Sunday, February 20, 2022

Boasting, Thorns, and Grace


2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9

For you, being so wise, bear with the foolish gladly. For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face. To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am just as bold myself. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.

Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands.

Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows – was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. On behalf of such a man will I boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. For if I do wish to boast I shall not be foolish, for I shall be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one may credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.

And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me – to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

Sermon for Sexagesima Sunday 02/20/22

Boasting, Thorns, and Grace

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

In our text, this morning, the Apostle Paul is wrestling with an issue that is not uncommon in the Christian Church today. His teaching was being attacked. It wasn't actually a frontal attack. It was others, who disagreed with Paul, presenting themselves as more authoritative. His Corinthian congregation was being led to believe that they could better rely on the teachings of others – false apostles he called them in verse 13. In short, others were considered more reliable than Paul.

That is the situation that every pastor faces today, to one degree or another. The last pastor was more authoritative than the present pastor. The notes in the Concordia Study Bible are considered more trustworthy than the teaching of the pastor. The guy on T.V. is more believable than the guy in the pulpit. And if you came from another church, the pastor of your previous congregation is more credible, in your mind, than the pastor of your present congregation. It is only natural.

While he was answering the critics, and trying to encourage his Corinthian congregation to listen to sound doctrine, Paul covered a wide range of topics. He talked about boasting, and about all the sufferings that he had endured as a faithful teacher of Christ. He told them of unique revelations he had received, although he did not wish to seem to them to be too important in his own eyes, so he wrote about the revelations as though they were given to another person, and not himself. He discussed a problem he had – he called it "a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan". Finally, he spoke of the grace of God. There are a lot of verses here, and more stuff than I can fit into one sermon, so let's look at these verses quickly, under the theme, Boasting, Thorns, and Grace.

Paul begins this section of his letter noting the weakness of the Corinthians. They were easily confused and easily misled, and appeared almost happy to be deceived and abused by false teachers. On the other hand, they are reluctant to believe the truth. They willingly bore with the impressive men who misled them and took advantage of them, but Paul, because he was neither trying to take advantage of them nor trying to impress them with his person, was disregarded and despised.

So, for this one instance, he indulges in comparing the persons of the false apostles with his own person. He first makes sure that they know that his credentials are just as good. He is a Hebrew, and an Israelite, a Jew! He is the servant of Christ, too. Then, he boasts. He tells them of all that he has endured for Christ. He doesn't boast about his intelligence or his great learning – he boasts about what he has endured for the sake of the gospel. He boasts about all that he suffered so that they might learn of Christ and know salvation. And he invites them to compare the false apostles and their boasting to what he has borne for the sake of the truth.

Then Paul's boasting turns from his sufferings to his deep concern for his Corinthians congregation. He shares his pain – his own sense of weakness – when they are weak. He tells them that he burns with the shame of those who stumble into sin and with the desire for their repentance and reconciliation once again. He feels their needs and pains as his own and undoubtedly prays for them.

And all of this boasting is about what he endures – not who he is. It is what he endures because of the greatness of the Gospel he carries. He has good reason to endure. He tells us in the last third of the text about being caught up into heaven. He says that it is "the third heaven" – meaning the one where God dwells. Ancient people thought of the universe as existing in several concentric spheres. The first sphere was the sky. The second sphere was where the sun and the moon and the stars were. They didn't think of it as "outer space" exactly. They did not have our modern understanding, nor did they have any idea about hard vacuum or the vast distances in space. That was just a separate "sphere" of existence. The next and higher "sphere" was the realm in which God lived. Where God lived was the third heaven.

Paul said that he was caught up into the presence of God and saw things about where and how we shall live after our release from this life, and he heard things too wonderful to repeat – things he was told he would not be permitted to repeat. Those things made him the warrior for the faith that he was. He saw the truth and knew what lay before him, and it was enough to make him willing to endure all the things he endured.

What he saw was the truth of the Gospel. What he discovered worth dying for was Gospel. And even better than being worth dying for, it was worth living for. We know that Jesus died for our sins and that because of Him we shall live again. Forever. Paul saw that and experienced it in heaven. He saw the reality as it is and not as our sin-distorted perceptions allow us to imagine it is. He saw the gift of God in Jesus Christ for what it is, and it changed his life and made anything worth enduring for the sake of the prize.

When you are tempted to surrender to the temptations of this world and give up on being the faithful child of God, remember Paul. What he saw and what he heard made him willing to suffer anything. He saw the truth of forgiveness and the truth of the life to come, and the glory of God which is ours because Jesus died for our sins. It was knowing that truth that caused him to be so concerned when his Corinthian Christians rejected the truth and were so easily led into following the false apostles.

Paul also spoke about the thorn in the flesh which he endured. History doesn't tell us what the thorn was. Speculation ranges from Epilepsy to Typhus to a nagging wife. The theory that appeals most to me is that he had a problem with his eyes – possibly brought on with the Damascus road experience. When he signed his letters, he would often say something like, "See with what large letters I sign," indicating that they could tell it was his by the size, suggesting a vision problem. Whatever it was, it was a thorn.

It was one of those things about which we might say, "If only I did not have this problem, I could really get some good stuff done." Paul surely felt that way about the thorn. He called it "a messenger of Satan to buffet me." Big-time trouble. It was so troublesome that Paul prayed about it fervently to be set free from it. I am sure he told God how much more he could get done, how much more effective he would be if he only got shed of this thing! He says that he prayed three times. I understand that to mean that he prayed and got his answer three different times. He may have prayed for days or weeks before God answered. We just don't know.

And God's answer was, NO. God indicated to Paul that He was not going to relieve him. Paul would continue to struggle and suffer from this "thorn in the flesh." God's reason was simple – "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness." God told Paul that he, Paul, was more effective when it was clear that it was not Paul and who he was and what he did that made the difference. God's power is all the more effective and wonderful when it is clear that it is only by God's power that we win.

Your pains, your weaknesses, your frustrations do not inhibit God. Sometimes He had placed them there for you to work with or around, and because you cannot do what you think you are capable of doing, God makes it happen, and it is clear that it is God and not you. It reminds us that what we consider our troubles, God has delivered to us as opportunities. What we consider our weaknesses are opportunities to remain faithful and to trust God rather than ourselves.

The other side of the coin here is that God is illustrating for us in our own weaknesses the truth of the doctrine that we confess – that we do not have the power to be God's people or to do His work – but that God works through His Word, and that what we do is successful only if God blesses us. Remember the Psalm, "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it." That's Psalm 127:1. We are not the power in the Church – God is. We are not even the power in our own lives. If we are His Children, He is the power!

Either way, what Paul tells us about Boasting and Thorns and Grace should teach us to thank God every day and never allow the moment to discourage us. God is in charge, and His grace is sufficient – even when we don't think so. His power works best when we are least able to get in His way. I shouldn't say that it is not able to work best – God works all of the time, and we cannot get in His way, but we see it most clearly when we stop imagining that we are what is important, and then we worship and trust God. And we are most capable when we stop trusting in our own power and depend, rather, on God – and stop trusting our own desires and wisdom, and start listening to and trusting God's Word.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

No comments: