Sexagesima Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| February 11, 2007| 2 Corinthians 12:7-9
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9
It stands to reason that if God is on your side you will be able to avoid pain and want in your life. After all, pain is bad. Poverty is bad. We believe in a God who has conquered sin. Why should we not believe that he has conquered sickness and poverty as well? If the fruit of sin surrounds us how can we claim to be delivered from sin itself? Did not Jesus heal the sick? And doesn’t it stand to reason that the God who owns the whole world would bless his children with at least their fair share of this world’s wealth?
Yes, it stands to reason that God would want us healthy and wealthy. But what stands to reason cannot stand the test of the Holy Scriptures. Faith trusts God’s word. It does not trust what stands to reason. If what is reasonable to us must serve as the standard for what we believe and teach then we’ll have to toss out every single divine mystery revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Is it reasonable to believe that God is Triune: three distinct persons yet only one divine essence? Is it reasonable to believe that the man Jesus who was born of a virgin and died on a cross is the almighty and everlasting God, the Creator and Sustainer of all that exists? Is it reasonable to believe that a tiny little baby who cannot even talk is born from above by the Holy Spirit in the washing of Holy Baptism and receives and possesses the saving faith in the Triune God? It is reasonable to believe that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are the body and blood by which we are redeemed from sin, death, and hell? Is it reasonable to believe that guilty sinners who have done nothing righteous are pronounced to be righteous by God Himself when they believe that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake? The wonderful mysteries of our holy faith are far above the ability of human reason to fathom. We believe what God teaches us for His is a heavenly teaching that defies judgment by the fallen reason of sinful man.
So we consider this truth. While it may stand to reason that God wants us to be healthy and wealthy, it just might be that God wants to bless us by making us suffer pain and want.
St. Paul had what he called a thorn in the flesh. He doesn’t say what it was. We don’t know. We do know that it caused Paul a great deal of suffering. He called it a messenger of Satan to torment him. You may recall how, in the book of Job, God permitted Satan to torment Job. Satan had claimed that Job was a faithful Christian because God had blessed him with great wealth. Take away his great wealth and he will curse you, Satan claimed. God let Satan take away Job’s great wealth. After losing it all he said,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
Job did not accuse God of doing wrong. He kept the faith. Then God permitted Satan to take from Job his health. His wife told him to curse God and die. Job refused. Shall we accept the good that God gives and refuse to accept adversity? Job kept the faith.
There is a huge religious market today for a gospel that is not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ but another gospel. It is the so called prosperity gospel that promises good health and good finances to Christians if they act on the faith that God wants to prosper them and give them the good life. Promoted by such popular preachers as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, this prosperity gospel has captured the allegiance of millions. Go to Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club and check out the best sellers. You find several volumes by these two people, hawking a gospel that promises an abundant life in which you can overcome the troubles of life.
But it just might be that God has something quite different in mind. The abundant life that Jesus promised is not a life abundant with health and wealth and worldly success. It isn’t a life filled with wonderful friends and expensive things. A Christian’s abundant life does not consist in things that we have today but could lose tomorrow. The wealth that God has to give is imperishable. It is invaluable. It is the wealth of heaven itself.
But heaven is not a pleasure palace filled with expensive things to tantalize the senses. Heaven’s beauty is divine. It is God’s purity. It is peace that transcends all human understanding. It is a majesty uncorrupted by the sins of this world. It is a joy unfettered by memory of sin, tragedy, suffering, and death. It is above all love – divine love – eternal love that embraces you and fills you and brings you contentment you could never ever have in this life.
St. Paul calls this the third heaven. He also calls it Paradise. He was caught up to heaven. He witnessed what he could not tell. But consider what he chose to glory in. What was his boast? That he had seen heaven? That he had experienced a glory no one on earth had ever experienced? No, he boasted in his weakness. He boasted in his sickness. Why? Because when God made him weak God made him strong.
This is completely contrary to what stands to reason. But we must embrace this truth. We must hold on to it with all our might and let nothing tear it out of our hearts. If we have this truth firmly planted into our minds, our hearts, our very souls we will be able to withstand every adversity in life. We’ll be able to rejoice when we suffer. We’ll be able to see our great wealth when we can’t scrounge up enough money to pay our bills. We’ll be able to see perfect health when the pain just won’t go away. When we are weak, then we are strong.
The soil must be plowed. Only then can you plant the seed. If you plant the seed on hard soil it won’t take root and grow. But the plowing is painful. God plows deep. He plants His word deep. Then, as it is planted within us, it grows. It brings life – the abundant life that Christ alone can give. But what God considers the abundant life this world cannot appreciate. By God’s grace we Christians can.
What do you want? Release from worry about how to pay all the bills? Do you want relief from chronic pain? Or maybe you just want to be left alone by someone who’s making life miserable. There are pains that run deep and we cannot see any possible benefit. In fact, we find ourselves demoralized, dejected, depressed, and at a loss to cope. We pray. God promises to hear and answer. But He does nothing we can discern. We notice no change. Indeed, matters often just get worse.
Why would God want His children to suffer? It makes no sense. Why should we be rendered so weak? Because in weakness we learn what we cannot learn when we are strong. In our strength we learn to trust in ourselves. It is in being made weak that we learn to depend on Christ.
The self-satisfied don’t hunger and thirst for righteousness. Luther used to say that hunger is the best cook. God makes us hungry for what He alone can provide. There’s an old saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” But the truth is that God helps those who cannot help themselves. God’s grace is for those who need it. God’s grace is weaklings. Listen to what Jesus said to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” His strength reaches its goal in us when we are weak. Being weak means you cannot trust in yourself and you know it. You cannot manage. You cannot cope. You’ve searched within yourself for that inner strength and you couldn’t find it because it wasn’t there. All of the spiritual self-help programs in the world cannot turn a sinner into a saint or give dying people the abundant life.
God must render us weak and impotent. He must destroy the idols to which we cling. Why? Because our flesh is stubborn. Like a mule, we need to be brought to attention by the proverbial two by four. Otherwise, we’ll just keep on clinging to what hurts us and drives us away from our gracious God. When God cuts deep into the soil of our pride and exposes the sin that we keep covered up under the hard and shiny surface, He is not behaving cruelly. He’s being merciful. The gospel is for those who have learned to judge themselves. In judging themselves to be weak and poor God makes them wealthy and strong.
The nature of this strength is not visible to the naked eye, but the eye of faith can see it clearly. It is the strength displayed on the cross where Jesus battled the father of lies and crushed his lying head. He did so by bearing in His sacred body all the evil of every human heart. He bore our sicknesses. He bore our poverty. He was forsaken in His holy suffering. This is how our sin was washed away. This is where peace with God was made. This is our treasure. Idolatrous hearts scorn it as irrelevant to life. But when God has shattered the worthless idols in which we trust and has shown us that there were never worthy of our trust in the first place, He also graciously replaces the false faith with the true faith that cherishes the blood and righteousness of Jesus more than anything in heaven or on earth. From this faith true and lasting fruit will spring up and grow to be healthy and strong.
We will not despise suffering. God does not despise us in our suffering. Instead, by forgiving us our sins for Jesus’ sake and binding Himself to His promise to work out every bad thing in our lives for good, God takes our pain and turns it into pure joy. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Amen.