June 29, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
This lection from Mark 6 provides a curious set of contrasts as well as a wonderful irony.
First, we twice read the word “amazed” here: first in verse 2 and then again in verse 6. Jesus here is doing what he’s been doing ever since Mark 1 and 2 when he began his public ministry of authoritative teaching and wondrous miracles. This time, however, he’s doing this work back home among people who “knew him when.” And so although we are told that they were “amazed” at his work, this is a different Greek word than the one used in verse 6.
The people are, in Greek, ekplesso, a word that contains more than a hint of incredulity. This kind of amazement is not the fall back in awe sense of wonder you have when something amazes you in a delightful way but more the astonishment you feel at something you’re not 100% is even real. Sometimes people amaze me by what they say but a good portion of the amazement I feel stems from my disbelief that ANYONE could ever think in so odd or illogical a way! (The Greek word here explesso may have no linguistic connection to “perplexed” but part of this word reminds me of “perplexed”.)
For his part in verse 6, Jesus’ amazement is from the more common Greek word thaumazo, which is the kind of astonishment that contains little doubt but that bowls you over with power. When a gifted violinist whizzes through a series of arpeggios in a Bach violin solo, I am amazed, blown away, simply left speechless at the wonderful thing I just experienced. That’s how Jesus felt: he had no doubts as to what he was seeing before his eyes, it just took his breath away that the situation was what it was.
Jesus’ amazement stems from their dubious amazement as to what Jesus was saying and doing in their midst. The reason is that the crowd can’t quite believe what they are witnessing. This has to be some sort of conceit, some trick, some chimera that is not what it appears to be at first glance. Notice how they move themselves from dubious astonishment to a wholesale impeaching of what arrested their attention in the first place.
Literally translated, here are the people’s collective comments in verse 2: “What’s all this now? Who gave this fellow such wisdom? What kind of (miraculous) power is this that flows through his hand?” These comments are peppered with vague words of the “how now?” and “wassup?” variety. The Greek is littered with tiny particles and interrogatives of a general and generic nature.
But precisely by stating and framing things just this way, the people are implying that the obvious conclusion—viz., this is all from God himself—cannot be the right conclusion. SOMEthing is up, but who can say just what it is? All their “whither” and “whence” queries darkly hint at the possibility that the source for all this is something shady, something underhanded, maybe even something evil. It’s almost as though they are sputtering, casting about for some explanation, ANY explanation, other than the obvious one.
They then further back this up by mentioning Jesus’ pedestrian origins in a simple family from their community. Who does he think he is anyway? He’s parading himself around as someone great, but everyone in his hometown knew better than to accept that at face value! And so they rather quickly manage to transform their initial (albeit dubious) astonishment at Jesus’ words and deeds into a scandal—a hometown scandal. In verse 4 the Greek skandalizo—literally to be tripped up by someone—is the word translated as “offense” in some versions of Mark 6. They found Jesus to be a stumbling block, a cause of falling down instead of a source of inspiration that could lift them up.
Jesus could not do much for or with people who viewed him that way. Doubtless there was a little envy going on here, and as we all know (and see the Illustration Idea on this text), once you are the target of envy, there is little you can do to defuse that envy. You’re rendered powerless by those who envy you—anything you do to try to get around their envy merely deepens their suspicion.
In a wonderful twist, however, Mark shows us that Jesus turns right around and far from being undone by the treatment he received at the hands of his fellow townsfolk, he actually EXPANDS the mission by sending out the disciples (who will soon be referred to as “apostles” for the first time ever in verse 17 of this same chapter) armed with more power over disease and demons than they ever had before. That’s the great irony here. The more the world tries to tamp Jesus down, impugn his character, hinder his ministry, the more the Holy Spirit responds by sending out more workers to do even more miraculous teachings and deeds!
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
In Mark 6 is it the case that Jesus couldn’t do many miracles or that he just wouldn’t do them? On the assumption that Jesus could do whatever he wanted with his power—that is, on the assumption that even yahoos and yokels were not sufficient to actually sap Jesus of his divine abilities—I tilt more toward the “would not” side of the ledger.
You see, miracles and deep teachings of the type Jesus had been performing were meant to redound to the glory of God. They were not sideshow spectacles designed only to be eye-popping for their own sake. This was not titillation for titillation’s sake. No, these were signs of the kingdom, arrows pointing to the new day dawning through Jesus’ presence on the earth.
