Sunday, April 17, 2016

Thorns of Grace (a sermon from 2 Corinthians 12)

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 – Thorns of Grace
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
“Thorns of Grace” – Let’s pray

We live in an age of “INSTANT” gratification.  We want everything – NOW!  Instant access, instant messaging, instant meals… and if we're not careful, that “ON-DEMAND” mentality will spill over into our spiritual life.  

Like with prayer...Sometimes I think – “Wouldn’t it be nice to see quicker results when I pray???”

Not long ago, I went to my office to spend some time in study, but the power was out.  I sat there in darkness, straining to read for 45 minutes.  Finally I decided to call the power company, DUH, just in case no one else had.  

The power company has an automated service for reporting outages.  I called the number; you know the drill:  “If you are calling to report an outage, press ‘1’ – our records show that the address to this phone number is - - - if THIS is your location, press ‘1.’”    

It was that simple… took just a couple of minutes – and I had no more hung up the phone when “BAM” the lights came back on.
That’s the kind of results I’d like to see when I pray!!
That reminded me of ANOTHER story – a kitten belonging to a pastor climbed a tree but couldn’t get down.  The pastor decided to throw a rope over the branch the little fella was on and tied the rope to the bumper of his car.  Driving forward, he would pull the branch within reach and retrieve the terrified kitten.  

It was a pretty good plan too - until the rope broke, sending the little fella flying through the air, over the fence and out of sight.  

That pastor looked all over for his little kitten, but it was nowhere to be found.
The next day the pastor was met by his neighbor.  “You are never gonna believe what happened yesterday!” she exclaimed.  “My little girl had been begging for a kitten for months, but I told her that the only way she could have one is if the Lord gave it to her.  She went outside, knelt down and prayed, “Dear Lord, PLEASE give me a kitty of my very own …Amen.”  Just then, a kitten with paws outstretched fell right out of the sky!”
You gotta love results!
But prayer isn’t normally like that, is it???  Sometimes we pray for weeks, months, and even YEARS, and STILL – nothing happens – at least, nothing we can see.  It’s frustrating when you pour your heart out week after week, with no results.
We might begin to question:
  • The effectiveness of prayer – “Does it really work?”
  • We question OURSELVES - “Maybe I don’t have enough faith?”  “Maybe there is some sin in my life that is preventing the Lord from answering my prayers?”
  • And we may even find ourselves questioning God – “Does He really care about what I am going through?”
We ARE very impatient.  We have been conditioned to expect quick results.  If faced with the slightest inconvenience or delay, we fall apart.  In this age of instant gratification, even the most mature in the faith struggle with God’s timing.
But here’s the rub: Some of the greatest lessons you will ever learn as a Christian come as a result of God’s deliberate delay.  

Consider the example in our text.
Paul was a spiritual giant.  He had performed miracles… he had seen countless souls saved… he shared his story before kings… and according to the verses PRIOR twas even allowed the unique opportunity of catching a glimpse of heaven.  He had seen things no other human had been privileged to see.  If anybody might have reason to expect instant results, it was Paul.  He had seen God’s power displayed too many times.

But even HE was tested by God’s delay.

What we have before us this morning is Paul’s personal account of an occasion when he had prayed earnestly about a problem only to have God say “No.”
So - if you have poured out your soul before the Lord and wonder why nothing happens, Paul will show us why you should keep the faith even when God doesn’t answer in the way we want.  

There are three things I want you to notice:
1.  First, we discover Paul’s Pain in verse 7.  The text says that Paul had seen and experienced so much in his time as a Christian that he was in danger of becoming “conceited”  arrogant… maybe Paul was in danger of being put on a pedestal by others.  After all, we ARE prone to “hero-worship.”
But, whether he was in danger of becoming exalted in his OWN mind or in the minds of others, God allowed Paul to suffer to keep him … HUMBLE.

There will be times in your life when God must do the same for you.  Pride is a problem for ALL of us.  There will be times in all of our lives when God must lead us through difficult experiences in order to bring us back to earth … to keep us from thinking too highly of ourselves.
Paul uses two words that offer insight into his pain.
The first word is “thorn.”  The second is “harass.”  Both words are graphic.  

The word “thorn” in the original Greek is NOT a thorn like we might see on a rose stem or a blackberry bush. It literally means “a pointed stake.”  This was not simply a “passing pain” but a prolonged one… not an inconvenience but a hardship that threatened his ability to serve.

The word “harass,” means “to hit with a clinched fist.”  Satan was attacking him through this so violently that Paul felt BEAT UP.  And the very fact that God had allowed this suffering - gave Satan a weapon to inflict even GREATER pain:

  • If God really loved you, then why is He allowing you to suffer like this???

  • If God really cares, then why hasn’t He answered your prayer these three times???

Paul was hurt and humiliated – as Satan used this occasion to shoot arrows of doubt into his mind.

That’s how Satan works.  He’s in the character assassination business.  If he cannot change God’s mind about YOU, he will try to change YOUR mind about God.  If He cannot impugn OUR character to God, he will try to impugn God’s character to us.  

Paul’s pain, then, was not simply the agony of his “thorn,” but the reality that God had let this happen to him and that when he prayed about it 3 times, God refused to answer.  

It was painful.
You will feel it too.  Whenever you struggle, you will find yourself grappling with the question “Why?”  But the “Why?” will change over time – instead of “Why am I suffering?” it will become “Why doesn’t God DO SOMETHING about my suffering?!?!”
This was Paul’s Pain.

