"Being Real"

II CORINTHIANS 12:1-10

 

Jul 20, 2014

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            A star-struck concert promoter booked country music star Merle Haggard.  This promoter made no secret of the fact that his biggest ambition in life was to introduce Merle at a concert.  He was so persistent in his request to perform this act of introducing Merle that Haggard's manager finally agreed to the request. 

            The manager, however, gave the promoter clear instructions.  He said, "We don't want you up there ad-libbing a fancy introduction, understand?  All you say is "Ladies and gentlemen, here he is - the poet of the common man - Merle Haggard!'  You got that?  That's all you say!  The poet of the common man - Merle Haggard!"

            The promoter assured the manager that he understood exactly what he was supposed to do, but when it came time to bring Merle on stage the promoter got excited and forgot about the line, "the poet of the common man."  Instead, he exclaimed: "Ladies and gentlemen!  Here he is, Merle Haggard - the poor and common man."[1]

            Few people want to be thought of as common.  We want to be one of a kind.  We want to be like the citizens of Garrison Keillor's fictional town of Lake Wobegon, "Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."  We smile when we see polls that show that eighty per cent of the male gender rate themselves as above average athletically, because we know that nobody, especially men and their male egos, want to be thought of as below average.  We want to be above average in something, be it cooking or crossword puzzles or looks or intelligence.

            If anyone had the right to claim "above average" status, it would have been the apostle Paul.  Paul was an incredibly intelligent man.  He was persuasive, a man who could communicate powerfully with his voice or his pen.  After his conversion, he became the most influential Christian evangelist in history.  God gave entrusted him with miraculous powers.  In the Book of Acts Luke reports,  God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them (Acts 19:11-12). 

            If television had been around in Paul's time, he could have been the best televangelist of his day.  If he had a good business manager, he could have made big bucks selling  handkerchiefs and aprons.  Paul, however, did not take advantage of that opportunity.  You and I say, "Way to go, Paul.  We don't like those televised religious hucksters, anyway."  Surprisingly, though, Paul was criticized in the church at Corinth for being humble, for not being flashy enough.

            If you pastor long enough, as I have, you run into that church, the church that gave you fits.  The church that wore you out.  The church that makes you shake your head and ask, "Why did I choose this line of work?"  I won't mention which church that was for me, but let me tell you, I had it.  For Paul it was First Church Corinth.  It was his most successful church in terms of pure numbers, but it was also it housed a number of his critics.

            In our passage for today, Paul responds to some of those critics.  They had suggested that if Paul were really from God, he would brag about his visions and miraculous powers and special status with God.  If he were really a man from God, he would have healed himself of that thorn in his flesh.  If he were truly God's man, he'd be tooting his own horn, turning a profit, not having to supplement his income as a tentmaker.  If you were truly a man of God,you wouldn't be such a "poor and common" man.  Let's read his response to that particular criticism.  II Corinthians 12 beginning with the first verse. 

 

            It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 

 

            That is to say, "OK, I'll talk about these things you have been criticizing me about.  I'll talk about special visions and revelations that have come from God.

 

            I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heavenwhether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.  And I know that such a personwhether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.  On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.  But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth.  But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. 

 

            To a person, biblical scholars say Paul is speaking of himself here.  He, himself, is "the person in Christ" whom he knows.  This very personal and very powerful mystical experience happened fourteen years earlier during a period about which we know next to nothing about Paul's life.  This third heaven experience happened during the twelve year "cooling your jets period" between his conversion and his going out on his first missionary journey.

            And, note, a couple of things.  First, his reference to the "third heaven."  Jews of Paul's day commonly believed in three levels of heaven so he had to pass through the other two to get to this level.  So he was way up there, close to God.  Second, he was very reluctant to talk about it.  Probably for a couple of reasons.  Primarily, because God instructed him told not to mention the details.  In his own words, "he heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat."  This differs from a couple other visions Paul had, which he gladly repeated.  He had the vision of Christ on the Damascus Road.  He had a vision of a man who told him "to come over to Macedonia."  Those he gladly talked about.  The other reason he was reluctant to talk about was the event was not central to advancing the Kingdom of God.  It might have been important to Paul, but unlike the "spiritual exhibitionists" in First Church Corinth he had no need to share his experience with others.

            Nevertheless, after being pressed by his critics he makes the point that his critics were not the only one who had such a splashy, mystical experience.  He did as well.  He's just not trying to cash in on it as they were.  Let's continue on.

 

            Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.  So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

 

            It seems there is no coincidence to the thorn of the flesh coming on the heels of the extraordinary mystical experience of God.  Paul says that Old Redlegs gave it to Paul to bring him down a notch.  So, in Paul's eyes the two things, the vision and the thorn are related to one another, and just as we don't know much about what exactly took place in Paul's third heaven mystical experience, we also do not know much about the thorn in the flesh.  That has not stopped people from speculating what it might be.  Most Protestants tend to think of it as a physical problem such as bouts with epilepsy or malaria or my personal choice, failing eyesight.  I favor that because in his Letter to the Galatians he says the Galatians were willing to "pluck out their eyes for him," but even that is a guess.  Most Catholics, on the other hand, think it was mental or spiritual or sexual in nature, possibly a nagging doubt or persistent sexual temptation.  Still others believe it was a bad marriage.  But all of this is pure speculation.  We do not really know what it was. 

            What he does say about his thorn in the flesh, however, comes as a surprise.  Let me read that again.

 

            Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.  So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

 

            In May, while in Kauai, on the deck of our condo, I had one of those "ha-ha" moments.  It was one of those "only from God" insights that comes along once in a while.  Let me set the scene.  Trudy, had been down at the beach, doing what she had done the past couple of years.  Her friend Brenda died nearly three years ago, and we spread part of her ashes in the surf ... don't tell anyone in Hawaii because I'm not sure how legal that is ... and after that Trudy gets flowers and tosses them in the water, always the first morning we are there.  You see, we took Randy and Brenda there while she was battling cancer.  She had always wanted to see Hawaii and we had a great time together.  It was one of our special memories of Brenda, how much she  enjoyed the trip and the island of Kauai.

            Well, what often happens with Trudy, she slipped on a rock and fell in the process of tossing the flowers in the surf.  She ripped a toenail off her foot, and she was embarrassed and beating herself up for being so clumsy, which she can be, and then God gave me the words.  I said, "I find your clumsiness endearing."  We reframed what she saw as a negative into a positive. 

            That's what God did for Paul.  God helped Paul reframe his thorn in the flesh.  God said to Paul, "Don't think of it as a negative.  Think of it as a positive, because my power is made perfect in your weakness, Paul."  And Paul got the message.  He said, "Therefore I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong."

            We want to do the same here.  We want to reframe "weakness."  It's in our Vision Statement.  Do you see it there?  "We will create an atmosphere where needs can be shared without judgment.  We will be known for the way we bear one another's burdens."

            To tell you the truth, I don't want to be in a church where you have to have it altogether.  I don't want to be in a church where I have to wear a mask.  I want to be in a church who loves me for who I am, not for who I'm pretending to be.  I want to be in a church when during prayer time, when we are asking for prayer requests that people have the freedom to share personally, and not just about people who need prayers for healing.  I want to pray for people who are traveling or battling cancer, but I want to be in a church where people say during the prayer time, "I need prayers for my battle for depression.  It seems I'm losing the battle today."  I want to be in a church where someone says, "I need prayers for my relationship with my daughter.  We aren't getting along all that well."  I want to be in a church where someone says, "I need prayers because my job is sucking the life out of me.  I need an attitude adjustment, and I need it now."  I want to be in a church that says, "I really need to forgive myself.  I blew it with my wife, and she's forgiven me but I have difficulty forgiving myself." 

            In other words, I want to be in a church where weakness is reframed.  Where it's OK to bring our real selves and not who we think others want us to be.  I want us to realize that all of us are the walking wounded.  And I want us to receive one another without judgment, and I want us to help each other out, bearing one another's burdens when our faith seems to be slipping.  I want to be in a church that knows what the Apostle Paul is talking about when he says, "God's power is made perfect in weakness."

            Can we be that kind of church?



[1] "Whisperin" Bill Anderson, I Hope You're Living As High On The Hog As The Pig You Turned Out To Be (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 34.