But when people were torn up with envy and riven with disbelief, none of that could happen. Criticism replaced praise, doubt displaced thanksgiving. And if people were not going to glorify God for what they see—if they were not going to become more hungry for the kingdom as a result—then the very purpose of the whole enterprise was short-circuited from the get-go. What’s the sense of even trying in that case?
Maybe it was like trying to hold a party in the midst of one of the most sour, dour, and gloomy folks you could imagine. Imagine whipping up some excellent cuisine—some perfectly cooked lamp chops perhaps, a side of melt-in-your-mouth good whipped potatoes with hints of truffle and cream. But then imagine placing this great food in front of people who just poked at it, sniffed it, and then pushed it aside. “Got any burgers or fries?” they might say to you.
Your goal in producing great food was to create a festive atmosphere, to throw a party for heaven’s sake to celebrate some great thing. But how can that happen when the best you have to offer is scorned? It reminds me of a moment on the videotape of our wedding. We’d just had a wonderful lunch at a fine Grand Rapids restaurant. My bride and I had selected the menu ourselves: Dijonaisse Amish Chicken Breast, Pan-Roasted Vegetable Medley, Caramelized Onion Tart. But at one point during the video footage shot just after lunch, you can hear my father-in-law ask one of his relatives how they enjoyed their meal, only to hear one of our grumpier relatives grouse, “There were no potatoes.”
That kind of comment just does not put one in mind to have this person over for a meal sometime!
Jesus did not do many miracles in his hometown because people flat out missed the point. I suppose it’s a fair and legitimate thing to wonder in the church today if we also understand the point of all our ministries. We do what we do in the church not for our own sakes or to make ourselves feel successful. We’re aiming for windows on the kingdom, signs of true joy, previews of all that Jesus is bringing. Yes, the people to whom we minister need to know about all that, too, and be accepting of it in ways the folks in Mark 6 were not. But we need to know what is going on, too, so that Jesus can work through us exactly what he needs to accomplish to show forth all that great kingdom wonder and joy, to the praise and redounding glory of our God above all!
As noted above, the Greek of this text contains some interesting clues as to how to interpret what is going on here. First, there are two different verbs in verses 2 and 6, even though in many English translations both get rendered “amazed.” But the people’s amazement in verse 2 (Gk: ekplesso) contains a whiff of incredulity and doubt. Jesus’ amazement in verse 6 (Gk: thaumazo), on the other hand, is the more usual sense of being surprised at the situation before him. Speaking of the people’s doubt-tinged amazement, the “offense” that the people take at Jesus as reported on in verse 4 is in the Greek skandalizo, which is literally a stumbling block. This could even give you a title for this sermon: “Hometown Scandal.”
In his story “Abel Sanchez,” writer Miguel deUnamuno nicely highlights the nature of envy and why it that the envied person is often trapped. In this retelling of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis 4, the Cain character is played by a skilled surgeon who has for years secretly envied his friend, Abel Sanchez, a skilled artist. At one point in the story, the doctor is scrutinizing one of Abel’s paintings. This particular painting is a depiction of the Cain and Abel story from the Bible. At first, the doctor is convinced that the face of Cain in the painting is modeled on his own face. And he becomes furious! How dare Abel Sanchez use HIM as a model for envy? The gall! The nerve! The implied accusation! But then, upon closer inspection, the doctor decides it’s not his face after all. Does this defuse his anger, however? By no means! Instead the surgeon becomes irate that Abel Sanchez did NOT deign to use him in one of his famous paintings! How dare Abel NOT use his face!
DeUnamuno’s point is clear: when you are the object of envy, you cannot do a blessed thing to make the situation any better. Try to be extra kind to the one who envies you, and this kindness will get written off as condescension and charity. Try to rise above things by ignoring the one torn up with envy and you will be written off as arrogant and rude, thereby merely confirming the envier’s low opinion of you. Neither approach nor avoidance can help the envied one.
It’s difficult to know how much of a role envy plays in Mark 6 but surely the sneering attitude of Jesus’ fellow townsfolk revealed at least a smidgen of envy-driven sentiments. Maybe this had something to do with his inability/unwillingness to do miracles there. He was doomed no matter what he did. Do more miracles, and the people write him off as a showboat (and/or as someone drawing off power from dubious sources). If he refused to do miracles, maybe a few would say, “What now?! We’re not good enough for ya, not WORTHY of your wonder-working power!?”
