Pentecost 7b

Preached: July 19, 2009

Christ's Power Dwells on the Weak
2 Corinthians 12:7-10

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit sustains our faith to endure all things for Jesus is 1 Corinthians 12

To keep me from exalting myself due to the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to pommel me, was given to me to keep me from exalting myself. Because of this three times I implored the Lord for it to go away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is completed in weakness.” So rather, I will most gladly boast in my weaknesses, in order that Christ's power may dwell on me. Therefore, I take pleasure in weakness, in insults, in neediness, in persecution, in distress, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am powerful. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

“Believe in yourself.” “Find your inner strength.” “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” “God helps those who help themselves.” “Dream big and you will achieve it.” “Reach for the stars.”

You've heard those thoughts many times over. They pulsate through commencement addresses, self-help books, and motivational speakers. They're the theme for movies, stories, and talk shows. But how contrary they are to what today's text says!

Now, I realize that the words of those opening statements can be maneuvered to fit in line with the Bible, if you take them the right way. In the right context under the proper circumstances one of those pithy statements might be beneficial. But the vast majority of times when they are used, they point us away from Christ's power and direct us to our own strength. That is diametrically opposed to everything in the Scriptures.

So today, rather than relishing in our strengths, let us join the Apostle Paul and boast of our weaknesses. For Christ's power dwells on the weak. That's the theme for you to remember today. Christ's power dwells on the weak. And when we take that to heart, our prayers change. We pray: Lord Jesus, use my weakness for your sake. That's part one. And we pray: Lord Jesus, your grace never falls short. That's part two.

A. Lord Jesus, use my weakness for your sake

1. What does Paul mean by weaknesses?

What do we usually pray when we think about weakness? Don't we ask God to take it away? We pray for strength instead, for a stronger faith, for power to make it through the day, for the strength resist sin, stand firm, and endure. And we certainly have example and direction of Scripture to pray such prayers. But should we also pray: “Lord Jesus, use my weakness for your sake”?

Look at what the Apostle says, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses . . . I delight in weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10 NIV). He sees these weaknesses as a blessing from God. Shouldn't we,too, pray for such blessings?

But what does Paul mean by weaknesses? Here we need to listen carefully to what the Scriptures say in context and not to the imaginations of our spiritual laziness. Paul does not boast or delight in weakness of faith or weakness of morals or weakness in serving God and our neighbor. He's not praising the person who says, “Why should I try to strengthen my faith? The Bible is so hard to understand. Life's too busy for Bible classes. Isn't showing up for church once in a while good enough? Why should I bother strengthening my faith at home using God's Word. Doesn't Paul boast about weakness?” Such a faith is wasting away into unbelief, if it hasn't died already. Nor is Paul praising the man who says, “I'm such a weak Christian. I can't help but give in to my sinful desires. Why bother fighting them? I might as well give in sooner rather than later. Doesn't my weakness make God's grace look even better by forgiving someone who sins as easily as I do?” That's abusing God's forgiveness as a license for sin. Nor is Paul praising the attitude that says, “I don't need to do my best in serving God and my neighbor because weakness is good.” That attitude flows from laziness, not from faith.

So what does Paul mean by weaknesses? Look at what he writes in verse 10: “For Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses . . .” And now he gives examples of what he means by weaknesses: “. . . in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NIV). Ah, do you see? It's what the world labels as weakness. It includes what we suffer for Christ's sake, such as the insults, ridicule, persecution that come as we follow Jesus and boldly live for him. It also includes those things like hardships, neediness, difficulties that from a human perspective seem to get in the way of our serving Jesus and our neighbor. Whatever Paul's thorn in the flesh was, he felt it hindered his ability to serve, so he pleaded with God to take it away. But God knew better. What appears weak to the world, what we even may consider a handicap in service, God uses to accentuate his power in Christ. Lord Jesus, use my weakness for your sake. For your power dwells on the weak.

We gain a clearer understanding of weakness from the larger context of 2 Corinthians 11 and 12 as well. After Paul left Corinth, so-called “super-apostles” infiltrated the congregation masquerading as apostles of Christ. They tauted their strong credentials, their eloquence, their success, their high price. But they did not preach the same Jesus as Paul did. They did not preach Christ crucified for sinners. They had a different spirit, a different gospel, which was really no gospel at all.

So to counter their boasting about their strength, Paul does some boasting of his own. He boasts of his weakness as he writes in chapter 11: “I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (2 Corinthians 11:26-30 NIV). For Paul well knows, that Christ's power dwells on the weak. Lord Jesus use my weakness for your sake.

2. How does this understanding of weakness affect the way we pray?

So pray, dear Christian, pray for Jesus to use your weaknesses -- not the kind of weakness that stifles faith or promotes sin and spiritual laziness. Rather pray for the weaknesses through which God's power displays its perfect completeness. For you see, at times when we pray for strength, whether for a stronger faith, or power to make through the day, or strength to resist temptation, stand firm, and endure -- when we pray for strength a part of us, a devious part of us, is thinking: “Yes, Lord give me strength so that I can depend on the power of my faith and the strength of my character, so that I can live more independently and not need you so much.” How damning those thoughts are! So pray, dear Christian, pray for Jesus to use your weakness to keep you close to him, dependent on him, trusting only in him and his grace and power. Pray for the weaknesses that display for you the perfect completeness of his power and the full sufficiency of his grace. For Christ's power dwells on the weak.

