It was a great privilege to be able to Preach at the Northern presbytery Prayer and healing Service on Sunday Night. With my opening quote I did wonder if I should have bought some coffee grinds and other grime with me to throw on the carpet. But common sense won out in the end.
" Some of us have been playing the part of a vacuum cleaner salesperson” says Paul Metzger,” with our "before (I met Jesus) and after ( I met Jesus) sales pitch." We promote Jesus like he's a new and improved Hoover, who will suck out all the messiness and dirt from our lives-only to find out to our horror and dismay, that he actually makes things messier.”
Tonight I don’t want to give that kind of sale pitch I want to focus on the passage we had read out in 2 Corinthians 12. It may seem a little strange and almost defeatist to speak at a prayer and healing service about a time when someone fervently prayed for a situation and the answer was “no”, they didn’t get healed. But in Paul’s experience there is something profound and important and real for us, the grace of God… “My Grace is sufficient for you”… it’s not a cop out a consolation prize It is a real hope from a real God in the midst of the real messiness of life. “my Grace is sufficient for you”… it is what carries us through in the face of suffering and sorrow, life’s ebbs and flows …”my grace is sufficient for you, in your weakness I am made strong”… it is the basis of meeting our deepest, if often unacknowledged, need for forgiveness and relationship with God…”my grace is sufficient for you”… it is the basis of knowing God’s presence and blessing “my grace is sufficient for you” and it is the basis of praying for healing and help and seeing God answer…”my Grace is sufficient for you.”
Paul is having to defend himself and his calling as an apostle before the church in Corinth. In chapter eleven he speaks of his suffer for the gospel, then he goes on to describe for the super spiritual folk of Corinth about dreams and visions and then turns round and says that he will boast more about his weaknesses than these things. And he proceeds to tell them why. He talks of suffering from a thorn in the flesh a messenger from Satan, and fervently praying for it to be taken away three times and finally receiving a different answer from God “my Grace is sufficient for you, in your weakness I am made strong” It is Paul’s reliance on Christ not his own abilities that matters.
We don’t know what that thorn in the flesh was, people down through the ages have suggested many things; physical disabilities of different kinds, epilepsy, migraines, losing his eyes sight have all been suggested, wrestling with nagging doubts, emotional issues, a temper that left him full of regret and humbled when he lost it as he had with the Corinthians. Some wonder as it was a messenger from Satan that it wasn’t another person whose constant ragging and bagging dug in and tried to rob Paul of joy and life. All we know is that Paul saw it as more than just a pin prick or prickle, rather a constant source of pain, a festering sore maybe if he’d been into vampire movies he would have used a different metaphor… like a stake to the heart. Paul also saw it as a spiritual attack.
Paul tells us that he prayed three times, and I don’t think that means just three quick arrows prayers like the ones my Mum used to talk about when she needed a car park close to a shop on a rainy day. More like three seasons of prayers, In his book “God on Mute” on wrestling with illness and the seeming silence of a closed heaven, Pete Grieg likens the emotional and spiritual process of prayer with that of the passion narrative, the Easter story, maybe here Paul encounters his own three long dark nights in gethsemane, or even the depths of the tomb.
Then, like the dawning of resurrection sunday,there is an answer, not that the thorn is removed and taken away, but rather an assurance from his saviour and his God, “my grace is sufficient for you, in your weakness I am made strong”.
And in the face of suffering and wrestling with this issue Paul finds light, insight understanding and peace. The thorn is not taken away But Christ answers Pauls prayer “my grace is sufficient for you” and Paul sees that it is in God’s continued presence and aid that there is victory over that thorn: That in facing that issue in the strength and goodness of God that he is able to testify more fully to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Last year I started to preach a series of sermons on whatPhilip Yancy calls ‘the question that will not go away’… where is God when it hurts? I wanted to be able to provide people with good solid theological reflection and readily packaged answers… I wanted to be that Hoover saleman. But as I looked at how God’s people had dealt with that question in the scriptures I discovered it wasn’t with pat answers and sound bite sized slogans. Rather there was a great pouring out of the depth of their souls in poems and prayers, songs of lament and longing. But in the midst of that there is a pattern of growth, a journey to accepting that “God’s grace is sufficient for you”. Walter Brueggemann, describes this pattern in the psalms as a three step process. psalms of orientation, when it all seems as it should be, it’s all beer and lamingtons and makes sense and God is blessing us. The Happy clappies if I may be so flippant. Then he talks of psalms of disorientation, which he likens to times when you’ve gone to the beach and gone out into the water on a clam summers day only to be meet by storm swells that pick you up and toss you round and round and as you recover spluttering and gasping for air another wave picks you up and rubs your face in the sand again, times when you wonder where is God in the midst of this. Then he talks of psalms of reorientation; when people discover the closeness and the presence of God with them in a way that enables them to carry on through lifes journey in the sure knowledge that God is with them and able to be sufficient for their needs, whether there is an answer, a healing or not. God’s goodness and grace and God’s presence and power is there with us. They are reorientated from the problem to the wonderful presence of God. “my grace is sufficient for you.”