Perhaps the only thing left to do was leave town and go to other villages, from which Jesus sent forth his disciples-cum-apostles to do wonderful work in places where it could be unalloyedly appreciated.
2 Samuel 5:1-10
Author: Scott Hoezee
Some years ago the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible was published, illustrated by the well-known artist, Barry Moser. I had the privilege of hearing Moser talk about his work some while back and since I am not the most astute observer of art, listening to the artist describe what he did in his various black-and-white drawings opened up whole new vistas of understanding for me.
Moser included two portraits of David. The first shows the young boy David in the Valley of Elah as he prepared to confront Goliath. The boy looks confident to the point of almost being cocky. There is a set to his eyes and to his jaw that signal a burning intensity and the exuberance of youth. Whether Moser intended to convey a kind of swagger I am not sure but “swagger” is the word that comes to mind when I see this version of Jesse’s youngest son. With God at his side, this kid is ready to take on the world (but he’ll start with Goliath for the time being!).
The next portrait fast-forwards a few decades to the David of the Bathsheba period. This time the swagger is gone and so, perhaps, is some of the confidence of youth. The late-middle-age David is someone decked out in enough finery as to let you know he’d achieved all he could have ever hoped for. But the eyes are tired, there is a sort of ennui being depicted, a world-weary “Now that I’ve gotten all I could have wanted what’s left for me?” sort of attitude. It’s the kind of face that reveals the sort of underlying attitude that might just conclude that a pretty younger woman would just be the spark to re-light life’s pilot light after all. This David is no longer ready to take on the world—the world has already taken its toll on him.
The 2 Samuel 5 passage for this Year B Sunday places us somewhere near the midpoint of that trajectory from confident youth to shaky middle-age. Saul is dead. Israel needs a new king, and even if some did not know Samuel had long ago anointed David to take on that very role one day, few if any doubted that David was something more than the logical candidate for the job. As the people tell David, he’d been their de facto king for a very long time now. While Saul battled his personal demons and conjured up spirits with a witch’s help, David fought the real battles with Israel’s enemies and provided the actual leadership for which the people pined.
So since David had been as good as king for years now, it was just a matter of making it official, which they do. David immediately sets up shop by taking the city of Jerusalem away from the folks who seemed to think it was their city. They even taunt David by telling him they could take him down with both hands tied behind their backs and with no one to take him on than the most feeble members of their society.
Well, not quite. David strides right overtop of the people and the next thing you know, other nations are sufficiently in awe of him that they’re shipping him goods and materials with which to build himself a world-class and mighty handsome palace. David was lord of all he surveyed, but one hopes that he himself was as aware of the truth of 2 Samuel 5:10 as was the author of this chapter: viz., that David’s success had one wellspring and one wellspring only: Yahweh God Almighty was with him. The same God who had helped David bring down Goliath was the one behind his every subsequent success, and you just know that if ever David started to let that fact fade into dimness in the back of his mind, things could yet go terribly wrong.
Of course, in terms of the kingdom itself, things went terribly right for the better part of four decades. Eventually David’s own household would crumble into the kind of disarray that could remind one of the Ewing family from the T.V. show Dallas or something. But the political kingdom that David will hand on to Solomon eventually would remain mighty and overall very stable.
In terms of preaching, this text is on the challenging side. It’s mostly an historical hinge point in the wider narrative. There’s nothing particularly inspiring about it per se, unless one can see the bigger picture of God’s faithfulness that undergirds the whole story. Remember: David was the least likely of people to be singled out by Samuel all those years ago. Like any number of other figures from the Bible one could name—Abram, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses—David was an example of how God raises up the least likely little people to become agents of his renewing grace on the earth.
Here in this chapter David moves into Jerusalem and while the official name of the city did not change on anybody’s atlas, a new nickname was given: “The City of David.” Like New York’s designation as “The Big Apple,” so this “City of David” line would become synonymous with Jerusalem from then on out. And centuries later when a certain no-name, lowly carpenter’s son approached that City of David riding on a too-small donkey’s colt, he would himself be on the cusp of the ultimate raising up of an unlikely person to a position of supreme power and preeminence. The little one who had been born into a feedbunk and who would die on a cross was to become the cosmic King of kings and Lord of lords, the ultimate descendant of David who would sit upon David’s throne forever and ever.
