Strength in Suffering

Sermon by Caleb Cangelosi on June 21, 2015

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

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It is indeed a great privilege and joy for me to stand in this pulpit and bring the Word of God to you. First Presbyterian Church has been a home to me and to my wife. We were married at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church but this was the church I was attending and my first son was born here and it has been a great delight to move back to the Jackson area and see so many of you again with whom we have had relationships these many years. It’s been some sixteen years since I first came to First Presbyterian Church as a seminary student and as an intern here so I’m thankful to David and to the session at First Presbyterian Church to let me open up God’s Word to you this day. I look forward to seeing many of you after the service and getting to give you a hug and shake your hand. It’s been such a joy already this morning. Unfortunately, my wife and children aren’t here with us. We’re hosting Father’s Day dinner and so they needed to stay at home but they send their greetings as well. I bring you the greetings from the saints at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church. We’re thankful for the witness of the Gospel and to the testimony of God’s strength and grace and power here in Jackson, Mississippi here at First Presbyterian Church.

 

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to the book of 2 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians chapter 12. Before we read God’s Word, let us pray and ask Him to help us as we study it.

 

Our gracious heavenly Father, it’s been a hard week. Lord, it’s been a week in which we have seen great sin and great suffering. We’ve seen it in our country; we’ve seen it in our own lives. Father, we come to You thankful that You have spoken to us. You have spoken to us about sin and suffering. Lord, You have spoken to us about Your grace. Lord Jesus we ask now that You would be present among us as we open Your Word. We ask that Your Spirit would help me as I preach, would help those who hear. Father God we pray that You would exalt Your Son this day, Lord, that we Your people, suffering servants in Jesus Christ our Savior, Lord that You would comfort our hearts with Your truth, that You would bolster us and support us. O Lord we thank You that You indeed temper sorrow that we might receive it, that we might rejoice in it as a solemn joy. O Lord we pray for grace now to know You better, Lord, to live in the light of the Word that You have spoken to us. It’s in Jesus’ name we ask these things, amen.

 

2 Corinthians chapter 12, reading together verses 1 to 10. This is God’s Word. Paul writes:

 

“I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses – though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So 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. 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. 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. The grass withers, the flower fades, the Word of our God stands forever.

 

Expectations are everything. That’s a truism because it’s true. Expectations are the filters through which we experience life. The way that we respond to the things that we experience are affected and impacted to a large degree by our expectations. Some of you play golf, and perhaps you play a lot, and so you expect to shoot in the 80s or maybe the 90s. I don’t play golf a lot. I expect to shoot double par. Alright, that’s 144! And so if I get anywhere close to better than double par I’m excited; I’m ecstatic! Some of you wish you could be me. It’s freedom, right, to play golf and shoot double par! What if you had a friend who said, “You’re about to go to that hotel. That hotel is as nice as the Ritz Carlton.” And you get there and it’s like a Hampton Inn. And you’re thinking, “This place is a dump.” But if your friend had told you, “This place is like a jail cell,” and you get there and you’re like, “This is a Hampton Inn! This is really nice!” I’ll never forget hearing Tim Keller tell a story about seeing a cab in New York City ram into the back of another cab and nothing happened. They just kept on driving. Now anywhere else, the person who hit would get out and say, “I’m so sorry that I hit you!” There would be distress; there would be shame. The person who got hit perhaps might jump out and say, “Why don’t you look where you’re going! What have you done to my car!” That doesn’t happen in New York City. They expect conflict; they expect accidents. They’re not surprised by them.

