Strength through Weakness
The Prince of Preachers
The Prince of Preachers
In my quiet times, I’ve recently been using a devotional written in the latter half of the 19th Century called Morning and Evening. It’s written by the famous preacher by the name of Charles Spurgeon. I’ve really enjoyed the way that he can take a small bit of scripture, in fact, usually a less well known verse, and then can extract a really insightful observation.
His ability to bring a passage of scripture to life has led some to label him the Prince of Preachers.
Oh, and did I mention he was also a Baptist!
But I heard recently an account of one of his sermons. You see, by Spurgeon’s own admission he preached one of his poorest sermons.
It’s reported that he stammered and floundered. By the end he felt humiliated. He knew people expected great things from him, but what he gave was anything but.
But, he went home, and it’s reported that he fell on his knees and said “Lord God, you can do something with nothing. Bless that poor sermon”.
The thought of that sermon stayed with him all week, as did his prayer.
The next Sunday he was determined to preach a better sermon. And certainly appeared that he did, given that at the close of the service, people covered him with praise for his godly words.
But Spurgeon was a reflective person and so he decided to pay attention to what happened as a result of both sermons.
As he spoke with various people and heard reports from amongst his sizable church, he realised that by a big margin, it was that lousy sermon that was having the big impact. Though the sermon the following week was far more polished and well crafted, on a spiritual level, it just didn’t have the same impact.
What this shows is that there is something much deeper at work than our own clever abilities.
And it is this that I want to explore this morning.
You see, we all have those times when everything seems to go wrong. In fact, unlike Spurgeon that had this one bad experience to be embarrassed about, you, (like me), might feel that that failure is more the norm.
And so, as we explore the passage, I want you to consider whether maybe, your perception of your weaknesses and failures is actually off.
Our own gifts
Our own gifts
So before we jump into the passage, let’s just think of our own situation.
First, I want you to think of the gifts God has given you. In one sense, these are our strengths, although we do really need to give credit to God for given them to us.
Maybe your strength is in being up front. The gift of the gab as some might say. Maybe your gift is being able to encourage others. Or maybe you are gifted in administration.
There are many different types of gifts and I believe each and every one of you has one.
But then we look at our gifts, and think, maybe I’m not very good at it, particularly if you compare yourself to someone else.
I’’ll take myself as an example. I believe God has gifted me with the ability to preach the word of God to others. Which is exactly what I’m doing now.
But then, I can look at someone who’s really gifted. People like Spurgeon who 150 years later, people are still referring to him. And I recognise that I fall in a completely different league.
Or even if I don’t consider the greats, even if I look at some preaching God’s word here in the Hunter, and I see some very creative people. People who are natural story tellers and can hold someones attention while giving gospel truths.
And it’s easy to then become discouraged. The thing that God has gifted me in, and by comparison, I’m not even that gifted.
I wonder if you feel something similar.
Or possibly… I don’t even have any gifts worth while talking about.
Or maybe it’s actually the opposite. Your pretty confident in your gifting. But then you wonder - what is the fruit for my work?
Well let’s dive into the passage and consider a new perspective to all of this.
The previous three sermons have all been in the first half of 2 Corinthians, but if you read the whole letter, the tone changes a bit when we come to chapter 10.
Some people suggest that it is actually a new letter that Paul has written. But whether it is or isn’t, doesn’t really matter.
But the change goes from a more softer and pastoral tone in the first half, to a much harsher, argumentative tone.
It would seem that Paul is defending himself against three charges. Namely, that he is worldly, a fool and weak.
Now, to the first accusation, he shows them that far from being worldly, he is engaging with the power of God. They’ve misunderstood how God works.
But then when he comes to the accusation of being a fool and weak, which essentially he starts doing from chapter 11 verse 16, he takes quite a different approach.
Rather then argue the case, he actually agrees with them.
You see, Paul actually starts boasting - but his boasting is very different to the boasting of his opponents.
If you look back on chapter 11, his boasting starts in a similar way, by affirming his ancestry. That is, he is very much of Jewish heritage. But then his boasting takes a big twist. He starts talking about the hardships his faced. And the list sounds like something out of a horror story.
