A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on July 8, 2012.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

I have a power fantasy.  In my fantasy, I have the build of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the looks of Brad Pitt, the brains of Bill Gates, the money and business acumen of Warren Buffett, the golf game of Tiger Woods, and while we’re at it, the sterling reputation of Billy Graham.

Speaking of Billy Graham, in my fantasy I would use my considerable power and influence to build a church that would be the envy of all.  By the sheer force of my dynamic personality and preaching, I’d build a church that could only be housed in Lawrence Joel Coliseum.  And of course I’d do it all primarily for the glory of God as long as yours truly got credit where credit is due!

Power fantasies.  We’ve all have them.  Wherever there are people there are power fantasies. 

In the Garden of Eden it was a power fantasy—the desire to play God—that seduced Adam and Eve into the eating the forbidden fruit.  And we know where that power trip eventually led. 

One way to read the Old Testament is as one big contest for power—not just between earthly kingdoms but between God and his people.  In a hundred different ways God asked his people to follow him, and in a thousand different ways God’s people said, “No thanks.  We’d rather do it our way.”

Then Christ comes into this world embodying a radically different kind of power.  Jesus was the perfect man in every respect—he didn’t have to fantasize because he was already the complete human being—the wisest, most ethical, most powerful man to ever live.  Oddly enough, Jesus didn’t use his divine strength to overthrow the ultimate power player of his day—the Roman Empire—in order to establish his own kingdom.  Rather, he launched his kingdom through suffering and dying, rather helplessly I might add, on a Roman cross. 

Out of Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection a church was born.   You might think in the sanctified body of Christ power fantasies would be no more and Christians would humbly save God and one another.  But in fact, power fantasies took shape early on in the history of the church, and as some of us have learned the hard way, rarely are power plays more devious and destructive than when wrapped in the robes of religion. 

The Apostle Paul could tell you a thing or two about power fantasies and religion.  For one thing, there was a time when he nurtured fantasies of his own.  Once upon a time Paul was named Saul, and Saul was the golden boy of Judaism who was destined for great things.  Brilliant and ambitious, Saul could see the day when he would be the head of the Sanhedrin Court, the Jewish equivalent of the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court.

But that all changed when the Spirit of the Risen Christ knocked Saul off his feet on the road to Damascus and transformed him from Saul the persecutor of Christians to Paul the first Christian missionary.  Eventually, Paul began to plant churches all around the Mediterranean Sea, including a church in Corinth. 

And the Corinthian church turned out to be a colossal headache, so much so that Paul constantly had to write letters to the Corinthians to straighten them out.  Two of those letters survive in our New Testament, and we learn from those letters that one of the many challenges Paul faced in Corinth was the so-called “super-apostles” or preachers who claimed that they, not Paul were the true, God-appointed leaders of the Corinthian church.       

To prove their point, these super-preachers bragged on themselves constantly, pointing to their splendid resumes, sparkling speaking abilities, and their supernatural experiences with God.  In comparison, they said, Paul was a pathetic excuse of a preacher, a wannabe apostle who was a failure as a Christian leader in Corinth.  If you didn’t believe it, just look at the mess the Corinthian church was in. 

By his own admission, Paul set out to counter this foolishness by writing like a “fool” in 2 Corinthians 11 and 12.  He has no choice but to brag on himself since nobody else will.  He brags on his Jewish pedigree, which is impeccable.  He brags on the suffering he has undergone for the cause of Christ, which is unequalled. 

Then, in 2 Corinthians 12, he boasts about his own visions and revelations of the Lord, explaining that fourteen years earlier he was transported into the “third heaven” (heaven’s highest level)—whether in body or in spirit he’s not sure—where he experienced the presence of God in such a rapturous way he cannot describe it with words.  When it comes to visions and revelations, Paul says, he is second to none.

Just when you think Paul’s ego has gotten the best of him he pivots on a dime and begins discussing an embarrassing weakness  he calls his “thorn in the flesh”, given to him by “a messenger of Satan to torment” him, to “keep (him) from being too elated” or getting the big head. What follows next is stunning to Paul’s readers, then and now, who have bet their lives on the premise that the goal of life is to avoid weakness and accumulate power. Furthermore as you wield your power, you never let anybody see you sweat, and you hide your weaknesses at all costs. 

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this thorn (in the flesh), that it would leave me.  By the way, people have had a field day speculating about what Paul’s “thorn” (literally “stake”) was, whether it was some sort of temptation or guilt, or some group of opponents in the church, or some illness or physical disability that hindered Paul in his ministry.  This endless speculation about Paul’s thorn is fun, but also fruitless.  And in the end, it doesn’t really matter what the thorn was.

but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.  Whenever I share rather than conceal my weakness (thorn) with others, I am revealing God’s grace and perfecting God’s power within me.  I’m sorry, but that doesn’t exactly conform to my power fantasies that have me always performing at the top of my game, or at least looking like it!

What on earth is Paul talking about?  How can power be perfected in weakness, of all things? 

Maybe Paul is taking his cue from Jesus.  This past week I was reading devotionally in John 5, and I was struck by something Jesus says about himself.  The most powerful man ever to walk the earth says, By myself I can do nothing. Why would Jesus say this about himself, as though he were, well, weak?  Paul puts it this way in Philippians 2:

Though Jesus was in the form of God,

he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…,he humbled himself,

and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Jesus emptied himself of divine power, deliberately made himself weak.  And he died on a cross, the ultimate gesture of humiliation.  But out of that emptiness and weakness came a resurrection power surge that changed history forever.  Power made perfect, in weakness.

Paul spent most of his ministry not behind a prosperous pulpit but in a dingy prison cell.  While others were climbing the career ladder for pastors, Paul was sitting on death row for crying out loud!  And on top of that, he developed some kind of malady that compromised his leadership.  After years of jail time, tradition says Paul was eventually beheaded in Rome.

What a colossal failure, right?  If Paul is such a failure, then how is it that the mighty Roman empire that executed Paul is gone and the church he helped start lives to this day?  Power made perfect, in weakness.

Could it be, friends, that only when we get over ourselves and empty ourselves of all our pretense and power fantasies are we ready to be used by God?  Could it be that as long as we are certain we know what we’re doing we are actually clueless?  Could it be that as long as we confidently operate out of our own strength we stifle the mighty power of God?  Could it be that until we are desperate in our own weakness we are not ready and able to receive the power of God?  Could it be that when we have finally come to the end of ourselves and our resources, and are willing to admit that we don’t have the power within us to change ourselves much less the world, God has us exactly where he wants us?

Could it be that power is made perfect in weakness?

Could it be that what Paul says about power and weakness also applies to the church?  Could it be that congregations can become victims of their own past success, too proud to believe they ever need to change.   And could it be in church that it is not until the programs run dry, and human ingenuity seems no longer enough, and old methods quit working, and we become desperate in our own inability to do church anymore that we are precisely where God wants us, yielded and still, finally open to what he wants rather than what we want? 

Could it be, FBC, that God wants to make his power perfect in our weakness?     

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