Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 9)

Text: 2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a
I was given a painful physical ailment, which acts as Satan's messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud. Three times I prayed to the Lord about this and asked him to take it away. But his answer was: "My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak."

Strength in weakness

“I think that suffering makes belief in God impossible,” an atheist thundered at the group of people, some Christians and some non-Christians.  The room went silent as the impact of this statement sank in, that is until a small voice came from one of the corners of the room, “I was a prisoner of war, when I was young.  I saw a lot of suffering in the camps.”

Suddenly the whole group was plunged into feelings and emotions of the suffering of another person.  This was going to be more than an intellectual debate using logic, argumentation and reason to talk about suffering and belief in God.  The revelation of the voice in the corner talked about extreme personal experiences and every listener began to see suffering and deep pain in a different way.  The voice continued, “I saw brutal things done to people.  I watched all my family suffer.  I suffered a lot of things myself.” 

The facilitator of the discussion group reflected, “It must have been terrible”.

“No, that’s not what I want to say,” the voice from the back of the room said.  “I don’t want your sympathy.  I want to tell you of what suffering taught me about God.”

“I just want this man here,” with a finger pointing at the atheist, “to understand what suffering does to you.  It did not bring me to atheism but to God.  For when you are absolutely helpless like that there is no one else to turn to.  I would be just like you, proud and full of my own competence, except I had to live for those years seeing the horrors of evil, and depending on God for survival.  People did not give up on God in the camps – many of us found him there.” (1)

I don’t know how this dialogue event concluded but we can see that suffering and pain can be talked about in an objective intellectual manner, but it doesn’t take long for the conversation to become personal.  That’s simply because all of us have been subjected to pain at some time in the past or perhaps are enduring it right now.  Some people might have a story like the person at this dialogue event, for others the suffering might be just as gruelling, but the story that goes with it much more ordinary. 

It makes no difference – without a doubt we readily complain that the pain we are experiencing is unwanted and undeserved.  You may have spoken the question or heard others ask, “What have I done to deserve this?”  When they say that most people think of some personal thing they might have done to bring suffering down on them. 

But suffering has a much longer history than you or I – it goes right back to the first people, Adam and Eve.  Suffering is a sign of the brokenness in our world and in our own bodies because of the brokenness of our relationship with God.

We know the story and history of suffering and pain.  We can look across the centuries and see how people have suffered through war, plague, famine and natural disasters, and we can be quite distant and unaffected by the horror of it all.  Perhaps these days with so much of it on our screens we can become insensitive to suffering.  We see a report of people killed in a car accident and barely give it another thought as the news moves on to something else.  In reality, behind that one-minute report people are really hurting. 

Today’s reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about his own suffering.  Paul talked about suffering in other places in his letters – he suffered in prison, was beaten and stoned, went hungry or thirsty, was mistreated and humiliated because he spoke the gospel in places where it wasn’t appreciated.  Suffering caused by other people went along with the job of being a faithful disciple, preacher and follower of Jesus and in the end, Paul always came back to the point that he could only endure all these things because it was Christ who gave him the strength and power to endure whatever came his way. 

But the suffering Paul talks about in the reading today has not been inflicted by another person as in the case of his many other pain-filled occasions.  This was some kind of personal affliction and it was serious enough to really bother Paul. 

He understands why this affliction had come his way.  He realised that he was as human as any other person.  He was a man with a strong will and a brilliant intellect.  He was a fine student of the Scriptures and zealous preacher of the gospel.  What is more, he had been given special visions and revelations and heard things that human lips could not repeat.  All this could have easily gone to his head.  He could have easily out-bragged any of the other super apostles who were causing trouble in Corinth at the time.  He readily admits – his “thorn in the flesh” was “to keep me from becoming conceited...” or “puffed up with pride”. 

Paul reacted to this affliction, pain or whatever it is in much the same way as we do, it’s a distraction.  It’s too much; he doesn’t want it.  So he prayed, not once, not twice, but three times, that this troublesome problem might be taken away.  Despite his persistent praying, Paul soon discovered that he was not going to get the answer that he wanted.  He will have to live with his suffering and work with it. 

