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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
Title:Grace for Every Thorn
Text:2 Corinthians 12:1-10 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Comfort in a World of Pain

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

“Grace for Every Thorn”
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
Many years ago, a Boston rabbi wrote a best selling book entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The rabbi, Harold Kushner, wrote it after his son had died at the tender age of fourteen. The book was supposed to answer the question: “Why does God allow tragedy and heartbreak?”
His question why God allows tragedy and heartbreak – the piercing, painful thorns in life – has been repeated throughout history. The question has been asked in many a hospital room, “Why has this illness or accident changed our lives so dramatically? Why would God allow this to happen?”
The same questions are asked at the scene of natural disasters and in the wake of devastating storms. “Why does God allow these tragedies? Why does God permit a messenger of Satan to bring thorns, sorrow and heartbreak into peoples’ lives?” And the question has certainly been asked repeatedly during the Covid 19 pandemic, “Why would a loving God allow this corona virus catastrophe to overwhelm the world?”
The question as to why a loving God would allow great tragedy to devastate lives has been asked in so many situations, throughout history. Harold Kushner concluded that all the thorns of life come about because although God is loving and kind, He is not all powerful. He is a good God, but not omnipotent and sovereign. God would like to help us when calamity comes our way, but He is simply not able to. He wrote: “Learn to love God and forgive him despite his limitations.”
That book was a best seller when it was published in 1981, and many people still today, if they believe in God at all, would agree with Harold Kushner’s thesis. Many people agree with Kushner that God wants to prevent the thorns and trials in our lives, but simply is not able to. By contrast, the Bible teaches that God not only has power over every thorn – every tragedy – but He permits the thorns of life, in all their varieties and pain, for many different reasons.
In the passage before us we read of how Paul received “a thorn in his flesh” and we read the reason why the thorn was allowed. In verse 7 Paul writes, “…To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.”
The surpassingly great revelations included the vision of heaven. In the opening six verses he speaks of himself in the third person. He describes how he knew a man who was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. But it is clear he is describing his own experience.
The Third Heaven
When he wrote about the “third heaven”, incidentally, he is not implying that there are many different heavens, or various layers of heaven. Over the course of history, some writers have surmised that there are seven different heavens, each on a different level.
That concept does not come from Scripture. Rather, Scripture refers to heaven in three distinct ways. Sometimes the word “heaven” is used to describe the earth’s atmosphere. For instance, in Genesis 8:2 the rain that fell in Noah’s day is described as rain from heaven – that is, rain from the atmosphere. The same usage of the first heaven as the earth’s atmosphere is in 1 Kings 8:35, where Solomon prays about rain from heaven which will not fall if the people are disobedient.
A second use of the word “heaven” in the Bible describes the higher atmosphere, where the sun and moon and stars are seen. We look up at the beauty of the night sky and echo the words of Psalm 8:3-4: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”  Outer space with the sun, moon, stars and planets is the “second heaven” in biblical language.
A third use of the word “heaven” in the Bible is to the highest heaven, the “third heaven” as Paul puts it here. For instance, in Psalm 123:1 the psalmist writes, “I lift up my eyes to You, to You who sit enthroned in heaven.” The highest heaven, or third heaven, is the paradise of God.
And into that paradise Paul was “caught up” – either in his spirit through a vision or literally with body and soul as was Elijah – Paul did not know. But he knew that it was so glorious that he was not permitted to describe it. That experience was one of many that could have swelled him with pride.
Pride is the most evil of all sins because it is the sin of the devil. It is pride that caused Satan to desire the glory that belongs to God alone. It is pride – sinful pride – that caused Satan to be expelled from heaven and cast down to earth.
Unfortunately, all of us are prone to pride. Paul was not exempt from that temptation. In many ways he would be especially tempted to be proud. After all, he had a unique conversion experience. He had gone on three successful missionary journeys. He had planted many churches. He had received unique revelations from God. He had even been caught up into paradise. He saw the glory of heaven, and it was so spectacular that he was not allowed to speak about what he had witnessed in Paradise.
And because of those revelations, and because Paul was a sinner saved by grace, susceptible to every temptation including the temptation to be proud, the Lord allowed a thorn to be deeply embedded in his flesh.
