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For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Sexagesima)

One weakness can bring the whole thing crashing down -- until Christ intervenes.

19 You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! 20 In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. 21 To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that! What anyone else dares to boast about–I am speaking as a fool–I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, 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 own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 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. 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. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not 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 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me 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.” (ii cor 11.19-12.9 niv84)

Do you ever feel like you’re talking with someone who’s turning the conversation into a competition? You know the kind of person I mean. You say you’re tired, they say they’re exhausted.  You mention that you broke a toe once, they say they broke their leg. You say you broke your leg, they say they broke both legs. You say you had a flat tire, they say they had to replace the transmission in their car. Whatever the topic, they have to come up with something to top you. You know what it’s like to talk to a person like that. After a few minutes of that treatment, you think, “Okay, see you,” and politely wander away.

The Apostle Paul knew what that was like. He experienced something similar, only for him it was far more serious. He had worked hard to start the church in Corinth, teaching them the truth, refusing to be paid for his work so he wouldn’t be a burden to them. Then he went on to the next church, and while he was gone other ministers came. These men did not have Paul’s love or his dedication. Instead of serving the people, they enslaved them by holding the law over their heads. They withheld the gospel from them and drew people’s attention to themselves, not to Christ. They also abused the Corinthians by acting like they were kings and the Corinthians were nobodies. They lorded it over them and cleaned the Corinthians out, to boot. They squeezed every penny they could out of the Corinthians and demanded more. False teachers and those who treat service in the church as just a job – or worse yet, the way to get rich – still operate the same way today. They abuse people and withhold God’s grace and rip God’s people off. Scripture calls such people belly-servers and hirelings. And the Corinthians put up with it!

Needless to say, this was distressing to Paul. Not that Paul cared what they said about him, but if these false teachers discredited Paul, then people would reject the gospel Paul preached too, and he couldn’t abide that. So in order to defend himself and the gospel he preached, Paul says, “You like big talkers so much, I’m going to do some big talking of my own.” He says, “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendents? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am more.” Paul says, “Everything they are, I am too. In fact, I’m more than that.”

Then Paul goes through and lists all of the sufferings and hardships he’d had in his ministry. You read through this list, and it almost seems unbelievable that one man could suffer so much. Yet we read through the book of Acts, especially, and we see that Paul’s telling the truth here. He was thrown in prison a lot, where good, respectable people never go. He was given forty lashes minus one on five different occasions by the Jews. They only gave 39 because the Law of Moses said don’t go past forty, and the considerate, kindly Jews skipped one lash in case they miscounted. (Thanks a lot, guys.) These lashes are the same thing Jesus got from Pilate’s soldiers. A lot of men died or were crippled for life long before they go to 39 – and Paul went through this flogging five times. The Romans beat him too. He was beaten with rods three times for preaching Christ’s name, which should have been illegal to do to Paul because he was a Roman citizen, but the Roman magistrates either didn’t care or didn’t know about his citizenship. Once Paul was stoned, which might be one of the most horrible things on this list. When Paul was in the city of Lystra, a group of Jews followed him from a previous stop on his journey, in Iconium, and they whipped up a mob to throw boulders at Paul until he was dead. They thought he was dead and left him lying outside the city. By a miracle of God, Paul was not dead. When the believers from that town gathered around him to carry away his dead body, he got up and walked back into the city where his persecutors had just gone – he wasn’t done there yet. Paul was in shipwrecks. Only one of the three Paul mentions here is recorded in Acts. He was left floating in the ocean on one occasion wondering whether or not he’d survive. He never really had a home because he was travelling so much. As the list goes on, Paul just starts listing things off – in danger from this, in danger from that, hungry, cold, tired, you name it. One of the things that strikes us about the whole list is that several times he mentions people who should have loved and supported him – fellow Jews, other Christians – who ended up betraying him or attacking him or stabbing him in the back.

And as if all of Paul’s own troubles weren’t enough, he also took on everyone else’s! Every day he had the pressure of carrying everyone else’s problems and failures on himself, because he cared for them. Paul started a lot of churches throughout the Mediterranean. Think about all the letters he wrote to Christians in those places – Galatia, Ephesus, Colosse, Corinth, Thessalonica, and lots more besides. All those people’s problems and sins became his, too. People ask me what I do as a pastor, but usually the conversation isn’t long enough to get to the point of talking about this – which is fine, because it’s not about me anyway. All Christians are supposed to help bear one another’s burdens, and every faithful pastor especially feels that way about his people, because Christ feels that way about us. “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…” It’s the only way to minister faithfully and care for God’s people, but it’s also exhausting.

