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Sermon for Sunday 8 July 2018

FIRST READING Ezekiel 2:1-5

1{The Lord God} said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” 2And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. 3And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. 4The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ 5And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.”


PSALM Psalm 123

1To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens. 2As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, 3So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy. 4Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt, 5Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.


SECOND READING 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

1I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2I know a man 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. 3And I know that this man was caught up into paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — 4and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses — 6though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7So 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. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9But 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. 10For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.


GOSPEL Mark 6:1-13

1{Jesus} went away from {Jairus’ house} and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? 3Is 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. 4And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” 5And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching. 7And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff — no bread, no bag, no money in their belts — 9but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.



It was 6:00 AM and it seems that the golf course was already crowded with golfers one pleasant summer morning and Bob was standing in front of a tee preparing to swing at his ball. He visualized hitting a beautiful shot that would carry hundreds of yards. As he was standing there lost in his thoughts, an announcement came over the PA system: “Would the gentleman standing at the women’s tee please back up to the men’s tee?”
Bob ignored the announcement and continued his pre-shot routine. Again, the announcement came across the PA system: “Would the gentleman on the women’s tee please back up to the men’s tee?” This announcement seemed incredibly rude to Bob, particularly since it was directed at him. He turned toward the clubhouse and shouted, “Would the announcer in the clubhouse kindly shut up and let me play my second shot?”
My guess is that this wasn’t going to be a great golf day for Bob, especially since his first shot got him no farther than the women’s tee. But if pressed, we’d have to admit that we’ve all have had days like that. Of course, some of those days are nothing to laugh about. Back in 1987, David Heller wrote a delightful little book from which pastors love to quote. It’s titled, Dear God: Children’s Letters to God. Inside that book are some witty observations from the lips of young children.
One comes from 10-year-old Alexis. She wrote, “Dear God, What do you do with families that don’t have much faith? There’s a family on the next block like that. I don’t want to get them in trouble, so I can’t say who. See you in church. And then another from 11-year-old Franks who wrote, Dear God, want to hear a joke? What’s red, very long, and you hear it right before you go to sleep? Give up? A sermon.
Then there’s one that’s more thoughtful than humorous. It goes like this: “Dear God, I have doubts about you sometimes. Sometimes I really believe. Like when I was four and I hurt my arm and you healed it up fast. But my question is, if you could do this, why don’t you stop all the bad in the world? Like war. Like diseases. Like famine. Like drugs. And there are problems in other people’s neighborhoods too. I’ll try to believe more. It was signed by 10-year-old Ian.
Many of us struggle with the same questions as Ian don’t we? Any thinking person does. St. Paul certainly struggled with these questions. And yet it’s evident that his faith allowed him to resolve many of these issues. And it wasn’t because Paul had not known his share of suffering. Many of his letters record the trials he endured. But Paul was different than many, rather than letting these difficult times destroy his faith, his suffering had deepened it.
Listen again to his words in our epistle lesson beginning with the seventh verse: “Therefore, 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.’ Therefore,” Paul continues, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, 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.”
Now it might be helpful to clarify a couple of things before we move forward. First, Paul didn’t write this passage as a way to gain attention or sympathy. Paul was writing to a group of people heavily influences by Greek philosophy. The main form of getting a point across in the first century AD was through the use of rhetoric. Basically, you argue both sides to achieve a point. This was a style that the people understood and respected. So what seems like cloaked boasting to our ears is actually a very clever way to argue your point. Second, this is about God getting the credit not Paul. If Paul was capable of accomplishing all he did on his own, then God would never be glorified. But Paul was, despite his limitations, able to achieve great things precisely because it was God at work in Him. Paul was arguing that because he, on his own was incapable, it was God to whom the glory was to be given, not him.