In chapter 11 verse 30, he then states what he’s actually doing: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”.
And in this vein, he starts chapter 12 with the words: “I must go on boasting”.
An awkward boast
An awkward boast
The boast that he moves into in chapter 12 is a rather awkward one. It’s awkward because he actually refers to an experience which could very easily fit into the types of boasts that his accusers would make.
You see, the accusers, (that is, the agitators in the Church of Corinth), love the big spiritual experiences.
You just need to look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to see this. They were obsessed with the experience of speaking in tongues and prophecy, both of which Paul said were great, but need to be considered in perspective on God’s larger aspect of what’s going on.
Well, Paul wants to bring up a particular spiritual experience that he has had, but he wants to do it, not to show off his superior spirituality, but rather to highlight his weakness.
And so he describes the experience in very vague ways.
In fact, he starts the describing the experience using himself as the third person.
It’s a literacy technique to allow himself to put the experience in the focus and not himself.
The spiritual experience
The spiritual experience
So let’s just look at this experience briefly.
We’re told that it happened 14 years ago. Unfortunately, it’s hard to accurately date the letter, which means it’s hard to date the experience. It is however generally thought that the letter was written more then 14 years after his conversion, so it’s unlikely that he is describing his conversion.
But then he says he was caught up in the third heaven. This is actually the only reference in the Bible to such a thing - so the question begs to be answered, what is the third heaven? The simple answer is: who knows?
Given that this is the only direct reference to a third heaven, it is unwise to form a strong doctrine about such.
In this particular passage, Paul is speaking in very vague terms. It would seem likely that he is probably just using superlatives to describe the situation, rather than providing direct commentary on the nature of heaven.
He’s even vague in verse 3 as to whether it was an in-body or out-of-body experience. I think it’s quite clear that the details of this experience is not what Paul wants you to focus on.
He did however hear things, which he describes as inexpressible, but of course he’s not permitted to tell.
In verse 5, Paul acknowledges that the experience he had five years ago is something to boast about. But the fact that he continues to talk about himself in the third person indicates this interesting position that he finds himself in.
There is only one thing that Paul wants to boast about, and that’s his weakness.
Why the boast?
Why the boast?
Now, there is a fair question to ask at this point. If Paul is so content boasting about his weaknesses, why does he let this sneaky little admission of something so amazing. On first impression, it could very well seem that he’s somewhat showing off.
Well, it’s the link he provides for us in verses 6 and 7 that give us the answer.
You see, in verse 6 he does say that this kind of experience would be something worth boasting about - but after God gave him this most amazing experience, he then also gave him another experience.
He says in verse 7 “therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me”
What I believe Paul is doing, is providing a great contrast. The divine. And the flesh.
It’s a contrast that many of us will feel from time to time. We’ll experience times of great communion with God (perhaps not quite like Paul’s, but beautiful nevertheless), and those times will be followed by a time of great trial.
But let me just stop a moment and consider what this thorn is.
It’s described as a thorn in the flesh.
The Greek word translates as thorn is actually just a word denoting anything pointed, like a stake or a fish-hook. There has been plenty of speculation on what this pointed thing might be.
Is Paul talking about a literal pointed object? Or is he using the phrase metaphorically?
Actually, I think the ambiguity fits well with the ambiguity he seems to deliberately be adopting in this whole re-telling. Again, I don’t believe Paul wants us to focus on the specifics of the event. He just wants to describe this contrast between something divine, and his own weakness.
Three times he asks for this thorn, (whatever it might be) to be removed.
It’s obvious that as great as his experience was, the trial is equally horrifying.
In verse 9, the Lord speaks - and this time it is something he is allowed to repeat.
This time he says: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”.
These are words that I’ve actually written out on paper, and stuck on the pin board above my desk in my office.
“My grace is sufficient for you… for my power is made perfect in weakness”.
There is something very simple in this that is also very beautiful.