Have you ever wondered why God is so seemingly random in the way he answers our prayers?  Surely, he could have given Paul a break.  Surely, he could give us a break and ease our burden of suffering when he hears our persistent and sincere prayers.

An example. 
One couple pray desperately that their teenage child, seriously injured in a car accident, will survive and recover fully, and their prayer is answered with healing. 
Another couple, in the exact same situation, offers up the same prayer, and their child does not recover. 
Why?

How can we explain this?  Some try and comfort the sufferer saying that this is the will of God. 
We know that we can’t fully know the mind of God, but we can try to understand as much as we can.  So we might diligently search the Scriptures and conclude that God never wills any harm on his children but permits certain things to happen, as in the case of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”. 
We might conclude that pain and suffering are absolutely
not a part of God's will, but simply a painful consequence of the fallen world we live in and the fallen people that we are. 
All this discussion about what is and what isn’t the will of God is fine, but in the moment of my depression or pain or grief, I simply don’t care
.

When it's me whose child, or spouse has died; and when it’s you who has suddenly landed in hospital with some kind of scary disease, whether it’s God’s will or whether God has permitted it to happen it doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t take away the pain and it doesn’t answer the question “why” -
“Why has this happened to me?”
“Why can’t God answer my prayer like he answers the prayers of others.” 
If I become disabled or have long drawn out painful recovery, it doesn’t help ease the pain to know that it’s God’s will that this happened, in fact it only intensifies the questioning,
“How can a loving God, will this kind of thing?”

In his pain, someone may have reminded Paul of his own words “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).  I can accept that down the track when I look back on the events of my life, I will be able to see how God has used this time of suffering to bring me blessing, but right now, I am hurting so badly.  God’s lack of response baffles me.

There is another aspect to praying in times like these.  An example might help us here.  Ken and Dulcie were farmers and I spent many of my school holidays on their sheep and grain farm.  Now Dulcie was dying with a brain tumour.  All attempts to beat the disease had failed and Dulcie’s health was declining, and her awake moments were fewer.  Ken prayed constantly for healing.  He persistently asked for a miracle of healing.  The delicate moment came when it was time to suggest that it was time to think of his dear wife’s perfect healing being accomplished not in this life but in heaven and to ask their heavenly Father and Saviour to give them the strength to face the future. 

For Ken and Dulcie, for us and for Paul, God’s answer in times of inexplicable suffering and tragedy is all we need, “My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak.”  This means that God freely extends his favour and love and help toward us in every time and every situation.  It means that even though I don’t understand what is happening in my life and things seem so out of control, and I am so down and out, God’s power is ever so strong and will kick in when I need it the most.  When I don’t have any strength left, he gives me the strength I need to see this thing through.  Or as Paul indicates, “When I am the weakest, God’s power is the greatest because of his intense love for me” (2 Cor 12:10b).

God’s grace enables us to say, “If it be your will, God, let there be healing, and recovery, let your grace provide a miracle – but if not, God, then let your grace provide comfort and keep me going until that perfect healing in my heavenly home.  I can see this through, not by my own power, but by the strength that God gives me.” 

At times when God's will for us is beyond our comprehension, at times when it's beyond our ability to understand why certain events have disrupted our lives and what “good” might come out of our suffering; it might be just the time to let those events lead us back to the grace of God.  Like the person who spoke up in the dialogue session I mentioned at the beginning – suffering enabled many people to find God again.  For us it means being embraced by the love of God as he leads us through trial and suffering.

In the middle of affliction, sometimes it’s not always easy to see the love of God, but even though we might not appreciate it or feel it at the time, we are always assured that God’s sustaining and strengthening grace surrounds those whom he loves.  He promises, “My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak.” 

 (1)    Australian Stories for the Soul, 2001, Strand Publishing. Story by Philip Jensen.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

8th July, 2018

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