Thorns

Scriptures: Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Paul does a lot of strange things. This is not because he was a lawyer, that he does a lot of strange things. But he was a lawyer, and he was a Pharisee. He was well-educated. Again, not that being well-educated makes you do weird things. He sometimes speaks in ways that we find difficult to understand and work with.

Sometimes he almost seems to speak in riddles. Other times he seems to speak in forms that are suitable to the courtroom, where it seems like he’s doing both sides of a debate, back and forth, in terms of what kind of witnesses and evidence are being presented for various things.

In the context of this, in 2 Corinthians, I want to note that first of all, as you guys, I’m sure know, this church had a lot of problems. They had taken the liberty of Christ – the liberty to not sin, and had taken it as liberty to sin and it didn’t matter.

As one of my friends in high school put it, he said it doesn’t matter what we do, because we’ve got a get-out-of-jail-free card. Some people, I think, treat it like a life insurance policy – an “afterlife” insurance policy. Whatever happens here, I’ve got everything set for the future.

And as he addresses these Corinthians in a variety of ways, one of the struggles they have is false prophets. One of the struggles that they have is people within the congregation misleading them about these things. And it makes him very, very angry.

Also they boast about their gifts. They boast about their status. They boast about so many different things. They were the ones that had problems with Communion, because the rich ones were bringing food and basically eating and getting drunk, and then the poor weren’t getting anything. They were the ones that had the sexual misconduct that we know of.

So people are boasting about various things, and Paul is saying, “Well, if you guys can boast, I have even more to boast about.” And so he spends the entire previous chapter boasting. He calls it foolish, but he says, “If you want to be fools, I can be a fool.”

He goes on then, because some of them said that they had the gift of prophecy, to talk about visions and revelations. And in verse 2 he says, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.”

Now he seems to be speaking and boasting about another person, but it’s pretty clear he’s speaking about himself. Some people get hung up on the “third heaven” thing, but I wouldn’t let it bother you too much. Three is the number of exaltation in the Jewish faith.

In terms of Greek philosophers, there were three heavens. There was our sky. There was the universal heaven. And then there was the heaven where the gods existed. So no matter which way you look at it, he’s talking about the highest of the high, the greatest the great, what your translation later on calls “paradise.”

He doesn’t know whether he was physically taken there, or just in his mind, in a vision, in his spirit. He says he heard inexpressible things which he is not permitted to tell.

Now within the Corinthian church some of the people that claimed to have the gift of prophecy would say something basically in an unintelligible language, and then somebody else would interpret it. And he’s saying, “Well, I’m just not allowed to tell what I heard, because it was so holy. It was so cool.”

And then he says, “I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.” Again, consensus is pretty strong that he was talking about himself. And this is part of that debate thing that he has. He talks about himself, and says it wasn’t himself, because all he’s going to do is talk about his weaknesses.

And then he says, “Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool (like you guys) because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one would think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say. So I’m not going to boast, so that you all don’t put me on a pedestal to high.”

You might think that that’s kind of arrogant, but there were times, particularly in the early church when the disciples did their miracles and things that people tried to worship them as gods. And they had to tell them, “No, no, no, no, it’s Jesus Christ who’s God. Jesus is the one that you need to worship.” You had folks that wanted to emulate them, even try to buy their secrets, Simon Magus with Peter, for instance.

Paul then says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations” – which, again, tells me it was Paul himself in all of the previous verses – “there was given to me a thorn in the my flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me.”

And that’s where we’re going to dwell for a significant amount of our message today, our teaching, and that is:what is this thorn, and why should God give it.

A lot of scholars say that this thorn in the flesh was a physical ailment of some sort. It’s known that Paul had weaknesses in his body. He especially had weak eyes. He could hardly see. Of course, if you’ve been beaten, stoned, poisoned, and shipwrecked, I’m sure that your body would be a little the worse for wear as well. I know mine would.

So he had weaknesses of the body. He had limitations on what you could do. I read an amusing description of one person who said, by perusing some of the secular histories, that the description of Paul was someone who was a short man, balding, with bow legs, and a weathered face. Not somebody who would be very impressive, if he was to be up here, sitting or standing and preaching. At least not by appearances.

