II Corinthians 12:1-10
ďThrills and ThornsĒ
July 5, 2009 - Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
†††††††† ďDo what I tell you and you will catch the fish of a lifetime.Ē So said the guy I met just outside Toronto in a fly shop. My daughters and I were buying licenses for our fishing trip the next day. I did what he said. I went out late that evening and crossed the river at the right place, followed the left hand fork upstream, waded across the gravel bar, and stood by the dead tree looking at the pool with a log sticking up out of it. I tied on the fly he sold me and waited patiently until 9 p.m., just as he ordered.
†††††††† And it happened. At 9:03 I saw this huge pig of a trout begin to sip flies off the surface in shallow water. It took three casts to get my fly to drift over him just right, but then, bam! He took it and was off. My reel sang as he stripped out line running upstream. For about two minutes I had the thrill of fighting the biggest trout Iíd ever hooked.
†††††††† Now you might think that Iím using the pulpit here as forum for fish bragging. But I canít really brag about that trout and hereís why. After the thrill came the let-down. Not used to playing such a big fish, I stupidly let him turn downstream and use the power of the river against me. After all the excitement, instead of a prize fish in my net and a nice photo, there was the heart-breaking bump of my line going slack as that clever creature broke me off. I lost him. The disappointment was like a knife in the gutÖ or a ďthorn in the flesh.Ē
†††††††† In our text for today, Paul describes what was for him the spiritual thrill of a lifetime. Though he oddly talks about it mostly in the third person, itís clear by verses 6 and 7 that heís telling a story about his own experience. Heís trying to give a modest, self-effacing answer to his critics in Corinth who have their own spiritual fish stories. As verse 1 implies, heís talking about it because they brought up the topic, the topic of ďvisions and revelations.Ē They thought their visions were better, that they were spiritually more intense than what anyone else might have. So what could a piker like Paul teach them?
†††††††† Paul reluctantly put the Corinthians in their place by talking about his own most profound spiritual experience. Itís so deeply personal and he is so humble about it that in verse 2 he at first speaks as if it happened to someone else. ďI know a man,Ē he says, ďwho fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.Ē
†††††††† As verse 4 tells, words failed him. And they will fail us if we try to figure out what this all means. Paul himself didnít even know if it happened to him in or out of the body. The third heaven seems to be the highest spiritual realm, ďparadise,Ē as he also calls it. All we can be sure of is that he was in the very presence of God and that he heard awesome things, things, he says, that he was not even permitted to tell. But heís not going to brag about this vision, even though if he did, says verse 6, it would be true. Heís not going to brag, Paul writes in verse 5, about anything except his weakness.
†††††††† In a much bigger way than my lost fish, there was a let-down after Paulís great moment. After the thrill came the thorn. So we read these famous words in verse 7, ďTherefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.Ē After being lifted up to the highest heaven, the faithful apostle was brought down to earth with something like the pain of a needle buried deeply in a tender part of his skin. And it wouldnít go away.
†††††††† Talk about spiritual disappointment. Verse 8 records that Paul did not get his prayer for healing or help answered. Not just once, but three times God ignored his request for the removal of this ďthorn.Ē He pleaded with the Lord, he says. But no. That thorn had barbs like a fishhook. It wasnít coming out.
†††††††† We donít know exactly what Paul suffered. Over the centuries there has been speculation after speculation about what tormented him. Some say it was spiritual torment, that he experienced horrible doubts and uncertainty about his faith or his mission. Others propose that because he was not married he battled sexual temptation. On a more physical level, epilepsy has been suggested, seizures that would catch hold of him and throw him to the ground as on the Damascus road. Plain exhaustion and weariness is another possibility.
†††††††† Itís called a ďmessenger of Satan,Ē so a few have identified Paulís thorn as human opposition to his ministry. Other ideas include suffering from what we call clinical depression, trying to fight off waves of black despair. Because of his travels in warm climates, maybe it was malaria, a chronic, debilitating disease not as treatable in ancient times as it is today.
†††††††† Perhaps the oldest identification of Paulís ďthorn in the fleshĒ is as blinding, painful headaches, maybe what we know as migraines. They could be connected with another notion that he suffered from poor eyesight. Perhaps the eyestrain of reading and writing the Scriptures contributed to the pain in his head.
