I think that most of you know that, for many years now, I have served at the Antietam National Battlefield as a certified guide. There I will occasionally meet with guests of all sorts – from families to a busload of college history majors – and provide for them a tour experience of seeing and learning about the bloodiest day in American history.
The Antietam Battlefield Guides was the vision of a friend of mine, and I was part of the original group of a handful of guys who worked with the National Park Service to establish the program. Years later, there are about 20 people who have this certification. It is very, very rigorous, with extensive reading lists, a very long written test, and beyond that the necessity to put together and present a sample tour with the park historian.
When a new person is in the pipeline to gain the accreditation, they are matched up with several of the veteran guides to sort of help shepherd them through the process. At the beginning of the program some years ago, a couple of the other founding members had more experience with guiding people unofficially, and they shared observations with me that were so helpful – including many tips that I still use to this day.
And now, having gone around that Battlefield about 800 times with groups of people, though some folks still surprise me once in a while with what they’re thinking or asking, I pretty much know what folks are going to say or ponder at every point. For example, I know that many people are going to comment on the unique wooden fences at the one point where we drive between them just beyond the observation tower. I know that at the Burnside Bridge, people are going to look down from the hillside at the shallow waters of the Antietam and wonder why the Union Army’s 9th Corps troops didn’t just wade across the stream (not as easy as it looks – steep, muddy banks). I have now accumulated dozens of these experiences I am able to share with a fledgling guide as to what to expect, and where.
This is an illustration of what it is that I am attempting to do with our fall sermon series. My purpose, as a veteran guide who has been wandering around for years now through the battlefield of life, is to share with you a series of major observations about seeking to live productively for God in a world that does not often honor that endeavor. There are very predictable experiences you are guaranteed to encounter, yet at the same time also many moments and times that are terribly confusing … so I’m saying that the confusion is predictable as well!
This week and next week are a bit different among the nine Sundays of this series. We are presenting 11 total topics in nine weeks, so this week and next week are the two times we need to double-up on subjects.
And so that leads to a title for “part A” for today: “No Pain, No Gain”.
Theme – difficult times become the seed bed for best spiritual growth
Statement – My greatest times of growth tend to follow my greatest times of pain.
Let’s begin with this big idea: That thing in your life – that pain, that persistent problem, that unending frustration, the thing you most want to be gotten rid of – is actually the most useful thing you actually should most want to value and cling to. You want to hold onto this because it is the thing that makes God most dear to you and that will make you most useful to Him.
The truth of this idea comes from a well-known passage in 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul uses a phrase that has become commonplace in the English language (though few likely know it is from the Scriptures) … “a thorn in the flesh.” Paul has one of these, saying in 12:7 – “… a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.”
As is so often true, to understand this comment, we need to go to the broader context, beginning in 2 Corinthians 12:1. This is in the midst of an extended section where Paul is defending himself against a host of accusers who say that he is not truly to be trusted or followed as God’s unique messenger of the gospel. And so, Paul is relating a list of his most significant spiritual experiences that could not be denied. And in doing this, Paul uses here a unique literary technique to step back from speaking about himself in the first person, to using the third person. It would be like me saying, “TSF has this awesome lead pastor. He is this super likeable and handsome guy with boundless energy and youthful enthusiasm!” And all of that is, of course, OBVIOUS; but I might not like to boldly declare “I am so awesome, likeable, handsome and athletic” … though of course it is all very true!
2 Corinthians 12:1 … 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. Paul had some amazing experiences that he could talk about – stuff not seen and known by others, especially his critics.
And here comes his drop into the 3rd person …
2 Corinthians 12:2 … 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. 3 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— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.
What Paul is surely referring to here is an event that happened on a missionary journey with Barnabas in the town of Lystra. They had performed a healing, and the crowds deemed them to be Gods. And the missionary duo had to stop them from offering sacrifices to them as such. And then, in the next verse it says … Acts 14:19 … But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city…
Was Paul dead and resurrected, or just unconscious from fastballs to the head-bone? We don’t know, Paul wasn’t sure; but in any event, it was a miracle. During those moments, Paul had a profound spiritual experience about which he could not relate the details.
2 Corinthians 12:5 … On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 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.
Paul could have boasted in a big way about this experience. It would have been amazing beyond imagination and slain the credentials of his accusers. I think here of infamous line of the great baseball player, Dizzy Dean, who justified his braggadocio by saying, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up; you’re just telling the truth!” But Paul was hesitant to do so, as it would be so amazing as to have people think of him more highly than would be proper.