As Moser’s twin portraits of David may remind us, the man David eventually very nearly lost his way and strayed terribly for a time from God’s paths. The world ended up being nearly too much for him. Thanks be to God that when his great-great-great-great . . . grandson showed up, the world would not be too much for him. He’d even manage to save the whole ball of wax!
From Eugene Peterson’s Leap Over a Wall (Harper Collins, 1997). Note Peterson’s words on the function of 2 Samuel 5 in the larger narrative of David’s life story:
“Traveling through scenic country, we sometimes come upon a sign reading ‘Roadside Vista Ahead.’ In anticipation we slow down, get out of our car, stretch—and look. We see where we’ve been, we see where we’re headed. Take a breather. Eat a snack. Enjoy the scenery. We can’t always be driving, watching the road closely. Not driving is also part of the trip—savoring what we’ve done, absorbing the landscape, letting the contours of the land and the colors of the horizon sink into our imaginations. These are connective moments. We have various ways of honoring them. We honor them on and with anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, retirements, reunions, celebrations—and by pulling off at roadside vistas. Honoring them is one of the ways we have of keeping our lives coherent—keeping them connected with what we’re becoming. Without frequent reconnaissance, we’re in danger of living in spasms without coordination, without rhythm. The ‘greater and greater’ message of 2 Samuel 5:10 is pivotal in the David story.”
As Peterson goes on to point out, it’s a time to take stock, to anticipate the future, and just so to size up all things under God’s gracious care.
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 123 is a poignant plea for God to show the poet mercy. However, this is also a prayer that he offers on behalf of the entire embattled worshiping community. It’s a good reminder that even those who find themselves under duress should never forget to pray on behalf of others who are also experiencing pain.
The psalmist speaks about eyes four times in Psalm 123’s first two verses alone. Those who preach and teach may see this as an opportunity to talk about all sorts of features of eyes. However, the psalm’s specific context of talk about eyes should discipline us.
Perhaps one way to think about eyes in this setting is to explore where people generally look when they find themselves in some kind of trouble. After all, misery has a way of focusing our attention on our own problems. So those who find themselves, like the psalmist, beleaguered naturally “look” inward at our own problems and ourselves. We can scarcely figuratively look more than just a few feet in front of us as we walk through various dark valleys.
Or people who find ourselves in trouble may look around to other people, groups, organizations or even nations for help. We sometimes look, for example, to various modern medicines to cure our sicknesses or at some kind of loan to help pay our debts and bills.
By contrast, the miserable psalmist looks not inward or around for help, but “up” at the Lord her God. This posture reflects the poet and her contemporaries’ assumption that God lives in the firmament, essentially in the sky. They thought of God’s throne being “in heaven.”
Of course, most Christians no longer think of God as living somewhere seven miles above the earth. We, instead, recognize that God lives in the heavenly realm, a dimension that’s beyond our full comprehension. Yet we recognize the essential truth expressed by the psalmist’s lifting his eyes “up.” While God lives in and among God’s children by God’s Holy Spirit, God is in a sense “above” in that God also rules over the heavens and the earth. While various people, organizations and even nations may claim authority over some part or even all of the earth, the psalmist asserts God rules over everything and everyone God has made.
Psalm 123’s poet’s sense of deep dependence on that God the King is radically counter-cultural. North Americans in particular seem to treasure the myth of independence. Many of us assume that we can take care of ourselves and that any expression of dependence is a sign of weakness.
Of course, God has given many of us great gifts and talents. God has equipped us to largely provide for ourselves. So we don’t like to think of ourselves as anyone’s “slaves” or “maids” (2). However, the psalmist challenges us to remember that we depend on God for every good gift we have. In fact, we depend on the Lord our God for everything we have fully as much as slaves and maids depend on their masters and mistresses for every good thing they have.
Yet James May points to the sense of trust that the psalmist’s looking to God as master expresses. After all, as he notes, ancient Near Eastern masters and mistresses both recognized and accepted their responsibility for their slaves and maids’ well-being. So even as the poet compares the Lord his God to a “master” (and mistress!), he’s affirming God’s deep concern for God’s servants’ welfare.