 

The Expectation of Suffering

So often Christians are surprised by the suffering that we endure in this life. We’re surprised by it because we don’t expect it. We experience suffering and trials and tribulations and therefore we respond with anger, with doubt, with despair. “Lord, why is this happening to me? Why have you let this into my life? Where are You? Have You abandoned me? What’s going on here?” We respond wrongly because our expectations are false. Our suffering is compounded because we expected to just coast on through the rest of our life because after all, we’re following Jesus now. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen? “Everything’s supposed to go nice and easy for me. I’m a follower of Jesus.” Our expectations are false and so our response is wrong. Our expectations is false because Acts 14:22 is true. “Through many tribulations,” Paul said to the church, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Our expectation is false because 1 Peter 4 verse 12 is true. “Beloved, do not be surprised,” he says, “at the fiery ordeal among you which comes upon you for your testing as though some strange thing were happening to you.” “Don’t be surprised,” Peter says. “It’s not strange. It’s not strange that you are suffering. It’s very normal in fact.” Philippians 1 verse 29 is true as well when Paul writes, “For to you it has been granted, given freely for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in him.” Right? We believe that faith is a gift. It’s been given to us by God. “Not only to believe in him but also to suffer for his sake.” Now do we believe that? Do we believe that suffering is a gift freely given by God, a gift granted to us by a loving heavenly Father?

 

It’s often said that a pastor’s job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted and this morning my aim, my desire from 2 Corinthians chapter 12 is to comfort those who are or who will be afflicted with all sorts of trials and tribulations. And that means I’m speaking to each and every one of us. Either now or at some time in the future, certainly at some time in the past, we have suffered. We have suffered grievously. And 2 Corinthians chapter 12 speaks right to the heart of the questions that are so often on the top of our mind when we suffer. “Where is God when I suffer? Why is this happening to me? How am I supposed to respond to this suffering?” Paul here in 2 Corinthians 12 answers those questions and so I want us to see three things this morning. First, I want you to see that God is sovereign over all of our suffering. Secondly, because that’s true, therefore all of our suffering comes on purpose. It comes on purpose. And thirdly, if God is sovereign, if our suffering is on purpose, therefore we as God’s people can rejoice with strength in the midst of suffering. So let’s think about those things this morning.

 

I.  Sovereign Over all of Our Suffering

 

First, I want you to see from this passage that God is sovereign over all of our suffering. I know you believe that but let’s see it from this text this morning. Now I need to give you a little background before we dig into the text. We’ve got to understand this passage in its context. Why is it that Paul speaks in verse 1 about boasting? He says, “I must go on boasting. There’s nothing to be gained by it but I’ll go into visions and revelations of the Lord.” What’s he talking about here? Well beginning back in chapter 10 Paul has been defending himself from those that he called the “super apostles.” In chapter 11 verse 13 he calls them “false apostles.” These men were calling into question Paul’s apostolic authority and message and when you read all of chapters 10 to 13, they are a unit, and you see that these false teachers were seeking to marginalize the apostle Paul in the eyes of the Corinthians. And so Paul, in these chapters, is responding to their accusations and is defending his apostolic authority and his message in an ironic, sort of tongue in cheek way. He lowers himself, as it were, down to the level of these super apostles. He boasts.

 

But if you look back at chapter 11 verse 17, notice what he says. He says, “What I am saying with this boastful confidence I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast.” And then you look down at verse 21 in chapter 11 – “Whatever anyone else dares to boast of,” – he says, “I’m speaking like a fool” – “I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one,” Paul says. And then he says, “I am talking like a madman.” He’s speaking in this sort of way because the Corinthians, who should have been persuaded by the signs and the wonders that he had performed among them – you notice that in chapter 12 verse 12 – and yet these Corinthians were listening to these false apostles, these super apostles. And so chapter 12 verse 11 he says, “I’ve been a fool. You forced me to it. For I ought to have been commended by you.”

 

And so here as we look at verses 1 to 10 of chapter 12, it’s in this context that we need to hear Paul speaking of boasting in these visions and revelations. He has nothing to gain by boasting in them and yet it’s for the sake of the Corinthians themselves that he tells these stories. It’s his modesty, isn’t it, that it has him speaking in the third person about himself. “I know a man in Christ.” And so in verses 1 to 6, Paul speaks of an experience he had some fourteen years previous to the writing of this letter. He didn’t know if it involved his body and his soul or just his soul. He says that a couple of times in the passage. But he was caught up into the third heaven; another way of saying “paradise.” And he heard things that cannot be told, things which man may not utter. For fourteen years he had kept this experience a secret. For fourteen years he had kept it to himself. And now he relates it but only in order that he might highlight what happened as a result of that experience.