Understanding these two points, I doubt that there are many who delight in insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties. But St. Paul could. Paul had had some unique spiritual experiences and he was proud of those experiences. Not proud because he was able to endure them, but proud because they had nourished his faith in a wonderful way. He also knew that because of those experiences he was tempted to be puffed up with pride; that he had bragging rights as it were. Yet Paul knew better, because he had a condition, probably a physical condition that carried with it some degree of humiliation and shame. Some scholars speculate that he suffered from epileptic seizures. Some forward that he suffered eye problems stemming from his encounter with God on the road to Damascus. In truth, we really don’t know. Paul simply called it, his “thorn in the flesh.”
Many of you love to work in your yard and I know that several of you love roses. And to keep those roses pretty, you must trim and prune them. So, you know what it’s like to get a thorn in your hand or arm. It’s uncomfortable, painful. You pull it out as quickly as possible yet, the pain lingers for some time. Scholars suggest that Paul’s thorn was much more serious than a simple stab from a rose bush. Scholars speculate that Paul’s thorn was more like a large, sharpened wooden shaft jabbing into his flesh. This thorn caused him great discomfort. And there was no way that he could remove it.
Paul writes that he asked the Lord three times to remove the thorn from him. In other words, the pain, whether physical or mental, had on three occasions nearly overwhelmed Paul to the point that he pleaded with God to help him. This says a great deal about Paul’s faith. You and I would plead with God far more than three times. Most of us would turn to God night and day; but not the apostle Paul. After three times of making his plea, Paul turned it over to God. And in the process, Paul discovered God’s reason. He heard the voice of the Lord say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
When you stop and consider it, this is a very powerful sentence. “My grace is sufficient for you . . . my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul discovered two things in suffering with his thorn in the flesh. First, he discovered that God’s grace is indeed sufficient. God would give Paul the tools and strength he needed. Second, Paul discovered that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Despite Paul’s limitations, God worked through him to achieve remarkable things. Things that at times I’m sure even surprised Paul.
I read a humorous story recently about an event that occurred one time in a production of the opera, Carmen, in a very prestigious theater crammed with thousands of theater patrons. This particular night the singer playing the character Don José forgot to bring his stage knife for the stabbing scene in which he murders Carmen. Imagine if you will, the actor is on stage in front of hundreds of theatergoers. He’s supposed to murder Carmen but he’s forgotten his knife. What does he do?
Being a resourceful person, he decided to strangle her. That makes sense since the act didn’t require a knife. However, there was one major flaw in his plan; he didn’t have time to warn the singer playing Carmen. She didn’t know what he was doing with his hands around her throat, so according to an eye-witness account, she fought back like a tigress. But here’s what’s amazing to me. Somehow, she managed to go on singing throughout a prolonged and somewhat muted strangulation!
In the process, the opera house patrons got a show they didn’t expect. I bring this up as a way to illustrate the fact that sometimes life catches us off-guard. Like that poor opera singer, we, too, have reacted with surprise and dismay, and maybe with anger. Sometimes we’re able to keep on singing. Sometimes we can’t. Life, quite simply, can catch us off-guard.
We don’t schedule sickness in our computer calendars, but there it is. Our smart phone didn’t warn us that the company was downsizing. We didn’t see it coming that our teenager would total their car. Despite the absolute joy of a new baby, the pregnancy wasn’t planned. Life at times can bring unexpected events and, at times, be very difficult.
Some people handle life’s adversities better than others. Psychologists refer to this as resiliency. Some people seem to be more resilient than others, even as children. By their very nature, some people take life in stride. As the old adage goes, the same sun that melts butter, hardens clay. People differ in how they react to life, even in the same family.
Once there were two brothers who grew up in an impoverished family in Boston. James drifted into crime, went to prison, escaped, and eventually was put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Meanwhile, his brother William went to college, then entered politics, and eventually became president of the University of Massachusetts.
How do we explain that? Same parents. Generally, the same early experiences. But one was a horrible failure while the other was a stunning success. I must add this sad footnote, however. William was forced to resign as President of the University of Massachusetts in 2003 after being accused of concealing information that might lead to his brother’s capture. It’s sad that he had to pay for his brother’s misspent life. People differ in their reactions to life’s difficulties. Some people are more resilient than others. Paul was one of those resilient people. And what made him so resilient was his faith in God. “My grace is sufficient for you . . .”
Pastor Chuck Swindoll tells of attending a memorial service for a friend several years younger than he, who had died with liver cancer. Swindoll compared it to an arrow piercing his friend’s flesh. However, his friend didn’t let the disease defeat him emotionally or spiritually. He didn’t curl up in a corner with a calendar and put Xs on days, says Swindoll. On the contrary, the news of his malignancy only spurred him on to drain every ounce out of every day.
