7/5/2015 Sixth Sunday after Pentecost Text is 2 Corinthians 12:2-10.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Once there was a little man named Bilbo Baggins who went on a great adventure. He was a very common man, not the kind you would expect to do such a thing. He was, in fact, quite timid about adventuring outside the safety of his comfortable dwelling. He was a predictable sort of fellow who enjoyed being in the company of good friends and sharing the creature comforts of a warm hearth and home. But, one day, he left his secure life and journeyed out into a vast new world in search of treasure. He faced many dangers and had strange encounters. When he returned home from his travels he was a different person. He was still Bilbo Baggins all right, but he wasn’t the same. He had lost one life and found another. This new man, Bilbo, was able to boast of his many encounters and adventures with a sense of victory and well-being that only comes from having accomplished the journey. Or, so it is written in the book, The Hobbit.
The Hobbit was a story written for young and old alike to help people of all ages come to a new understanding of living and life. And yet, there is even a more profound lesson found in the real life story of a real person name Paul.
Now there once was a zealous man name Saul who liked to live by the letter of the law. He was a predictable sort of fellow who did what was right and good according to the rules he was taught. He was, in fact, quite timid about adventuring outside the safety of his comfort zone and well-ordered life. But, one day, he left the security of what he had known and journeyed out into a vast new world where he found unexpected treasure. He faced many dangers along the way and had strange encounters which changed him into a different man, who went by the name of Paul. Yes, he was still Saul in that his desire to live by faith had not changed. Yet, because of his encounter with the risen Lord, he lost one life and found another, and he was never the same again. But unlike Bilbo, Paul, who had every reason to boast about his adventures and what he was able to do in his life, did not do so. Instead, he boasted in his weakness so that the glory of the One who lead him on his journey in faith would be the shining light.
Considering his special relationship to God, the apostolic authority that God bestowed on him, and the special gifts of the Holy Spirit which he exercised, Paul could have become egotistical and boastful. But, he did not boast of his own accomplishments, his own victories, his own adventures, or ability to overcome danger. Instead, he boasted of the victory of Christ who empowered him to do what he did. He boasted of the victory of Christ in his life because he understood that without Jesus, he would have remained Saul. There would have been no change. But, because Jesus chose him to be a witness and missionary on behalf of the gospel, through Christ he became a new person – one with authority and power. But, Paul did not lay claim to it as if it were his and his alone. Paul hoped that Christ would dwell in the lives of all of God’s people, bestowing on them the same constant love, renewing hope, and spiritual power that had changed his life.
With all the accolades and authority that came his way, Paul would have had to have been an extraordinarily humble and faithful man to keep this perspective on life. But, Paul was no different than you and me. These things could easily go to his head. So, to keep his spiritual life on an even keel, to prevent him “from being too elated by the abundance of revelations,” Paul was afflicted with a thorn in his flesh.
Now, if you have ever had a thorn stuck in the hand, the leg, the arm, the brow, you know how painful it can be. Even a little splinter in the tip of a finger can force us to stop what we are doing in order to remove it. But the thorn that infected Paul’s live was a chronic problem, something he could not remove, like sciatica or plantar fasciitis or maybe something worse, like COPD or diabetes or heart disease.
Whatever that thorn was, Paul did not blame God for that which he could not remove, nor did he deny his weakness. Paul understood his struggles with this unspecified affliction to be a hidden asset, a blessing of sorts, in his otherwise extraordinary life. For, the pain brought him down, out of the clouds, into the reality of life. This “messenger of Satan,” as he labeled it, harassed him and kept him from flaunting his own superiority. It served as a constant reminder of his own humanity and reminded him of God’s grace. So, instead of bragging about his strong characteristics and his worthiness to receive God’s blessings, the apostle admitted his weaknesses and extolled the greatness of God.
Sometimes, we need little reminders that we are not God. As the childhood hymn, “Jesus Loves Me,” points out, we are weak – he is strong. Our God is the source of our victories, small and large, and he meets us in our successes – in our hours of triumph – even though we like to pat ourselves on the back and take all the credit for what we have accomplished. God is also there in our hours of need, amid defeats, disappointments and pain – even though we are apt to blame God when things don’t go the way we plan.
Sickness, distress and tragedy can happen to anyone, and frustration is an inescapable part of our day to day life. Paul knew this as he struggled each day. Paul accepted the realities of living in a real world. And rather than blaming God for the thorn, he accepted it as part of life’s adventure – and by the grace of God, he made the most and the best of it.
None of us knows what tomorrow will bring. All we can do is make each and every day count for something greater than ourselves. All we can do is live each and every day as if this is the day we will encounter the Lord face to face. All we can do is trust in God and his grace, look to him for guidance and give him the glory. For, it is undeserved grace that enables us to find strength in difficult times. It is grace that helps us overcome obstacles and to see the good things in life rather than concentrating on the not so wonderful things that happen. It is grace that enables us to live humbly, to accept our weaknesses and to boast in our Lord. It is God’s abundant grace that lets us know the peace of God as we take on life’s adventures.
May the Lord be with you on all your journeys in this life and may you know the grace of God in that peace which surpasses all human understanding. And, may the peace of God keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.