2.  Secondly, notice Paul’s Prayer.  His prayer in verse 8, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.

God has called me to be your Shepherd.  As “shepherd,” I am called to love you, feed you, and lead you.  Shepherds are to keep one eye on their flock and the other on their surroundings.  Predators lie in wait for a sheep to separate from the flock.  There will be thorns and thistles that pose ADDITIONAL danger to inexperienced sheep.  

It is my job to be protective and proactive – because there are things out there that would destroy you.  And let me tell you, being a shepherd is getting harder by the day.
As I look out across the landscape, I am aware of some weeds that may entice you – but are extremely harmful to you.  

There are false teachers out there that might overthrow your faith.  They will say “IF you have enough faith, you can have whatever you want - name it and claim it”  They will tell you “all suffering is bad and that prosperity is God’s way of rewarding those with great faith!”
And I admit, it sounds good.  After all, WHO DOESN’T want to live in a constant stream of blessing?!?! It sounds so spiritual to say, “BELIEVE AND YOU WILL RECEIVE!”
But if you aren’t careful, your faith will be obliterated when hard times come – and they WILL come.
There are lessons that can be learned through suffering that cannot be learned any other way.  My faith will not keep me FROM suffering - but it WILL keep me THROUGH it.

There are two great men in the Bible who prayed three times about a particular issue, and in each case God answered with a definitive NO!  

One case is right here – where the Apostle Paul, a man of great faith, probably the greatest Christian to ever live - cried out in soul agony to God to remove this problem, this pain, but God refused!
The OTHER case is when the very Son of God prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane, with such passion that He, the author and finisher of our faith, sweat great drops of blood, begging God that He might not have to drink the cup of His wrath at the cross.  And God said “No!”

The devil wants you to believe “IF you have the right kind of faith you won’t ever experience suffering.”  He wants you to be convinced that “If you believe God enough you will never be sick or struggle financially or go through seasons of depression.”

It’s a LIE.  If the two greatest examples of faith and faithfulness in the Bible suffered rejection, pain, and even unanswered prayer, so will you.
There are going to be times in your life when YOU THINK you know what is best for you.  There are going to be times when our limited perspective convinces us that things MUST go a certain way.  But God will sometimes lead us to a place that proves our ways are not His ways – that - instead of demanding our will be done, we must submit to HIS will.

Which leads us to our final point...

3.  After Paul’s pain and prayer, third we see Paul’s Provision.  His provision.  Though God said ‘no,’ He promised to provide EXACTLY what Paul needed.  Notice verse 9, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
God was teaching Paul an important lesson – a lesson that ALL of us must learn.  There are SOME things that are more important than our physical well-being, comfort, or prosperity.     
We will NEVER get to a point in our lives when we STOP NEEDING God.  There will NEVER come a time when WE KNOW better than HIM.  I will never OUT-GROW the Lord.  Every day, I need Him MORE.  EVERY EVENT, EVERY CIRCUMSTANCE, trial, problem – He gives me the grace I need to endure.
When we are flat on our backs, with nowhere to turn, we realize just how much we need Jesus.  When we receive that diagnosis, when we lose our jobs, when someone we love dies – we realize that in our own strength, we cannot make it.  When the sea is smooth, there is no need for a captain… but when the way gets rough, we realize how vulnerable we would be without Him.
Prayer warrior, George Mueller, once said,
“Our weakness gives opportunity for the power of the Lord Jesus to be manifested.  That blessed One never leaves and never forsakes us.  The greater the weakness, the nearer He is to manifest His strength; the greater our necessities, the more we have ground to rely on Him.  This has been my experience for more than 70 years; the greater the trial, the greater the difficulty – the nearer the Lord’s help.  It is our business to pour our hearts out to Him, and to trust that help, in His time and in His way, is sure to come!”
Life’s paradox – is - when we are at our weakest, we are actually in a position to be our STRONGEST. When we get to the place where only GOD will do, when our trust is in HIM and our will is surrendered – THEN, we will see the very best of God.  

It is a principle that runs throughout the Bible – God, in His sovereignty, must bring us to an end of trusting ourselves in order that He might do His mighty work IN and THROUGH us.  When we are weak, vulnerable, submissive – THEN God will move!

Our disappointments are often God’s appointments.  Our tragedies are God’s opportunities.  Because when we are weak – HE will make us strong.
Paul learned a very valuable lesson through his thorns – he learned the importance of trust – he learned that the more he surrendered to God, the more of God’s power he would enjoy.  He learned that trusting in self leads to heartache and weakness.  But trusting in God brings strength.

Have YOU learned that lesson?  Are you struggling?  Maybe you had been going through life without a care.  No fears, no worries.  During all that time you thought you were strong.  But NOW you are afraid and you don’t know what to do.
God wants to demonstrate His mighty power in your life.  Will - you - trust - Him?  Or will you push His loving hand away because you feel He has somehow failed you?  God’s power is real, my friend, but He will not waste it on an individual who insists on doing things his own way.
Today, in an act of submission, will you come to this place of prayer and put your trust in God’s gracious provision. Right now, when there seems no way, in this moment of vulnerability, will you trust Him?

His grace will be sufficient for you – just as it was for Paul.  
Let’s stand…