God's Power Made Perfect in Weakness #1: My Grace is Sufficient
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
We are starting a three week series called God’s Power is made Perfect in Weakness. We are starting with the text where Paul actually says this: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, and we will go through this passage this morning. In 2 Corinthians, Paul is defending himself against so-called super apostles. These are Christian leaders who have come to Corinth and claimed that they are better than Paul. They have claimed special revelation from God, profound visions; the way they are described makes me think of televangelists who say that they have a direct line to God.
At the beginning of our 2 Corinthians passage, Paul describes his own visions and revelations. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 Paul describes his experiences: “I know a person 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. And I know that such a person - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows - was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” He has had profound spiritual experiences just like the so-called super apostles. This kind of visionary experience was popular at this time in the church. There are writings that were not kept in the Bible, but were preserved by the church that talk about these kinds of experiences of being caught up to the third heaven. The Apocalypse of Enoch is one of them, and the text that I studied for my Masters at McGill, Joseph and Aseneth, is another. These texts are really interesting. But, Paul does not turn his letter into one of these kinds of texts.
He explains why in verses 6-7, where he says, “I refrain from it [from boasting in his revelations], so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.” The purpose of visions and revelations is to deepen the faith of the person who receives them. I have had a vision of Jesus, too, but that is not why you put your trust in me to be your pastor. I hope that you put your trust in me because you see me living the Gospel in your midst. That is my job. A Christian’s job, and especially, a Christian leader’s job is to be the hands and feet of Jesus. According to John T. McFadden in my commentary on 2 Corinthians, “Rather than describe our personal encounter with the risen Christ in transcendent clouds of glory, our calling is to be the presence of Christ to others.” This is what Paul means when he says in verse 6, “so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me.”
The thing about these kinds of revelations is that there is a temptation to become arrogant and obsessed with them to the point that we lose sight of the presence of Christ in our midst and what we are called to do on earth, in this life. What Paul says he has learned from all his experience as a leader in the church is that he will not boast in his revelations, but instead he will boast in his weaknesses. But it was not easy for Paul to come to a place where he could say that. He says in verse 7, “To keep me from being too elated [from become arrogant], a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” There are a few things to say about this thorn, this messenger of Satan.
First of all, we don’t know what it was. And it is better that Paul didn’t say what it was because it allows us to understand his words in light of our own torments, and struggles, and grief. Secondly, Paul identifies this as coming from Satan, and not from God. This is very important because sometimes we think that everything comes from God. But we forget that this is a fallen world. Sin happens, disasters happen, tragedy happens, but it is not caused by God. Paul says that his torment was caused by Satan. If that’s the case, where was God in this?
Paul says in verses 8-9, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you for [my] power is made perfect in weakness.’” God is present with us when we struggle and experience torment. God provides the strength we need to get through it. This reminds me of something that Stevie said last week. At Vacation Bible Camp Jesus was described as a life preserver. He doesn’t take us out of our struggles, but stays with us in them and helps us keep our heads above water. And when Jesus meets us in our struggles as a life preserver, we know that it is God’s strength that sustains us and not our own.
This past Tuesday, I had to have a medical test done that terrified me. Normally, I am very open about these kinds of things, but this time I only told a few people because I was so scared that I couldn’t even really talk about it. In the 24 hours leading up to it I started praying with Psalm 46, which was the Psalm we read in worship last week. The first verse says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” As I prayed with that verse, I imagined myself going into God, who is my refuge, and in turn being filled with God’s strength. And it helped me relax because I knew I didn’t have the strength to do this medical test, but I didn’t have to. I would do it with God’s strength. In that moment, God’s power was made perfect in my weakness. (The medical test went just fine.) And afterwards, while I was in the recovery room, I was able to provide pastoral care for my nurse. There is no way that I could have done that with my own strength in that moment. That was God’s strength and the presence of Christ dwelling in me. God’s power was made perfect in my weakness.
This experience is very similar to David’s story that we read this morning about his epic fight with Goliath. God’s power was absolutely made perfect in David’s weakness. We all face Goliaths at one point or another in our lives. Goliath represents a struggle or an event or a person or a disaster in our lives that seems like it is too awful to overcome. This story about David defeating Goliath reminds us that we do not need to approach our own Goliaths with our own strength. We do not have enough strength for that. We come as we are and we rely on God’s strength. David couldn’t use the typical armour for battle because he was too small. He simply brought a sling and 5 stones, but more importantly, he brought his reliance on God to defeat this Goliath. He said in verse 37 of our 1 Samuel passage, “The Lord who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” David, when confronted with Goliath, turned to God for strength. It was David’s weakness that forced him to shed the armour and sword, and look to God for victory. We see, through David’s victory, that God’s power was made perfect in David’s weakness.
By sharing my weakness with you, I showed you God’s strength. By reading about David’s weakness when he faced Goliath, we learned about God’s strength. Going back to Paul, this is why he won’t boast in his revelations. Paul is always trying to refocus people on Jesus. Paul will boast in his weaknesses because through Paul’s weaknesses, the Corinthians will learn about God’s strength.
As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12, at the end of verse 9, “So, I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” And continuing in verse 10, “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” What this means is that it is our weaknesses, our struggles, our thorns in the flesh, bad things that happen that are not caused by God, it is those things that inspire us to turn to God, to rely on God. Because we can’t handle these things on our own. When we turn to God, we receive God’s strength. God’s strength is stronger than any strength we could ever muster on our own. And so, just as Paul said, when we are weak, then we are strong. In our weaknesses we receive God’s strength and show God’s strength to others.
This makes me think of the church today. Many people are worried about the fact that the church is losing its power in society. Most people don’t go to church today and many people don’t care about the church at all. For many of us, this is painful. It feels like a messenger of Satan sent to torment us, or like a Goliath. But, I don’t. You might think I’m crazy, but I think it’s healthy for the church to lose its power in society because societal power is not what we are about. We are about being the hands and feet of Jesus. We are about living the Gospel. We are about finding the presence of Christ in everyday life and going about the work of bringing healing and restoration and salvation in the name of Jesus. Many people are clinging to that societal power that the church is losing. But I say, let it go. We don’t need it. What we need is to be weak. Because God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. When we are weak, then we are strong. We should shed the armour of the church’s high status in the past. When David had Saul’s armour on he couldn’t even walk. If we don’t shed that armour, we won’t be able to walk with Jesus today.
As we turn to God in our weaknesses, our personal weaknesses and the church’s weaknesses, we will experience what Paul did at the end of 2 Corinthians 12:9: the power of Christ will dwell in us. It is not us and it is not the status of the church that we want to share with others, it is Jesus. Everyone experiences struggles that are too difficult to survive on our own. It is good news that God is right there, ready, willing, to be our life preserver to help us defeat our own Goliaths, to help us to survive our own thorns and any kind of torment that we might face. God’s grace is sufficient for us because God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. By the power of Christ that dwells within us, when we are weak, then we are strong. Amen.