A Sermon in Print for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany by Pastor Jon Zabell
2 Corinthians 12:7b-10
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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. 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.
When I Am Weak Then I Am Strong
Pastor Jon Zabell
When you think of blessings in your life, what blessings come to mind? Our Savior, of course, but after that? You might mention things like family, friends, health, home, work, recreation, possessions, love. No doubt about it, we are blessed, and it’s good to think about those blessings. Today’s reading is about a blessing we might not normally think about, and the words come from the inspired pen of the Apostle Paul.
He had amazing blessings to count. He was the Lord’s chosen missionary to the Gentiles. He was given visions of great and glorious things. He was the one God inspired to write half the books of the New Testament. In today’s reading Paul points us to a blessing he had that was better than all of these: His weakness. He says, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses.” He says, “I delight in weaknesses.” He says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Weakness is also a blessing for you and me, a blessing worth thinking about.
1. God’s Grace is Sufficient for me
Those other great blessings in Paul’s life came with temptations connected to them. There was temptation for others to think that the church was blessed because of Paul’s greatness. This was Paul’s temptation, too.
To keep Paul from being conceited, he says, he was given a thorn in his flesh. What was Paul’s thorn? It must have been something horrible. He calls it “a messenger of Satan to torment me.” It was something so bad that he begged three times for God to take it away. Was it a physical affliction? Some have suggested it might have been poor eyesight. Maybe it was some kind of constant stinging pain, like the kind of pain caused by a thorn. Whatever the pain, perhaps it was so bad that Paul was tempted to doubt God’s love for him, which would only make things worse. Or maybe the thorn was something completely spiritual. After Paul’s past life as a persecutor of Christians, maybe he was regularly tempted into despair and hopelessness. Whatever the thorn was for Paul, it was constant, ongoing, brutal, and God did not take it away.
Why not? The Lord told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” It’s true for all of us. God’s grace is sufficient. Grace -- that’s God’s undeserved love -- is sufficient, it’s all we need. This is not how people naturally think. We might think that good health is sufficient, or having enough money is sufficient, or having good friends is sufficient. In the realm of faith, we might think that living out our faith is sufficient, or conquering temptation is sufficient, or being victorious over our weakness is sufficient. But no, says God, “My grace is sufficient for you.” My undeserved love for you, that’s absolutely all you need.
The Lord wants us to experience this. Without a thorn like Paul’s we would certainly still know what grace was. And we would certainly know that God’s grace helps, and that it is necessary to be saved. But when there’s a thorn, an awful, ongoing, nagging pain or suffering that won’t go away, God is allowing his believers to experience it firsthand: God’s grace is more than helpful, more than necessary, it’s sufficient. It’s the only thing we need.
Without the experience, you know what would happen. If our life was free from pain, free from struggle, free from thorns like Paul’s, without any crosses to carry, we would quickly lose our focus on the greatness and the love of God. Instead, you know where our focus would fall. If everything we did was successful, and if everything we received was always happy and comfortable, we would set our sights instead on the greatness of self. You know why.
We are sinners. Sin is not just there in those evil deeds people do under cover of darkness. It is certainly that. But sin is also there in the kind of boasting people do about their own goodness. Think of the Pharisee in the temple, loved and respected by everyone, who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” He couldn’t see that his boasting was a sin. He was worshiping himself. Isn’t it easy for you and me to go there, too? It’s so easy to seek comfort in comparisons. We see the faults of others, and we think, “I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t have that selfish attitude, or at least I wouldn’t act on it.” It’s like we’re saying, “God, I thank you that I’m not like them.” Meanwhile, we’re ignoring our own record of sin, which is miles long. We’re stuck on our own strength and goodness, and we’ve left no room for grace.
