Quite often your child and their “friend” are one and the same. Paul does this so that his audience will know that while he had this amazing spiritual experience, he has not let himself get caught up in his own hype. 
During this time period Jewish mysticism was on the rise. People everywhere were having visions and moments of great revelations. In fact many people were beginning to cash in on these kinds of experiences. People would stand in the synagogues and court yards telling the story of their special revelations to attract followers. 
I imagine they might have sounded a little bit like those late-night infomercials for psychics like “Ms. Chloe.” “Just give me a call and for $.99 per minute I will tell you everything about the future.” These scam artists were quickly gaining popularity in Corinth. So Paul says “Hey, I can play that game.” Paul too had had visions and dreamed dreams. Anyone remember the Damascas road experience where Paul actually talked to God and was converted? He can defiantly say that he’s had visions and known things that “cannot be repeated.” But he elevates himself even more in the next few sentences.
Paul says that he could and would boast about such experiences, in verse 6, but he won’t because he wants people to trust him and his message based on their own experiences of him. You see if you trust in visions and dreams that only the dreamer can tell you about, what do you really know? But if you trust the actions of a person, things they have shown you about themselves, then you know that person and their faith. Paul wants his work to be judged, not by how great a visionary he is, but rather on what he has revealed in his character that points toward God.
I’m sure there are many of us here today that have had wonderful spiritual experiences with God that we would struggle to put into words. Just this week I heard from a friend who said when God called her to the ministry she looked around to see who was speaking to her; she actually heard a voice. But she went on to say that she could tell that story 1,000 times, and it would not show anyone else that she had a calling. Rather, she had to go about the work and care for the sick, pray for the oppressed, and love the unlovable. By doing these things she shows God’s calling and presence in her life.
Paul emphasizes the importance of not buying into your own hype. He continues in verse 7 saying, “just in case I ever thought of getting high and mighty about my many visions, a thorn was given to me in my very flesh. A messenger of the devil sent to torment me and keep me from getting too elated.”
Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh. The Greek word he uses is skolops which means thorn or stake. A Schoinos was a trap used to harm their enemies. It was sometimes a pit dug in the ground filled with skolops, or sharpened stakes. They covered the pit and waited for their enemies to walk across it and be impaled on the stakes. Schoinos were also often used to defend crops and agriculture. People put them up around and in vines to harm the enemy and keep their crops from being easily ravaged[1]. The skolops were used to deliberately change the plans of the enemy.  Ancient armies, by changing the enemies direction, controlled the path their enemies took.  If there was a skolops in the way you had to move your entire troops to avoid that area. 
 Paul tells us that this thorn has been given to him by Satan. God did not afflict Paul with this problem, Satan did. God did not allow such a thing to occur to Paul. Rather Satan planned this as an attack on God. Satan was trying to thwart God’s plans by harming one of God’s more ardent supporters. Satan, the great pretender thought this skolops or thorn would keep Paul from doing God’s work.
We are not told what Paul’s or thorn in the flesh was. It apparently would have been well known to the Corinthians because Paul sees no need to talk about it in any sort of detail. There have been countless pages written wondering and pondering upon what this thorn might have been. Was it eye sight related? Was it leprosy? Was it malaria or some other disease? Was it physical at all? Could it have been depression? Could it have been spiritual temptations? Maybe it was stuttering? Who knows? By focusing on what Paul’s ailment might have been we lose the point of what he is saying.
There is something he fights, day in day out, and he has begged God to take it away from him. Three specific times he has asked to be relieved of this stake. And yet it remains.
This hardly matches up with my image of Paul. After all Paul is the great father of the church. He was a fervent church planter. He was an amazing missionary. He worked well with men and women. It would naturally occur then that this wonderful holy man would find favor with God and never have any problems at all. After all that’s the good news most of us are taught isn’t it? That if we believe in God and follow God’s plans everything will be hunky dory? That’s the kind of good news we will gladly sign on to proclaim.
But I am reminded of another man who prayed to have his afflictions removed. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. Down on his knees one night, all alone he asked that his afflictions go away. This man, Jesus sat in the garden and begged that “this cup should pass.” He too begged that his suffering would be avoided and set aside. But in the end he prayed “not my will but thine be done.” Jesus, wearing a crown of thorns, was crucified. The cup did not pass. Angels did not swoop down from heaven to save his feet from dashing against the rocks. He suffered, bled, and died.  
But what is it God told Paul in verse 9? “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” In ultimate weakness Christ gave himself up to death on a cross. But through grace he was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven and sitith on the right hand of God the father almighty!
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul heard those words and realized that he could boast in his shortcomings and weakness because through them God’s grace was shown. God did not let Satan’s attack on Paul stop God’s work from being done. In fact God was glorified all the more because of Paul’s weakness.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Think about those words. What do they mean to you? I know what they mean to me. I remember growing up thinking that I was just a dumb girl. I had a great vocabulary and could talk the ear off of a fence post. But I had the hardest time writing, and when it came to math I felt as if I had missed a whole years’ worth of classes and was fighting to get caught up. My teacher continually sent home reports saying “intelligent but does not apply herself” or “lacks motivation.”  I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I prayed to be delivered from these problems. I can’t count the nights I cried over the pain and frustration they caused me. I was fifteen before I was tested for learning disabilities and it was discovered that I had dyslexia and Attention Deficit disorder.
For some a naming or diagnoses of a disorder is a traumatic experience. For me it was like a weight had been lifted. I felt God’s grace in that moment. I wasn’t stupid, I had a problem. And with God’s help, hard work and dedication I could work through it and learn to live with it. I struggled, but God sent me great teachers and godly mentors to help me along the path. I finished high school and college with honors and graduated from the seminary with my master’s degree. Thanks to God’s grace and power I have been able to get through these difficulties, often one number or letter at a time.
I have not been cured of dyslexia, it’s still as bad as ever, but I know that its there and I am more cautious and purposeful in my actions. “My grace is sufficient, says the Lord, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Each of us here has a weakness. For some it is a physical ailment such as cancer, arthritis, poor hearing or failing eyesight. For some of us our thorn is emotional. We’ve lost loved ones, we’ve been abused, we’ve suffered with the burden of a bad child hood or even worse marriages. For some of us this weakness is psychological and manifests in depression, or manic episodes, perhaps even in crippling fears or deep isolation.
Whatever our weaknesses, all we need to remember is that God did not abandon us to them. There is always hope, for God is always with us.
So let us leave this place boasting not in our own works, not in our own good fortune, not in our perfection. Let us leave here full of our weakness, knowing that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness and that God’s grace is sufficient for us all.”

[1] Warfare in Agriculture in Classical Greece by Victor Davis Hanson

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