B. Lord Jesus, your grace never falls short

1. How was God's grace at work through Paul's thorn in the flesh?

And that brings us to the second part. Even as we pray: Lord Jesus, use my weakness for your sake, we also prayer: Lord Jesus, your grace never falls short. For it is because of his grace that his power dwells on the weak.

First let's see God's grace at work in the weakness that Paul refers to as a thorn in his flesh. That name, “thorn in the flesh,” seems to indicate this weakness affected his physical condition. He also calls it “a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Corinthians 12:7), just as Satan tormented Job with earthly loss and bodily affliction. Like a boxer mercilessly beating his opponent bloody, Satan pommels the Apostle Paul with this thorn in the flesh.

Whatever this thorn was, Paul see it as a hindrance in serving his Savior. He pleads with God in prayer for it to go away. He pleads again, and a third time. God answer him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV). God's grace did not fall short.

But how could a gracious, merciful God let let his Apostle continue to suffer so? Why didn't he take it away? Paul explains, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations” (2 Corinthian 12:7 NIV). God had blessed Paul by showing him paradise in addition to other revelations. As a sinner, like you and me, Paul could have gotten a big head. He could've begun relying on his experience and insight gained from these revelations rather than relying on Jesus alone. Instead of looking to God's power, he could've look to his own strength. So what should a gracious God do? Take the thorn from Paul and so let him damage his faith or even lose it? Or keep the thorn with Paul and so keep Paul close to his Savior, dependent on Christ's power? It's not a hard question, is it? God's grace does not fall short.

2. Why do we need our thorns?

But it's a lot harder to apply to ourselves when we face suffering, hardship, and weakness. “God do I really need this to keep me humble? Wouldn't I be okay without it?” But that very thinking shows how much we need our thorns. We so easily imagine ourselves stronger. But that self-delusion shows just how necessary it is for God's grace not to take our thorns away. “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12 NIV), the Apostle writes in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians. Our weaknesses and thorns bring home to you and me how much we need our God. If you think Satan is hitting you hard now because of a thorn, he'd beat you and me into a bloody pulp if we tried to stand against him in our own strength. Believe, dear friend, believe that God's grace is sufficient. His grace does not fall short.

Consider an article I read some time ago. The author, a pastor, described how well his ministry had been going. He was doing so many things to work with the youth, to bring in new members, to serve God's people. The Lord had blessed it with much fruit. But then he put out his back. For several weeks he had to lie flat on his back, doing nothing. At first he prayed like this, “Lord, how could you let this happen. Look at all that I was doing. So much is going on. How is it going to continue? I can't do anything now to serve you.” But after time and reflection on his back, he began to see that the ministry was not about what he could do, but about God's grace and power. God had to teach him that by knocking him flat on his back. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV). So also, dear friend, your life is not about what you can do, but about God's grace and power. Sometimes he has to knock us out flat on our back so that we look up to him. But be assured: his grace will never fall short. For Christ's power dwells on the weak.

3. How is God's grace at work through our weakness for those around us?

And often, God's grace works through our weakness and thorns not only for us but also more so for those around us. How often don't our strengths distract people from God's power and grace? Only in our weaknesses does the perfect completeness of God's power show. Christ's power dwells on the weak.

Consider these two examples:

A member wants to help by going door-to-door inviting the neighborhood to a special worship service. He's quite nervous and apprehensive. The group goes out in pairs of twos. He goes with the pastor. At every house the pastor does the talking. He watches, learning. Finally at the last house, the pastor suggests he try it by himself. He goes to the door, sweeting and nervous. When the persons answers the door, he tries to talk but no words come out. He stutters two or three times trying to remember the words to say. Finally, he just says, “Here,” and hands over the brochure, quickly leaving. Of the hundreds of homes that were visited, only that person showed up the next week. When asked why, he explained, “I could obviously see that you were nervous and afraid, and yet this was so important you invited me any way. I wanted to know the power behind that.” God's power and grace shines out through our weakness.

Or consider the young lady suffering with terminal cancer. It's a painful and hopeless disease. But instead of complaints and self-pity, she openly talked about her hope of eternal life in Jesus, about the inheritance in heaven Jesus won for her by dying on the cross, about Jesus conquering death by rising from the dead. Her faith shined through in the kindness she showed to others despite her suffering. How her testimony reached people that would have never entered a church! How carefully people listened in ways they seldom do to a sermon! They saw that this was real for her. She was facing immanent death, yet had hope in Jesus. God's power and grace shines out through our weakness. For Christ's power dwells on the weak.

So dear friends, don't look to your own strength, no matter how often the world tries to sell you that line. Look only to God's grace and power in Christ. For you see, through the utter weakness of the God-forsaken cross Christ Jesus worked out his mighty act of salvation for you. Yes! Through the weakness of the cross he saved you, dear friend. What grace! That grace will never fail you, no matter how weak or frail or despised your earthly life seems. For the weaker we appear to the world, the more clearly God's power shows how great his grace in Christ is. For Christ's power dwells on the weak. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and mind sin Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313