This is the message I preached on Sunday, November 25th, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.
Grace Greater than our Groaning
Today we conclude our series from the book of 2 Corinthians, turning to chapters 11 and 12.
I invite you to read along with me, as I read 2 Corinthians 11:25-12:10, in the New International Version. Feel free to read along in this same translation, which will be on our screen and in our pew Bibles; read along in the translation of your choice in your own Bible; or quietly listen at your seat, imagining yourself in the midst of the story of Scripture. However you best hear God’s Word, let’ turn to it together, looking at 2 Corinthians 11, beginning in verse 25.
“25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
“30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.
“12:1 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 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. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 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.”
These are the words of God, for the people of God. May God speak through them to us today, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I can’t speak for you, but the last few years I’ve face a few things that truly stretched me, things I would not have chosen on my own, yet couldn’t get out of – situations and choices that brought me to my limit, face to face with my own vulnerability and inability, which brought me to the end of myself and my own power.
Paul here describes how he has faced such limit situations. And he has had no end of them: being beaten within an inch of his life, attempts to execute him through stoning, threats to life and limb in his travels to share the gospel at the hands of criminals along the road and opponents to his message, natural disasters, hunger, and hard work all have stretched him, pushing him to the limit. Paul concludes by describing a mysterious “thorn in the flesh”, likely an illness that afflicted his body, which debilitated him, slowing down his ministry, and leading others to question his faith: if God were truly on his side, wouldn’t God heal Paul as God had healed others when they prayed? Paul’s experience with these struggles in his life and what God taught him through them, particularly his experience of this thorn in the flesh, speak to our experience of such times that stretch us to our limits in our own lives.
What your limit experience like this might be varies person to person. What stretches one person another shrugs off. For some it is experiences of persecution like Paul faced for his faith and ministry, perhaps discrimination for standing for your faith or for your background be it your race, gender, sexuality, disability. For others it might be, like Paul, an experience of illness that, despite prayer, seeking doctors’ help, trying to be healthy, you see no end of in sight. It might be a perceived failure – at work, in a relationship that mattered, in projects of your own or even in the church that seem to fall apart despite your best efforts. It may be fallout from other’s failures in your life.
What are examples of such limit experiences have seen stretch people, whether yourself or others, forcing them to see their own vulnerabilities? What are lessons you see Paul’s words teaching about such experiences?
The first thing I think Paul would let us know is that struggle, loss, and even experiences that feel in the moment like failure, are not things we can avoid but instead we have to face into as part of our lives. As I’ve explained earlier, throughout 2 Corinthians Paul is countering some preachers who had rolled into the church in Corinth in the midst of its own set of trials and his own, claiming a kind of victorious living: saying since Jesus rose from death and since Jesus performed miracles, we can expect if we just live a faithful enough life, we won’t have to struggle. And if we do struggle, clearly we don’t have enough faith. But, not to worry, like huckster preachers of any day, if folks just pass the hat and give them a few dollars, these preachers who’ve strolled into Corinth can tell you the way to that victorious living by faith.
Yet Paul knows the promise Jesus gave which these preachers want to omit – the promise in this world you will have trouble which our Bibles place in the Gospel of John. There is a reason Christians read the parts of Isaiah scholars call “suffering servant” poems as about Jesus: he not only warned us that in this world we will have trouble, which we cannot get out of, but he modeled it, living faithfully with trouble. Jesus suffered, he was persecuted, he was betrayed, tortured, and killed all before the resurrection that gives victory. And it is that suffering and death, as much as his resurrection victorious over death, that allows Jesus to add to his promise in this world you will have trouble the other side of that promise: fear not, I have overcome the world and I will not leave you orphans, but I will come to you. Ultimately resurrection victory and new beginning it offers are God’s promises, yes, but we do not get there, cannot experience resurrection victory without crosses as well; without some struggles, some pain beforehand. And often the victory we are given is not side-stepping that pain or being rescued from it, but discovering new life within it, the lessons we can learn passing through it. Often the only way past our trials is by going through them, to the other side.