And so because of our sinful weakness, and also because God loves us, he gives us thorns in the flesh, too. Fellow believer, what’s your thorn? Is it a physical ailment that won’t go away? Is it a spiritual weakness that brings constant temptation to turn from God or to doubt his love for you? Is it a combination of the two? We all have something. A weakness that - if left unchecked, it would do us in. A weakness we can’t change or fix.
Have you begged God to take it away? Has he let you continue to carry it? He’s letting you experience the same truth Paul experienced. He wants you to realize and take it to heart. His grace is sufficient for you. So let the cross you carry point you to the cross Jesus carried for you. Let whatever thorn you have in your flesh remind you of the crown of thorns your Savior wore for you. And even if you don’t feel a thorn pressing in this moment, let God’s grace be the only answer to your sin. From eternity God saw you, he chose you. Then he sent his Son for you, and he paid for you and the whole world. Then he came to you in Word and Sacrament, his Holy Spirit for you, just you. There was nothing in you that led him to do this, no great quality in you that made you special to him. It was all him. And now you’re all his, now and forever. His grace is all you need.
2. God’s Power is Made Perfect in My Weakness
That thorn in Paul’s flesh… the Lord was giving Paul a new way to think about God’s grace. He was also giving Paul a new way to think about Paul’s weakness. The Lord says to Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
Think of Paul’s weakness. He didn’t speak with eloquence. Many rejected him and tried to kill him. A good deal of his missionary activity happened while he was under arrest. Now there was this thorn in his flesh tormenting him. And yet the gospel spread, and because of Paul’s weakness, everyone knew that the power was from God, not from Paul. This was also a great comfort for Paul. When he was in chains, when he was weak, when he was suffering from that thorn, he could see and know better that the power he needed for life and for his work didn’t come from him, but from the Lord.
So it is with you and me. We aren’t apostles like Paul. But we do want to let our lights shine, we want to lead others to God. It might seem that the way to do that as a congregation, as people, is with a show of strength. Look at what great things are going on in my life, how happy and well-adjusted I am - so now don’t you want to learn what my secret is? Don’t you want to learn about Jesus? And what about our church? Just see all the amazing activities happening here, and you can’t help but want to join, right? But the thing is, there are other stronger looking institutions people can find doing more amazing things than we are. There are other more successful people that the people of our world may want to emulate rather than us. But God’s power is made perfect in weakness. It’s not about our greatness, it’s about his, and so whatever is lacking in us - that’s where his power can be shown for what it is.
And when it comes to living the way God wants us to live, we might think it’s all up to us and our strength. We need to strengthen our resolve, and make good choices, and turn our lives around bit by bit, and then - by our own resolve and strength and goodness make some big changes in serving God better. If we let ourselves keep thinking that we’re setting ourselves up for failure. Our strength always gives out. Our resolve always falters. We need God’s power. For us, too - just like for the people around us - God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.
So Paul concludes, if God’s power is made perfect in weakness, then I’m going to do the opposite of complaining. Paul boasts in his weaknesses: in insults, hardships, persecutions, difficulties. He’s not bragging about how bad he has things. Nor is he airing all his dirty laundry looking for glory in shameful things. But he’s not covering those things up either. He’s not pretending everything’s ok. He’s not faking it. He’s freely admitting his sin before God, and when appropriate also before others. He is boasting in his weakness because there he can see all the more clearly that God’s power rests on him.
You can boast, too. Are you dealing with your own version of insults, hardships, persecutions, difficulties? You don’t have to fake your way through it. Lay it proudly before God. When appropriate, talk clearly about it with others. Boast all the more in your weakness, because God’s power is finding its goal.
In eternity we’ll see it. We’ll look back at every thorn we endured in this life. We’ll see clearly that God’s grace was sufficient every step of the way. We’ll see every weakness in ourselves and we’ll see God’s power finding its goal. Even now we can deal with weakness without giving up. Just the opposite: we can boast all the more in our weakness, like Paul did. We can say with him: “When I am weak then I am strong.” In the name of Jesus, Amen.
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