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Sermon for Sunday 5 July 2015

First Reading                                                                                         Ezekiel 2:1–5

1 He said to me:  O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you.  2 And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me.  3 He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.  4 The descendants are impudent and stubborn.  I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.”  5 Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.


Psalm                                                                                                              Psalm 123

1 To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.  2 As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, And the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to you, O LORD our God, until you show us your mercy.  3 Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt,  4 too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.


Second Reading                                                                      2 Corinthians 12:1–10

1 It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.  2 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.  3 And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.  5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.  6 But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.  Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.  8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  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.


Gospel                                                                                                         Mark 6:1–13

1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.  2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.  They said, “Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”  And they took offense at him.  4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.  Then he went about among the villages teaching.  7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.  8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.  10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.  11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”  12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.  13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.



Have you ever known someone who was puffed up with pride?  Someone with a big ego?  Someone who is an “I” specialist, as in the letter I?  Someone whose “I’s or “me’s are a little too close together?  In today’s “look out for numnero uno” attitude, “grab all the gusto you can” and “the path to the top is on the backs of the weak” teaching, it’s not hard to find self-focused people.

When Woodrow Wilson was Governor of New Jersey, a very ambitious young civil servant called him at his home at 3:30 one morning.  This young civil servant said urgently, “Mr. Governor, I’m sorry to wake you up, but your State Auditor has just died, and I would like to know if I can take his place.”  Mr. Wilson thought that over for a moment and then replied dryly.  “Well, I guess it’s all right with me, if it’s all right with the undertaker.”  I wonder if the young civil servant got the joke.  People with a puffed up sense of their own importance rarely do.  It’s difficult to put up with people with that kind of “I” trouble, isn’t it?

Now, contrast the young civil servant’s attitude with a quote from the book jacket of actress Katherine Hepburn’s autobiography.  As a leading lady for 60 years, Hepburn was true Hollywood royalty.  Usually on the flap of a book’s jacket, the publishers boast of the author’s credentials.  Their aim of course is to help sell the book.  However, Katherine Hepburn didn’t need the help.  Here’s what you’ll find on Katherine Hepburn’s book jacket.  “Katherine Hepburn is an actress.  She is interested in tennis and gardening and lives in a small town in Connecticut.  This is her first book.”  I guess when you have Katherine Hepburn’s credentials you don’t have to boast.  The late Marvin Hamlisch was like that too.

Hamlisch, as a gifted composer, filled Hollywood movies with his scores, films like “The Sting, “The Way We Were,” and many more.  Hamlisch was a child prodigy.  At the age of 7, he was accepted at the prestigious Julliard School of Music.  Later in his life a reporter gushed, “Did you actually go to Julliard at 7?”  Hamlisch replied:  “Yes, but they didn’t open until 9.”  What a nice response.  No wonder the Bible lifts up humility as a cardinal virtue and pride as a deadly vice.

I read a story the other day about a psychologist, who once did an experiment in which he put eyeglasses on chickens.  The glasses would cause the chickens to see a kernel of corn about one centimeter to the left of where it really was.  So when the chicken pecked at the corn, it tended to miss.  The point of the experiment was to find out whether chickens are smart enough to adjust to their new glasses.  He found that they aren’t.  The author of the story goes on the say that pride and ego are like those eyeglasses.  They cause us to see things askew.  We’re like the dumb chickens who can’t learn to see straight by compensating for the distortion.

As we read in our epistle lesson for today, St. Paul was concerned about the temptation to pride–not so much in others as in himself.  After all, he was a man given to “visions and revelations” which gave him insights into the mind of God that few people have ever been granted.  He was a man with great influence in the New Testament church.  And he was a man with a lofty intellect, trained by one of the most respected rabbis in history, the rabbi Gamaliel.  No one in the church was as well educated as he.  Fourteen of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament have traditionally been attributed to Paul, and approximately half of the Acts of the Apostles deals with Paul’s life and works.

