EZEKIEL 2:1-5; PSALM 123; 2 CORINTHIANS 12:2-10; MARK 6:1-13
When I was 11 or 12, I thought 16 was a magical age. I dreamed that when I turned 16, I would wake up and have beautiful hair that bounced around my shoulder. I assumed I would have stopped biting my fingernails and they would be long and gorgeous. I thought I would be taller, trimmer and tanner. When that didn’t happen on my 16th birthday, I figured it would on my 18th. 21st? 30th?
Learning to accept how he looks is hardly the thorn in the flesh that Paul describes in today’s reading. We know from his other letters that he wasn’t a terribly good-looking guy and by the time he is sending this letter to the Corinthians- he has been beaten several times and bears the scars of those bruises. In addition to his struggles in mission work, he has been afflicted with some kind of chronic ailment that makes his life a bit difficult.
Lots of hot air and ink have been used to speculate what that ailment might have been. However, Paul reveals that he has prayed several times to be relieved from the pain and since it has not happened, he interprets God’s answer to be “no”. Just as God said no to Moses about entering the Promised Land, to David about healing the first child born to him through Bathesheba and to Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Sometimes God does say “no”.
Paul interprets God’s no to mean that God wants him to continue in this situation. Whatever the thorn in his flesh is, Paul comes to see it as God’s way of tempering him and keeping Paul focused on God’s words and God’s mission. As Paul writes and dictates his letters, we see his love and frustration pour out for the congregations he loves, but he has to be held back- so that his zeal does not overwhelm the message that he has been sent to carry. This thorn gives him pause and makes him remember that he is not the one with the power. God is shaping the Corinthians, the Roman church, the Philippians. God’s own grace should be and is sufficient for Paul, for each of these churches and for us. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.
What does it mean to be weak? Or, even, what does it mean to boast in weakness? Does it mean that we should brag to one another about our physical or emotional struggles? Or about our hardships? See how the Lord has blessed me with this hardship. Oh, how fortunate for you that God has seen fit to bless you with financial struggle. While we are called and we must remember that God causes all things to work for good for those who love him, we don’t necessarily have to embrace a thorn in our side as a desirable part of life. Inevitable, perhaps. Mysterious, certainly. Desirable, never.
Consider the people of Nazareth in the gospel story. They are blinded by the Jesus they believe they know. Didn’t he make our table? Didn’t he work on your house? Are his brothers miracle workers? Is his mother so special? The shelf he made for me broke after three months of use. They are unable to approach him with faith and, for the most part, he is unable to reveal the glory of God to them.
I do always find that line interesting within the gospel, “And he [Jesus] could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” So somewhere in the town, there were people who had heard and believed in who Jesus was and the power of God within him.
The unbelief of Nazareth and their rejection of Jesus, however, is the fire stoker that the disciples need. They have struggled with believing who Jesus is and understanding the power source of his abilities. However, when they see his inability to work with the people who have no faith- they are suddenly more clued in and, thus, are able to go out teaching and healing.
They are sent out with very little, but armed with the good news of Jesus Christ, God with us and the whole world. The thorn in their flesh may be their initial uncertainty in what to say, worry about acceptance, ability to heal or cast out demons or any other variety of concerns. Yet God goes out with them and people are healed, fed and the Word is preached.
There are many things that can stop each of us from going out and sharing the gospel. The thorn in our flesh may be that we are not as able to leave the house as we once were, that we are afraid to speak of what we believe, that we worry about what people may think about what we have to say or about us when we say it.
We have an idea of someone to call or to visit or to whom we could send a card, but we worry and then a week or two passes and we try to forget. But the Spirit doesn’t let us. That memory of what we need to do becomes a thorn in our side. And even as we wrestle with God to say we don’t think we can, God says to us as to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Each of us has been shaped by God-given special and specific gifts. As we age or encounter new difficulties, what God asks of us, specifically, may well change. However, God is still always seeking a relationship with us and a response from us. We look to the cross, where Christ’s own broken body did the reconciling work so that our relationship with God would be healed.
We must carry that knowledge in our hearts, believing that God’s grace is greater than our mistakes and that the Holy Spirit works with us and through us so that we can do the work God desires from us. Jesus is still sending us out, giving us power and preparing people, somewhere, to hear God’s good news. We are called to be like Paul, to persist beyond the thorn in our flesh, and to remember that God’s grace is sufficient for all our needs and for the needs of the whole world- this day and forever. Amen.