Mark 6:1-13, 2 Corinthians 12:1-10
Dear friends in Christ:
The Gospel lesson just read begins with Jesus going back to preach in his home town. Most of us preachers have had the opportunity to do this at some point in our careers. In my case, I remember the sermon I gave going over pretty well. Maybe it was a good sermon. Or, maybe the people were just being polite because they knew I wasn’t coming back the next week!
When Jesus preached in his home town, his sermon didn’t go over very well. The people took offense at him.
Luke, in his Gospel account, tells us why. He explains how Jesus read the words of Isaiah 61 – “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me and has anointed me” – and then claimed that this prophecy was being fulfilled in their hearing. The people found this offensive. They couldn’t imagine this important prophecy being fulfilled by one of their own.
When Mark tells the story, he shares the words Jesus used to evaluate this whole affair. Jesus said: “a prophet is not without honor, except in his home town.”
Jesus’ words have great truth to them. Jesus wasn’t the only prophet to be shunned by his own people. Ezekiel, whose call to prophesy we read about in our first reading, also faced pushback from his people, as did many other of Israel’s prophets.
I suppose there are a few reasons for this phenomenon. People like to think that prophets are different than your average person—that their communication channel with God is the result of their extraordinary life. Those from our home town tend to think of us as ordinary and just like they are.
And then there are the feelings of resentment. A prophet claims to have a message that others need to hear. It’s one thing to hear this message from a newcomer—one whom we can easily dismiss as uninformed, or whom we figure might have some special learning or insight that we don’t have. But it’s a much different thing to hear a message from one who’s had the same vantage point as we have.
Preaching to one’s home town presents a special challenge. Jesus, as we saw, decided not to knock his head against that rock. He simply moved on. There were plenty of other people who needed the message. In time, some of Jesus’ family would come to believe in him—most notably his brother James.
In our second reading today, Paul is prophesying to the Christians of Corinth. Although Corinth was not Paul’s hometown, he still had troubles being accepted there. Paul’s message was very new to people and he often had troubles being accepted as a prophet. This was one of his great challenges.
Paul addresses this challenge with the Corinthians starting in chapter 10. He decides to center his argument around the concept of boasting. He knows that his claim to have a prophetic and authoritative message will come across as boasting to some. But Paul explains that his boasting words are in fact simply a reflection of how excited he is about his message. His boasting is not about himself. It is about Jesus.
Paul speaks about boasting to indicate that he is not ashamed of his message. Christ is worth boasting about.
And, by the use of that word, Paul is also reinforcing his claim to be a prophet among the people. He is Christ’s messenger, called to boast.
By chapter 12, where our text today comes from, Paul is ready to expand his argument. He now uses the idea of boasting to teach about the relationship between strength and weakness.
Boasting normally comes from a place of strength. People boast when they make lots of money. They boast when their team wins. Maybe you’ve noticed that during these days of World Cup play.
Paul explains that he could boast knowing “a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up in the third heaven.” Here Paul is clearly speaking about himself—describing an amazing spiritual vision he had once experienced. This vision of Christ and the heavenly realm was so clear and powerful that Paul wonders if he might have actually gone to the highest heaven in body too, not just spirit.
What Paul really wants to say to the Corinthians, however, is that as much as that vision was a personal high point and an affirmation of his work, he knows not to make it the object of a boast. His only boast is to be about Christ. Christ is the one who is strong. He, Paul, is weak.
Furthermore, Paul explains that weakness for a follower of Jesus is actually something to be desired. It is to be desired because weakness allows the believer to see Christ’s power at work in and through His people. To illustrate this point, Paul tells about a thorn he was given in his flesh.
As you may know, the thorn in the flesh is one of Paul’s most well-known and enduring images. Much speculation has taken place about what Paul might be referring to here. We get the idea that it might not be a literal thorn, but rather some other kind of problem he faced. Was it opposition to his message? Was it some temptation to which he was particularly susceptible? Was it a physical problem such as poor eyesight or a stutter? We don’t know. Maybe it was a literal thorn. By not telling us, Paul makes the illustration even more effective, for the mystery gets us thinking and leads us to better relate.
