Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 4, 2021
2 Corinthians 12:2-10 Commentary
[God’s] power is made perfect in weakness might be one of the most appropriate and hopeful things the inspired Paul could say to his 2021 hearers. After all, in the past 18 months we’ve surely learned if not been reminded that we are weak.
Among the countless reasons why the COVID-19 pandemic may have proven to be so devastating is that it has challenged 21st century assumptions that we’re largely invulnerable. We in the West naturally assumed that epidemics, shortages of vaccines and medicine, hospital and mortuary spaces, as well as physical, emotional and spiritual trauma were the exclusive domain of Third and Fourth World countries. Many North Americans, at least, assumed we were strong, if not individually or relationally, at least communally and nationally.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has helped to highlight our “weakness” (9). It has shown us that even North Americans and other westerners are not “bulletproof.” North Americans’ almost countless deaths, illnesses and job losses have “tormented” (8) us. We’ve prayed far more than “three times” for the Lord to take this plague away. Yet even now, even as it begins to ebb in parts of the global North, COVID-19 continues to render countless global neighbors “weak.”
I haven’t yet met anyone who “boasts” (5, 6, 9) in this weakness. No one I know has “delighted” in the individual, relational, society and international “weakness,” “hardships” and “difficulties” (10) this pandemic has uncovered. In fact, such a reaction would seem heartless.
So this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s talk about rejoicing in misery may sound highly dissonant to 21st century ears. In it, after all, the Apostle Paul “boasts” not about himself or his strengths, but about his “weakness” (5).
The Greek word we translate as “boast” is kauchesomai. There’s not as much nuance in it as there is in many other Greek words. It means to “boast,” “brag about,” “rejoice” or “glory in.” Paul’s use of kauchesomai in 2 Corinthians 12 strongly suggests that he’s reluctant to brag about anything or anyone but his weakness. While he claims he wouldn’t be lying if he were to brag about his gifts and himself, he chooses to, instead, deflect attention away from himself in order to boast about his weaknesses.
The Greek word we translate as “weakness,” or literally, “weaknesses” is astheneais. It seems to contain a variety of potential meanings. Scholars variously translate it as “incapacity,” “illness,” “timidity,” as well as “weakness.” All of those meanings, however, contain shades of vulnerability.
2 Corinthians 12’s proclaimers won’t be able to fully unpack both its mysteries and wonders unless we somehow communicate the shocking nature of boasting about some kind of weakness. Its preachers and teachers might, in fact, look for examples of it that startle people. If I were to preach or teach about this Sunday’s Lesson, I might compare it, for example, to boasting about my own overweight status, bragging about my modest preaching skills or glorying in my failures as a spouse or father.
It’s interesting that while Paul boasts in his weakness rather than substantial gifts, he is willing to boast about a man who was “caught up in the third heaven” (2-3). No matter what that mysterious concept refers to it, it suggests that the apostle is willing to glory and rejoice in God’s gifts to other people.
While that’s largely superfluous to his emphasis on his own boasting in his weakness, 2 Corinthians’ proclaimers might find it a fruitful avenue to explore and perhaps proclaim. Verse 5 suggests that if Jesus’ friends are to rejoice in anything, it’s in about our talents or us but about our Christians brothers and sisters’ and their abilities.
The apostle links his “weakness” to what he mysteriously calls “a thorn in” his “flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment” him (7). While scholars have nearly endlessly debated the nature of that “thorn” (skolops), Paul remained, at least to his Corinthian readers, evasive about it. “Thorn” at least suggests that it caused Paul discomfort. “Flesh” seems to imply that it somehow affects his body. “Messenger of Satan” at least suggests that Paul sees it not as a random weakness, but as torment deliberately inflicted on him by the evil one.
Yet God graciously uses Satan’s activity to help shape an adopted son of God. After all, while the apostle’s thorn is what he calls a messenger of Satan, he believes that God sovereignly uses it to keep him from becoming “conceited” (7).
His thorn has proven to be persistent. Paul reports, after all, that he has begged God three times to remove it. However, the apostle at least implies that God has said “no” to each request. In fact, instead of removing the cause of Paul’s misery, God has said, “My grace is sufficient (Arkei) for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (9).
This is great, great gospel for God’s weakened adopted sons and daughters of the 21st century. God doesn’t deny the reality of weakness, illness, incapacity or vulnerability. God doesn’t even always say “yes” to prayers to remove them. Yet God does remind us that God’s grace is sufficient for God’s dearly beloved people to deal or cope with, or perhaps even rejoice in our weakness. God’s mercy and kindness are enough.