All things considered, it would have been easy for Paul to become arrogant and proud, to think of himself as being better than others; even church leaders can be afflicted with the deadly sin of pride.  There was, however, one exception in Paul’s case:  he had a decided weakness.  We don’t know what that weakness was.  But he had something in his life which was a continual reminder to him of his humanity and his limitations.  Paul called it his “thorn in the flesh.”  In 2 Corinthians 12 verse 7 we read, “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”

Consider these words of Paul for a moment:  “In order to keep me from becoming conceited . . .”  In other words, Paul didn’t want to be like a chicken with eyeglasses.  He didn’t want his perspective to be skewed by pride.  “I was given a thorn in my flesh . . .”  It’s such a wonderfully suggestive phrase, “a thorn in the flesh.”  Imagine a large splinter in your body.  Not only does it hurt, but it’s forever catching on your clothing and tearing your flesh.  But for some reason it’s a thorn that no doctor can remove.  All you can do is learn to live with it.

Since the Bible doesn’t tell us what the “thorn” was, some have suggested that it was incessant temptation, while others have suggested chronic maladies such as a serious problem with his eyes, epilepsy, migraine headaches or even a speech disability.  But what’s interesting is that whatever the “thorn” was, Paul actually considered it to be a gift.  It was a gift that would ensure that Paul would never forget who he was and who God is and would forever help him to remain humble.  In Paul’s estimation God gave him this thorn, a constant reminder of his weakness, that he might be continually reminded of his dependence on God.  I guess the question we need to ask is, do we have “a thorn in our flesh?”

Do we have a constant irritant that we may never be rid of?  And none of you better be pointing at your spouse!  The thorn in our flesh might be a physical disability.  Maybe it’s a disease.  Maybe it’s a broken relationship.  All of us have differing thorns.  The challenge for us is can we ask God to help us embrace our thorn as a gift from God?

One of the local pastors told about a man, a very proud man who was well off financially, who had an attractive young wife, a good job, lived at the beach, and all the rest.  He came to church sometimes and was always friendly and supportive.  But one day the newspapers carried a story about one of his sons.  The boy was sought for committing murder.

This proud man went to his pastor.  At first he was convinced that his son didn’t commit this crime.  As the years went on, however, the son went to trial and was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.  The father continued to support him, always convinced of his innocence.  The father didn’t want his son to be alone on the other end of the country so he found a church of their denomination near the prison.  He asked them to look after his son and they did.  When the father visited his son, he attended that church himself.  Later he said to his pastor that nothing had ever humbled him like the shame of having a son in prison.  At the same time, he said, through this experience, he found more love from God than he had ever known.

I suspect he found that love through church people, both in his home church and the church near his son’s prison.  That’s what church people do when they have the love of Jesus in their hearts–they support one another.  This is just one example of what I mean by embracing the thorn as a gift.  I’m not saying that God actually sent the thorn.  God doesn’t normally works that way.  Nevertheless, God is there as you seek to deal with that thorn, and God can use that thorn to bless your life and bless others, just as Paul’s thorn served as a positive part of his life.

There have been persons with terminal illnesses who have embraced their thorn and said, “This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me because I discovered how much people love me and how much God loves me.”  A man with a painful stutter learned to thank God for that stutter because it caused him to be more appreciative of the importance of the spoken word and helped him to become an outstanding communicator.  Even a thorn in the flesh can be a gift if you offer it up to God.  All we have to do is go to God in prayer and then trust Him to help us deal with the thorn.

This means that Prayer then is an important part of the process of embracing the thorn in your life.  St. Paul writes, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”  It’s understandable that Paul would pray that God would take this thorn away.

Paul could have considered such an affliction an obstruction to a wider and more effective ministry.  It would have been absurd if he had not prayed to be relieved of it.  But Paul learned an important lesson during this time of prayer and petitioning.  One thing we need to keep in mind is, more than changing our circumstances, prayer is meant to change us.  We need to learn to ask, what are we learning from our experiences?  This is the critical determinant in having a successful life.  What are we learning from our various thorns?  Paul undoubtedly prayed not only to be delivered from his thorn in the flesh, but also for the ability to learn and to grow because of his thorn.