 

And it’s from that result that he mentions in verse 7 that we recognize that Paul is indeed talking about himself. Look at verse 7. “So 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.”  Paul was given a thorn in the flesh. Now this is most likely a reference to some sort of physical ailment, something that was a regular source of pain to Paul like a splinter, like a shard of glass in your finger. It was something that hurt him, that pained him. Commentators are all over the map on what exactly it was; we have no idea. But it was something that was regular, something that we consistent and recurrent. It was there, it pains him, and he clearly wanted it gone. Three times he asks the Lord, “Take this away from me. Take this away from me. Take this away from me, please Lord.”

 

Now here’s a man, you go back to the end of chapter 11, here’s a man who endured all manner of hardship, all manner of hardship. He had gone through all sorts of things and yet he wanted this thorn gone. He wanted it to disappear. He said, “Lord, I’d like this to not be a part of my life any longer.” And of course God answered, “No.” Now where did this thorn come from? Well the text tells us, doesn’t it? There in verse 7 Paul calls it clearly, “a messenger of Satan to harass me.” So the thorn came through the agency of Satan and Satan purposed to torment and to beat Paul down with it. But we know that Satan is not the ultimate source of this thorn. We know that from the book of Job, don’t we? Satan can do nothing apart from the permission and the decree of God. And even here in this text it is evident that God is the true source of Paul’s thorn. How do we see that? Well first because it was given – why? “In response to the surpassing greatness of the revelations.” And it was given – why? “To keep Paul from becoming conceited.” To keep Paul from exalting himself. Now certainly Satan has no desire to keep Paul from pride. He has no desire to keep Paul from exalting himself. He would love to see Paul become conceited. No, this is a divine passive. “There was given me by God – there was given me by God a thorn in the flesh.” The same God who had given Paul these glorious revelations gave Paul this thorn in the flesh and he used Satan like a tool to accomplish his purposes in Paul’s life.

 

Now that’s mysterious, isn’t it? You and I may not understand. We will not understand – how is it that God can be sovereign and He can use Satan and the evil of Satan and the evil intention and purpose and will of Satan to accomplish His good purposes? We can’t understand that. It’s beyond our finite minds. And yet the main thing that I want you to see here is that no matter what you are suffering this day, no matter what you will suffer, whatever weakness or insult or distress or difficulty or persecution or calamity, God is sovereign over all of it. God is sovereign over all of our suffering. He is in charge of all of it. He had ordained that whatsoever comes to pass. Ephesians 1 says that “he works all things after the counsel of his will.” He’s never caught off guard. He’s never surprised. He’s never caught unawares. Now we certainly are. If you lost your job this year you certainly weren’t looking at that. You didn’t think that was going to happen. Maybe you lost your spouse to death. That’s not what you were planning. Maybe your spouse left you. Maybe your child has abandoned the faith. You weren’t planning on that. You didn’t think – that was not part of your plan. It caught you by surprise. A sickness, an illness has happened to you or a family member and you were not expecting it. You were not looking for it; you were not wanting it. But it has not caught God by surprise. God was not napping.

 

When Dylann Ruth entered Emanuel AME this Wednesday night and killed nine people, God was not caught by surprise by that. It was an evil act motivated by an evil heart of racism. Certainly Satan was involved but God was not surprised. God was not caught off guard. No, what Dylann and Satan meant for evil, to use Joseph’s words from Genesis 50:20, God meant and means for good to bring about a glorious result for the body of Jesus Christ. You see, God is able to overrule all the evil of men. God is able to overrule all the malice of Satan to accomplish what He wants to accomplish in the lives of His people.  If you love the Lord, if you have been called according to His purpose, then He will cause all things, all things, all suffering, all weakness, all distresses, all difficulties to work together for your good.

 

Now we see this no place as clearly as on the cross of Jesus Christ, don’t we? The cross of Christ was so evidently Satan’s work. It was from the hatred of Satan for Jesus, the Son of God. Satan is the one who put it into Judas’ heart to betray Jesus. Satan is the one who moved the hands of godless men to crucify Him. And yet what does Peter say in Acts chapter 2? He says that Jesus was “delivered over by the predetermined plan and the foreknowledge of God.” What does the church say in Acts 4:27? “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, the people of Israel.” Alright, here is this human evil that put Jesus to death and yet what were they gathered to do? “To do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” It was according to the sovereign will of God that the cross would occur. And if the cross is somehow both the act of an evil men and the sovereign will of God, if God was sovereign over the cross how much more is He sovereign over the small things in reference to the cross? The smaller things – the wickedness, the evil, the suffering, the calamities that come into our life. God is sovereign over all of our suffering. Do you believe that this morning? Not just here, but is it a part of your life? Have you grasped it? Has it grasped you? Has it gripped you? I don’t know how you would have any comfort without it.

 

A friend of mine, my sixth grade Bible teacher, a year ago lost a son in an auto accident. He was on I-20 somewhere and evidently he fell asleep and drove across the median and was killed in a head-on collision. And in some correspondence with my Bible teacher he wrote this. He said, “I have said it would have driven me insane to think that there was nothing meaningful to our lives but random, uncontrolled chaos. God is indeed enough,” he wrote. “Too wise to be mistaken; too good to be unkind.” Quoting there, I think, Charles Spurgeon. “Too wise to be mistaken; too good to be unkind.” Do you believe that? As you think about what you are walking through right now, do you believe that God is too wise to be mistaken, too good to be unkind? Do you believe that God is sovereign over all of your suffering?

 

II. Our Suffering Comes on Purpose

 

So you can never say those words, you can never say that God is too wise to be mistaken, too good to be unkind, unless you believe that He is sovereign and unless you believe the second thing that we see here in this text – not only that God is sovereign over our suffering but because He is, therefore our suffering comes on purpose, on purpose. Paul is clear here and throughout his letters that suffering is never the result of random, uncontrolled chaos. Rather, God always has a purpose in it. He always sends it on purpose, for a purpose. Here, the primary purpose is very clear. Paul was given a thorn in the flesh – why? Verse 7 again – twice Paul says it, “to keep me from becoming conceited; to keep me humble.” Think about it. Paul had seen things, had heard things that he wasn’t even able to repeat. He couldn’t even say what he had heard. He was brought into the confidence, he was brought into heaven before he died. Now maybe you have been brought into the confidence of a superior or you have been allowed to gain information that no one else knows and you perhaps are tempted to pride, to arrogance, to look down on your peers, your coworkers, because you know things or you have heard things that they don’t know; they haven’t had the privilege of knowing.

 

Paul was just like us. God knew that Paul, if left to himself, his experiences would lead him to pride and God didn’t want that for Paul so He gave Paul this thorn, this suffering. Oftentimes it is the case that God sends trials into our lives – why? To humble us; to keep us from pride. He gives us an affliction. Maybe it’s physical, maybe it’s a spiritual set of temptations that beset us over and over and over again. And why does He do that? So that we might not be able to do everything that we want to do, so that our plans fail, so that we fall on our face, so that He might eradicate the pride from within our hearts. See, your holiness, your holiness is more important to God than your comfort or than your earthly business success or than your surface happiness. Your holiness is God’s concern. And so He will send thorns in the flesh to keep us from being conceited.