Paul has just received the most amazing experience, but God’s very keen to remind him - don’t think that you’ve somehow earned this.
You haven’t got this experience because of anything you’ve done. You’ve got there because I’ve put you there.
A perspective for our gifts
A perspective for our gifts
This is something that applies to each of us.
Whatever gift you have is not because of your own cleverness. It’s because that’s what’s God’s given you.
Now maybe that’s obvious… maybe it’s not. But it certainly is something very easy to forget.
The moment we do something good and get praised for it, it doesn’t take long before it becomes about our self. And believe me, I’m as guilty as anyone here.
And so, this is why Paul is so grateful for his weaknesses. Because in his weakness, he is reminded of the strength of Christ.
It’s what brings him to say in the second half of verse 9: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me”.
Our weaknesses shift our focus. They shift things from us to God.
We saw that lesson from the great preacher Spurgeon that I started with.
How easy would it be for him to become conceited.
But to have an experience where he gets more fruit from a poor performance than a good one, is a reminder that it’s not about him. He should not get too arrogant, because the power of his work is Christ.
Delighting in weakness
Delighting in weakness
The final verse in this passage is something that I think most of us would struggle to honestly say.
He says that he can delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.
I think many of us could say we tolerate these things - but to take delight in them is another matter.
But this is not Paul just enjoying pain.
But rather, it’s because in these things, Paul recognises that taking your focus off yourself and onto Christ is actually a great release. Sure it’s painful and you want it to end, but the end product makes it all worth it.
It’s a bit like exercise. Now I know there will be some people who probably love the pain of exercise - but those people are a bit weird.
I don’t love exercise, but I do love the feeling you get from having exercised. Although I’m not that good at it, you could say in one sense I take delight in exercise because of the result I get from it.
In a similar way, the weaknesses and failures are hard, but the result from them is good because I’m drawn closer to God.
Drawn to mission
Drawn to mission
In all of this, I don’t want the take home message to be to start loving pain.
What I do want the main message you hear is that no matter what inadequacies you think you might have, no matter how many times you think you’ve failed - your efforts can be powerfully used by God.
One of the many tricks that the devil tries to pull on us is to make us think that we’re not capable of making a difference in God’s kingdom.
Well, to one degree he might be right. We are not capable in our own strength. But with the power of Christ in us, we can make a powerful difference.
For this reason, I want to suggest, that if you are someone who has made a commitment to Christ, than you are someone who should be on mission.
By mission, I’m not just referring to cross-cultural mission (although, of course, there is a great need for more cross-cultural missionaries). But I’m talking about all activities of building God’s kingdom.
God’s not just looking for someone strong - his looking for someone who he ready to stand with him.
There’s a saying I heard a long time ago which has stuck with me: God does not call the qualified. He qualifies the called.
It’s saying that you don’t have to have everything together to do God’s work. You just have to be ready to serve, and watch God work powerfully through you.
At the end of the day, this might all sound upside down, but it is so characteristic of God.
Just look throughout the Bible and see the unlikely characters God picks. He picks David, the youngest of eight brothers. In picks Moses, a man with faltering lips. Look through the book of Judges and see the unlikely people God picks there.
Or in the New Testament - look at the unlikely people Jesus chooses as his disciples.
In all of these, we see it’s not about their strength, but about the strength God gives them. And for this reason, we too can have confidence that as long as we’re ready to stand and be counted, God will give us strength.
It is very easy to look at our weaknesses and failures and to be put off.
It’s easy to even look at the gifts God has given us and to think - my gift hardly even compares with others who have been gifted in a similar way.
But this kind of thinking is all keeping that focus on us.
We need to shift that thinking. Like Paul, we need to allow those weaknesses to be a means of taking the focus off us, and onto the power of God.
As we do, we can say with Paul “I will boast the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me”.
And in doing so, we will be ready to take our stand in the work of building God’s kingdom.
This is particularly the case during this pandemic. In one sense, the restriction have felt like we’ve been stripped of what we do. But it is in this stripping back, that I strongly believe, we will see Christ work in a very powerful way.
Let me pray...