Sermon from 4th Jul 2021 (Pentecost 6)

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 (ESV) 

2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.  3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.  5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.  6 Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.  7 So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.  8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so that when we’re weak, we may boast in the strength we have in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever noticed how much we boast to each other?

It’s not always obvious, but we often compare ourselves, our abilities, our experiences, our faith, or our relationships, as more favourable than those around us. My car is newer or more economical. My garden has a greater variety of flowers. My dog is more loyal. Our congregation is better than another one, and so on.

In fact, we may even boast in reverse. For example, someone might say ‘I’ve got a sore finger’ or ‘I’ve got a headache’, but you might be tempted to respond by saying: ‘That’s nothing! I’ve got a sore leg’ or ‘I’ve got a migraine’!

Now it’s quite natural to compare ourselves with others, but it seems to be a game we have to win because, if we can’t win this game, we feel inferior to others.

So, in order to feel better about ourselves, or in order to be noticed or valued or loved, we feel the need to boast and brag about ourselves. We also feel the need to hide any weaknesses, failures, inadequacies, frailties, or insecurities so that people will appreciate us.

Unfortunately, when we boast about ourselves, or hide the truth of what’s really going on for us, it can also put other people off. People around us may figure out we’re not telling the full truth, and that we’re not trustworthy. Our boasting may also make them feel small, insignificant, ignored or unworthy. We may give the impression they don’t measure up to our standards, even though our standards are false because we’re not being true to ourselves.

The strange twist is, although we may be put off by some people’s boasts, we’re often attracted to those who seem to be in control. We’re often attracted to the strong, the brave, the wealthy, the beautiful, the successful, and the intelligent, even if what they show us is just a fancy façade which hides their own insecurities and fears.

However, when we boast about ourselves, or attempt to hide our weaknesses in the Church, we end up giving a false and dangerous witness.

It often works this way: We all know Jesus is the only Way, Truth, and Life. We know Jesus is our Saviour. But when we boast about ourselves, we’re not inviting people to ‘come and see Jesus’. We’re inviting people to take notice of us.

Also, when we boast about ourselves and puff ourselves up, we bear witness we don’t need Jesus very much because we’ve got all things under control. We bear witness that others should be more like us than more like Jesus. When we defend ourselves and attempt to hide any weakness, fault or frailty, we bear witness we’re trusting in ourselves and don’t need the forgiveness, wholeness or peace Jesus offers.

Similarly, when we invite people to come to worship, we don’t normally want to invite people to be part of a fractured and frail bunch of sinners. We instead might say something like: ‘We’ve got a good pastor, come and hear him!’, or ‘Our pastor’s away and we can finally listen to someone else!’ Or perhaps ‘We’ve got great musicians’ or, ‘We have lots of fun’ or, ‘We’re a bunch of friendly people’ or anything else than actually offering what only Jesus offers through his Word or Sacraments.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having these things, but the trouble is we boast in them. When we boast in them, we take the focus off Jesus.

The other thing is that, when we boast in all the good things we might have, it can backfire. You see, sooner or later people discover the truth that, no matter how much we might boast in about ourselves and what we offer, people will eventually find out we’re a bunch of sinful self-centred people who can often get up each other’s noses!

If you listen to St Paul speaking to us today about boasting in his weakness, I wonder if we’ve being going about this the wrong way. Perhaps, if any church should boast, it should boast that it has the worst bunch of sinners, the blandest sounding music, and the most boring preacher!

Now while this may sound stupid, think of it this way: if we’ve got nothing else to boast in except Jesus Christ, then we’re a church who finally has the correct focus, because a church which focuses only and clearly on Jesus (and not on ourselves and our own abilities, resources and talents), then we become a church which only wants to share the pure grace, love, patience, and forgiveness which Jesus himself offers!

While all of us want to avoid suffering and troubles, we shouldn’t be scared of admitting our failures, problems, struggles or inadequacies, because God has a habit of using weakness, failure, fights, and pain for his own purposes in order to strengthen our faith in him alone.

For example, notice that Paul talks about a thorn in the flesh which makes sure he can’t boast.

Paul knows he could boast about all his extraordinary visions, revelations, and spiritual encounters, but he has this thorn which stops him from boasting or bragging in these experiences. He asked for the Lord to take it away from him, but Jesus replied his grace is sufficient. God’s grace is the only thing he needs to boast in.

Now we’re not told what this thorn or splinter of Paul’s is, but maybe that’s a good thing. Since we don’t know what it is, it leaves the possibilities open for interpretation. It may also help us to think about our own thorns or splinters which irritate us.