 

Maybe you know the words of John Newton’s hymn, “I Asked the Lord that I Might Grow,” and in one of the latter lines God, as it were, speaks and says this. “These inward trials I employ from self and pride to set thee free and break thy schemes of earthly joy that thou may’est seek thy all in Me.” God delights to humble His prideful servants and He is willing to go to whatever lengths it might take to do just that. He delights to humble us to keep us from exalting ourselves by sending trouble and trials. That’s one of the reasons why we suffer. Now one of the great things about the book of 2 Corinthians is that it’s filled with all sorts of reasons. There are a lot of reasons that Paul gives in 2 Corinthians. You can go back to chapter 1 verse 3 and what do you read? “God comforts us,” Paul writes, “in all of our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” What’s Paul saying there? He’s saying that sometimes you walk through a trial for the sake of someone else. And it may be a someone else that you don’t even know yet; someone that you’re going to meet five years, thirty years from now. And you’re going through this trial today because God wants you to be able to speak a word in due season then. God is working compassion, understanding, care in your heart now. God is bringing you through a trial, a circumstance of suffering to make you more ready and able to speak with compassion, to speak with comfort toward those who are afflicted.

 

Think about Naomi who lost her husband, her two sons, was going through a famine – why? So that Ruth might be brought into the kingdom of God. I think about my own experience. My parents, in junior high, divorcing and how painful that was walking through that, dealing with that, continuing to deal with it. Why? I can’t tell you how many opportunities I’ve had to minister the comfort that the Lord ministered to me to minister to others. Certainly the Lord had purposes and plans that He intended to teach me through that trial but it was also, and maybe even if it were only for the sake of other people, would that not have been enough? The Lord brings us through trial and tribulation sometimes for other people.

 

But you go on in chapter 1 verse 9 and you read that Paul says this. “We had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.” Trials come in order that we might not trust in ourselves but in God. See, God knows the propensity of our hearts to trust in our own strength, our own ability, and so He grants us graciously, lovingly He grants us suffering so that we might be made to feel our weaknesses and to depend on His strength. And when He does that, He gets the glory; He gets exalted, not us, because we were made to trust in Him and not in ourselves, says Paul. And that’s what Paul says here in chapter 12 of 2 Corinthians. Paul was given a thorn in the flesh not only so that he would not exalt Himself but also so that Jesus would be exalted, so that Jesus would get the glory. Three times Paul prays, “Lord, take this from me.” And what is the response of the Lord to Paul? “My grace is sufficient for you,” verse 9, “for my power is made perfect in weakness. In your weakness, Paul.” You see, as Paul was weak, then Jesus’ power was more clearly manifested and revealed. Through Paul’s weakness it was more plainly seen that if anything good happened in Paul’s life or through Paul it was not because of Paul but it was because of Christ and His power at work in Paul. That’s the way Paul thought about his preaching – 1 Corinthians chapter 2. That’s the way he thought about his ministry, his whole life – 2 Corinthians chapter 4, “We have this treasure in jars of clay” – why? “So that the surpassing greatness of the power might not be from us but from God.” From God.

 

And this is the way that Paul wants us to think about the normal Christian life, the normal Christian life is a life of suffering. The normal Christian experience is one of great trial and tribulation. Memorize Acts 14:22. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” That is the only way; that is the only path. The only way to get from Point A to Point B is to go through many tribulations. We’ve got to remember that; we’ve got to believe that because Christ gets the glory. As we walk through tribulations, Jesus is exalted. Our weakness demonstrates and shows forth the strength and the power of King Jesus. It makes His strength more conspicuous. Why is a diamond presented in a black box rather than a white box? It’s so that the brilliance, the beauty of the diamond might be even more manifested, that it might be caused even more to stand out and to shine. That’s why God sends trials and tribulations and difficulties and distresses in the lives of His children – so that Jesus’ power might be magnified, that Jesus’ power might be caused to stand out brilliantly, so that you might seek and find your all in Him, not in yourself, not in any other created thing.

