July 8, 2012
Did you hear Paul’s testimony to the unusual vision he had? It reminds me of all the books about near death experiences, like Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, about the experience of a four-year old son of a small town Nebraska pastor. And there are scientists working on whether the mind can have a life without the use of the brain. Whether people who deeply love each other can affect each other over a distance. All very strange stuff.
Now if we took time this morning we could go back and see that the reason Paul talks about his experience is that some of his critics have tried to convince the church that he lacks credentials to be preaching about Jesus. Corinthians are very susceptible to impressive talkers, spiritual tall tales. . From time to time people accused Paul of being a liberal whowould preach that just anyone could be saved, whether they lived like observant Jews are not. Others mocked him for his lack of eloquence. Some think that his name “Paul” was a shorten form of Paulus– “shorty”.1 “Not an impressive speaker,” they complained ,2 Cor. 10: 10 For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” Some were jealous of his impact, planting churches in city after city.
So from time to time, Paul defended himself. Phil 3:4 If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
In I Corinthians 14 he responds to those who feel superior because they speak in tongues, “18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
Similarly here he feels forced to testify that he has some remarkable spiritual experiences to match any these interloping preachers talk about. “I was taken up into the third heaven.” This is heaven to the third power. The third was according to some Jewish writings the place where the righteous dead awaited resurrection day.
Paul says he is not even sure whether he was in the body or out of the body. But he felt he saw things too wonderful for words. A lot of folks who have had that kind of experience say it has changed the way they see the world; they have an absence of fear of what lies beyond their death. They have an inner conviction of the truth of God’s eternal hold on us.
Paul did not know exactly what to make of it, and he went through it. I am not sure what to make of stories of near death experience either. I guess we just need to keep an open mind.
Paul did not talk about what happened. Here it is 14 years later. And he speaks of it as if it happened to someone else. He is being modest at the same time he is testifying to something wonderful.
“This SUMMER’S blockbuster movie Bruce Almighty, a television newsman is given a set of divine powers, including the capacity to perform such miracles as the parting of a bowl of tomato soup, a la Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. When God wants to communicate with Bruce, God displays a telephone number on Bruce s pager. In the weeks after the movie’s release, anyone who shared God’s seven-digit number was besieged with calls from cranks, practical jokers and a lot of people desperate to connect with God.”2
Now some of Paul’s critics would take an experience like this as a credential of their importance and authority. But Paul goes on to turn that upside down.
Listen. “To keep me from being to puffed up by the exceeding abundance of the experience, God gave me a thorn in the flesh to keep me humble.”
So now we go from glory to suffering in one line.
We do not know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. Something he could not overlook, something hampering him. You know it is hard to care about someone else’s problem when you have a toothache. It is hard to concentrate on your job when you have a migraine. It is hard to be optimistic when you are in pain.
We don’t know what ailed Paul. Some said it was malaria, or near sightedness, or speech impediment, or epilepsy. Tertullian had heard that the apostle suffered from a severe pain in the head or ears, and assumed that this was his thorn in the flesh. Chrysostom thought that the reference was not to a physical infirmity, but to the opposition of adversaries Augustine wondered if it could be a persistent temptation. We don’t know what it was. What is yours?
Is there something that if you could just get rid of it, you think everything would be smooth sailing?
We all think about what we could be if we just had less problems and more power. Little boys are fascinated with superpowers and imagine what it would be like. Little girls seem to have more domestic fantasies of beautiful princesses.
Some of us never outgrow the fantasy of having power of one kind or another, to wish away trouble or to woo the world our way. If God would just take away my problems, I would be able to do so much more. If I could win the lottery. If I could be somebody else……
I have heard some preacher complain about certain folks in his congregation and dream aloud about going to a church without fusses and hurt feelings and disagreeable, half-hearted folks. A wiser preacher suggested he find a good church without a congregation. You can chase the mirage of a perfect situation all your life.
Take this thorn away. All the bundle of things that confine us, limit us, frustrate us.
Rabbi said there are six people in any marriage. Three for each partner: The first is the person you imagined you would one day marry– that dream may hang on; the second is the person we think we have married, and the last is the person we actually have married. And the secret to making a marriage work is learning to accept and encourage the real person in our life who is not perfect.
Paul does not report any revelation from his time in heaven; but he tells us what God said to him about his suffering: “My grace is sufficient.” There are things that weakness can teach us that we will never learn when everything is going smoothly.
That is, grace works in the middle of the real weaknesses of real people. You don’t have to have things perfect , or be perfect yourself, to do real good.
Here is the thing about being a mature adult Christian. It is not that you have it all together, but that you have learned to depend on God when you hit your own limits.
How does Paul put it in Romans 8? We don’t always know how to pray as we ought….but the Spirit helps us in our weakness and takes up our wordless sighs and finishes our prayers.
How does Paul put it? I prayed to God three times – and God was silent. He did not give me the answer I was asking for. The thorn was still there. What does it mean? Paul heard this: “My grace is sufficient for you.” We can admit our weaknesses, because we lean on God’s grace and strength.