†††††††† In the end, we just donít know. And itís better that way. Each of us can identify a bit with Paulís thorn. We canít just write off what he felt as something different from what we feel. And we can each also receive from the Lord the same blessed answer that he received in verse 9. Jesus told him, ďMy grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.Ē
†††††††† Thatís what we want to hold to in Christian life. Itís not the great spiritual high times that are going to get us through, as wonderful as those might be. Itís not services of worship that have us weeping with joy and ecstasy. Itís not profound biblical insights received through intense study. Itís not even a miraculous moment of healing or a vision of heavenly realities. Itís the grace of Jesus Christ, the grace of forgiveness and love poured out for us by His death on the Cross and His resurrection from the dead. Awesome spiritual experience is not sufficient. Only the grace of Jesus is sufficient.
†††††††† Iíd like you to remember the sole sufficiency of grace this morning, because some of you are headed soon for spiritual highs. Nine of you will leave for CHIC this Saturday. Youíre going to be caught up in high-intensity, spirit-lifting worship services with incredible music leaders. Youíre going to hear speakers that will make you more excited about Jesus than ever before. Youíre going to join in Christian service and giving to the needy like youíve never seen till now. And I think you will also go off for some moments alone with God that will feel deeper than anything youíve yet known. Just like Paul, youíre going to have the thrills.
†††††††† Then youíre going to come home and feel the thorn. It may just be physical exhaustion from staying up late and being constantly active. You may get sick the week after CHIC. It might be some disappointment in yourself, that you canít maintain the high with God that you felt there in Tennessee. Or it might be disappointment here, with your church, as you find that singing a few old praise songs and a couple boring hymns and listening to the same old pastor just doesnít measure up to the pulse-pounding experience of jumping up and down and clapping your hands in an arena with 5,000 other teenagers. However it happens, the thorn will stab you. You will feel let down. And thatís when itís time to remember what Jesus told Paul. His grace is sufficient. Itís sufficient for you. Itís enough that Jesus died and rose and that He loves and forgives you. Even when you feel let-down. Even when youíre hurting. Even when youíre depressed. His grace is sufficient, totally sufficient.
†††††††† Some of you need to receive this word today because youíre going to be married this month. In just a couple weeks or so, you will stand at one of the spiritual highpoints of your life as you join your lives together. Youíre going to be surrounded by love and good wishes. Youíre going to feel so close to the one you love that you canít imagine being more happy. Youíre going to find God blessing you with awesome joy and incredible love. Itís going to seem like heaven.
†††††††† Then in a little while, maybe days, maybe weeks, youíre going to come down and feel a thorn or two, maybe small, but it will be there. It might be the pangs of being apart from family in a new and deeper way. It might be the realities of trying to make ends meet as you encounter unexpected expenses together. You may find yourself a bit lonely as your relationships with friends inevitably change. It could be as simple as having to sleep with someone who snores or wake up with a person you discover isnít all that nice in the morning before a cup of coffee. Itís then that you need to go back, not to the joyful experience of your wedding day, but to the sufficiency of the grace that is working in both of you. Itís the grace of Jesus that will carry you through a whole life together, not a twenty or thirty minute wedding ceremony, no matter how thrilling it is.
†††††††† So hereís the spiritual rule for today: After the thrill comes the thorn. God plans it that way. He sent Paulís thorn to him. He sent the thorn to keep him from becoming conceited, to keep him from imagining that he had arrived at the highest spiritual level already, to keep him from thinking that he didnít need to rely on Christ. Thrill then thorn. God lifts up and then brings down. He makes us weak so that we must depend on his strength. And then the incredible, wonderful, blessed truth is that in our weakness, relying on Jesus, we find real strength.
†††††††† Thorns hurt. Believe me, we have enough rose bushes in our backyard that I know how much a literal thorn hurts. Spiritual thorns are worse, much worse. Iíve felt some over the years. My heart goes out to each one of you who feels the sharp stab of one today. Yet you have this word from Paul, this word from God. As hard as it seems, as painful as it feels, your thorn is a reason to be glad. Paul said in verse 9, ďI will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christís power may rest on me.Ē Your thorn is only there to press you closer to Jesus. As you draw nearer and nearer to Christ, trusting in the sufficiency of His grace rather than in your own strength, you will find yourself being able to say with Paul, ďFor when I am weak, then I am strong.Ē
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj