[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship celebrations on July 8 and 9, 2006.]
Second Corinthians 12:2-10
You probably saw the video clip on the news some ten days ago: President Bush jogging on the South Lawn of the White House with Army Sergeant Christian Bagge. If you didn’t see the story, you should know that there were two remarkable things about the incident. First, was the fact that the President was jogging, something that bad knees have pretty much caused him to give up, in favor of mountain biking. (My exercise of choice is watching Monk on Friday nights.) But even more remarkable is the fact that Bagge was jogging...on two prosthetic legs!
He is the victim of a roadside bomb planted by insurgents in Iraq last year. In January, the young man was in an Army hospital when the President visited his bedside. It was then that Bagge told the President that he wanted to jog with him. One article tells the rest of the story in this way:
“After a roadside explosion tore apart his humvee, Sergeant Bagge's left leg was amputated just above the ankle, and his right leg ends just above the knee.I don’t know what sustains Christian Bagge in the face of his unimaginable suffering. But I do know this: Like him, every human being faces the possibility and often, the reality of suffering. It may be physical, emotional, psychological, social, or spiritual.
"’I was praying that God would stop the pain,’ Bagge said...
“Sergeant Bagge has been through 11 surgeries this year alone. He says it is not easy, but he is determined to keep moving forward.
"’There's a lot of days when I don't want to do it anymore,’ he said. ‘But I can't call in sick. I can't quit.’"
But whatever form our suffering may take, it leaves us with a simple choice, one I’ve described before, borrowing phrasing from Robert Schuller: We will either become bitter or better. As Bagge’s honest comments indicate, he is struggling through his suffering to get better. When I re-read his story this past week, I stopped what I was doing to pray that God would help him to do just that.
Our Bible lesson comes today, as our lessons have over the past several weeks, from the New Testament book of Second Corinthians. There, as you’ll remember, the first-century preacher Paul is writing to what was probably the church he loved more than any of the others he founded, the church in the Greek city of Corinth.
But at least as much as he loved the Corinthian Christians, Paul was exasperated by them. Second Corinthians, of course, was a letter that he wrote to the church. The overarching issue is the popularity of these success preachers who had swept into the church there, telling people that if they really believed in Jesus Christ, they’d have lots of strength, money, power, and perfect health.
They also pointed to Paul, who was weak, poor, powerless, and often suffered from health issues and said that he must not have been a very good Christian. In the past several weeks, we’ve mentioned some of what Paul said to refute the stupidity of these false preachers' assertions. In today’s lesson, he deals with something else they said.
One of the claims to fame made by these success preachers is that God gave them all sorts of visions and revelations. Like those perfectly-coiffed televangelists who clutter our cable TV choices today, these preachers loved to regale the Corinthians with tales of dramatic dreams and messages they claimed they’d received from God. “These visions prove how close we are to God,” they’d say. “And by the way, Paul never mentioned having any visions, did he?”
Starting in the eleventh chapter of Second Corinthians, Paul says it’s the height of foolishness for preachers to boast about their heavenly visions. When God gives someone a vision of heaven, it’s never a reason to become a braggart. Sometimes, such phenomenon are meant only to give the person who receives it comfort and motivation as they keep on faithfully following Christ. At other times, as in the cases of the Old Testament prophets, the visions God gave them weren't a reason for boastful self-aggrandizement. Their messages from God were usually calls to repentance and renewal that nobody wanted to hear, which is why people would kill them or tell them things like, "Speak to us of smooth things."
As Paul continues to dictate his message to the Corinthians, you can sense him becoming more agitated. Just before our lesson begins, he says, “It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord!”
"You want visions?" Paul asks. "I’ll give you visions!" Still uncomfortable with what seems like bragging, Paul tells his personal experience in the third person, a common ancient way for orators and writers to tell personal stories, the telling of which they fear might cause them to be seen as egotistical or self-absorbed.
Paul describes himself once being deep in heaven, whether bodily or spiritually, he never could decide. He saw things and heard things which he couldn’t repeat.
Paul says that he could go around bragging about this amazing experience. But he had decided instead, to boast of his weaknesses. Otherwise, Paul seems to feel that he would be too proud, too full of himself. In fact, he says, God had allowed something to happen to him to keep him from getting too carried away with himself and his spiritual power. Paul puts it this way: “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.”
There are three things to notice in that short sentence. First: This thorn in the flesh came from Satan, not from God. Martin Luther reminds us that there are three major sources of suffering in life: the devil, the world, and our sinful selves. Paul was certain that his suffering had come from Satan.
The second thing to notice is this: God can use our suffering. He can use it to teach us what’s really important in life, especially to learn to rely on Him and not ourselves, or money, or power, or ingenuity, or good luck. As Paul develops this story, he tells the Corinthians that on three different occasions, he had begged God to remove this thorn from his flesh. But each time, God seemed to tell him, “No. I won’t do it. My gracious acceptance of you is all you need in life. In fact, it’s only when you give up on being in the driver seat of your life, that My power can really do all I want to do in your life and character.”
The third thing to notice is that thing Paul calls “a thorn in the flesh.” We have little idea what Paul is talking about here. It’s some sort of affliction from which he suffers, maybe a chronic disease which, in spite of all his praying, hasn’t gone away.
The term Paul uses for his affliction is interesting. We translate it as thorn. But that may be a bit too dainty. The word in the Greek of the New Testament is skolops. A skolops, more than a few people have observed, was the roadside bomb of the first-century world in which Paul lived. It was a large stake carved at one end to a sharp point. A series of them would often be placed pointed-side-up at the bottoms of pits dug into roadways. They were then covered with branches or grass in the hope that enemy soldiers would fall into the pits and be impaled by the stakes.
Every time the devil, the world, or even our sinful selves bring adversity or even suffering to us, it's like a wounding skolips that has the potential of driving us away from God, or making us cynical, or simply to quit living. Suffering can make us bitter.
Or, like Paul, we can make the choice that will make us better.
A man slid his car off a road and veered into a ditch. A farmhouse was nearby. So, he asked the owner if he had a tractor he could borrow to get his truck back onto the road. “Nope, but I got my mule, Blue,” said the farmer. “I doubt a mule is strong enough to pull my truck out.” “You don’t know Blue,” said the mule’s owner.
So Blue was hitched to the truck. “Pull, Blue!” The truck didn’t budge. Undeterred, the farmer called out, “Pull, Elmer!” The truck moved slightly. Then the farmer yelled, “Pull, Biscuit,” and, all of a sudden, the truck was free. “Thank you so much,” said the truck owner. “But why did you call your mule by three different names?” “Simple,” said the farmer. “Blue is blind. And if he thought he was the only one pulling, your truck would still be in the ditch!”
How do we cope with life’s challenges and suffering? We realize that we don’t face any of it alone. God’s grace is sufficient to help us handle whatever comes our ways and it’s sufficient as our only hope for this life and the next.
Paul was able to handle the skolops, the roadside bomb that threatened to destroy his relationship with God and his hope in Christ, by relying completely on Christ. He didn’t pretend to be personally powerful. In our lesson he writes, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
In His Word, God promises those who trust in Him, “I will never leave your or forsake you.” Before ascending to heaven, the risen Jesus tells us, “I will be with you always, even to the close of the age.” Those promises are like blank checks God has written to us, just waiting for us to cash. They’re promises good only for those strong enough to admit their weakness and their need of God.
We’re never so weak as when we pretend to be in control.
We’re never so strong as when we let God be in control and let His power fill our lives!