In this case, what, or whom, is your splinter or ‘messenger of satan’ which stops you from boasting? In other words, what do you struggle with that God hasn’t taken away so that you’re led to boast more in him alone?

It could be your physical afflictions, such as sickness, physical limitations, hearing or sight difficulties, or the problems related to ageing.

It could be your emotional difficulties, such as depression, anger management, shyness, fear, or low self-esteem.

It could be your relationship problems at work, within your family, your friendships, or even within the church community.

You may have even asked God to take away your splinter and make everything ok. You may have wanted God to take away those difficult people, but he didn’t. Is it possible God hasn’t taken your splinter away so that you can’t boast in anyone or anything else except Jesus?

Ironically, instead of whingeing about our splinters, Paul is challenging us to not only be content with them, but even boast in them! Maybe we should boast about our physical problems, our emotional hang-ups, or about those people who really annoy us!

For example:

  • Thank God I’m short, because it forces me to be humble as I ask for help!
  • Thank God I can’t do as good a job as Mr Puddleduck, because it helps me realise I’ve got so much more to learn, even from people like him!
  • Thank God I’m depressed, because it leads me to seek supportive and caring people who can pray for me!
  • Thank God I can’t handle this situation, because this means I need to rely on God’s strength to carry on!
  • Thank God I’m getting old, because as I lose my independence, I’m being prepared to depend solely on God alone and his eternal promises!
  • Thank God for crabby old Mrs Griffenpuffle who really gets up my goat, because I’m being taught patience and the need for forgiveness!
  • Thank God we’ve experienced conflict and turmoil in our parish, because it’s leading us to appreciate how to receive and pass on the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ!

In this way, we can boast about our splinters and weaknesses and troubles and frailties because they reveal just how valuable and important the grace of God is to us.

You see, God doesn’t love you because you’re always able to handle situations. God loves you whether you can handle them or not.

God doesn’t love you because you’re perfect (which you’re not!), but only because Christ is perfect!

God doesn’t love you because you’re able to love and forgive and get on with everybody, but he loves you even when you’re struggling to love and forgive and get on with everybody.

God loves you not only when you’re happy and well-behaved, but for the sake of Jesus Christ, he still loves you when you’re grumpy, disobedient, irritable, or crumpled in a heap!

Perhaps, if you’re going to boast at all, you might consider boasting in Christ’s suffering for you.

  • Boast in the thorns which pierced Jesus’ brow as he was crowned as your king.
  • Boast in his innocent blood which washes your sins away.
  • Boast in his cry for your forgiveness from the cross.
  • Boast in his humiliating suffering and death which paid the full blood price for your forgiveness.
  • Boast in his glorious resurrection which assures you that you will also rise with him through faith.
  • Boast that everything needed for your life and salvation has been done by God and there’s nothing more for you to do except receive his gifts through faith, especially through the means of grace in his Word, through Baptism and at the Lord’s Supper.

In other words, you’re encouraged to boast in what looks like the weakness of Jesus because it’s in Christ’s apparent weakness on the cross where God’s greatest strength lies. There on the cruel cross is the power of God. There on the cross of suffering and death is the power of grace, love and forgiveness.

While you may not like suffering in any way, God has a habit of using your thorns and splinters and weaknesses in order to draw you closer to him and depend on his grace. After all, if you’ve got everything under control, what do you need God for? But when you have nothing, God is everything to you.

While it’s tempting to hide them, every day you’ll be reminded of your greatest weaknesses – your own impatience, your greed, your selfishness, your ungratefulness, your pride, your arrogant and empty boasts, and so on. You’ll also be reminded of each other’s weaknesses and how much they hurt you.

But every day you’ll also have an opportunity to boast in these weaknesses because they lead you to the cross of Christ.

This is because, when you’re led to the foot of the cross, you’re led to the grace of God. When you’re dragged to your knees in humbleness and desperation, pleading for God to take away your splinters, God will tell you his grace, shown on the cross, is enough for you. Because God’s grace is made perfect through weakness, you’re to draw strength from his grace shown on the cross so that you can cope with your weaknesses.

I suppose another way to put it is this:

When we boast in ourselves, the need for Christ in diminished.

On the other hand, when we acknowledge our weakness and humility, and trust in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, he is the one who is glorified.

If we’re going to boast about anything, let’s boast and delight in our weaknesses, our thorns, and our splinters, so that the strength of Jesus Christ, and his gracious mercy and forgiveness, may dwell in us and through us, so that…

…the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.