His physician had told him he would probably be gone before Thanksgiving. “Says who?” his friend mused. Not only did he live through Thanksgiving, at Christmas he threw a party. The following Easter was delightful. A Fourth of July picnic was a gas and he had a special celebration in the planning stages for a second Thanksgiving. He didn’t quite make that second Thanksgiving. However, a close friend of Swindoll’s told him that the last time they talked, this friend had made an appointment to have his teeth fixed. Normally someone who’s dying doesn’t make an appointment to have their teeth fixed, but this man did. He was resting in the sufficiency of God’s grace.
“My grace is sufficient for you,” Paul heard God say to him. What God is telling us is simple, “I am with you and I will give you the strength and tools you need for the task.” “Whatever your need is, I will help you through.” Then God adds, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” Here God’s telling us two things. First, it means that adversity strengthens us for service. We grow by overcoming our weaknesses.
The story is told of a Renaissance artist who made the world’s most prized vases. One day a visitor came to observe his method. After laboring for many weeks with one piece of clay firing it, painting it and baking it, he placed it upon a pedestal for inspection. The visitor sat in awe staring at this thing of unspeakable beauty. But it appeared that the artist wasn’t finished. In a shocking and dramatic moment, the artist lifted the vase above his head and dashed it against the floor, breaking it into a thousand shards. And then, quietly, he reconnected the pieces by painting the edges with a paint of pure gold. Each crack reflected invaluable gold. In the end, this magnificent, but imperfect, piece became the most valued piece in the collection. Some of you know what it is to have your life almost shattered.
With God’s help you picked up the pieces and today you’re stronger than ever. Adversity strengthens us in ways that a life of ease never can. But even more important, it’s the effect that overcoming weakness has on those around us. And here’s another truth for us to remember; the power of God is never more apparent than when a believer is made strong by his or her relationship with God. Anytime we’re confronted with a situation we know we couldn’t handle without God’s help, then our life becomes a living testimony to God’s presence in the world. This is the point Paul is making.
Roy Campanella was the catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. Campanella won the Dodgers’ Most Valued Player award many times and he played on baseball’s All-Star Team and in 1955 his Dodgers won the World Series. In January of ‘58, Campanella’s baseball career was cut short after a car crash left him a quadriplegic. After a tragedy like that, many people would give up on God and life, but not Campanella. After he was injured, he spent a lot of time in the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
One day he stopped to read a gold plaque mounted on one of the walls. This plague resonated deeply with his Christian faith. It read: I asked God for strength, that I might achieve. I was made weak, that I might learn to humbly obey . . . I asked for health that I might do great things. I was given infirmity that I might do better things . . . I asked for riches that I might be happy, I was given poverty that I might be wise . . . I asked for power, that I might have the praise of others. I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God . . . I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life. I was given life that I might enjoy all things . . .” In response to these words Roy Campanella wrote, “I got nothing I asked for, but I received everything that I had hoped for.”
Roy Campanella inspired more people off the field than he ever could have on the field. This is the mistake we often make. We think it’s the perfect athlete who makes the best spokesperson for God . . . the glamorous actor . . . the polished speaker . . . the successful business person. We reason that people want to be just like them, including appropriating their faith. This leads us to think our witness is somehow inferior because we’re not athletic, glamorous, polished or successful. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. The best witness for Jesus is authentic Christian living in the face of daunting adversity. It’s when we allow God to strengthen us and lead us through the rough times, and in all things give God the praise, that people see the power of God made manifest in and through us.
Paul prayed that the thorn might be removed from his flesh. He heard God say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you . . . my power is made perfect in weakness.” That’s all Paul needed, to become one of the most powerful witnesses for God who ever lived. Paul came to realize that we all struggle with one thing or another. But more importantly, he came to understand that when we place our lives in God’s hands and open ourselves up to be used by God, God will use us, and our difficulties, to His glory. God’s message to us today is the same, “My grace is sufficient for you and my power is made perfect in weakness.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when Christ hung on the cross, his head was crowned with thorns. Think about that for a moment. It seems foolish, but then again God’s wisdom always seems foolish to those who don’t know Him. We all experience struggles in life. The question is, how do those struggles affect us? Do we look to God for His help, strength and guidance, or do we simply give up and use excuses for not doing what God has called us to do?
The bumps and bruises of this life compel us to look to and depend on the One, who not only understands our suffering, but shares in our afflictions as well. If we trust God in both our strength and weaknesses, we’ll be amazed at how God will use us to His honor and glory.

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