Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 (New International Version)
2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
In chapter 11, we heard about Paul and all the suffering that had occurred to him. For following Jesus, he was beaten, stoned, lashed and constantly in danger. He speaks to the people of Corinth and, having established his credentials, he speaks of having a thorn in his side. Is this thorn epilepsy, is it malaria, an eye disease? We have no idea. We do know that he asked three times for this thorn to be removed, but this prayer was not answered.
This leads us to the subject of unanswered prayer. What did the thorn do for Paul? He learned how to be vulnerable. He learned how to rely upon God's strength, and not always on his own. He focused on God's grace and God's transforming power. So, the thorn in Paul's side ensured there was no self-absorption or self-importance. It is interesting to know how God uses our weaknesses or not our strengths. We, of course, know of God's grace and the undeserved and overwhelming love that God offers. That amazing grace “how sweet the sound” as John Newton wrote.
In Roman times, gods ruled over humans, judging them harshly. So, having a God of love that pours kindness onto undeserving humans simply because it is in God's nature was very foreign to the audience of Paul. Saying there is only one God, and that this God is a God of love was difficult for people to comprehend.
Where do we see God reveal God's love? Sunsets, meeting your life partner, concerts, music, reading a good book, recovering from illness? People tend not to look for the love of God when things are going well, but they often blame God when things are not going to their satisfaction. So, the thorn in Paul's side reminds us that there is another aspect to God. Paul prays three times and the prayers are not answered. Yet, Paul did not respond by refusing to believe in God, he responded by working out how the pain, the thorn, could actually help his life. Pain is essential to life and warns us of danger. It stops us from being conceited. Paul was very pleased with the success of his mission. The thorn reminded him all the time to be humble.
How can God use our weaknesses? It is when we are vulnerable that our relationship with God strengthens. Perhaps if you have just been told some really bad news, for instance, someone has cancer or a life-threatening disease, whatever it may be, it is not something that God has given you, but it is something from which you can deepen your relationship with God. A God who is a God of grace and compassion. Sometimes it is in weakness that we experience the fruits of faith, and our relationship with God gets better.
Paul prayed three times, and the answer was no. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, And the answer was no. So, not all our prayers are answered, and we must live with that. We endure the situation, and we try to understand what God is doing through it. What is God trying to teach us? How is our relationship developing with God? Are we truly trusting that God of the universe? Do we really believe that God knows what he is doing, that God is sovereign. Is it unfair that, just because we believe in God, we think our life should be absolutely fantastic, or is it more realistic to understand that God is a resource to get us through difficult moments when they arise? It is for us to show how our faith in God helps us get through even the harshest of times.
Paul's letter to the Corinthians is very much an example of us trying to learn through unanswered prayer. It is an opportunity for us to testify about our experiences of God. Sometimes, by telling people how great God is because we have had such a wonderful life does not really resonate with people. But if you talk about how God has helped you through the difficulties of life, because all people have difficulties, it is going to greatly enhance our testimony. It is talking about our experiences of God through painful life episodes and vulnerable situations that increase our experience and relationship with God. Sometimes we just have to endure the afflictions that life gives us.
Please note, I believe that God does not give us suffering. I do not believe that God is testing us. I think that life tests us, but a God of love does not test, even though we have the book of Job, whereby the discussion between God and Satan is very much a case of testing Job to see if he remains faithful. The code of the New Testament is a code of love, not of testing; but life tests, and it is up to us to use the resources God freely gives us to try to get us through the most dreadful of situations. Rely upon God's grace and compassion. Trust in God and know that we are part of a bigger picture. Whilst we can not see where our piece of the jigsaw fits in the bigger picture, we trust that everything is moving towards salvation and eternal life.
This sermon was first preached at Gants Hill URC on 4th July 2021 by the Reverend Martin Wheadon
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon