“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3, EHV)
Therefore, to keep me from becoming arrogant due to the extraordinary nature of these revelations, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me, so that I would not become arrogant. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that he would take it away from me 9 And he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, because my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will be glad to boast all the more in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may shelter me. 10 That is why I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For whenever I am weak, then am I strong. (EHV)
Now that Pastor Strutz has announced his decision to stay, you may be asking yourself, “Now what?” now? How do we move forward while using the gifts of this congregation as best we can? The world is asking similar questions. No, not about Pastor Strutz’s call decision or the gifts of our congregation. They’re asking how we as people can maximize our strengths. As people study teamwork, different teams try to play to the strengths of individual members. They also try to minimize their weaknesses to eliminate the negative impact they have on the group.
Our text today also treats strengths and weaknesses, but not in the way you might expect. The question remains, how can we maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses? Or can we do even better, MAXIMIZE OUR WEAKNESSES? God’s Word has the answer for us.
The apostle Paul had been given an extraordinary gift. In the verses leading up to our text, Paul spoke of visions that took a man up to heaven. As an apostle, Paul had visions much like that. He saw the risen Christ. He received his pastoral training from Jesus in these visions. Jesus called him to be an apostle in these visions. It very easily could have gone to his head. Don’t we think that way, after all?
Who is the most important person in a business? I would imagine that many of us would think of the CEO or the owner, the person who comes up with the plan. They have the power; they make the decisions. They’re the heroes we all aspire to be like.
Don’t we, in the same way, put Paul up on a pedestal? He models our Christian faith, so we think of him as someone truly great? The greatest missionary ever, an incredible scholar of the Scriptures, a lover of people and God’s Word, a prominent teacher in the early church, the apostle of the Lord who wrote nearly half the books of our New Testament? He has an impressive résumé! But then we idolize a hero and forget the rest of Paul: idolater, persecutor of Christ and his Church, murderer, worst of sinners. Have we whitewashed Paul to make him larger than life?
That’s what we see everywhere these days. You see it in movies. You see it in politics, depending on which side of the aisle you sympathize with. Everyone is either a hero or a villain. Just like the superheroes people see on the screens, they expect their own lives will be…larger than life. We all have a deep-seated desire to be special, to be needed, to be important. Don’t we love our heroes and hate our villains because then there’s some hope we can turn things around make our lives better? Can we truly MAXIMIZE OUR WEAKNESSES?
God’s answer came to Paul in an unexpected way. Paul, whose life had been turned from sinner to saint, was given a gift. He calls it a “thorn” or a “messenger of Satan.” It was given “to torment” him. It’s painful. Just think of when you get a splinter in your finger: every time you move that finger, you have a sharp reminder that splinter has embedded itself under your skin. It hurts. So also Paul’s thorn hurt. It tormented him.
Naturally, we all want to know what Paul’s thorn was. Throughout the years, hundreds of people have made dozens of guesses about what impairment might have affected Paul. But Scripture never gives us a direct answer. Any guess we make is only a guess. So instead of going beyond what Scripture says, content yourself with what Scripture says: not what Paul’s thorn was,but why Paul’s thorn was. “So that I would not become arrogant,” Paul says.
That may seem like a harsh lesson. Sure, Paul was still a sinner after he came to faith. His writings demonstrate that. But Paul trusted in Jesus as his Savior. Why would a loving God allow Paul to suffer such constant pain that even Paul calls it “torment?” Why would God willingly afflict one of his own, one of the greatest missionaries of all time? Surely Paul knew this already!
Or did he? And perhaps we don’t like it because of what it says about you and me. We are at least as weak as Paul. If Paul had to be kept from arrogance, what does that mean for me? Like Paul or any other Christian, we are susceptible to the attacks of Satan. All too often he convinces us that we are strong enough. And then he maximizes our weaknesses to take advantage of us. At this point, you may be too familiar with the devil’s tactics. He tells us what God wants for us is not good. This thorn God has put in my life—whether it’s cancer or abuse of alcohol or a struggle with same-sex attraction or a giant ego—it’s not good. There’s a grain of truth to that. Wouldn’t life be so much better without that struggle? If God were really good, would he want me to suffer? And the devil exploits our weaknesses. His attacks and wins. Sometimes he may even trick you into thinking he was right. It often seems to us that what God wants isn’t good. What I want is good. And then our own sinful nature agrees with the devil and joins in this attack against God. We are hopelessly and helplessly weak in this struggle.
Paul recognized his own weakness. He turned to the Lord in prayer. Three times he asked the Lord Jesus to take away his thorn. It’s only natural. What do you do when you get a splinter? You remove it. Then the pain goes away. Paul asked for his pain, his thorn, to be removed. He asked for a good thing, and God promises always to give good gifts to his children.
Isn’t that what you would do? If your son had a thorn under his skin, wouldn’t you remove it? Or if your daughter breaks her leg, don’t you take her to the doctor to fix it? Our suffering is bad. So why doesn’t our God remove our suffering? Sometimes his love seems distant and cold. What do you do when you ask God for a good thing and he says, “No”? How do you MAXIMIZE YOUR WEAKNESS?
The Lord came back to Paul with an answer. It’s also an answer for us. He didn’t just say, “No.” He said you have enough. “My grace is sufficient for you.” God’s grace, his undeserved love that takes action to save mankind, is enough. That’s all we need to get through our present struggles. Why? Because Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness. That’s where our weaknesses find their completion. In Christ’s power.
God’s grace is sufficient. That’s the beating heart of this section of God’s Word. God’s grace is enough. God’s grace didn’t remain cold and distant with him in heaven. Instead, our Lord was born in weakness. He took on the frailness of human flesh. He set aside full and frequent use of his divine power and instead came to be one of us, a man. Jesus preached, not to the strong and powerful, but to the hopeless and helpless. Instead of maximizing his strength and minimizing his weakness, he showed weakness all the way through. Jesus suffered at the hands of people who rightly belonged under his authority. And like Paul, he too pleaded with his Father three times that his suffering be taken away. Yet he insisted on doing the will of his Father. In his weakness, he never succumbed to the attacks of Satan. Instead, his friend betrayed him, and he answered with love. His friend denied him, and Jesus forgave. Our weaknesses, the sins we commit, led him to the cross. He suffered death to MAXIMIZE YOUR WEAKNESS and give you his own strength. And when he was at his weakest, when he poured out his life into death, his strength reached completion. His power was “made perfect.” On the cross he cried, “It is finished.” That’s where his strength and weakness worked together to accomplish his goal.
And that’s what it means when it says, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” This word, “made perfect” means to reach a goal or fulfill a duty. It means to pay the full price. It means to bring something to completion. Your salvation was brought to completion in the weakness of human flesh. God’s power was on display in the weakness of the cross. There he defeated the devil. There sin’s accusation lost its power, was nailed and buried with Jesus. All so you would know God’s all-sufficient grace is enough in your time of need.
God also called Paul to suffer with Christ. Paul’s weakness, his thorn, found its goal in the weakness of Christ. Christ, who gave his life for Paul, never stopped giving his grace to him. Just like Jesus suffered for Paul, Jesus suffered for you. He gave his life in weakness so that you would be joined to his strength.
Paul was able to delight in his suffering. No, Paul didn’t take pleasure in pain. We don’t have to like punishment. Suffering is still unpleasant. But the new man in Paul, who trusted in Christ’s grace, now saw new purpose in this thorn. God had taught him through this. Paul was able to boast in his weaknesses because he understood Christ’s strength—his grace—dwelled in him and sheltered him from the future attacks of Satan. Christ was with him throughout his life. That’s how Paul could say, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s not like Paul thought weakness was good. He learned to MAXIMIZE HIS WEAKNESS. When Paul was weak, he learned to rely all he more on Jesus. And Jesus, even at his weakest, is stronger than you and I could ever dream of being.
You may wonder why God would allow you to undergo the evils you go through in your life. Learn from Paul. You don’t have to think your “thorns” are pleasant. But learn to rely on God’s grace which is the strongest force in the universe. When he created faith to trust him, he began to rule in your heart. Learn from your weaknesses, because they teach you to go to God. True strength is found in him.
If you knew that all the evil that happened to you was serving for the good of another, would that fact help you cope with it better? Paul understood that. His thorn has provided comfort to believers for centuries. Who knows you may be able to touch through your own weaknesses as Christ works powerfully in you? You can point others to the comfort Christ provides with his grace. Take delight in your weaknesses. They are opportunities to reach out to others with the Lord’s own strength, his grace.
How do we MAXIMIZE OUR STRENGTHS AND MINIMIZE OUR WEAKNESSES in this congregation? That may require more work and careful planning, but God’s grace is enough. How will we continue to utilize our gifts in service to Jesus? By keeping ourselves in the strength of God’s grace, as you go back to it in Word and sacrament. As long as the Lord Jesus remains with us, his strength will work powerfully in us. His strength MAXIMIZES YOUR WEAKNESS. Amen.
“Now to him who is able to strengthen you— according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, . . . to God, who alone is wise, be glory forever through Jesus Christ. Amen.” (Romans 16:25a, 27, EHV)
Be thankful and joyful at what God has already done
Supply what is lacking
Let your love overflow
Pray God would strengthen your hearts
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13 May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
It’s that time of year again. People are getting ready. The shopping has begun. Trees are being decorated. Lights are being put up. The world we live in is getting ready for Christmas.
At church, we have begun a new church year, and that means we’re getting ready. We are in the season of Advent—which means “coming.” As the world gets ready to celebrate Christ’s first coming, we are getting ready for Christ’s second coming. How do we get ready? It’s a matter of the heart. PREPARE YOUR HEARTS FOR ADVENT.
Paul wrote his letter to a model congregation in Thessalonica. As our text begins, Paul asks, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” Paul is doubling down with these words. He’s doubling down on his thankfulness. He asks how he can possibly thank God enough in return for what he’s gotten. He’s doubling down on joy. He’s doubling down on God—he thanks God for the joy he has in God’s presence. And he’s doubling down on the church in Thessalonica. He thanks God for them and the joy he has because of them. Paul’s emotions well up into joy and thanks to God for the believers in Thessalonica.
Like Paul, we have a lot to thank God for today. As your pastor, I cannot thank God enough for you and the joy you give me. But more than that, we have many reasons to rejoice in God’s presence: people are hearing God’s Word from our congregation. With God’s blessing, we have plans to bring that Word to new sites. The Verona site has become a model congregation. The Monroe site is still here and growing. Our multi-site congregation is providing an example for others throughout our church body.
The song tells us it’s the “most wonderful time of the year.” The time of year when people are too busy to do anything. People are shopping. They’re baking. They’re decorating. And the job won’t give you a break to get it done, either. Students are studying for exams and preparing their projects. Teachers are in a mad dash to work on grades. Everything outside is cold and dead. There’s shoveling to do, salt to put down, cars to scrape. With so much to prepare, it seems like we never break! The “most wonderful time of year” often seems like “the most stressful time of year.” Yet whether you finish preparing or not, Christmas will come just as fast.
Paul was busy, too. Instead of getting ready to see the relatives for Christmas, he spent his time praying. “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.” Paul had been to Thessalonica before. As he preached there that Jesus had to suffer and die and rise again, many—both Jews and Greeks—came to believe in Jesus as their Savior. But his stay in Thessalonica was cut short. After three weeks, the jealous mob ran him out of town. He had to leave, but he hadn’t finished getting them ready. He longed to come back to them so that he could “supply what was lacking in their faith.”
The Thessalonian Christians, despite being model Christians, had a lot left to learn. Paul never stopped encouraging them to grow. They had faith, but it was uninformed. They knew very little about Christ’s second coming. They needed instruction about what it meant to live pure and holy lives. Yet they didn’t know what they were lacking.
Have you ever had that awkward moment when you realized you forgot to buy a Christmas gift for someone? And, as if to add insult to injury, it’s impossible to find the right gift for them? Even if you remember, whatever you come up with at the last minute won’t be good. With so much going on, it’s easy to forget someone at Christmas time.
Like that forgotten Christmas gift, we are unable to see our spiritual blind spots. That’s not to say that we don’t have faith. There are just certain things we are woefully unaware of. It’s really the same problem the Thessalonians faced. Their faith was lacking, but they didn’t know what it was. So our faith is lacking. Yet we have God’s Word! There he tells us everything we need to know. But there is a sinful nature inside us that takes the amazing gift of God’s Word and turns it into a terrible chore. We don’t always like reading it because it tells us just how great our shortcomings are. When we read it, it kills us. Rather than give our hearts confidence for Advent, it tells us we have fallen fall short of what God expects of us. When we do read the Bible, sometimes we don’t take the time to think about we’re reading. We read a chapter, or a page, and we move on with our day as though what we read makes no difference. Or we don’t understand it. And we’re blind to how it applies to my daily life. With a thousand things to do in the busy season, something has to get dropped. Sometimes God’s Word gets short shrift.
With so much going on, how can we possibly prepare our hearts for Advent—Christ’s second coming, when he will judge the earth? Ignorance will not be an excuse. Neither will laziness, or the long list of other things we had to do. Instead, we go to the Word of God, because there God supplies us with what we lack. There he fills in our blind spots. There we see we are sinners whose failures are worthy of damnation. But there we also learn that God himself prepares our hearts for Advent.
To get ready for Christmas and all it entails, some people make checklists to make sure they have everything ready. Christmas tree decorated? Check. Christmas lights outside? Check. And then there’s the big, long list of people you need to buy gifts for. Sometimes people even make lists of gifts they want to make finding a gift easier.
Jesus filled out God’s checklist for our Advent preparation. He studied the Scripture, not as a chore, but as his delight, because we don’t always. As the God who wrote its very contents, he still took time to learn it, even as a child. He knew how to apply it. When the devil and the people of the world tried to catch him in a trap, he always had an answer. He didn’t get blindsided by something he didn’t see coming. Jesus loved God his Father perfectly. He always did what God required. And he loved all people. Jesus gave his life as the perfect gift, to check off God’s requirements for ready hearts. Jesus did for us what we couldn’t; he checked off the list of everything we need to satisfy God. He’s checked it off for you. Because of Jesus, you are prepared for Advent.
Because he knew the gaps in knowledge the Thessalonians had, Paul couldn’t wait to get to Thessalonica. He launched into a prayer asking God to bring him back to them. And God did, briefly. But Paul wrote two letters to instruct the believers there. He continued to pray for them night and day. His prayer was that God would fill them with his love.
The picture there is God filling us so full of his love that we overflow with it to others. It’s like filling a cup so full of water that it leaks onto the table around it. But you can’t overflow with love if you don’t have any. It doesn’t matter how much scraping and shoveling you do if you don’t have any gas in the tank. Similarly, we don’t rightly love others without the love of God. We learn about God’s love for us in Jesus in the Bible. It’s where God supplies all our needs and fills us with his power for our daily struggles with sin. When we are in God’s Word, faith grows in the love of Jesus. Then our love will overflow to others. Then we can use it to show others God’s love and, like Paul, make others ready for Christ’s second coming by telling them about God’s love for them. Tell them how Christ fulfilled God’s checklist. When we live our lives in the Bible, it informs our prayers.
The goal of Christmas preparation is to be ready for the big celebration. Each year, the day comes and goes. Unlike Christmas celebrations, Christ will only come again once. It won’t be expected, either. The goal of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians—and of our prayer for you—is that by being filled with God’s love your hearts would be strengthened, blameless, and pure when Christ comes again. On our own, we are not blameless or holy. We cannot make our own hearts strong. But God does it for us in his Word. Try it out! Read and see the difference God makes in your life. Join our Vine and Branches in the spring and encourage others. Come to Bible study and ask the teacher your questions. Continue coming to hear God’s Word. Make regular use of Word and sacrament. God makes you ready for his coming in it, because there he tells us about what Jesus does for us.
When Jesus comes again, none of our winter or Christmas decorations will matter. Until then, they have some value. They also serve to remind us of greater preparations. Prepare your hearts for Advent. Thank God for all the joy he has given us in this congregation. Thank him that he supplies what we don’t have, most importantly his Son, who meets God’s Advent requirements for us. Thank him for his love that he pours out to us. Pray that he would continue to make that love overflow in your life. He will strengthen your hearts in his Word so that he will find you holy and blameless when Jesus returns with his angels and all his holy people. Continue to study his Word. There God makes you ready. You are prepared for Christ’s Advent. Amen.