I read a really interesting interpretation of this thorn, from a modern preacher today, who also writes his own commentaries. And he suggested that this thorn was not actually in Paul himself at all, but was one of those in the Corinthian congregation who had a position of authority, who was misleading the members of the church, and undercutting Paul’s authority, or attempting to.

Now part of the reasoning for that is because he talks about the way they connect, that thorn and the messenger of Satan, to buffet him or torment him (the word is “buffet,” the way it translates literally). And I could see that. Somebody that’s attempting to do that within the leadership of the church can cause division, can cause separation, can cause issues.

So however you want to look at it, there was something going on. If it was physical, this tormentor from Satan might have been a demon who was accusing him. “Your eyes are weak. You can’t even see what you’re doing. You’re not fit to be up here in the front preaching. Your body’s weak. You’re sick. You have to take breaks.” (Well, maybe not that many. I think he preached for hours once. That’s in the book of Acts. And somebody fell asleep and fell out a third story window.)

But it was playing on his emotions, his feelings, his sense of inadequacy, his self-esteem and self-image. The man who had given up everything, who counted all of his kudos, all of his history, his past, and things that he had gotten in terms of being a disciple of Gamaliel, a Jew and a zealot and a Pharisee, as dog poop. He thought of himself as lowest of the low.

And he kept that consideration so that he would serve God wholeheartedly, with everything he had. Nothing he did was for his own gain. All of it was for Christ. But that has to take a toll on you, in terms of how you think of yourself, and how you project yourself to others.

So three times, Paul pleaded with the Lord to take this thing away, take this ailment away, take this depression away, take this weakness away. I’m not sure how he would have prayed to take the person in the congregation away – maybe that they leave.

Whatever it was that he asked for, and pleaded – pleaded with the Lord to take it away, God didn’t answer. Well, He did – He said no. Sometimes God says no. We’ve talked about prayer before. And we know that (and this is not original to me) sometimes God says “No.” Sometimes God says “Go.” Sometimes God says “Slow.”

So sometimes He says it’s not going to happen. Sometimes He says go for it. And sometimes He says just wait. Keep praying, but just wait. Things will resolve.

In this case, He told Paul “No.” But He added something to it, to teach Paul a lesson. And it’s a wonderful lesson indeed. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Grace. God’s grace is sufficient for you. Does anybody remember what grace is? There’s mercy, which is where you don’t get something you do deserve. Do you remember what grace is? [Someone responds.] That’s correct. That’s where you get something you don’t deserve

So God gives him something that he doesn’t deserve. Paul’s whole message is about grace. He’s the one that said that nothing that you do can save you, only Jesus Christ. His work, not yours, through faith. And God is reminding him once again of grace.

You know, we in the Presbyterian Church connect the Old Testament and the New Testament. There are churches that kind of seem to divide it, because they think the God of the Old Testament doesn’t look anything like the God of the New Testament. They’re wrong.

Because one thing that we as Presbyterians have noted is the thread of grace that weaves throughout the entire Scriptures, from Adam all the way through Revelation and the Last Judgment. God’s grace is constantly being poured out upon those whom He loves.

And even if you have a weakness, even if you haven’t a limitation of some sort – you can’t move as much, you can’t see without large print, maybe you’re tone-deaf, so you don’t want to sing during a hymn, God’s grace is sufficient, so that you can follow His call. You can accomplish what He’s given you. His Spirit will be with you.

You’ll be able to read what you need to read. You’ll be able to overcome that fear, or at least work through it, knowing that God is with you, as you go and you take a risk, working outside your comfort zone. As you make a joyful noise unto the Lord, even if a family member next to you is going [pretends to be elbowing someone] You know what? Ignore them. God’s grace is sufficient.

His power is made perfect in our weakness. Now that sounds like a paradox. It also doesn’t sound very fair. God’s power is made perfect in weakness, so He’s going to make me weak? Why can’t His power be made perfect in strength, so that I can be the example for everyone, that they can all look up to and they can put on a pedestal?

Well, that’s probably the reason why. Humankind likes to worship things other than God. Yourselves if nothing else. And it’s not the way the world works. The world respects power. The world doesn’t respect weakness. The world lifts up power. It makes a mockery of weakness.

God’s thoughts are not the world’s thoughts. God’s ways are not the world’s ways. He makes that very clear, that His wisdom is seen as foolishness by the people of the world.

So God’s being consistent. As His power is made perfect in our weakness, our total dependence upon Him, then we show that nothing other than God is responsible for our success, whatever that may be.

Thorns are put in place for a couple of reasons. They are put in place as reminders. We’re only human. We’re not gods.

Mel Brooks had a film, History of the World: Part I. Marcus Aurelius was coming up to see Julius Caesar who was played by Dom De Luise. And the man who was walking beside him kept saying into his ear, “You are not a god. You are not a god. You are not a god.” He didn’t listen very well.

God gives us thorns as reminders. God also gives us thorns as challenges. We don’t grow without pain. I’ve said that before as well. We don’t grow without getting outside our comfort zone. We don’t strengthen and get more mature in our faith without challenges to that faith.

Part of the problem, I think, with a lot of the church today, is that they are unwilling to press against those thorns. They feel a thorn, they shy away, and they say, “Well, I don’t want to go there. That’s painful. That’s scary. That might get me hurt.”

And yet that’s exactly what God calls us to do. You have to go out and make disciples. Disciples are people that learn and follow, and if they’re going to learn and follow, they have to be taught. And part of that teaching is an example.

I think the third reason that God gives us thorns is His grace. It enables us to keep our eyes fixed on Him.

There was a practice that I think it was the Pilgrims had (it’s been a long time since I read it) that I don’t recommend. But sort of as a penance, they would put on what was called a hair shirt. It was this shirt made of this rough camel skin or something, inside out, and it itched terribly It’s stung. It would cause rashes.

And then they would spend that time with that shirt on in prayer. There are only two states you can have when you have on one of those shirts, either total distraction, or total focus, to be able to set aside those irritations, to focus totally on God.

Sometimes the thorns are God’s grace, to help us focus on Him. Because we’re too easily distracted by all the things of this world. I’m as guilty of it as any. The schedule is always full. There are always things to do. We never finish the list. There’s always one thing more.

There are also all these things that we could be doing, that we think about. Somebody asked, just before the service, how I enjoyed the Fourth, or how I survived the Fourth, and you know my answer was? I said, “Well, we didn’t get to do the fire pit like we were planning.”

I didn’t focus on the good time that I had at lunch in Morning Sun, meeting and greeting people and talking with people. I didn’t concentrate and focus on the beautiful music we heard from the orchestra in Muscatine, or the warm reception that we got for our reading of the Declaration of Independence, which I appreciated greatly. The fireworks. We didn’t have to stay down at the river to get the fireworks. They were all over our neighborhood. Poor dog. No, I focused on what I didn’t get done because of the heat.

Distractions. Distractions from God’s blessings and God’s grace. Sometimes He gives thorns for focus, so that when we boast, we boast about our weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest in or on us.

We don’t delight in weakness for their own sake. You don’t want to be a victim. You don’t take pride in being a victim, or having hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties, in conflict. Some people seem to relish conflict, but we’re not supposed to. We’re supposed to reconcile conflict.

But we can boast in God’s grace strengthening us through those thorns, to keep our eyes fixed on God so we can give God the praise and worship He deserves from those thorns. And we can be an example to others of what it means to have the spirit and faith, and be a witness to the power of God, as we overcome those thorns.

So when thorns appear in your life, I just want to encourage you. Don’t be overwhelmed. Don’t be mad at God. I mean, you can be – He won’t care, He’ll still love you. But it’s kind of a pointless exercise.

Feel free to pray. Sometimes God gives us thorns so that we do pray for them to be taken away. But if they aren’t, give Him praise anyway, so that you might be the kind of witness that God wants you to be.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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