But to guarantee that he would not be arrogant, to remind him of the source of his authority and capabilities, something else was given to Paul …
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 … 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. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 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. 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.
So, what was this “thorn” given to Paul? Over the years, commentators have had endless guesses. The word in Greek – skolops – speaks of a stake, or a pointed object. One view is that Paul had an eye condition that made him a bit hideous to look at (supported by a time where Paul talked about writing with large letters). Another view is that he had a speech impediment (supported by the statements of critics that he was not impressive in appearance or speech). Others have seen it in more immaterial or spiritual ways – like a psychological condition such as depression or a dark spiritual presence that was constantly nearby.
Whatever it was, Paul would wish to see it removed and prayed intensely for such. But it remained. John Calvin put some words into Paul’s mouth to describe this, “To me there has been given a goad to jab at my flesh for I am not yet so spiritual as to be exempt from temptations according to the flesh … The Lord has provided me with the best remedy against undue elation, for while I am taken up with seeing that Satan does not take advantage of me, I am kept safe from pride.” And then Calvin gives this illustration … “If anyone’s face is beaten black and blue, shame prevents him from showing himself to others, and so when we labor under any kind of infirmity we should remember that we are, as it were, being buffeted by the Lord … so that we may seek humility … therefore let all godly men take note of what a dreadful poison is pride … the first cause of man’s ruin.”
But whatever this was in Paul’s life, it required him to be constantly dependent upon the Lord. God’s grace in it made him sufficient, the inference being that he would be insufficient without God’s grace. Hence, what seems like a pain, is actually a great gain … all because of our need to stay tethered to God. And again, remember the overarching truth of this series?… that what God wants from us more than anything else is our dependence upon Him.
So I would suspect that many of you have already identified something in your life that is your thorn/goad (KJV). How do you deal with it? Let’s summarize with four statements:
1) Your first reaction will be to desire to have the thorn situation removed.
2) You will next learn something you did not previously know and could not have learned without the thorn.
3) Your perspective upon the thorn will change as you discern the divine, higher-purpose purpose for it.
4) You will eventually be thankful for your thorn gift, seeing that God’s power through you is best displayed upon a backdrop of your weakness.
Topic #2 for today … “No Way to Avoid Getting Shot” (Now isn’t that cheerful!?)
Theme – the inevitability of conflict, criticism and hardships – even from fellow Christians
Statement – When I am engaged in an active life of obedience and service, I am sure to be criticized, condemned and run over by some number of other people.
Many of you who will remember or have seen the famous picture of “Tank Man.” This fellow stood in front of a column of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989, the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests by force. As the lead tank maneuvered to pass by the man, he repeatedly shifted his position in order to obstruct the tank’s attempted path around him. He was eventually led away from the scene. The incident was filmed and smuggled out to a worldwide audience. Time Magazine in 2016 listed the photograph as among “The Top 100 Most Influential Images of All Time.”
Living for Christ in a world that hates the objective truth of the gospel (and even sometimes when serving God in the Christian community when you must take a stand that is unpopular with some people) can be a lot like standing in front of a tank. And sometimes the tank will seek to go around you, but sometimes the thing is going to roll right over top of you! But taking the stand is the right thing to do, and getting run over is something that WILL happen … and it hurts … but you’ve got to fix up your wounds and move on.
Actually, this topic is less about action than it is about perspective and calibration – understanding what is normal. Like when you have a new-to-you car, and you hear a particular tick-tick sound in the motor and you wonder about it. But when checking it out with a mechanic you find that it is simply the normal sound this model of engine makes.
Opposition is rather normal. It happened to Jesus, so it will surely happen to us. And it happens especially in a world where down is up, and up is down; yet it also happens even within the community of faith at times.
One of our best study series in recent years was one that we did on 1 Peter, called “Chosen Strangers” … that we are indeed divinely chosen by God’s love, yet living in this world as aliens and strangers. And that leads to the first of five quick statements to make about the inevitabilities of difficulties and conflicts …
1) Remember that you’re an alien in this world.
1 Peter 2:11-12 … Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Both words – sojourners and exiles – speak of the idea of being an alien or foreigner who is only temporarily in residence in a strange place.
I do enjoy travelling in different places, especially Europe. You see so many unique and different things, but the whole time you are there, you never really feel completely “at home.” So many things are different that there is a sort of constant reminder that you are an alien to that culture, a stranger. And that is what we are in this world; we’re never really completely at home. And that is because our true citizenship is in another place.
