Sunday, February 8, 2015

Those Persistent Problems


Epistle Lesson: 2 Corinthians 12:1-12 (KJV)
Homily Text: 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

1 It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.
2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
5 Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine
6 For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.
7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my
infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
11 I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest
apostles, though I be nothing.
12 Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.

I know something about you. You are living with something you don’t want to live with. It may be a person, a health issue, a job, an inner struggle, your financial situation, or your past. Maybe I didn’t name it. But there is something - something you wish would somehow go away.

St. Paul did, too.

1. Problem

There was a problem in Paul’s life which he describes in two ways - as a “thorn in the flesh” and as “the messenger of Satan sent to buffet me.”

It was a thorn that was given to him by the Lord. One of our sons had a painful spot on his leg. The doctor diagnosed it as a spider bite. But several days later, a thorn worked its way to the surface the skin and popped out. Then he got relief. There was something in Paul’s life that was constant source of pain, and wanted relief.

Satan had something to do with it. It was his messenger sent to Paul to buffet or box him. I have seen pictures of boxers with nose broken, eyes swollen shut, face bruised. Paul felt he was being beaten up by this thing in his life.

The sources of this thorn in Paul’s life confront us with a paradox. On the one hand it came from Satan, and there is no doubt that Satan meant it for evil, to torture Paul and hinder his ministry. On the other it was given to him by the Lord who saved Paul and called him to be an Apostle. How can we
understand this? Satan is a mean attacking dog. But he is on a leash held by our Lord. He can do no more than God gives him permission to do, and God turns the devil’s evil purposes to his own good ones. We can say of anything the devil does to us, what Joseph said to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.

What was this problem? Many guesses have been made. Some have thought it was some kind of persistent temptation he experienced. At least some Christians do have temptations that are persistent and powerful and which cause them great misery.

Others have suggested it was persecution Paul experienced, especially from his fellow Jews. Others have thought it was painful memories of his own past persecution of Christians and blasphemy against Christ.

Most have thought it was an problem with his physical flesh, though there has never been a consensus about what it was. Some the guesses have been malaria with its recurrent fevers, chills, and malaise; a painful eye condition; debilitating headaches like migraines; or epilepsy.

The bottom line is that we don’t know. I think that my favorite Anglican, Dr. J.I. Packer, is right when he says that the Lord purposely kept us from knowing the exact nature of Paul’s thorn because, if we knew, we would limit what St. Paul says to that problem whereas the Lord wants us to apply what Paul says to whatever may be the problems of our own lives.

Paul had a painful, persistent problem. So do you. So do I. Almost all Christians are living with something they wish would go away. Sinful urges. Recurrent depression. Psychological trauma. Unhealthy relationships. Painful memories. Bodily illness. Something.

2. Prayer

What did Paul do about the problem in his life? He prayed.

Paul prayed to Jesus Christ. Most prayer in the New Testament is directed to the Father in the name of Christ by the aid of the Holy Spirit. But in this case Paul prayed to “the Lord” by which he means the Lord Jesus. Perhaps the reason is that he remembered that Jesus had experienced our human
suffering and is a sympathetic High Priest before God would understand what Paul was suffering. You too can know that you have in heaven a Savior who can be touched with the feeling of your infirmities (Hebrews 4: 15).

Paul prayed specifically. He told the Lord what he wanted. He asked “that it might depart from me.” He knew the Lord could take it away, immediately or progressively, so he asked that the Lord would take it away. Whatever the painful problems of your life you can tell the Lord what you want him to do about it.

Paul prayed persistently. There were three distinct occasions when he devoted time to prayer to ask the Lord to remove the thorn. He did not become discouraged because he did not receive what he asked immediately. He knew what the Lord could do, so he prayed, prayed again, and prayed yet again.

He prayed fervently. He besought or entreated the Lord. This was not a cold or rote prayer, but a prayer that came from a heart that was stirred deeply by the need for deliverance, as had been Jesus who “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7)

Yet the answer was, “No.” It cannot because Paul did not pray in faith or because what he asked was sinful in itself. One the the cruelties of the “health and wealth gospel” and the “name it and claim it” teaching is that it takes no account of the fact that the Lord sometimes says, “No,” so it puts the failure to get what you ask on the quality or strength of your faith.

Don’t believe that. Everything we ask of the Lord, we must pray as our Lord himself did, ‘If it be possible...nevertheless not as I will but as thou wilt.” It is not our faith that determines whether we get what we ask; it is the Lord in his wisdom.

Pray for any outcome you want that is not itself sin. But know that all our requests are subject to the Lord’s decision.

3. Provision

If you have brought up children, you know that to be a good parent you must be willing to say what the Lord said to Paul, “No.” You don’t say, “No,” to be mean but because you know better than your child. Sometimes you just say, “No.” Sometimes you explain: “No, you can’t eat those Oleander leaves, because they’re poison.” Other times you give something else: “No, you can’t have ice cream after school but you may have some cheese and fruit.” In any case, when you say, “No,” you want the child to know that you will provide for his needs.