Nancy deClasse-Walford shifts the imagery of the relationship between God the master and worshipers the servants from eyes to hands. She notes that when servants look to their masters and mistresses, they somehow stretch out their hands in an appeal for help. When masters and mistresses, in turn, look at their servants, they stretch out their hands to show them kindness and mercy. In a similar way, when worshipers stretch out our hands to beg for God’s help, God stretches out God’s hands to show favor to God’s dependent servants.
Of course, with an awareness of such dependence comes a fundamental humility. It’s not easy to think of ourselves as slaves or maids. We like to think we’re the masters of our own “castles.” We give rather than take orders. We generally don’t think of ourselves as needing anyone’s “mercy.” (2) So Psalm 123 expresses a kind of humility that doesn’t come naturally to most citizens of the 21st century – or any century, for that matter.
In fact, the poet’s plea for God to show God’s sons and daughters “mercy” reflects a humble awareness that she doesn’t deserve God’s kindness for which she begs. This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 123 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on our natural religious self-confidence. We assume we don’t need God’s mercy. We’re nice people. Even at our worst, we’re not nearly as evil as the criminals and terrorists out there. In fact, Christians sometimes assert, we’re far more deserving of God’s favor than those faithless Israelites who surrounded the psalmists.
Yet Psalm 123, with its plea for God to show kindness in spite of the worshipers’ unfaithfulness brings all of us up a bit short. It reminds us that we too have sinned and fallen far short of the glory of God. Psalm 123 reminds us that all of us desperately depend on God’s grace that we can only humbly receive with our faith. Our eyes too look to the Lord our God till the Lord shows us mercy.
That mercy stands in stark contrast to the “contempt” (3) and “ridicule” (4) the worshipers’ enemies are piling on them. There’s a strong tone of lament as the psalmist grieves mockery’s flourishing even as righteous worshipers suffer. The poet doesn’t identify the exact nature of the disdain being experienced. That leaves its modern relevance open to various applications by the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the psalmist’s enemies are deriding the worshipers for their trust in the Lord. That would make Psalm 123 a fitting prayer for those who are being persecuted for their faith across the world today. Or maybe Israel’s enemies are ridiculing for her vulnerability. Then Psalm 123 could be a prayer for all those who are tormented by powerful people and groups.
The worshipers’ humility is certainly very different from their enemies’ pride and arrogance. While God’s children look up to the heavenly king, their haughty enemies look down on them. While God’s sons and daughters live by the mercy of God alone, those enemies live by their own devices. Yet instead of looking around at their enemies, the faithful look up to their God.
Those who have pets understand a bit of the complete dependence that Psalm 123 expresses. After all, most household pets can’t feed themselves. They depend on their masters to fill their food and water dish. When we get up in the morning, our cats sprint ahead of us to our refrigerator where they beg us for a “treat.” Then again at night, almost like clockwork, they run ahead of us toward our refrigerator in anticipation of another treat. Were we to cruelly withhold their food and water, our pets would eventually die.
Few people created in God’s image like to compare ourselves to such household pets. However, Psalm 123’s poet suggests even the most independent people depend as much on God for every good thing as household pets depend on their owners for food and water.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Author: Stan Mast
Professional football players are the best at it, I think. Picture the chest thumping after a quarterback sack, or the trash talking after a safety intercepts a pass right in front of the league’s top receiver, or the end zone dance of a running back after a touchdown. Can you see Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback, Richard Sherman, screaming into the microphone right after the Seahawks Super Bowl victory in 2014, “I am the best in the game.” That’s a sanitized version of what Sherman said in his boastful rant. Many professional football players are professional boasters.
But they aren’t alone in athletics, nor are athletes the only ones to boast of their success—some symphony conductors take an unusually showy bow, some business leaders write self-congratulatory memoirs, the occasional politician does a little chest thumping while declaring “Mission Accomplished.” Children learn this behavior quickly, as evidenced by my grandson strutting down the court recently after hitting a fantastic layup in a fourth grade basketball game. We are a society of boasters, even in the church, where we are bit more subtle and sanctified about it.
The false apostles in the church at Corinth weren’t a bit subtle or sanctified about their boasting, and that’s why Paul goes against his better judgment in our text and engages in a bit of boasting himself. “I must go on boasting. Although there was nothing to be gained by it….” Actually there was much to be gained by it; the stakes were very high. These false apostles, whom Paul sarcastically calls “super-apostles” in 12:11, had attacked Paul viciously. That had thrown Paul’s version of the Gospel into question and that in turn had severely shaken the Corinthian church. So Paul has been on a bit of a rant for a couple of chapters now, defending his ministry by boasting about himself to counter the way the super apostles boasted about themselves.