There are many different interpretations on what the specific thorn was. Many believe that it was a physical ailment, but there is a wide variety of thought on what type of physical ailment it may have been. Common suggestions include poor vision, malaria, epilepsy, or some other ongoing, debilitating physical condition. Others believe that the thorn, literally a stake, refers to false teachers in general or to a specific false teacher who was a leader in opposing the gospel that the apostle proclaimed.
Still others, including many of the Reformers, understand the thorn in the flesh as a reference to spiritual challenges and temptations that come to our fleshly, or sinful, nature. Flesh in the Bible refers to our sinful human nature. As such, John Calvin believed that the thorn in the flesh refers to temptation, and the giving in to those temptations, which tormented the apostle Paul – just as they torment every true believer.
Although there are many different views on what the thorn was, the Bible never gives a detailed description of the thorn, and it certainly doesn’t need to. No matter what it was, the thorn effectively kept Paul from becoming conceited because of the surpassingly great revelations that he had received.
While the Bible doesn’t describe exactly what the thorn was, it does point out that the thorn was, (first), “a messenger of Satan.” Paul writes, in verse 7, “…a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass (or torment) me…”
That verse is a vivid reminder that God allows Satan to cause sorrow. It is not at all the case that Harold Kushner described in his book, that God would prevent every thorny problem from coming into our lives if He were only able to do so. Instead, all Scripture teaches us that God does allow the evil one to bring many thorns, many trials, and many temptations to the people of God.
Perhaps nowhere do we see that more clearly than in the temptation of Job. Job was an upright, godly man but Satan attributed Job’s righteous conduct to the many blessings that God had given to him. Consequently, when the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
Satan replied, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
“The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’”  (Job 1:8-12).
And you know what happened after that. Job’s life was ripped apart by one tragedy after another. His livestock, sheep and camels were taken from him, each in dramatic fashion. His servants were put to the sword. And in the greatest tragedy, his sons and daughters were killed as a mighty windstorm destroyed the house in which they were feasting.
But through all those tragedies, God was yet at work. God revealed Himself as the sovereign Lord over all things, including the power of the devil, through the tragedies that came into Job’s life. And after Job suffered all those calamities the Lord blessed him, so that eventually he had far more than he had before Satan brought the multitude of thorns – the great trials – into his life. Job’s life is a graphic reminder that the Lord allows Satan to bring his thorns into the lives of God’s people. But God is able to turn evil into good, as He works out all things for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.
In verse 8 we read of another way that the Lord uses the thorns of life for our good. Not only do thorns – the trials and troubles of life – keep us humble, they also cause us to plead with the Lord in prayer. In verse 8 Paul describes how, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.”
Pleading with the Lord in prayer is one of the greatest privileges we have. Yet when things are going well our prayer life can dwindle so quickly. Recently, in our one of our Bible studies, the question was asked, “When in your life are you strongest – spiritually speaking? What factors or practices do you feel gave your faith stability and strength at that time?” And then this question: “When in your spiritual journey have you felt the shakiest and most uncertain? Why?”
And it should not surprise you to know that most all of us admitted that the times when we have been spiritually strong are when we have been in the deepest valleys of life. It is when Satan sends that messenger with the thorn in the flesh that we realize how much we need the Lord. The trials and temptations that come into our lives drive us to our knees and cause us to call out in prayer to our Lord.
And we agreed that most of us are furthest from the Lord in our spiritual journey when everything is going smoothly. It is so easy to become attached to the allurements of the world and succumb to the temptation to take life easy.
Here again we see that God’s purposes prevail over the evil one’s temptations. The messenger of Satan drove the thorn deep into the apostle’s flesh. But instead of making him weaker, it made him stronger, as he pleaded with the Lord in prayer and found the truth that God's strength and power are sufficient for our every weakness and trial.
Some believe the thrice repeated prayer is a euphemism for incessant prayer; others that it was patterned after Jesus’ plea repeated three times in Gethsemane. But either way, it is a reminder of how trial and adversity drive us to our knees. Paul undoubtedly still prayed fervently and frequently for God’s all-sufficient grace as he realized the thorn would not be removed. 
During times of war, it is rightly observed, “There are no atheists in fox holes.” The thorns of life are often used by God to drive us to our knees in prayer.
Blessings in Disguise
A third reality that Paul, along with so many other Christians, have found out, is that the thorns – even the most deeply embedded and painful thorns – are often blessings in disguise. They are blessings in disguise because they reveal to us the magnitude of God’s all sufficient grace. And they reveal to us the wonderful truth that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.