The Lord say, “No,” to Paul’s request to have the thorn removed, but he assured Paul that what he would provide and in this case provide something better. “My grace is sufficient for thee.”

“Grace” is one of those Christian words that we use so often we may forget its meaning.

Grace is first God’s freely giving us what we don’t deserve, his loving us despite our being unlovable, his redeeming us though we are without redeeming value. Grace is a very hard thing to get our minds and hearts around, and no matter how long we have been Christians we continue to struggle with it. We want there to be something - anything - about us that makes God love us and accept us. But, when we grasp grace, we see that Jesus loves us despite ourselves, that he died for us not because we deserved it but because we needed saving.

What Jesus said to Paul was, “Paul my love apart from your merit is sufficient for you.” When there is someone who knows some of the worst things about you and still loves you, you can face a lot of adversity, even rejection by other people, in life. But the Lord knows everything about you, things others may not know, things you have trouble admitting about yourself to yourself, things you fear that if others knew would make them reject you, and still he loves you and saved you to have you with him for eternity. When you see that the Lord’s love for you is free and unchanging, not dependent on you, you know you can count on him always. That kind of grace is sufficient to face the persistent problems and pain of this world.

Grace is second God’s enabling us to do what is beyond our power to do. What the Lord said to Paul was, “Paul, I will give you strength beyond your own to endure this thorn in your flesh. my grace will be sufficient for your persistent, painful problem.”

We face painful things in life we don’t know how we can bear. It seems to us that we are sure to be crushed. But the Lord says to us as he said to Paul, “Don’t despair about your lack of strength. My grace is sufficient for this; my power is made perfect in weakness. It is in your weakness that my power is most fully shown.” I can remember as a little boy the wheelbarrow being filled with something heavy like sand. I would try to pick it up and push, it, but, of course, I was not strong enough. But my Dad would come up behind me and grip the bars behind my hands, and then, what was impossible for me in my strength to do became possible. My Dad’s strength was sufficient. So the Lord’s power makes us able to do and to bear what is beyond our natural strength.

Whatever our thorns are the Lord says to us, “You can’t get beyond my love for you or beyond my strength in you. My grace is sufficient for you.”

4. Purposes

The word that the Lord spoke to Paul helped him to get a new perspective on his thorn in the flesh. It was still a painful thorn, but now Paul saw purpose in it. It was still painful, but he could see that the thorn had some purpose.

It kept Paul humble and dependent on the Lord. As an Apostle Paul received revelations from the Lord. Without those he could not have written the letters of his we have in the New Testament. He also had some kind of unusual visionary experience in which he was temporarily in heaven and heard things he was not allowed to repeat. These were wonderful
privileges, but they carried with them the risk of pride, of thinking, “There must be something special about me since I am the one who has these visions and revelations.” But he came to see a purpose, “Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of revelations there was given me a thorn in the flesh.”

One purpose we can discern in our thorns is that they are there to keep us dependent on the Lord. It is easy for us to get “full of ourselves” - to feel self-sufficient and prideful, to forget about the Lord - when everything is going our way. We can feel ourselves better than others and independent of God. But then we have these problems that are painful, perhaps even embarrassing to us, that reveal to us our weakness. Thorns help to check our pride and keep us dependent on the Lord.

A related purpose Paul saw was that the very weakness which he thought hindered his ministry was in fact the occasion of the Lord’s power being demonstrated in his life. When we go through life saying, “I’ve got this,” we are saying that we are sufficient, that we are strong enough. We don’t want to feel weak. We want to feel like we can handle things. But problems that tell us we are not in control and not powerful enough open up our lives to the working of the Lord’s power.

In the Old Testament God’s glory descended on and filled the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was the dwelling place of God’s glory. In our lives the Tabernacle of Christ’s power is our weakness. Christ’s power works not in our strength but in our weakness. We resist this; it may seem counter-
intuitive to us, but this is God’s way. It was demonstrated supremely in Christ who “though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the
power of God (2 Cor. 13:4). Christ was never weaker and never seemed more defeated than when he hung naked and dying on a cross condemned and mocked by the Jews and the Romans. But in fact his dying led to his being raised to glory and eternal life.

The word the Lord spoke to Paul and the insight he got into the purposes of his thorn in the flesh transformed the way Paul looked at his weakness. The normal way is to hide our weaknesses and brag about our strengths. But normal was turned upside down for Paul: “Most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

There are things in your life you wish would go away, aren’t there? Pray that the Lord will remove them. He may. But, if he does not, then hear him say, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is perfected in weakness.” Your weakness is the tabernacle where Christ’s power takes up residence in your life.

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