Paul’s boasting had been of a different sort, however. Rather than boasting of his accomplishments, Paul has just pointed to his sufferings in 11:16-33—not how well he had done as a missionary and church planter, but how much he had suffered in his Christ-given ministry. “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (11:30) He would really like to be done with boasting after that outburst; he feels like a fool, sinking to the level of the super apostles (12:11). But for the sake of the church and the Gospel, he will take it a step further in our text for today. I’m glad he did, because in these words he gives us some of the New Testament’s most delectable tidbits for hungry preachers.
“I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.” Apparently, Paul’s attackers had bragged about their supernatural experiences as proof of their status as real apostles, so Paul joins them, but with a very different tone. Indeed, he even refuses to directly name himself as the recipient of these visions and revelations, though it is patently obvious that he is talking about himself. (Verse 7 proves that; it was because of the surpassingly great revelations given to him that he was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him from becoming conceited.) “I know a man in Christ,” he says twice, who was “caught up to the third heaven or paradise.” Of course, there has been huge controversy over what Paul meant by “third heaven” and whether “paradise” is something other than the third heaven. Some think Paul is alluding here to the seven levels of heaven in late Judaism, and he might be. But others think he is simply referring to the dwelling of God, above outer space (the second heaven) and the earth’s stratosphere (the first heaven). Given the Hebraic parallelism between verses 2 and 3, it seems obvious to me that “paradise” is simply another name for the third heaven.
Whatever the case may be, Paul is clear that 14 years ago he was raptured (the Greek is harpagenta, the same word as I Thess. 4:17, the famous rapture passage) into the presence of God. Paul doesn’t know exactly what happened; whether it was “in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.” And he doesn’t know how describe it; indeed, he was expressly forbidden to talk about it. So for 14 years he hasn’t talked about it, contrary to his foes who were always blabbing about their visions and revelations.
Paul believed that the experience he reveals here was not meant for public consumption; it was meant for his private edification. That is an important corrective for today’s tell-all church culture. People are not going to be won for Christ by tales of near death or after death experiences; they are won to Christ by the preaching of the Gospel. That’s why God gave Paul this experience. He was about to launch out into the world on his three/four missionary journeys. God knew what suffering lay ahead of Paul; indeed, just after Paul’s conversion, Jesus had told Paul how he would suffer “for my name.” (Acts 9:16) So, to prepare Paul for the suffering, God gave him an experience of heaven that would encourage him in even the most hellish moments. This vision was for the sake of the Gospel, not for the sake of Paul’s reputation.
But just because the Gospel was being threatened, Paul defends himself with this single reference to his own visions and revelation. Again, he doesn’t want any credit or glory, so he says, somewhat coyly, “I will boast about a man like that, but I would not boast about myself, except about my weakness.” Then he gets a bit more forthcoming, when he says, “Even if I should choose to boast, I will not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth.” This really happened to me, but I’m not going to say so directly, because I don’t want anyone to “think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.” That’s a note Paul often sounds in his letters. Look at my life and listen to my words, my example of ministry and morals. That’s the proof that I’m the genuine article. But for this brief moment, I’ll drop my humble habits and let you know that when it comes to visions and revelations from the Lord, these super apostles have nothing on me.
To insure that Paul “didn’t get too conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given to me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” Interpreters and preachers have gone wild with that nugget of autobiography. What was Paul’s “thorn in my flesh.” There are two great camps of interpretation, the larger of which takes “flesh” to mean physical body, the smaller of which takes it to mean “sinful nature.” The former think Paul is talking about a physical ailment like epilepsy, nearsightedness, depression, a hunch back (up to a dozen different diagnoses). The latter think Paul is referring to either human or demonic opponents who afflicted him spiritually by attacking his ministry. Though I had never thought of the second reading of flesh, it makes sense given the context here in II Corinthians.
Whatever the case, Paul is the poster boy for the suffering of those whom God uses in spectacular ways. Whether mega-church preacher or Christian teacher in a public school or businessman who uses his influence to help inner city kids or mom who blesses her children by being a refuge and a strength, every Christian whom God uses will get beat up. The word “torment” is the Greek kolaphidzo, to beat with fists to the point of humiliation, as the Roman guards did to Jesus before his crucifixion.
