Sunday, July 05, 2015

The gifts of grace and weakness

[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, earlier today.]

2 Corinthians 12:1-10
Skepticism is a big part of life in the world these days. Some skepticism is warranted. The world, human beings and human technology aren't all-powerful. This is a lesson we seem to have over-learned in this country. Back in the 1950s, public opinion surveys consistently showed that Americans, by overwhelming majorities, believed that their government would never lie to them. After Vietnam and Watergate, those results have consistently been nearly reversed, with many Americans believing that their government always lies to them. Neither one of these extreme positions is true, of course.

We should sometimes be skeptical sometimes precisely because human beings and the things human beings create are far from perfect. 

But I wonder: Don’t we Christians, the people who know Jesus Christ best, often have similar skepticism or wariness about the power of the God we know in Jesus? Don't we sometimes suffer from a certain kind of skepticism which is really faithlessness?

If we do, it’s not unprecedented. 

In our gospel lesson for today, Mark 6:1-13, Jesus, Who in the previous five chapters of Mark’s gospel has done many miracles and signs, could do no deeds of power because of the skepticism and unbelief of the people in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. 

Underscoring this theme of skepticism warring with faith, all four of the gospels say that just after Jesus, God in the flesh, had died on the cross, His closest followers doubted that Jesus could be risen from the dead. 

Skepticism, faith-robbing skepticism, then is a problem even for believers and has been from the beginning.

In our second Bible lesson for today, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, the apostle Paul, the first century evangelist, is dealing with Christians who are skeptical about the power of the Jesus and the good news of new life for all who repent and believe in Jesus--the Gospel--that Paul proclaims. 

Instead of the real Gospel or the real Jesus, they hanker for “happy talk” preachers who promise that following Jesus will mean that their lives in this world will be peaches and cream. 

Shortly before Paul wrote to the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth, the Corinthian church had been wowed by some preachers who convinced them that if the power of the God made known to the world through Jesus was really working in them, then their lives would be problem-free. They would have success, victories, and no illness. Paul sarcastically labeled these happy talk preachers, super-apostles. (They were preachers who pretended to be Supermen, but never Clark Kents.)

Now, it is true that Christ gives His Church, among other ministries, the power to bring God’s help to people, including, sometimes, healing. 

But no physical healing lasts indefinitely. This world is imperfect and, unless you and I are among those Christians living on earth when Jesus returns, death will come to us all. 

“So, in the face of these realities, where is the power of God and what good is your preaching?” the Corinthians want to know from Paul.

Their questions were pointed because, unlike the preachers who had wowed them, Paul was a less than impressive figure. Paul was brilliant, but a preacher who could drone on forever. (You'll remember that in Acts 20, a young man named Eutychus, sitting in a second-storey window while listening to Paul preach, fell asleep after the sermon had gone on for some time. After falling asleep, Eutychus fell from the window to his death on the ground below. Fortunately, God used Paul to bring the young man back to life. Nonetheless, Paul could be a droner.) Despite being an apostle, Paul had to scratch out a living as a tentmaker. He wasn’t what the world would call a success. His resume as a Christian preacher included being arrested and flogged, shipwrecked and beaten, mocked, chased out of several towns, and jailed. Today, people would label him a loser.

But this loser Paul has a message for those who question the authenticity of his message about Jesus Christ and question his authority to share it. 

Wary of being a braggart, Paul uses the third person to describe a personal experience he’d had years earlier. Verse 2: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.”

Paul had an amazing experience of heaven. But, Paul says, that experience, awesome as it was, did not prove Jesus’ power over sin and death and it didn’t prove Paul’s authority to tell others about Jesus. God's power, Paul shows us today, is most readily seen in two other ways. 

The first way is in God's grace

The second way is in our weakness.

Grace is God’s charity, God’s willingness to accept the repentant who entrust their sins and their entire lives to Jesus Christ alone. 

Grace doesn’t paper over or ignore our sins. It forgives them and it welcomes those who are willing to turn from sin and believe in Christ into eternal fellowship with God. 

God doesn’t wait for us to be perfect before we have life with Him. Life with Him is a free gift for all who have faith in Christ. As Paul puts it in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That's grace.