Of course, wise preachers and teachers want to be careful about how we unpack this. Some people who hear this are suffering deeply. Some may even die before they ever hear us speak again. So 2 Corinthians 12’s proclaimers don’t even imply that misery doesn’t exist or doesn’t somehow matter.
Nor should we say something like, “I learned how God’s grace is sufficient through my own experiences.” That veers, after all, dangerously close to the kind of boasting Paul so vehemently rejects in our text. No, preachers and teachers always relentless point away from ourselves and towards God.
So we might perhaps consider saying to sufferers something like this, “I can’t claim to know how God will prove the sufficiency of God’s grace in the midst of your misery. I can’t speak for myself, but only for God: God’s grace is enough.”
Paul ends this Epistolary Lesson with talking a lot about God’s power and human weakness. In the middle of verse 9 he quotes God as saying, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” This too may startle our hearers. God’s power is, after all, already complete. It’s hard to imagine how human weakness could make God even more powerful.
2 Corinthians 12’s proclaimers may choose to dig around in scholarly works to explore this highly mysterious assertion more deeply. But perhaps we don’t need to say much more than this: God’s power is perfect most clearly revealed when it graciously works through human weakness.
After all, whether it’s the Apostle Paul or our text’s proclaimers and hearers, the human temptation is to glorify human strength. “Good sermon or lesson,” preachers and teachers long to hear others tell us. “Beautiful painting or delicious meal,” artists and chefs long to hear. The natural tendency is to at least quietly rejoice not in our weakness, but in our strengths.
When, however, God brings glory to God’s self and blesses people through things like mediocre messages, meals and musings, it’s very clear who should get the credit. It’s not the preacher, teachers, artist, chef or doctor, but God.
Each proclaimer will want to rummage around in his or her own vulnerabilities in this matter. I offer up my own example: I was and in some ways remain a flawed parent. While I wasn’t deliberately cruel or neglectful, I was less than an ideal dad. I especially see that in my parenthood’s contrast to the wonderful ways my sons and their wives parent their children.
And yet, by God’s amazing grace, our sons now love the Lord, their families and yes, even me. The credit for that obviously doesn’t go to my weak self. It doesn’t even all go to their far better mom. God’s power is manifest through and, sometimes, in spite of my flawed parenting.
So if this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers are going to “boast,” we want to boast in our weakness and God’s gracious might. Jesus’ friends can even learn to delight in our vulnerabilities. When, after all, we’re weak, we’re strong in our pointing away from ourselves and to our glorious God whose grace is sufficient for all things, including bringing glory to God and blessing our neighbors through our naturally weak selves.
In his marvelous book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (a veritable treasure trove of illustrations of human foibles and strengths), Robert A. Caro notes that President Lyndon Johnson knew a lot about human weakness. Yet while Paul boasts about weakness, Johnson often seemed to exploit others’ weaknesses.
He knew, writes one reviewer, how to get to the older men with senatorial power — the “Old Bulls” of the U.S. Senate. He would use one of the tactics that had served him well in college: e.g., he would sit below the level of a Senator who was talking in an office or cloakroom, and try physically to look up at him while also wearing a look of awed “interest and respect.” Or he would make a statement that he knew a senior senator would agree with, and make it with a look of mixed deference and enthusiasm.
In college Johnson also thanked a devoutly Baptist prof for “strengthening my faith” and, in a genius move, praised profs for their greatest weaknesses. “Instead of ignoring a trait embarrassing to his subject, Johnson’s [school paper] editorial would focus on that trait, praising it, as if, only twenty years old though he was, he possessed an instinctive understanding that his subject must be aware of his weak point, so that a word of reassurance about it would be the word that would mean the most: describing a speech by a professor whose pedantic dullness made students snicker, Johnson wrote that “he made his talk bristle with interesting facts.”
With senators, Johnson employed variants of these tactics and also did his filial piety trick: “warming to the subject, Johnson would praise his own father or mother fulsomely, and then say of the Senator: ‘You’ve been like a Daddy to me.’” As a young senator Johnson always wanted to dance with older Senators’ wives so they would introduce him to their husbands. The trouble was doubled by the fact that LBJ was “as overbearing to those beneath him, or on the same level as he, as was obsequious to those above him.” In the same day, maybe in the same hour, he could be both “bully and bootlicker.”
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