It happens to everyone whom God uses. Satan will come after them. Maybe we don’t like to think in those “spiritual warfare” terms; it seems too supernaturalistic. But Job and Jesus show us that it happens. God allows it to happen. And that is a great mystery, and a greater misery. With Jesus we cry out, “My God, my God, why…?” People like Job’s friends think that such suffering must be related to something the sufferer did wrong. But God and Jesus tell us that such suffering is about something else entirely. It’s about redemption—no, not that such suffering gains our redemption, but that suffering enables to discover the heights and depths of our redemption. Redemption will not only get us to the heights of “the third heaven,” but will also empower us even in the depths of suffering.
Suffering humbles us, throws us upon the mercy of God, makes us pray fervently, and teaches us that, finally, the grace of God is sufficient. These are lessons we don’t want to learn. Indeed, we do everything we can to avoid suffering. But there are times when God allows Satan to visit us with a thorn in the flesh precisely so that we will discover the all-sufficiency of God’s grace in Christ. How many times have I found myself with Paul (and Jesus) begging God to “remove this cup from me,” to “take it away from me,” to change the situation because it is killing me or someone I love. But God has something better in mind.
I wish that I always had Paul’s perspective. I’m glad he recorded this experience for me and all my suffering brothers and sisters. The very voice of Jesus breaks into my pitiful begging with a magnificent word of grace. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” As long as we are self-sufficient, the power of God will not shine through us. Folks will hear us preach, watch us lead, enjoy our pastoring, admire our character, and praise us. It will all be about us, as it was with the “super apostles.” It’s only when we are weak that God’s power will be displayed in us. We won’t have to seek to be weak. We just need to be open to the grace of God when we are weak. Rather than feverishly trying to pull out the thorn or frantically banging on the door to the throne room, Paul shows us that the path to peace and to powerful ministry lies in accepting the sufficiency of grace.
I’m not yet where Paul landed. “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” Paul uses a lovely image there; the word “rest” is episkenose, which has the word “tent” at its core. The power of Christ will pitch its tent on me. That’s reminiscent of the Word becoming flesh and “tabernacling” among us (John 1:14). As we journey through the wilderness that is filled with suffering, the power of Jesus will be like a tent over us. No, it won’t shelter us from the storm. But it will empower us to do ministry through the storms, if we embrace our weakness.
Paul puts it stronger than that. He wants to talk about boasting one more time; then he never mentions it again in this letter to the Corinthians. “I will boast… about my weakness,” contrary to the superheroes, who boast about their strengths. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul isn’t being morbidly ascetic here. He is being entirely realistic about the Christian life. If we truly follow Christ, we will be attacked. What matters is how we deal with the attacks. If we turn to God in prayer, accept the all-sufficient grace of God whatever form it takes, and maintain a Christ-like attitude toward our suffering, then our weakness will be used by God in stronger ways than we can imagine.
This text is so rich that I can think of four very different sermons based on it: a sermon on boasting directed at children and young people; a sermon on supernatural experiences directed at the super-spiritual saints in our churches; a sermon on thorns directed at those who suffer terribly; and a sermon on the sufficiency of grace for those who find that ministering in Jesus name is almost unbearably difficult.
Don’t preach on thorns and all sufficient grace too lightly. As I worked my way through Paul’s powerful testimony, I remembered the unspeakable suffering of a loved one who had shingles for 9 weeks. The pain drove her wild with agony, and the prospect of having that excruciating pain for the rest of her life moved her to utter despair. The message of all sufficient grace sounded hollow in the midst of such suffering. And I thought of a friend whose wife and daughter were in a terrible car crash that left both of them brain damaged in ways that will affect the rest of their lives. How can grace be sufficient for them? The only way to preach such grace and not infuriate sufferers is to focus on the suffering of God Incarnate, a suffering so horrible that he begged three times to have it removed.
As I meditated on Paul’s sober experience with “unanswered” prayer, I saw a smiling TV evangelist promising his congregation that if they would name and claim the promises of God, they would get a life filled with health and wealth. People love him because of how upbeat his messages are. Paul offers a very different kind of hope in our text for today. Which message is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?