6th Sunday after Pentecost
July 5, 2015
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
“Answers to Some Tough Questions”
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The text that engages us today is the Second Lesson for today from 2 Corinthians as was previously read.
My dear friends in Christ Jesus,
All of last month I answered questions that you submitted anonymously. I answered questions about the Tower of Babel and Paradise/Hades and Jesus’ post-crucifixion wounds and creation vs. evolution. But those were easy. Know why? Because they were, for the most part, academic. Life has its share of tough questions to answer, and I don’t mean X2 + 3Y3 – ½ Z = 18/23. As Christians there are LIFE questions that we would like to have the answer to using all the information that we have available to us. So, let’s consider some of the significant answers to some of the tough life questions that our text today from 2 Corinthians poses to us, and how they relate to our lives today.
No doubt you are familiar with the passage from 2 Corinthians 12:7 in which St. Paul wrote, “there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” Naturally, the question before us is, “what was this thorn in Paul’s flesh?” Answer…I don’t know, but I bet YOU do. Let me explain.
Both as a student in Seminary and as a pastor, I have examined this text many times and heard theory after theory. Some people think that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” may have been continual temptation to sin, chronic maladies such as eye problems or some form of arthritis (Galatians 4:15), malaria, migraine headaches, epilepsy, or even a speech disability. That being said, as a “scholar” (and I use that term loosely) and interpreter of this text from the Greek, I cannot definitively say what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. In other words, I don’t know…but I bet you have an idea. As one of Paul’s fellow believers and co-workers in the Kingdom of God, you probably have a pretty good idea of what he’s talking about based on your own experience.
Look, Paul’s life was no picnic. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-33 he provides a list of problems that would make any pious martyr blush. Paul wrote, “I have been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea…I have been in danger from rivers, from bandits, from my own countrymen, from Gentiles, in the city, in the country, (and) at sea.” Paul knew what suffering was like…and so do you.
Your problems are different from Paul’s, but they are problems nonetheless. Your life is every bit as hectic and difficult and fast paced and laced with problems. Our lives are no picnic, either. “Thorns in the flesh?” That’s peanuts compared to what we have to deal with on a regular basis. I would imagine that your personal trials and temptations go way beyond the irritation of a literal thorn in the flesh.
Given Paul’s issue – whatever it was – let’s step back and look at this from a broader perspective and ask the age-old question “why do bad things happen to good people?” Why was Paul, who worked tirelessly for God’s Kingdom, afflicted? Let’s remember the primary problem with wondering about why bad things happen to good people. That’s faulty logic. The premise is all wrong. At no time are we ever promised an easy way of life. If someone ever approaches you and promises you a life free of pain and fear, run the other way because they’ll try and sell you something. Just because we believe in Jesus doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen to us.
In fact, we can EXPECT that bad things will happen. Ever since Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden, sin has been a CONSTANT force at work in this fallen world. Bad things happen to everyone…believers and non-believers alike; both “good people” and “bad people” have bad things happen. If you have been born in this world and your name is not Jesus Christ, then you are sinful and therefore subject to the pain and heartache and suffering and “bad things” that result from sin. Of course, the ultimate “bad thing” that could happen to all people is damnation – spending eternity separated from God – and because we are sinful people that is ultimately what is the end result for all sinners. Why do bad things happen to good people? Oh, please! In God’s eyes there is no such thing. In God’s eyes we are all “bad people;” sinners who deserve punishment.
But…that brings us to our next question. Why did God tell Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you?” Why didn’t God answer Paul’s request like Paul wanted? Answer…I don’t know, but again you probably have a pretty good idea. Maybe God doesn’t shout His answers to us in our ears, but He does come to us through His Word with the reminder that His grace is sufficient in all of our life circumstances. It’s like the lame man in Mark 2; his friends wanted his lameness cured, but Jesus forgave his sons instead. Despite our sinfulness and the trouble that comes with it, God’s grace is sufficient in that His grace sent Christ Jesus to bring about the forgiveness of our sins – which is exactly what we all need!
God’s grace makes an eternal difference. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus gives to us – literally hands to us with nail-pierced hands – the forgiveness of our sins. When teaching confirmation, I use the following device to teach what grace means: GRACE = God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. The punishment for our sins is removed by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and God’s riches are truly given to us by God’s grace in and through Christ. And that is sufficient for us all.
In life we don’t have all the answers, and yet the answers can be and are found in Jesus. The apostle Paul wrote more than 1/3 of the New Testament, and his life was FULL of suffering. As the redeemed, blood-bought children of God, we should not expect an answer to “why” there is suffering in this world or in our lives. Instead we believe, teach, and confess – we know – that the answer to our sin problem is Jesus, and that answer compels us in all we do. Not that He will take away all our problems or the myriad of problem around us in the world, but by grace He has taken away the punishment for sin that we deserve. That is the information that we have available to us; the truth with has been revealed in God’s holy Word.
When we live in that sure and certain knowledge, then we, like Paul, can also live the words “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”