Midweek 4 – 2019 LSB #’s 433, 722, 709
Text – 2 Corinthians 12:9
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
GOD’S WILL & MY SUFFERING
Five people sit on the floor in a semi-circle. It’s dark & they’re in an upstairs room of an abandoned house in Crestwood, Missouri. They’ve come to hear one woman speak & are mesmerized by her story. Week after week, they return for an hour as she tells them about her near death experiences. She has died & been brought back to life – again & again.
That is the basic premise of a 2016 drama released on Netflix, but you don’t need to turn to fiction for stories of near death experiences. Tune in to Afterlife TV where Bob Olson, former private investigator, now conducts interviews with those who have had near death experiences. He calls himself an Afterlife investigator who seeks to weed out the facts from the fiction.
If this all seems strange, like something that only happens out there in the world, don’t forget that the church herself has published stories of those who’ve returned from experiences of life after death. In July 2010, you had The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. It was the story of Alex Malarkey who visited heaven after a tragic automobile accident.
Four months later, you had Heaven Is for Real, the story of Colton Burpo, who visited heaven when he came close to death during an appendicitis operation. There he met his great-grandfather & an older sister he never knew about. Whereas Alex Malarkey later recanted his story, Colton Burpo’s story was made into a major motion picture.
Whether it’s fiction or factual investigation, whether it’s the culture or the church, there has always been an interest in the afterlife. People are wondering if heaven is for real. The reason I bring this up is that it helps us understand what’s so amazing about the text from the apostle Paul. As Christians, we are familiar with Paul’s words about his thorn in the flesh: “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me . . . three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me, but He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” We are familiar with these words, but we are not always familiar with their context.
When you hear these words in their context, you can’t help but be amazed at the spiritual wisdom of the apostle Paul. He had an amazing story to tell. It was not a near death experience yet Paul had visited heaven; to be more specific, “the 3rd heaven” – the place where God dwells.
Fourteen years before he wrote this letter, Paul was taken into the heavenly realms. Whether it happened in his body or out of his body, he’s not sure. What he does know is that he was taken up into “Paradise” & heard things from God.
We are also familiar with Paul’s Damascus road experience, the moment when Jesus appeared to him & brought about his conversion. Paul frequently refers to that when asked about his apostleship. But, after his conversion on the Damascus road & before his 1st missionary journey, Paul had another experience – this experience of heaven.
Before Paul made any travels as a missionary in the world, he travelled to paradise to be with the Lord. Paul, indeed had an amazing story to tell, & he had a good reason to tell it. The Corinthians were troubled by false teachers – super apostles – apostles “beyond measure.” These were false teachers, preaching a different Jesus, a different spirit, a different gospel.
They boasted in their visions. In fact, they used their visions & their extraordinary experiences as proof that they were indeed sent by God.
That gave Paul the perfect opportunity to tell about his vision, about his experience of heaven, about the time when God took him into Paradise & spoke directly to him. Paul has the perfect experience to point to. He had been to heaven, in the presence of God, heard his voice, been told mysteries, & he could reveal exactly what it was really like. But, even though Paul had an amazing story to tell & had a good reason to tell it, he chose not to talk about heaven. Instead, Paul talks about earth, about his thorn in the flesh. Imagine that!
That would be like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon & then going into a 5th grade science class & talking about the rocks in his backyard. It would be like going to the Grand Canyon & spending the day taking pictures of the trash in the dumpsters. It doesn’t make sense.
You’ve had this amazing experience of the heavenly realms & you want to talk about your earthly struggles? Why? Could it be that Paul knows something? Well... he knows someone – Jesus, the crucified Lord. By dying on the cross, Jesus experiences sin’s punishment & removes it from us. By lying in the grave, Jesus experiences death & delivers us from it.
By rising from the dead, Jesus defeats Satan & brings life to His people – life that cannot be defeated – though sin, death & the devil do the worst they can do to us. In Christ, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, but that power to protect us is made known in our weakness.
For that reason, we see God not when we stare at the light but when we gaze into the darkness. At a conference on Theology & the Arts, a woman made this visible. She was painting Psalm 23, but it didn’t look like Psalm 23.
As you glanced at the canvas, you couldn’t see a shepherd & you couldn’t see sheep. There were no green pastures & no still waters. Instead, on a large canvas, before an audience, the artist was painting with harsh strokes of black paint. On one side was a mountain – dark & foreboding. On the other side was another mountain – darker & more foreboding still.
In between the two mountains was a very small pass &, in that place, was standing the figure of a very small child. It was a child abandoned in the darkness. It was difficult to keep looking. But, as you did, you began to see that the child was not alone. Within the dark figure of the mountain, what formerly had looked like ledges, now appeared to be a hand leading the child. And what had previously looked like a rock formation jutting into the sky began to look like the curve of a shepherd’s crook.
In the darkness of this valley of the shadow of death, a figure appeared – a shepherd leading a child. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me. Your rod & your staff, they comfort me.” That was the verse the artist was focusing on. After painting, the artist talked about her work.
She said, “Psalm 23 was one of my favorites. But I was always struck by what I thought did not belong in that psalm. You start with such a wonderful vision of green pastures & peaceful waters. Then you come across the valley of the shadow of death. ‘Why does that have to be in there?’ I asked myself. I wanted to just take that part out of the psalm.”
“But then, one day, I noticed something. When you read the psalm, you start out with a shepherd & sheep. When you get to that part of the psalm – when you get to the valley of the shadow of death – suddenly, this shepherd is talked about in a personal way. Psalm 23 does not say, ‘I will fear no evil for the shepherd is with me.’ No, it says, ‘for You are with me.’”
“Suddenly this shepherd is ‘You.’ God becomes personal in the midst of suffering. That’s what it’s like in the psalm & that’s what it has been like in my life.” Can you see what the apostle Paul is teaching us today? God makes His strength known in weakness. God’s power is perfected in weakness. His power comes to its fulfillment there.
You see, God’s power is not for Himself alone. It is a power used in love for the sake of His people. When you reach that point where there’s nothing left to hold on to, then you can realize there is someone holding on to you. For this reason, Paul refuses to talk about his glorious visions & focuses instead on his gracious experience of God who works in the midst of suffering. Rather than inviting us to contemplate the rich realm of paradise that he saw in his vision, Paul asks us to see the wonderful realm of grace that he constantly experiences in daily life especially in this world.
The God of all things offered Himself in love for His people, rose from the dead & now rules, coming again & again into our daily lives to make His wonderful love known there. Just as Jesus reveals Himself to His disciples by showing them His wounds, He continues to reveal Himself to His people today in places of weakness & suffering where His love is at work.
A pastor once had the privilege of seeing God at work when visiting a couple from his congregation. Harold & Esther were in their late eighties. Harold was hard of hearing, suffering from early signs of dementia, & Esther was facing congestive heart failure. Their future was precarious to say the least.
Esther was in bed with the flu when the pastor came to visit. After he prayed with the couple, Harold wanted to take Esther’s temperature to see if she was any better. Esther smiled at the pastor as Harold walked out of the room. Evidently, this was a repeated ritual of his. After he put the thermometer in her mouth, they sat & waited.
The pastor heard the thermometer beep but saw that Harold wasn’t taking action. Esther then reached up & touched her husband’s sleeve. She pointed to the thermometer. So Harold nodded & took it out. While he was reading her temperature, Esther looked at the pastor with a smile & said, “He’s hard of hearing.”
The pastor realized that he’d just been privileged to see one small glimpse of the power of God. No, it was not like seeing a sudden deliverance from death or an amazing rescue by helicopter from flooded waters. It was just two elderly people, caring for one another, as best as they knew how, in the normal routine of daily life. But that is the place where the Shepherd comes. Our Creator knows the life span of sparrows, numbers the hairs of our head, & sees something as small as Esther’s flu with Harold’s feeble care. The Lord of the universe was at work in the lives of Esther & Harold.
As the pastor left that visit, he marveled at the strength of God as it was present in the midst of their weakness. They’d been married for over 60 years: “For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness & in health.” They were approaching the moment when death would part them. Yet, there was a strength present that was a gift from God.
God was working through His gift of marriage. He had made them one, so that they knew each other’s weaknesses. The way in which they cared for one another, accommodating for & working through their weaknesses, taught the pastor the beauty of God’s gift of marriage. God’s power was indeed being perfected in the midst of this weakness.
God makes His strength known in weakness. He did it for Paul. He did it for the artist. He did it for Harold & Esther. He does it for you.
Our world is interested in near death experiences. They believe that in focusing on what happened after an experience of death, they’ll gain a glimpse into the ways & the wisdom of God. The apostle Paul encourages us not to be interested in near death experience, but rather to keep one death experience near – the death of Jesus.
Through His death & resurrection, we are brought into the wonder of the kingdom of God. And so, during Lent, we come to remember the passion of our Lord. Here, we see God’s strength in the midst of weakness; hope in the midst of heartache; help in the midst of despair.
Here, we receive once again the assurance of God’s love & the knowledge that no matter how great our needs, no matter how strong our suffering, God’s grace is greater, & God’s love is
stronger. For God makes His strength known in our weakness. Amen.
Lord, when the tempest rages, I need not fear, for You, the Rock of ages, are always near. Close by Your side abiding, I fear no foe, for when Your hand is guiding, in peace I go. Amen. LSB 722:2.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet