On Friday, I gave my senior sermon in chapel. As many who wanted to be there couldn’t, and as I am proud of what I wrote on my own, I am sharing it here. The only requirements were to keep it scripture-based, put in part of my story, and to end with a call of what the listeners could do (which, I had pretty much written already before I knew the requirements). Hope it speaks to those who read it here as I hope it did to those who heard it.
2 Corinthians 11:21b-31, 12:5b-10:
21bWhatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.
5 bI 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.
Although verse 9 was my confirmation verse (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), I never really understood it. I mean, I got it, but I didn’t get it. And what did Paul mean by “a thorn in his flesh?” I once saw a meme that showed Spongebob Squarepants sitting in the jail with Paul, saying, “Hey, Paul! What are you doing? Are you writing a letter, Paul?” The caption underneath shows what Paul was writing, “…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan, to torment me. Three times I…” But seriously. What did he mean?
Breaking it down. Dictionary.com defines weakness as “an inadequate or defective quality, as in a person’s character; slight fault or defect.” Since the beginning of ever, God has used weakness. All of the characters in the awesome Bible stories most of us grew up learning have weakness (except Jesus—but he’s God, who is the creator and initiator—we’ll come back to him). Look at Jacob and his relationship with his brother Esau. Scheming to take his inheritance and the blessing that was supposed to go to Esau? We’re always told of the good things that came from this and the godly characteristics of Jacob, pushing Esau down into the “bad” category. Or what about David, who was the youngest of his brothers (and there were a lot of them)? His father didn’t even bring him to Samuel to be blessed—because he was obviously not the man to be king of Israel—look at him! Watching sheep, singing and playing his lyre—who does that? Surely, not a king. But God uses unlikely people and really turns things upside-down. The weaknesses, both seen and invisible…can be good?
And that brings us to Paul. He was the greatest evangelist, like, ever. Pretty sure it’s because of him that you and I know Jesus. Crazy, right? Paul has quite the resume—he’s a Hebrew, an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham; he has suffered for Christ as Jesus said Christians would, and his heart aches for all the churches to know and thrive in Christ, that they might pray and edify, and do all a church is supposed to do, according to Christ’s teachings. But Paul feared what I’m tempted to do next: to COMPARE myself to him. Surely I will never be as good a Christian as Paul, but I can try. Do you see what’s happening here? I’m looking down at ME. Paul feared self-glory because in doing so, his eyes are taken off the Lord. I was recently taught the term “naval gazing.” We take our eyes off Jesus and look down at ourselves. In an article entitled “Are You Content with Weakness” that also looks at this passage, author Jon Bloom writes that “our fallen natures crave self-glory.” We like attention and stepping into the spotlight. We want our strengths to be known and our weakness to be hidden. But Paul isn’t doing that; he’s doing the opposite.
We aren’t told what Paul’s thorn is. A temptation? A sickness? Probably not an annoying talking sponge. Whatever it was, the thorn was used that he could depend on God more. Bloom states that God “gifted” Paul with this messenger from Satan. A thorn in the flesh a gift? Seriously.
When I was 13, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I have been battling with it in my head for years. Sometimes I’ll be okay, and then I’ll get mad at the MS and that I have it. Why do I have it? Why do I struggle everyday doing things that a majority of the population doesn’t give a second thought to? I am positive that God gave it to me for a reason, but I can’t find that reason. I have determined that through the MS given me, I want God to be glorified—but I don’t know how. What can I do with it besides struggle? But this thorn in my flesh—it makes me depend on God more. The physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of my life are so interconnected, I’m surprised sometimes. My biggest weakness is depending on myself, and thinking that I can do it all. But with the MS, I have realized and acknowledged that I can’t. Within the last few years, I have learned to ask for help when I need it, despite the pride of being independent that is far too big. This is especially a struggle when moving percussion equipment, as I always want to do as much as I can, but I have realized that I can’t do it. And I have stepped aside. What surprises me continually is that people are understanding, and they help out. God uses my physical weaknesses to teach me lessons in other areas of my life.
So, all of these things are pretty upside down. Weakness, good? A thorn, a gift? Jesus taught things like “the first shall be last and the last will be first” in Matthew 20:16. In a culture that fought so much for status and looking better than everyone else, Jesus fought for the opposite. He showed the world everything upside down. Len Batterink, a pastor at a Christian Reform Church in Canada talks about this in a sermon. He refers to the kingdom of heaven as the “Upside Down Kingdom.” Jesus is 100% God. The creator and orchestrator of all things, he who knows every hair on our heads and every thought that enters it and loves us still. But he became 100% man. He saw our weakness, our sin, that kept us from a relationship with him. So he became a servant; scandalous; poor. He did this so that “through his poverty we would become rich.” The Messiah was supposed to be a military leader, but he was physically abused. “Save us! Hosanna!” cried the people who thought Jesus was he. Yet he died on a cross. He paid the penalty for our sin—mine and yours. And then, he rose again, victorious. He took the very wood used for killing—used to kill him—and turned it into the very thing that saves. Talk about backwards.
There are many thorns in life, not all so dramatic as this MS I have. A thorn can come in the form of a break-up, the loss of a loved one, or a temptation such as lust or idolatry. And it is even possible that there may be an annoying talking sponge in a small space you’re stuck in. Recall a scene from Dark Night Rises. Batman has cornered Bane and has broken the thing that is on his mouth. He totally has the upper hand. Batman tells Bane he knows all about him. And then, Miranda, the girl who we think is simply a love interest, says that she’s actually Rosuils’s child. And then she stabs Batman in the side with a small blade. “It’s the slow knife that cuts the deepest,” she tells Batman as she turns the blade in his side slowly. That is a dramatic example, but Satan attacks us similarly. He tricks us and then surprise attacks. But the best thing about it is that every blade (or thorn) that finds its way into our sides is orchestrated by God somehow. That may make God look like a bad guy from up close, but he sees the bigger picture. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and into jail after he was wrongly accused by Pottifer’s wife. Up close, it looks like everything is pretty terrible. But then Joseph is taken from jail by some pretty weird events and eventually made the number two man in Egypt and saved thousands during the plague; something that never would have happened if life stayed dandy.
What do we do when things are bad? When there is a prick or a thorn in our flesh? First of all, we probs shouldn’t dwell, although mourning is okay. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” It doesn’t say that when the sun is out to rejoice and when it’s snowing to pray; it says to do both all the time.
I have learned to see the MS as being a gift—but that doesn’t mean I like it. I hope that my poor walking is visual evidence of my weakness, that Christ might be glorified. If it is, I say: bring it on. I have been overwhelmed to experience God’s grace in a physical way, when I seriously have no energy left but still move forward. Sometimes, when we ask God for strength, he humbles us. Sometimes, I find, he provides this energy or helps me to find where it’s hiding, and sometimes he brings in a friend or even a stranger to help me walk or to pick me up when I fall down—literally. It’s crazy, and I have been so blessed to see this.
Bringing back the early examples of Jacob and David—Jacob became Israel, the father of the twelve tribes. David became the greatest king in Israel’s history, and the man after God’s heart. The two struggled with temptation still, and we see David’s fall to lust in 2 Samuel 11. But God’s grace is seen through this weakness. David cries out to the Lord in Psalm 51 after this disastrous weakness and God lifts him back up and uses him still. That’s called grace. God is seen in this weakness; it draws David closer to himself. For when we are weak, he is strong. (David and Bathsheba have another child, Solomon. We know what becomes of him. But that’s another story.)