More than that for Paul and for us in that answer is the reassurance that our deepest needs are able to meet in Christ. That in the grace of God our need for forgiveness and reconciliation with our maker and the world around is met. In the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has made a way for us to come back to know him and as john’s gospel says to have new and abundant life in Christ. That is the most amazing gift of God’s grace, it is the greatest healing and answer that we could hope for.
In Philippians chapter 3 Paul likens God’s Grace to the inorganic rubbish collection. Or at least that is the picture that comes to mind for me. You know when it’s on because as you drive down the street outside everyone’s home is that embarrassingly large pile of broken, worn out and no longer working or wanted stuff. And Paul talks about all the things that he had going for him in his religious life before he met Jesus, and finishes by saying all this I pack up and toss out on the roadside for the scavangers and the rubbish collectors, compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ.
In the passage we had read to us in John today, we have one of my favourite stories of healing in the gospels. As I was re-reading it recently something that Jesus said really jarred me, it was like a slap in the face. When Jesus meets the man who he had been paralysed for 38 years and who he had healed, he warns him to stop sinning or something else even worse may happen to him; and I instinctively through what could be worse than being paralysed for 38 years being abandoned by your family and friends and have a vain hope of getting into the water of a pool rumoured to have healing properties when the water was stirred. But as Leon Morris says Jesus words are a call to him ‘that while he was now standing that if he did not come to Christ and live in a new way that he found himself in danger of standing in God’s judgement. Jesus compassion for the man went beyond simply his physical need for healing but for his wholeness and spiritual healing as well… to receive a total new life in Christ. Hear again the wonderful life giving forgiveness and reconciliation with God in the words “my grace is sufficient for you.”
Finally, can I say that that answer for Paul was not an admission that God does not heal. Paul had come to God with confidence and assurance that God was able to free him from his thorn in the flesh, that any messenger of Satan would have to flee at the power of Jesus name. Paul believed in Praying for people to be healed and that God healed people. A quick tour through the book of Acts and you see that this was his experience. In Acts 14 for example, in a small town called Lystra, they heal a man who had been born lame and the people think a god has come amongst them. Paul would have known the gospel narratives even if it was only as oral tradition, he would have known that by the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus had healed many people. So he would have prayed expecting that God would answer and free him from that thorn in the flesh.
“My grace is sufficient for you” is the basis for that. That not only has the grace of God shown in Jesus enabled us to know and experience forgiveness and the presence and love of God in our lives, but that kingdom of God has broken into the realm of humanity and the consequences of our broken and fallen world are able to be put right, we can be healed and restored. One of the things I love about the story of the man at the side of the pool is how it shows us the grace of God in Christ. Jesus had come to the festival and instead of being with the crowds partying at the temple, here he was with the broken and sick and abandoned by the pool at the sheep gate. In John’s gospel Jesus seems to know because of his divine origin what is going on in people’s lives and heart. But here it says Jesus found out about the man who had been there lame for 38 years. He had spent time hearing the stories listening to the people by the pool. The thing that amazes me the most is out of all the stories of healing in the gospels this one seem to happen with no mention of faith, it is all about Jesus initiating it, it is all about the grace of God. When Jesus asks the man if he wants to be well all he gets is the litany of woes and why not’s. Despite this Jesus speaks healing into his life. God’s grace is sufficient. It reminds me that healing is not dependant on the faith of the prayer or the person being prayed for it is the compassion and love and power and grace of the one being prayed to “my grace is sufficient for you.” The all sufficiency of God’s grace.
So tonight, for you here, how do you hear and recieve… “My grace is sufficient for you” do you hear it as an answer, an assurance of the presence and the love of God in Christ for you in the face of the ebbs and flows of your life.
Maybe even a door way to step through to trust Jesus in the next messy phase of your life’s journey as you like paul take on the ministry of the gospel in the church and outside. “My grace is sufficient for you”.
Do you hear it tonight as a call, you know you need to find that life that Christ offers. You know your need for forgiveness and new life… Not a empty promise that everything is going to be wonderful and rosey, but that a real God wants you to know and accept his real love in the midst of your real life. “my grace is sufficient for you”
Or tonight you hear it as an invitation, “do you want to be well?” do you want an answer in the situation you find yourself in? “my grace is sufficient for you”.