 

Haven’t we seen that this past week? I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to listen to the responses of the family members who lost their loved ones as they spoke to Dylann Roof. And the forgiveness, the forgiveness so quickly on the heels of that death – where does forgiveness like that come from? Where does it come from? It doesn’t come from us. Jesus has been exalted this week. Jesus has been glorified this week. Even as you’ve heard some of the media interview these family members you can tell they’re just scratching their head, “We don’t understand this. We don’t get this. How is this possible?” I don’t know if you heard what the mayor said of Charleston. He put it like this. “A hateful person came to this community with some crazy idea that he’d be able to divide us and to start a race war, but all he did was unite us and make us love each other even more.” And you say, “Praise to Jesus!” He gets the glory for that. The suffering, the distress, the pain, the agony in the weakness of those saints, His power is made perfect; His power has been exalted and glorified. And that’s what He does with us, each one of us. Whatever it is that you’re walking through this day, He has you there not only to teach you something, not only to humble you perhaps or to show you how to minister to someone else in the future, but He has you there so that He might be exalted. Ultimately that’s His purpose in all our suffering – His glory; that His power might be made perfect in our weakness.

 

III. We Can Rejoice in the Midst of Suffering

 

And if this is true, if God is sovereign over suffering, if suffering is always on purpose, then the last thing that we see in this text is true as well. Therefore, we can rejoice with strength in the midst of suffering. Look how Paul writes in verses 9 and 10 of his suffering. “Most gladly I will boast, all the more gladly I will boast of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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.” You see these super apostles, these false apostles, they were both seen in all manner of things. Their own preaching gifts, their ability to bring out a crowd, to bring out a lot of money. But Paul says, you see it there in verse 5 – “I will boast of my weaknesses.” Paul’s boasting is in the things that he has suffered. In this word that he uses there in verse 10, “I am content,” it would even be better translated, “I am well pleased. I am delighted.” Paul is delighted with insults and weaknesses and hardships and persecutions and calamities.” This contentment is not merely a grin-and-bear-it sort of passive resignation. This is an active pleasure and delight even in the distresses that God sends our way. That’s what Paul is calling us to – to be well content, well pleased, delighted in the things that we suffer.

 

Why? Because God is sovereign and He sends them on purpose and so we can rejoice. That’s what He says in Romans chapter 5 verse 1. “We exult” – chapter 5 verse 3 – “We exult in our tribulations because we know that tribulation brings about perseverance, perseverance proven character, proven character hope.” James chapter 1 can say, “Consider it all joy my brethren when you encounter various trials because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” How can Paul say that he boasts in, he exults in, he glories in his sufferings, his tribulations? How can he rejoice in something that’s so painful? How can we sing in “Jesus I My Cross Have Taken,” “Go then earthly fame and treasure, come disaster, scorn, and pain. In thy service pain is pleasure.” Pain is pleasure? What is that? “With thy favor loss is gain.” Are we Christians masochists? We just love pain for pain’s sake? No. We delight in pain for Christ’s sake. For Christ’s sake, “in thy service pain is pleasure.” See, the reason that Paul, the reason that you can rejoice in your suffering is because of what Jesus says to Paul in verse 9 – His grace is sufficient for you. It’s enough for you. It’s all that you need. His grace secures to you all good. It’s what David says in Psalm 63, “Your lovingkindness, O Lord, is better than life itself.” Better than life itself. Your lovingkindness.

 

See, Paul knows that when he’s weak he’s actually strong. This is the great paradox of the Christian life, isn’t it? When we are weak we are actually strong. When we are weak the power of Christ dwells upon us. Christ’s power is perfected. That is, it comes to full strength in our lives. When we are dependent upon Him, however He uses us, He gets the glory. Our joy in our suffering is a joy in Jesus; it’s a joy in His grace. I wonder this morning is this a stumbling block to you? It’s been a stumbling block to so many down through the ages because who wants to be weak? Who wants to suffer? Who wants to have difficulties and distresses and insults and persecutions and calamities? Who wants this? We do everything we can, don’t we, to avoid suffering. We play to our strengths. It’s why we live in a world where pseudo-Christianity preaches an anti-Gospel of “Your best life now,” of no suffering, of health and wealth. And it says, “The normal Christian life is one of plenty. It’s one of a complete surface joy.” And Paul says, “No, the normal Christian life is one of suffering.” This is why Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher, rejected Christianity – “Because it was a religion for the weak,” he said. Rather than expressing the will to power, it was a religion based upon a weak Savior who suffered and was crucified in weakness and it called Christians to glory in the fact that when they were weak they were strong. And Nietzsche said, “I will have nothing to do with that.”