And Paul was okay with all of this! Paul just accepted all these things as the price of service in Christ’s church. All these painful, humiliating, hard things were the cost of doing business for Paul, so to speak. He willingly undertook them for the sake of the gospel. His only objective was to spread the good seed of the Word as far and wide as he could. Everything else was secondary.

That was Paul’s life. It might seem a little more extreme or a little harder than ours, but we bear the cross just like he did, because we’re Christians too. Our trials might not be as painful, but we still have them. More on that in a moment.

Paul’s sufferings go beyond what most Christians experience. But God gave him great blessings, too. Paul says that he was given a vision of heaven by the Lord. He says, “I know a guy,” but we can tell he’s talking about himself. For a little bit he got to experience heaven. He says that he heard inexpressible things, things that are not permitted to tell. I couldn’t tell you what it was like even if the experience hadn’t gone beyond the limits of human language, he says. That’s something else that Paul experienced that we might have a hard time identifying with. Few, if any, of us are given visions of heaven like Paul was. God did this for him as a way to strengthen Paul personally, but we need to remember that this is not the usual way God deals with His children. Paul’s visions are not the norm.

What’s far more usual for us is what he describes at the end of our text. He says that the Lord allowed him to have a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to beat him or pummel him, literally. We don’t know exactly what Paul’s thorn was. We’re never told for sure. Some people speculate that it was a problem with his eyes because of something he says to the Galatians; other people think it was epilepsy or some other sort of bodily affliction. All sorts of guesses have been aired, but the most we can say about it was that it was a physical pain of some sort, that it was more or less constant for Paul – this was something he lived with—and it hurt. A lot. So much so that even alongside all the other painful things he mentioned earlier, it’s only this that he prays to have taken away. He says he prayed three times – begged, more like. “Lord, please take this away! Just take it away, Lord!”

This looks more like us. We all have painful things that we live with. Our bodies let us down and torment us in a lot of different ways. Maybe for you it’s a bad back. Maybe for you it’s cancer. Maybe it’s something that’s in your head, but no less real – mental illness or a learning disability. Maybe it’s a facet of your personality that you hate about yourself, but you can’t seem to tame and bring under control. Whatever it is, it always comes back to the same source: the weakness of our flesh. Sin has corrupted us and steals our strength. It cuts short our lives and makes them miserable. We are jars of clay that crack and shatter if you set them down wrong. We are dust. Sooner or later that weakness in you will drive you to beg like Paul did – and you’ll get the same answer.

He told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” At first we don’t want that answer. We want to say, “How can that possibly be, Lord? How can it be that Your grace is enough? I know what I need here – just take it away! Just fix it!” And He firmly but with all the love in the world says, “No. My grace is sufficient for you. You already have everything you need.” Just the unmerited favor of our God in heaven is all we need, even if things never get better. Sometimes God does let us live with our pain and the weakness of our bodies and our minds. Sometimes things never do get better. It’s not true that God will never give you anything you can’t handle. Look at what He did to Paul. Consider what He lets His children go through every day, all over the world. If anybody ever told you that God will heal everything and fix everything in your life when you become a Christian, you were lied to. That will only happen at the resurrection of all flesh.

God has bigger goals in mind that just fixing what’s wrong with you and making your life easy. Sometimes it suits His good and gracious purposes more to let you struggle, because then you learn to lean on your Savior. God teaches us the hard way that we are not saved by our might or our own working. We have to be taught to rely on His power, and that only happens when every other solution is taken away and every other way forward is blocked. Then all that’s left is God’s Word. It’s in the day-to-day struggle of living with whatever our personal pain is that we learn what God is accomplishing in us. It’s God’s will that those who hear the Word retain it and by persevering produce a crop. That only happens through His power.

And how does God exercise His power in us? Through His Word. When we hang on to His Word and nurture it in our hearts, when we see that His Word is the only thing that keeps us from falling completely apart in this world and plummeting into hell, then God’s power is at work in us. When we are weakest, when we have no strength left in ourselves, then God displays His full power. He picks us up and He keeps us going, every day. Even though things might never get better, it’s His grace that gives us the grit to keep going. Don’t be ashamed of your weaknesses. Admit them honestly, maybe even flaunt them a little, because they’re God’s gift to you to display His work in your life. God has made you what you are, and He has allowed you to start coming apart as you have. He still promises that His power finds its completion in your weakness – every day. Amen.