After pleading with the Lord to have the thorn removed, Paul heard God’s answer. God’s answer to Paul is what we often call “the closed door” in prayer. The thorn would not be removed. It would be a constant source of pain for Paul.
But the Lord promised Paul something better than the removal of the thorn. The Lord promised that His grace would be sufficient to deal with the thorn. And the Lord promised that His power would be made perfect in Paul’s weakness. In verse 8 and 9 Paul writes: “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.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
The knowledge that God’s grace would be sufficient for his thorn, and the knowledge that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, caused the apostle to rejoice. He realized that God’s promise wasn’t just for dealing with one thorn – with one messenger of Satan. God’s promise of all sufficient grace is given for every thorn, for every messenger of Satan. Thus, in verse 10, he exclaims, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
But it wasn’t just Paul who discovered that the thorns of life can be God’s blessings in disguise. Every Christian discovers that truth. Perhaps in your life you have also found that the closed door in prayer leads to a far greater blessing than you could have ever asked for or imagined. And you have perhaps found that the thorns in your life – even the most painful ones – are indeed blessings in disguise.
Perhaps many of you have heard the song, Blessings, by Laura Story, which won the 2012 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Christian Music Song. She sang:
…What if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if the thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You're near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?
The background to the song is more powerful than the lyrics themselves. Laura wrote the song when her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Laura had prayed, “Why didn't you just fix it, God? You're all powerful and all loving… just fix it.”
She longed for her husband to be healed. She longed for their life to go back to how it was before his brain tumor. But when she told her sister of her longing her sister said, “You know, I think the detour is actually the road.” Laura thought that her husband’s tumor had put their life on a detour. She thought the detour would take her back to the road of life she was on before he was afflicted. But then she realized that even such an affliction is yet a blessing in disguise. And she sang:
What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy
What if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are your mercies in disguise?
We all have our share of thorns in this life. Some are more deeply embedded and painful than others, yet everyone faces their share of painful problems. Whatever painful thorns are in your life take them to the Lord in prayer, just as Paul did, and just as Jesus did. But recognize that there is a time to let some prayer requests rest. Instead of repeating them over and over there is the time to look for the all sufficient grace of God to enable you to deal with the thorn. And then pray with thanksgiving that God’s grace is greater than whatever thorns you face.
Pray as Jesus prayed, three times over in Gethsemane, “If it is possible take this cup – this thorn – from Me, but not My will but Your will be done, O Lord.”
Then rest in the promise of God, given to every true believer, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.” Amen.
(Closing hymn: It Is Well with My Soul):
This hymn was written after several traumatic events in Horatio Spafford's life. The first was the death of his son at a very young age, and then the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which ruined him financially.
His business interests were further hit by the economic downturn of 1873, at which time he had planned to travel to Europe with his family. In a late change of plans, he sent the family ahead while he was delayed with business concerns.
While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with another ship. Over two hundred people drowned, including all four of Spafford’s daughters. His wife, Anna, survived and sent him a telegram, “Saved alone”.
Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he wrote this well known hymn as his ship passed near where his daughters, along with so many others, had drowned:
      When peace like a river attendeth my way,
      when sorrows like sea billows roll;
      whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
      "It is well, it is well with my soul."
      It is well with my soul;
      it is well, it is well with my soul.
                                - bulletin outline -
A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me,
to keep me from becoming conceited. 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.” – 2 Corinthians 10:7-9a
                           “Grace for Every Thorn”
                               2 Corinthians 12:1-10
I.  Paul received a “thorn in his flesh” (7) to keep him humble after
     receiving many visions from the Lord (1-6). The exact nature of the
     thorn is unknown, but we do know that the thorn was:
     1) A “messenger of Satan” (7), reminding us that God allows Satan to
          cause sorrow (Job 1:6-2:8), yet God overturns it for good (Romans 8:28)
     2) An incentive to pray (8). Some believe the thrice repeated prayer is
          a euphemism for incessant prayer; others that it was patterned after
          Jesus’ plea repeated three times in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:39, 42, 44)
     3) A blessing in disguise as it revealed the sufficiency of God’s grace
          and that His strength is made perfect in our weakness (9)
II. Application: Just as God’s grace was sufficient for Paul, so also it is
     sufficient for us, causing us to be strong even when we are weak, no
     matter what “thorns” we face (9-10)


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2020, Rev. Ted Gray

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