This is going to be good (February 17, 2019)
This is going to be good
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Pay attention, because this is going to be a good one! There’s going to be a captivating intro that grabs everyone’s attention and piques your interest in such a way that you can’t wait for me to go on and say more! I’m going to reveal a shiny new gem from this section of Scripture that no one had ever considered. I’m going to make it applicable to every single one of you. And I’m going to wrap it up with such a good conclusion that your hearts are set ablaze, ready to conquer the world for Christ.
I wish I could say that about every sermon. I wish every one was so perfect that it really changed hearts and made a difference in your life. But the truth is, sometimes I have weeks where I get a lot of time to dig into the text and consider the perfect applications, and other times, like this week, well, you have a baby and life gets very busy. There’s a lot going on. And I find myself working on my sermon in little snippets here and there. Now, that might lead you to a pretty certain conclusion as to which week the sermon is going to be better. But the reality might surprise you! I know it often surprises me.
Not always, but often, it’s the weeks that got away from me that end up being better sermons. No guarantees here, though. It’s the weeks where there is so much on my plate that I can’t possibly devote the time and effort that I would like to that end up turning out best. How can that be? What’s going on? And I don’t think I’m alone in this. You maybe see it in others as well. How can there be those people, who, despite something overwhelming or terrible they are going through, they manage to get through it with such grace – or even turn it around and make it a strength? How can Paul truly boast gladly in weaknesses? How can he delight in insults, in hardships, in persecutions?
Well, let’s clear one thing up first. This doesn’t appear to be one of those cases where through trial and adversity, Paul was actually able to better his craft and become a better missionary for it. This isn’t a tree growing strong because of the strong winds its subjected to. This isn’t learning how to succeed through failures. This is most definitely a shortcoming. We aren’t ever told what the “thorn in his flesh” was, but we are told about it. He pleaded for God to take it away. He categorized it with weaknesses, insults, hardships, and difficulties. He concludes simply by saying he is considered weak by this thorn. And to top it all off, he explains that its very purpose is to keep him from becoming conceited – literally, so that he cannot exalt or praise himself.
Why? Why is that a good thing? Why would God want to do that? Well, Paul did have quite a bit that he could have rightly boasted in. He says in verse 6, “Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth” (2 Cor 12:6). In the previous chapter he lays out the rights he has to brag. “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am more” (2 Cor 11:21-23). But Paul does not want this to get in the way of what he was really trying to do. He wasn’t trying to point to himself and how great he was. All he wanted to do was point to Christ. If he pointed to himself, people might think that he can gain such a following because of his impressive credentials and work ethic. But when he empties himself and points to Christ, then something amazing happens!
Going back to my previous example, my introduction about great sermons, sometimes God has to give me a rough week. Sometimes he has to give me so much to do that I can’t put all the work I would like to put into a sermon. Sometimes he gives me the time and lets me put all the work in it that I want, but still leaves me frustrated at how poorly my manuscript turned out. He has to do that because sometimes I can get a big head. Sometimes I can get swept away and hyped up on how great my phraseology is and how seamlessly I moved from one point to the next. Sometimes he has to knock me down a few pegs, empty me of myself, and show me how truly great his Word is when I am forced to just step out of the way. It’s interesting, but I often hear more comments about a sermon when I can take only little to no credit for it – when I truly must say, “Glory be to God.”
A wise man once said, “As long as we sinners imagine that we still have some power, we are unfit instruments for the Lord’s hands” (Lenski). Clay jars, I believe is the was Paul put it. A clay jar that’s full of itself is of little value. There would be no room to pour anything into – it would just be a lump of clay. But a clay jar that has a large void in the middle – that’s empty – that’s valuable because of what you fill it with. “We have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Cor 4:7). Nothing special about the clay jar itself, but wow how that treasure inside really shines! And Paul continues on with this illustration – not just to talk about the emptiness of the clay jar, but its weakness as well. “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:7-9). We are weak, but he is strong!
Therefore, Paul rightly boasts all the more gladly about his weaknesses. Why? “So that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor 12:9). So that when people look at Paul they don’t just see a bold missionary or strong orator; so that they don’t just see a wise and learned man. But that they would see Christ! Christ, who gives Paul the boldness of heart and the beautiful message of Christ to share. Christ, who gives Paul such wisdom and who instructs him not just for this life, but for eternal life!
Sometimes the school of life has hard lessons for us to learn. Time and time again, I have to be reminded that if my week, if my study, if my zeal does not begin with Christ, then it is all in vain. I have to remind myself to carve out time, each and every day, to first sit and Jesus’ feet and be filled with his love and his wisdom so that I have something to pour out to you. Other hard lessons that the school of life may teach are that my health, my wealth, my relationships – whatever it is I reassure myself with – are nothing compared to the sufficiency of Christ. Because no matter what you try to fill your life with, there will always be a feeling of emptiness, a deep void, if you do not first have Christ.
That’s the sobering and yet very reassuring truth of the matter. I have nothing – nothing of my own to offer God. That’s what we talked about last week when Isaiah found himself in the heavenly throne room of God Almighty. And as the voices of the angels boomed and the room began to fill with smoke, he cried out, “Woe to me. I am ruined!” (Is 6). Here too, we see that all the things we would like to rely on – for Paul it might have been his credentials, for me perhaps my time in study, for you maybe something else – whatever it is, it is all for naught if we do not start with Christ. Like Paul, we may pray earnestly that God improve out condition, and how does he respond? What did he say to Paul? Not, “you have enough to get by,” but “I’ve already given you everything.” “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). “My grace fully covers this need of yours. In fact, you can see how complete my power is in the moments when you are weak.”
I can’t help but think of a video I saw for a product called “Line-X”. The product is a spray on coating that is designed to make anything indestructible. The video I saw, was a demonstration of just how well the product worked. Without even seeing the video yourselves, how do you think they demonstrated the performance of this product – to make things indestructible? Do you think they coated strong things like bowling balls and heavy-duty construction equipment? No. Of course not. Rather, they sprayed the coating on weak and fragile things like eggs, watermelons, and red solo cups and then dropped them, stepped on them, or hit them with a baseball bat to show how indestructible these weak things had now become. So, by the end of that video, your conclusion is not, “Wow, that’s a strong watermelon.” But, “Wow, that spray is really indestructible.”
Life is a lot like that video. Sometimes it drops you. Sometimes it walks all over you. Sometimes it feels like you’ve been hit with a baseball bat – and you are the egg. Don’t go it alone fragile eggs. Although you may like to think that you have a tough shell – I’m a guy, I completely get the need to feel tough, and strong, like I can do anything – yet this world is too much for you to handle on your own. Your shell which seems so tough and indestructible is nothing compared to what the world and Satan can torment you with. On your own, your shell will crack. It will break. You will be crushed. On your own, you don’t stand a chance. But covered with Christ – that indestructible coating. You can survive. You can endure. There is nothing in this world more powerful, more complete, more sufficient than covering yourself with Christ. Only with him can you survive the weaknesses, the insults, the hardships, the persecutions and difficulties. More than that, because of your weaknesses, your whole life will be a testament to God’s power. Therefore, you too can “boast all the more gladly about your weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest upon you” (2 Cor 12:9) – may cover you. “For when I am weak,” then he is shown to be strong. “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
So, was this the best sermon you ever heard? My prayer is only that you heard Christ. My prayer is that Christ would cover over my shortcomings of this week and let his power shine. Because I know that my words and my wisdom are nothing compared to his. It is only his word that can actually bring about a change in your heart and strengthen the faith that he put there in the first place.