And in that verse 12 we can see a second point to be made on suffering and opposition …
2) Remember that you’re a witness of the gospel.
The word for “Gentiles” is ethnos, speaking of the varied people groups (in context) who don’t know Jesus as Savior, but who might be influenced to see a completely different life principle that is dynamic within those who name Christ as Lord. The natural reaction when falsely accused is to fight back just as hard. But when someone answers with kindness and grace – as Christ did – it displays a categorical difference that is attractive and life-giving. And perhaps some may be influenced toward life, even to be numbered among God’s people at the end of time.
3) Remember that you have an example of endurance in Jesus Christ.
Notice here in verses 19ff. that the term endure/endurance is mentioned three times, using two different original language words – the one means to continue to carry a heavy burden, while the other means to linger/remain/not flee …
1 Peter 2:19 … For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
And again, this is what Jesus did. And to be able to do what he did is said here to be a grace – a gift – in our lives … to be so identified with him that such events would happen to us.
And this is for us an example – a Greek word used only here in the New Testament. It was a written copy of all the letters of an alphabet, given to beginners as an aid in learning to draw them. And that is what Jesus has given to us relative to endurance through times of opposition! An example that we may copy.
4) Remember that your suffering is a normal experience.
1 Peter 4:12 … Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.
The fiery trial – Peter could have meant this very, very literally. About this time was the persecution under Nero … with Christians being covered with tar and burned – as Nero used this despised element of society to blame for the big fire that burned Rome. Possibly this practice might go empire-wide? Maybe that is reading too much into a mere metaphor, but the persecution was real and pervasive. So yes, it’s normal, always has been, always will be.
“Rejoice” … this shows identification with Christ. You really are part of the family, the fellowship … which is what the word “share” means – is the Greek term “koinonia.”
“Rejoice and be glad” – at the coming of Christ, as it gives more reason to look forward to the “apocalypse”… the word used here.
“insulted” … “glory rests” … Those with a Jewish background would particularly read these verses and think of the Old Testament accounts of God’s presence descending and being around them as a cloud. The idea is to know of the presence of the Lord around you, even when the worst things are happening, and you are in the target zone of the enemy.
5) Remember that you are blessed. (That is not natural, but it is the prescribed perspective to maintain.)
1 Peter 4:15 … But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.
This means to be blessed and pleased to be called a “Christian.” This is one of only three times the word is used in the Bible. Likely, the early first-century usage of the term was completely derisive. Rather, God’s people should hear that name used of them as something that led them to praising God.
As I said about this second topic today, it is less about action than it is about perspective and calibration – understanding what is normal.
I’ve allowed myself to have been too wounded over the years by those who oppose, be they from the outside or the inside. After all, I’m completely positive that my heart is filled with good intents and my best efforts … so why the hostility and opposition? If I’m as bad as some of these folks have said that I am, I should be afraid to ride alone in the car with myself! But it truly helps to know that it is really very normal. Compared to Paul and Peter and the NT writers, I don’t have many problems. And as I’ve spent time with other pastors – such as in the Team 500 gatherings of EFree pastors of churches our size – I hear their war stories, and mine are rather bland and mundane by comparison. I’ve actually had a rather charmed ministry life.
So know that difficult times – both the thorns in life and the opposition from those who don’t understand truth and our calling in Christ Jesus – are gifts of grace. They enable us to grow personally, and they enable us also to endure and live before others in the example of Christ. It is all very normal.
Week Six Items for Discussion
– Can you look back over your life and identify something that you’ve had to live with and endure … something (like a thorn in the flesh) that you now understand has brought you closer to God and more effective in service?
– Could you name some others (perhaps well-known people in the Christian world) who have expanded ministries and impacts they would never have had apart from a severe “thorn” issue?
– Can you think of something in your life now that you really, really wish could be changed, removed, healed, etc.? How might you see a way toward trusting God to allow you to serve Him better, even with or through that residual difficulty?
– Do you feel like you are living in the world as an alien or stranger? Does this seem to be increasingly your observation and experience as the systems of this world coarsen?
– Does the perspective on suffering, persecution and conflict as a normal experience when being a person who takes a stand for Christ and for truth help you to be more at peace about it?
– Have you had opposition and conflict from even within the Christian community? Have you found that hurtful? How might you successfully move on from that experience?
– Are you encouraged toward “endurance” through these themes?