2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9
February 7, 2021
Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID
Imagine for a moment that you have just woken up. It’s early and still dark outside. Still half asleep, you go to grab something you have left on the porch. You take a step outside, the cold cement on your bare foot sends shivers up your spine. One more step, and then sharp pain makes the shivers disappear. You yelp, and who wouldn’t after they stepped right on a goat head. You know the pain, don’t you. Consider the thorns. And how even after you pull it out of the skin, the burning sensation continues as you walk around the rest of the day, a constant reminder.
Consider now a different thorn. In Genesis, shortly after the Fall into sin, God speaks to Adam about the consequence of his sin, “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…”
Thorns in creation remind us of the fall itself, that all of creation suffers from the effects of sin. So, yes, goat heads are a result of the Fall. In Romans 8:20, Paul highlights this very fact, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it [that is, Adam].” Because of Adam’s sin, creation came under God’s judgment, nothing in creation has been able to perfectly fulfill its God given purpose. In the first place, it does not bring forth the good things it would have produced if man had not fallen. In the second place, it produces many things that can be harmful. So, as Paul points out, the earth itself feels its curse, even though it committed no sin, it endures the curse that sin imposed onto it. And yet, God works in and through His creation to bring about His good and perfect will.
So consider yet another thorn. St. Paul speaks of a thorn given him in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass him, to keep him from becoming conceited. We don’t know exactly what this was – a chronic health problem, a physical ailment, a mental anguish. But we do know, again, the purpose. You see, Paul was addressing a pernicious problem pertaining to preachers – pride, boasting, conceit. Being the apostle to the Gentiles, a man of perfect pedigree and eloquent speech, a Roman citizen and worldly honor, Paul was well acquainted with this temptation. If anyone had a reason to boast, it was Paul. He could even boast at how good he in the hardship he has endured. It adds credibility. Not only could he have boasted of his accomplishments, but also his perseverance. He could have easily boasted in false humility.
And so God uses this messenger of Satan, this thorn, to keep Paul humble. God uses even the effects of a fallen world for the good of His people. When affliction reduces Paul to total dependence upon God, then he is the more graceful instrument in Christ’s hand. But it’s more than that. It is not that he doesn’t boast at all. In fact, he boasts all the more! Just now the object of his boasting has changed. He boasts in his weakness, for is it in his weakness that Christ and God’s strength is made even more clear.
For this is the Word of the Lord to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." It is said that the lower view one has of humanity, the higher view one has of Christ. Only when we confess by faith that we are poor miserable sinners who deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment can we confess all the more that we are saved by God’s grace. On the other hand, whenever we think that there is some merit or worthiness in our works, that God somehow owes us something then we diminish the Blood of Christ in our minds. If we are only 99% sinners, then Christ did not need to die for that other 1%. But if we are fully and completely sinful, and utterly hopeless to succeed in any spiritual endeavor, and helpless in all things unless Christ does the work for us, then we truly treat Christ as our Lord.
So we boast in nothing but Christ. We boast in Christ's righteousness that He gives as a free gift in Baptism. We boast in His Word spoken that actually forgives. We boast of His body and blood given and shed for our forgiveness. We do not boast in our sufferings as if they merited anything. Rather, it is the sufferings of Christ that merit eternal life and salvation for us. When we openly and clearly confess that Christ alone has saved us, then it is no embarrassment for us to take glory in our weakness and our failures. Troubles in life are not necessarily punishments from past sins, but God uses them for our benefit, that God’s power might be made more apparent in our weakness. By confessing our weakness, we are confessing the power of Christ. By faith, we boast with Paul that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.
And nowhere in history is this displayed more in the presence of another thorn, or rather, several thorns wrapped around in a circle, a makeshift crown, placed upon the head of Jesus. Here, a symbol of the fallenness of creation, of worldly weakness is God’s strength perfectly displayed. This is where He has assumed your weaknesses – the weakness of an aging body or mind, the weakness of failed accomplishments, the weakness of your character flaws, the weakness of your sin and unrighteousness. When you suffer the thorns of life, remember the thorns of Christ that He wore upon His brow. When you are pierced by sorrow and pain, recall that Christ was pierced by nails and spear. When you feel weakness, then you are reminded of the weakness that He took, the form of a servant by which Christ allowed Himself to be humiliated. He had to be weak in order to overpower Satan for us. He had to lose as He was arrested, beaten, tortured, and crucified. By losing, He succeeded in winning us back from sin, death, and hell. By suffering, He won eternal bliss in Paradise for you. By dying, He took upon Himself your weakness that you might have His strength. By His resurrection, His strength is displayed for all the world. So, the next time you step on a goat head, boast about Jesus, that His grace is sufficient.