 

And yet it’s exactly the case. It’s the weakness of the cross of Christ that was such a stumbling block in Paul’s day to the Jews. With such foolishness to the Gentiles, it was the weakness of the cross by which God demonstrated and accomplished salvation for sinners. It was in the foolishness of preaching, preaching led by a band of fishermen that brought the salvation of the lost. And so now we too take up our crosses, we endure our suffering with great joy, because we know that it is through this suffering that God receives glory, that we are made strong, that Christ’s power is made perfect. We rejoice in our suffering; we are satisfied with suffering. Now does that mean you can never ask the Lord to stop your suffering? Of course not. Paul did it three times. But until He does, until God stops it, the call is to rejoice. The call is to believe that God is sovereign even over this, that He has sent it for a purpose. Even if I can’t see or understand what the purpose is right now, it’s for a purpose. God is using it to make me more like His Son. He’s using it to increase my dependence upon Him. He’s using it to bring glory to Jesus.

 

Back in 1821, the father of Benjamin Morgan Palmer – some of you know Palmer was a 19th century pastor, Presbyterian pastor in New Orleans. He actually preached the dedication of the second building of First Presbyterian Church back in the late 19th century. Well in 1821 when Palmer was just a young, you know less than three or four years old, his father at the age of 31 was called to the ministry and he went to seminary in Andover, Massachusetts. He left his family in South Carolina, in Charleston, and so here’s Edward Palmer’s wife, and they had four children at the time and they’re in Charleston, he’s at seminary, and while they are separated two of their children die. Now this is before the days of email, FaceTime, you can telephone. This is 1831, right? And could you imagine getting that letter? Could you imagine hearing that news?

 

My mom was in our house in Cookeville, Tennessee when the phone rang and it was the coroner letting her know that her husband had been killed in a motorcycle accident. There’s a phone call you don’t want to receive. To receive that letter in Andover, Massachusetts saying two of your children have died. So eventually he got word back to them, they moved up to be with him, and later on when Benjamin Morgan Palmer himself was a father his twenty-two month old son dies. This is Father’s Day and I know there are people in this room who have lost children. What do you do with that? How do you deal with that? You’ve lost spouses, parents. There’s nothing that we can do with that unless you believe that God is sovereign over suffering, unless you believe that suffering comes on purposes, unless you see that you can rejoice even in your suffering, because God is sovereign, because suffering comes on purpose. Whatever hardship you are walking through this day, whatever trial, whatever tribulation, my prayer is that you will remember these verses. Certainly you’ve seen them before but that you would come back to them time and time and time again, that you would meditate on them day and night, that you would know that when you are weak, then you are strong for Christ’s power is perfected in you, that with Paul you would be able to say, “Lord, I am well pleased, well pleased, even delighted in my weaknesses, in my difficulties, in my distresses.” May the Lord give us grace to walk by faith and not by sight, to take of our cross, to follow the Savior. We follow in the Savior’s path and that path is marked with blood and so we are not surprised when we suffer but we follow with great joy. May the Lord enable us to do that. Let’s pray together.

 

Lord our God, we pray that by Your Spirit You would take this Word and You would work it deep within our hearts. Lord, we ask that You would bring comfort to those who are mourning, who are grieving, to those who are distressed and anxious we ask for Your peace. Lord, for those who are afflicted physically by ailments that will never end in this life, we pray O Lord that You would give them grace to say with Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Lord, we thank You that we need never be surprised by suffering. We thank You and praise You that You are sovereign over everything that happens in our life, that You send it for a purpose. O Lord, grant to us the peace that passes understanding and the joy that is inexpressible, that cannot be expressed or explained. Lord, we praise You for this day that You have made, the Lord’s Day, to worship and to rest, to rest in Your love and in Your grace and in Your power. Lord Jesus be exalted we pray. In Your name we ask it, amen.

 

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