July 8, 2012
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
This morning’s sermon is on failure. And I would like to start off by apologizing for failing you this past week Part of my job is to make sure that those who preach when I am gone are long-winded, ponderous, and otherwise helping me to seem that much better when I get back. I listened to the sermon from last week, and instead Pastor Tom hit one out of the park and set the bar higher.
But in my failure I take solace in the fact that this morning we have heard two stories of failure by heroes of our faith: Jesus couldn’t heal and Paul couldn’t pray.
Paul is defending his ministry against some who have not suffered for their faith as he has, and yet they call Paul less than a worthy apostle. Finally he says, “Fine, you want me to defend myself? You want me to boast? I can boast!”
He starts with examples of a man he knew some fourteen years earlier who has had far greater visions, far more ecstatic encounters with God, than Paul can claim. Seems strange to boast of what someone else is doing. Paul even claims ignorance as to whether the man ascended bodily or if they were simply visions. As boasts go, I have to admit, these are pretty lame Paul.
Then he gets to himself. He confesses to suffering from an problem, a “thorn in his flesh.” We do not know what this affliction was. Was it chronic pain or illness? An emotional problem or an addiction? Was it a particular lust or grief that never seemed to go away? We could speculate all day long, and the church has, but ultimately we simply don’t know.
All we know is that it is bad enough to call it “one of the adversary’s angels.” This problem is so painful, so distracting, that Paul calls it a “messenger from Satan.” It is so bad that he cannot enter into ecstatic prayer. It constantly wears on him so no matter how wonderful the encounter of God is, the bad soon overwhelms the good.
He then confesses to having failed at prayer. He prayed three times for the Lord to take away this affliction. Three times. Get it? Three times he prayed. Three times. Once should have been enough! Okay, maybe twice if it were really bad. But three times he prayed!
And. It. Didn’t. Go. Away.
Jesus has a similar problem. He is back home. Here he teaches with authority, as he did elsewhere. They know of his marvelous works of healing. But this is home. Home is where everybody remembers what you did as a teenager. Home is where the old, embarrassing stories of who you were, before you became who you are, still get told. Home is where he is not Jesus the preacher, Jesus the healer, Jesus the possible Messiah. Home is where he is Jesus the “son of Mary, brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here as well.”
Home is where old scripts hold sway, and old stories get retold, and old ghosts still haunt our identity.
And he could do no mighty work there, except that he
laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.
And he marveled because of their unbelief.
He can’t do anything because everyone is stuck on who he used to be. How can God do something new if we keep insisting on how it was?
Instead of fighting the image that everyone had of him, he just goes back to work. He calls the twelve and he sends them out, and he tells them to not take anything with them for the journey.
Such a statement confounds me. I travel with a toddler now. The idea of traveling light no longer registers. There are toys and books and Pack’n’Play and food and medicines and diapers and wipes and, and, and… well you get the idea.
But Jesus tells them to take nothing extra; nothing extraneous. They are given authority over unclean spirits, sent to heal and preach and do as Jesus did. And they are to learn from his example in his hometown. If some place does not want to listen, shake the dust off your feet and move on.
What Paul discovered in his attempts to pray away his affliction, the twelve are learning as they travel without security and without backup.
As the Lord said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
The paradox of the faith of the cross. God, creator of the heavens and the earth, who set the stars in their courses, does not overwhelm the world, but lets his power be made known in the midst of weakness. God who turns failure into grace. God who makes weakness into blessing. God who turns death into resurrection.
The twelve are not door to door security salesmen. They are fishers of men. Paul did not heal up and get back to work the way he had planned. He lived with the thorn in his flesh, and continued to do what needed to get done.
And what they discovered was that the Lord’s grace was sufficient. Maybe not in the ways they thought, or hoped, or prayed. But sufficient enough to overcome sin and death by the weakness of the cross.
The Lord’s grace was sufficient.
And it still is.
Thanks be to God.