What we do know about Paul’s thorn in the flesh is that it bothered him. It bothered him enough that he prayed three times for God to take it away.
When God chose not to take the thorn away, Paul concluded that it must then serve the purpose of reminding him of his weakness. This reminder was important, for it would then lead him to seek God’s strength instead.
Think about this. Certainly, God knows that if everything went right in our lives we’d forget that we even need him. If we never faced struggles of any kind, we’d begin to think we could make it all on our own. Thorns in the flesh remind us that life is not as good as it should be and that we can’t always do something about it.
There’s a part of us that loves the challenge of a good thorn and the satisfaction that comes from overcoming it. We can feel pretty good about ourselves when we’ve toughed out a thorn or come up with our own solution for relief. That’s fine. But some challenges cannot be overcome with toughness. And some thorns are too deeply embedded to take care of on our own.
In particular, we think of the thorn of human sinfulness. No amount of needle and tweezer digging can remove this thorn. And no amount of self-discipline or enlightenment can keep us from being affected by it. We’re stuck with our sin and the frustration that accompanies it.
Sin is the ultimate sign of weakness. We strive to hold it down but we’re never able to master it. Eventually we lash out against our neighbor in anger or give in to temptations of the flesh. St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans (7:18): “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”
Paul’s admission must be ours too. We are sinful by nature and cannot free ourselves from that condition. This thorn of sin causes big problems. It leads us to the conscious choosing of sin, and that makes us rebels in the sight of God, as pointed out to us in our first reading today.
But our gracious and loving God did not leave us to face this thorn in the flesh on our own. In his mercy, he sent his only Son, who put on our weak human form to make the payment demanded for sin—payment given when he went to the cross.
God in his essence is eternal, invincible and immortal. Death can’t touch God. But when he chose to humble himself and become man, he made himself vulnerable. Jesus, born of woman, became mortal. And that meant he became weak—weak enough to die.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions how the world of his day saw the cross as a sign of weakness. It was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” That sentiment is still common in our age too.
But Paul responds that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” He can say this because he knows that Jesus, by humbling himself to death – even death on a cross, accomplished what no man could ever do—Jesus paid for the sins of the world. Through this act of so-called weakness, exemplified by a crown of thorns, God’s power was indeed made perfect.
To prove to us that this was indeed an act of perfect power, Jesus rose from the dead in glory three days later. Easter is the sign for us that death has been defeated and our salvation complete.
The death and resurrection of Christ Jesus makes all the difference for us, because one day, unless Christ comes first, we will all face the assault on our flesh that is greater than any thorn—that of our death.
In Christ, however, our death is transformed from a time of weakness to a time of perfect power. Then we will truly be able to say with the great prophet Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
And even now, before that time of great transformation, we can celebrate the transformation that comes from living by faith—or as Paul says it, knowing how to be content. With him we can say… and even boast: “For the sake of Christ, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.”
Which should lead us to consider: is there a thorn in your flesh that is bothering you right now? If there is, is it physical pain? Is it an anxiety or fear? Is it a relationship that is draining, threatening or challenging? Is it a temptation? Is it dealing with the people of your home town or family?
Whatever the thorn is, the thing to do once you identify it is to pray. Perhaps God will take away the pain or threat that comes from that thorn. He often does. Or, perhaps the thorn will remain for a while to simply be a reminder of your weakness.
In either case, prayer will lead us to hear the voice of God speaking to our need. Notice that through his time of prayer, Paul concludes that God spoke to him very directly, giving him a beautiful and specific promise. Paul doesn’t convey the promise to us as his own conclusion, but rather as the very words of God spoken to him. Those words are: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
God spoke these words to Paul, and He speaks them also to you. So, hear them again, as if from God himself, as a way to conclude this sermon. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.