The super apostles who had wowed the Corinthian Christians said that, “If there’s something wrong in your life—some illness, adversity, heartbreak, poverty, or struggle—it proves that you’re faithless.” They said that Paul’s troubles proved that he was faithless. 

People say things like this today. Some of them have TV shows and books on the bestseller lists. They don’t understand grace!

Having the grace of God that comes only from Jesus Christ in our lives doesn’t mean that our lives will be perfect; it means, rather, that we will still have God’s grace even when things are not perfect

In verse 7 of our lesson, Paul says, “ order to keep me from becoming conceited [by all the amazing things God had shown to him and done through him], I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” 

We have no idea what Paul's thorn in the flesh was. It may have been an illness, an incessant temptation, a psychological disturbance, a relationship problem, a lack of money. We don’t know. But three times, Paul says, he had asked God in prayer to remove the thorn. And three times the answer came back (verse 9), “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

God refused to bring Paul the relief Paul sought, telling Paul that His grace was all Paul really needed. God refused to remove the thorn so that Paul would remember that.

Everybody here this morning knows what it is to experience thorns in the flesh. They’re the problems and heartaches that bedevil us and seem never to go completely away. They drive us to our knees and there, before God, we learn that all of the things we thought we needed—health, money, connections, the big house, the respect of others, happiness—are nice, but they're not what we need the most. What we really need is the life-giving grace of God given through Jesus Christ. God's tough, incessant, faithful grace is the first thing that proves the power of Jesus Christ.

This leads to the second thing that proves the power of Jesus Christ: our weakness. Listen: God gives those humble enough to admit their weakness the strength they need for living

Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about. 

You were with a loved one as they were dying and you knew that on your own, you couldn’t do all that you needed to do, but, with God’s help, you did it. 

You had to undergo one more round of medical treatments, one more battery of tests, and you knew that you just couldn’t take it, but with Jesus by your side, you did. 

In order to graduate or be certified, you had to pass a class for which you knew you had no talent or ability and, after prayer in Jesus’ Name, God helped you study and to learn what you needed to learn to pass. 

To pay your bills, you had to work double shifts for which you knew you didn’t have the energy, yet God’s Spirit filled you with the needed energy. 

In each case, you called out to the God we know in Jesus Christ and confessed, “Lord, I can’t.” And in each case, God told you, “I know that you can’t. But My power belongs only to those wise enough and faithful enough to know they need it."

This was exactly what Paul experienced when he had asked God to remove the unidentified thorn in his flesh. “I’m not taking this adversity away,” God told Paul. “You’re not going to go around it. You’re going to have to go through it, leaning on My power and learning to lean on My power more and more each day.”

Why did God tell Paul this? Why does God sometimes tell us the very same thing?

Because, God says in verse 9: “ power is made perfect in weakness.” 

God’s power is seen only in people who admit that they’re powerless without Jesus Christ. When we own our weakness and seek Christ’s help, we can face anything

We acknowledge our weakness, our emptiness, and the God we know in Christ fills it up with His power and His grace. God’s power surges into us. 

Paul writes in verse 10: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

“I didn’t know if I could ever be whole again,” a woman told me years after her husband had died. There were dark days, pain interspersed with lifeless numbness. But there were things to be done—children to be raised, bills to be paid, errands to be run. “I was sure that I just couldn’t do it,” she said. But in the midst of it all, she prayed and learned what Paul underscores in today’s lesson.

Through Jesus Christ, God demonstrates His power by giving grace to the needy—and that’s all of us—and strength to the weak—that, too, is all of us. 

If you’re feeling weak or powerless today, that’s a great sign! It means you’re seeing life clearly. You’re able to give up on relying on yourself and able to depend on Jesus Christ alone. 
Contrary to a popular saying, the Lord does not help those who help themselves; the Lord helps those who admit that they need the Lord’s help. Call out to the God we meet in the crucified and risen Jesus and let God the Holy Spirit fill you with strength you can’t generate on your own.

Life in this world does not always make sense nor does God promise us that it will be easy. But God's Word shows us that we can do all things--go through all circumstances of life--through the only One Who can strengthen us. Our strong God stands at the ready to give us grace and strength in all circumstances. If we will override our skepticism and let Him do so, God will see us through everything in His power...and do so all the way to eternity. Amen

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