Several years ago, in Leadership magazine, Pastor Ben Patterson wrote a story about a time when he was in pain.  It was the spring of 1980, and he had been diagnosed with two herniated discs in his back.  All Ben Patterson could do was lie on the floor.  He couldn’t get up to preach, or to visit people, or do anything.  There was absolutely nothing that he could accomplish–except pray.  Not that he came to this conclusion in the best of manners.  It was actually out of boredom and frustration that he decided one day to just pick up his church directory and start praying for every member of the church.  This led him to a commitment to prayer that he had never experienced before in his life, even after his back had healed.

Certainly during that time, Ben Patterson prayed that God would heal him.  But what he didn’t foresee was how God would use his time of disability to help him grow spiritually and to grow in his effectiveness as a pastor.  One of the most striking examples of turning a thorn into a gift to be treasured is that of Joni Earekson Tada.  I’ve mentioned Joni before and many of you are familiar with her ministry.

As many of you will recall, Joni Tada had her life forever changed in an instant.  She was diving with some friends and misjudged the depth of the water.  She hit her head when she went in and broke her neck.  She was just a teenager when she made that fateful dive and now she was destined to live her life as a quadriplegic.  One could easily say that this was a thorn that could not be removed.

She, like Paul, prayed for God’s healing, but healing didn’t come.  For a while she was mad at God and the world.  But then God did a great work in her life.  She took up art.  She began to draw and paint.  As a quadriplegic this might seem like an impossible task, but she learned.  She draws and paints by placing the pencil or paintbrush in her mouth and using it to produce great artwork.  Her life didn’t end with her disability.  Indeed, a new life began.  She broadened her ministry.  She developed a popular radio ministry.  She has produced music and has written books.  She’s also married to a great guy.  Her life that could have been filled with self-pity, misery and gloom is filled with radiance and joy.  Her life is an inspiration to millions.

Joni Tada, Ben Patterson, and that humble father whose son is in the penitentiary learned the same thing Paul learned from his experience, and that is the sufficiency of God’s grace.  “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me,” Paul said of his thorn in the flesh, “But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”

Our weaknesses, our afflictions can be an opportunity for God to demonstrate His power in our life.  Don’t despise your thorn.  Hold it up as a trophy of God’s sufficient grace at work in your life.  What a beautiful witness it would be of God’s power in you, if in the midst of sickness or loss or pain of any kind you are still able to maintain your ability to praise God.  Pastor Charles Spurgeon was troubled about a thorn in his life.

We’re not told what it was, though Spurgeon was known at times to suffer deep bouts of depression.  Then the words of II Corinthians 12:9 came to him:  “My grace is sufficient for you.”  Spurgeon began to use his imagination.  He imagined that he was transported to the bank of a flowing river.  He saw a little fish drinking away in the river; then all of a sudden the fish stopped and said, “I mustn’t take too much, or there will be none left.”  The river replied, “Drink on, little fish:  my waters are sufficient for you.”

Then Mr. Spurgeon said that he imagined that he was standing beside one of Joseph’s great granaries in Egypt.  A little mouse was feeding there.  It stopped its meal and said, “I must not eat too much now, or there will not be enough for tomorrow.”  But the storehouse answered, “Feed on, little mouse:  my grain is sufficient for you.”  Next, Spurgeon said he imagined himself on the top of a great mountain.  He saw a man filling his lungs with the refreshing, invigorating air.  But the man stopped and said, “I must be careful not to use up too much oxygen, or there will be no supply for future needs.”  The vast mountain amusingly replied, “Breathe on, little man:  my winds are sufficient for you.”  Then pastor Spurgeon said he was brought back to the great text, “My grace is sufficient for you.”  And he suddenly understood as he never had before that God’s grace was inexhaustible.

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses,” writes St. Paul, “so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  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.”  God’s grace transformed Paul’s perspective.  Things like his weakness, insults from his critics, hardships, and persecution, which naturally illicit worry, depression, contempt or even vengeance, he could now welcome supernaturally by God’s grace.

What thorn do we have in our flesh?  Use it to remain humble.  Welcome that thorn as an opportunity for God to demonstrate His power in your life.  Trust God’s grace to carry you through your life’s situation, and when you pray for deliverance, be open to His sovereignty to change you, even if He doesn’t change your circumstance.

“Therefore,” writes St. Paul, “in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”  God’s message to Paul is the same message He has for us today.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”


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