One of my favorite Christian authors, Richard Rohr, puts it well: “Sooner or later, … some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, your strong willpower. Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources. At that point you will stumble over a necessary stumbling stone, as Isaiah calls it; or to state it in other language here, you will and you must ‘lose’ at something. This is the only way that …God… can get you to change, let go of your egocentric [or self-centered] preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey [to spiritual maturity]. I wish I could say this was not true, but it is darn near absolute…
“There is no practical or compelling reason to leave one’s present comfort zone in life. Why should you or would you? Frankly, none of us do unless and until we have to. . .
“Any attempt to engineer or plan your own enlightenment is doomed to failure because it will be ego driven. You will see only what you have already decided to look for, and you cannot see what you are not ready or told to look for. So failure and humiliation force you to look where you never would otherwise. … [for] ‘God comes to you disguised as your life,’…
“So we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say… We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for awhile, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide. It is the necessary pattern. This kind of falling is what I mean by necessary suffering, … In the spiritual world, we do not really find something until we first lose it, ignore it, miss it, long for it, choose it, and personally find it again — but on a new level.”
The image of the cross is what pictures this reality in the Christian faith, but in Buddhism they picture this with the image of the lotus flower. Buddhists say that when we reflect on the beauty of the lotus flower, we have to also remember what makes it grow: the rot of dying and decaying matter that fertilizes it. That life and beauty also involves a loss; and true joy comes not in running from the struggles in our lives, or pretending like suffering won’t happen, but by facing into them and asking, what good or beauty can grow out of them? How can I grow, learn compassion, serve, care, and become my best self through this difficult experience?
This brings us to the second lesson Paul would have us learn in our times of suffering and struggle, our limit situations where we face into the end of our strength, our wisdom, our ability, to get where we need to on our own: if we are open, looking and listening for God in the midst of our struggles, we can experience God in a new way through that struggle.
The poet Rumi pictures this looking for God as being like the tearing down of a house, a painful, troubling process. Yet, in tearing it down, one finds treasure: true gold, hidden underneath the last bricks and stones that are moved. Though the struggle you might go through might feel like the house around you, where you have felt secure is being torn down, there is a promise that, through this experience, if you will look, you can find pure gold, which can shape you into just the person you are made to be, and give you the resources for what comes next, after.
We see Paul keeps this attitude in his struggles, continuing to seek God’s face in each of them, both asking for deliverance or, barring that, God’s word to him in the situation he faces, which can make his path clear. In that seeking, Paul is told, “My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
A part of why we can know this is possible is because, as the Message translation puts John 1, in Christ God “moved into our neighborhood”. God became one of us, as we will celebrate during the Advent and Christmas season, putting on flesh and blood and bones, being tempted and tested just as we are, to show us that in every temptation, trial, and test we face, we are not alone, for through Christ “God is with us”. This is why the Psalmist, long before Jesus’ coming, said to God in prayer in Psalm 139, “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me… If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” And so, whatever situation we face, however dark or light, we can know God stands with us, ready to guide and teach us, able to give us strength to pass through it, and the wisdom to know the way.
This promise Paul receives, “My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness”, reminds me of the words of an anonymous poet, who wrote:
“I asked for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of others;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I had asked for,
but everything that I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered;
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.”
I know some of you, like me, can relate well to this poet’s experience.
In our reading, Paul compares his times of trials with his experience of somehow, through the Holy Spirit, glimpsing while in this life what heaven where God is and where we join God in our life after, is like– being caught up to the third, or highest, heaven. Despite this amazing experience, ultimately it is by opening up to God’s grace through his trials, his struggles, his weaknesses, his limits, that Paul learns the most about God and is best prepared to make a difference for God in the lives of those around him, not through seeing the vision of heaven he describes. God’s grace is also sufficient for us, able to enable us to stand in the midst our our limit experiences, which make us feel like we might come tumbling down. It is these same trials and struggles that we want to discount or walk away from which can teach us the most about life, shaping us more and more to have the character of Christ.
I wonder as we conclude, do any of you have examples in your own life or the lives of others who have inspired you, of how struggles, trials, or limit experience have opened you up to a deeper and more full life with God? Are there ways our experiences like this as a church can teach us, opening us up to God’s brighter future?
Let us pray.
Loving God, we thank you that you surround and carry us in our joys and our trials, lifting us up, giving us strength, and opening new futures for us. Help us, like Paul, to see your presence even in our times of trial, learning what each moment has to teach us. Amen.