I remember being at a Bible camp the last night when I was just a young man. The service was a time for people to come, light a candle, and talk about where God was moving in our lives. There was a long embarrassed silence for a while. But sometime late in the service the preacher’s own kid came forward and broke down. It kind of surprised us. He hhadn’t been seemed to have it together, a junior counselor, someone we looked up to. And he broke down and said he realized that he was not the person he had tried to make other people think he was. He had pretended to be better than he really was. His father put his arms around his shoulders as he cried. In that brokenness we saw grace lighten his load.
The sufficiency is not of ourselves. We are not good enough. We cannot make God’s kingdom come. We cannot control others’ responses to the gospel.
When Jesus sent out those disciples he sent them out in blatant weakness. “‘no bread, no bag, no money in their belts’ (Mark 6:8)– (we read in the other gospels – no weapons either.).When those disciples hit the road, they had nothing to show for themselves but the power of Christ.”
He even prepared them for the times they would fail – then shake the dust off your feet and go to the next town. “Shake it off.” and go on.
Paul has not only put up with this thorn in his flesh, he as had to endure being mocked, misunderstood, bad mouthed. The service of Christ is not always a ticket to fame and fortune. You try to help and someone doubts your motives, you sit with the sick and catch their cold, you go to visit and have a flat tire. You heard about the lifeguard who was fired for a while for rescuing a man who was drowning outside his assigned area. We have this treasure in earthen vessels and sometimes the container gets roughed up and begins looking pretty ragged.
But miracle of miracles, the realm of Jesus keeps taking hold in spite of our limits. Indeed sometimes God uses our limits to extend his grace.
We do our best, don’t misunderstand me, but don’t we often feel that our best has not been enough? We scatter the gospel seeds and wonder if any will come up. If anything will change, if people will ever change?
We are only charged to remain faithful. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
What comes of it? God knows. We will trust God for it all.
David was victorious in the end not because he was the best armed, but because of this remarkable trust he had in God. “David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.”
Paul had an astounding spiritual experience of paradise. Then the world collapsed back into the usual difficulties. Wouldn’t we think that the special experiences of glory would be a proof of our closeness to God? We want them for our reassurance and maybe, just maybe, so we can brag at testimony time.
Oddly enough, Mark seems to point to the fact that our faith is not founded on miracles. Just the opposite. Miracles are impossible without faith. Jesus could not do anything miraculous for the people in Nazareth because there was no faith in them.
Faith is not faith if it depends on a diet of miracles to stay alive. Faith proves itself when it hangs on to God, to serving, to doing right, even when times are tough, prayers not answered, when we are not sure what to pray for, when we struggle with doubt but keep living obediently.
Perhaps I’ve told you about visiting a charismatic Catholic home group with my Catholic friend, Jim. The Bible study was good. The songs were easy to catch on to. I was all ears when we prayed and some spoke in tongues. The welcome was warm.
Another guy was visiting. He wanted to show his spiritual stuff a little. And he bragged just a little about having the gift of discernment and of healing. He would use it to “God’s glory” fixing people who needed healing.
First, he found people whose hearing was not up to snuff. Have you heard the story?:
An old man is wondering if his wife had a hearing problem. So one night,he while his wife is sitting in her lounge chair, he goes behind her and says softly to her, “Honey, can you hear me?” He gets no response. He moves a little closer and says again, “Honey, can you hear me?” Still, he gets no response. Finally he moves right next her and said, “Honey, can you hear me?” This time she looks up with surprise in her eyes and replies, “For the third time, Henry, Yes, I can hear you!” 3
I have to admit I was skeptical when the man healed people of problems they had never noticed: that one leg was slightly shorter than another. That one ear did not hear as well as the other.
Then he turned to our gracious hostess, a woman who sat in her chair with crutches close by. She was a victim of polio years earlier.
He asked, “Do you believe that God can heal you tonight?”
“Do you want to be healed?”
“Do you want to ask for that healing?”
She said quietly and gently. “Oh, I have asked God several times, and he said ‘No.’”
“Most gladly therefore (because of the Lord’s reply) will I rather glory in my weaknesses (than pray that they may be removed). in order that may rest or tabernacle upon me the power of Christ.”
It may take faith to be healed.
But I know it takes faith not to be healed and still trust God.
And of all the things said and done that night, hers was the testimony that has stuck with me the most. In her courage I sense a charismatic gift of a different kind. A charismatic faith.
Can we take our life in all its brokenness and be all right about the unspectacular? Can we be content, as Paul said , whether we have much or only a little?
The call of Christ is to humble, self-forgetful service not attention getting self-glory. In this we find the presence of Christ.
“You have my grace and that’s enough. For my power is being made perfect, even in your weakness.”
1Biblical name derived from the element ‘paulus’ which means little, humble. Paulus (Latin) is an old form of Paul. Paulus was originally a Roman nickname, but it soon evolved into a given name after the Classical era.
2Joanna Adams, Christian Century, June 28, 2003.
3A poor pastor who was delivering his sermon when a gentlemen in the back pew
turned his head to one side, put his hand to his ear, and said, “Louder.”
The preacher raised his voice somewhat and continued with his sermon, which was
not too inspiring. After a few minutes the man said again, “Louder!”
The preacher strained even more and continued on, but by now the sermon had
become quite boring. The man said again, “Louder!”
At this point a man on the front row couldn’t stand it any longer and yelled
back to the man in the rear.
“What’s the matter, can’t you hear?”
“No,” said the man in the back.
“Well,” said the man down front, “move over, I’m coming to join you.”