Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon and Sweet Home, OR
Sexagesima (Second Sunday before Lent) + February 4, 2018
Text: 2 Corinthians 11:19—12:9
The marks of success that we’re accustomed to look for are external: being popular, well-spoken of, and attractive. Indeed, if you owned a business, this is what you would want for your establishment because that’s what it takes to have your venture succeed. If your business is not successful, you won’t make money. When it comes to judging if something is successful, we’re comfortable with these kinds of measurements. They’re easy to identify and easy to quantify, and—most important—easy to brag about before others.
What St. Paul was dealing with at Corinth were teachers who came in after his first labors, and challenged the Gospel he had taught them on the basis of visible signs of success. They said Paul was unreliable and that he vacillated between yes and no (2 Cor. 1:15-21). They accused him of not being persuasive and his message not getting the results it could have if he would just do a little to spice it up (2 Cor. 4:1-6). These opponents even went to the point of despising Paul because he was meek in person but wrote boldly (2 Cor. 10:1-12).
In contrast, they were more than happy to boast of their ancestry and their boldness to proclaim a message that got “results”! It was attractive in person and packed a house. It sure seemed to be better than that message Paul was peddling. Paul called them “super apostles” because they seemed in every way more powerful, effective, and attractive than himself.
But the more important question is not whether the message “got results.” It’s whether it is the Word of the Lord or not.
While we’re accustomed to looking for outward marks of success, St. Paul reminds us what kind of marks are often associated with the true preaching of the Word:
“23Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one…with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:23–28)
Any reasonable (worldly) person would tell St. Paul he’s in the wrong line of work or that he’s playing for the wrong team. But in fact Paul is a true apostle of the Lord, and the message he preached was God’s Word. So why all this trouble?
That’s a question we often ask ourselves when things go sideways. From the Word of God, we’ve come to know the Lord. We’ve taken our faith seriously and passed it down to our children. We have sought out true teaching, and we worship where we do because of that, even though our friends might go to other churches. We’ve even given faithfully from what the Lord has gifted us. Why then, after all that, does God seem to send calamity to our lives?
Why do our grown children forsake the faith we gave them? Why do deadly diseases and long, drawn-out ailments fall upon us while God-haters live a long, carefree life? Why do the dollars seem to pour into other causes and congregations while those where the Word of God is taught truly are making hard choices?
It’s never a safe thing to claim that we know the exact reasons why God in His infinite wisdom allows evil to happen. But this much we know: God does not want our faith to be in the wrong things—namely, to trust in ourselves and to be proud of the choices we’ve made. The Apostle tells us,
“7So 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. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9But 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.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9)
To keep us from becoming proud of anything in us, God allows Satan to harass us. But remember that our God and Savior has Satan on a leash. These sufferings remind us that we are not lords of our own life. When we are emptied of the strength we thought we had and all that’s left is weakness, that’s when the Lord Jesus comes to us and says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Your Lord is the Crucified One. All the people of his day—even his own disciples—wanted Him to show His saving power with fire in heaven and a splendid earthly kingdom. They wanted His glory and success to be outward, something they could touch and see. But at His first coming, Christ’s power to save was made perfect in His suffering.
“3He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:3–5)
Jesus saves the weak by being made weak Himself, by sorrow and grief, by piercing and crushing, by chastisement and wounds. But what a glorious mystery this is! It is by this weakness—even to the point of death on a cross—that the Lord triumphed over evil and Satan and even death itself.
The mystery of suffering for the Christian is that it is confirmation that you have followed the right Christ. The Crucified One—your Lord—says, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” (Matthew 10:25) and “11“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11–12) This is proof positive that you are bearing the cross while following Him, and in that you can actually have joy.
This is what it means at the beginning of James’ epistle: “2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
If it is out of Jesus’ cross that God brings you salvation, do not doubt that He is able to support you in your mortal weakness! Do you suppose He was talking only to other believers in other circumstances when He said, “I will never leave you or forsake you”? Was it only to Paul that He promises His grace in weakness? No, His grace is enough for you, and it is in your weakness that you see His power. Jesus is not Savior of the strong and capable, but of the weak and needy. Be weak and needy and have nothing to say you can handle it on your own, but boast in your Lord. Let your marriage and your family give all glory to Him. Let your health—whether it’s good or bad—give all glory to Him. Let our congregation give glory only to Him.
St. Paul concludes in verse 10, “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.” Amen.
 Mark 1:27; Revelation 20:1-2
 Joshua 1:5
Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon and Sweet Home, OR