Sunday, November 13, 2011

Thorns, Stakes and Roadside Bombs

2 Corinthians 12:1-10   It is necessary to brag, not that it does any good. I’ll move on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven fourteen years ago. I don’t know whether it was in the body or out of the body. God knows. I know that this man was caught up into paradise and that he heard unspeakable words that were things no one is allowed to repeat. I don’t know whether it was in the body or apart from the body. God knows. I’ll brag about this man, but I won’t brag about myself, except to brag about my weaknesses.
  If I did want to brag, I wouldn’t make a fool of myself because I’d tell the truth. I’m holding back from bragging so that no one will give me any more credit than what anyone sees or hears about me. I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited.
  I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone.  He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.

Good morning!  It is my great honor and privilege to be bringing the Word and celebrating our great God in worship with y’all this morning.  Friday was Veterans’ Day.  It was an emotional day for me.  I have always been patriotic, but since I just returned from Iraq, Veteran’s Day took on added significance this year.  

Veterans’ Day began as “Armistice Day.”  World War I ended on November 11, 1918, with the signing of the Armistice by the Allies and Germany. In the first Armistice Day proclamation in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson called for the nation to remember those who had died in their country’s service and to make the day an opportunity for America to "show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation."

Armistice Day became Veterans' Day by an act of Congress in 1954, changing its purpose and scope. President Eisenhower called on the nation to remember the sacrifices of those who fought in all our nation's wars, to celebrate the contributions of all veterans of military service, and to rededicate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace. It is Eisenhower's call that remains the three-fold purpose of Veterans' Day: remembering those who fought and died, celebrating all veterans, and promoting an enduring peace.  I like that, don’t y’all.

Especially that last part--promoting an enduring peace.  As Christians, as disciples, as apprentices of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace it is important for us to promote peace.  I believe it was Jesus who said something like “Blessed are the peacemakers...”  On this Veterans’ Day weekend I am also reminded of what Jesus said in John 15:12-13 “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.”  Shortly after Jesus said that, He proved it by going through the shame, humiliation and pain of the cross for all who call on His Holy Name.  What a friend we have in Jesus! Amen!  But that’s not all! On the 3rd day, Jesus rose in victory over sin and death and spent 40 days with His friends.  He was in a new, resurrected body, but he still bore the scars of the battle.  

In our text from 2 Corinthians 12 this morning the Apostle Paul speaks of his on-going problem.  His “thorn in the flesh.”  The battle between the Kingdom of God and Satan’s defeated kingdom of this world and the flesh left Paul scarred.  Throughout human history warfare has left its mark on service members and their families.  As the cliche says, “All gave some.  Some gave all.”  I do not bear any visible scars from my experience in Iraq, but I assure you being in a combat zone, even in the relative safety of our Forward Operating Bases & never going “outside the wire,” makes a profound impact.  I am still discovering the depth of the scars from my time Iraq.

One person who bears visible scars from war is J.R. Martinez.  J.R. is an Iraq war veteran, motivational speaker, an actor on ABC's All My Children, and a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.  In April 2003, at 19 years old, he was serving as a Humvee driver for the U.S. Army in Iraq when his left front tire hit a land-mine. He suffered smoke inhalation and severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body. 
J.R. was immediately evacuated and sent to Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio where he spent 34 months in recovery. Since his injury, he has undergone 33 different surgeries, including skin grafts and cosmetic surgery. During his recovery time, J.R. found a new purpose in life.   He has traveled the country since 2004, spreading his message of resilience and optimism. Today he is a sought-after motivational speaker and has shared the stage with many notable individuals. His scars are still visible.  His pain is real, but God redeemed the situation.  God’s grace is more powerful than land-mines!

The Washington Post (November 26, 2005) ran a story of another Iraq War hero, Army staff sergeant Hilbert Caesar.  He was in charge of a long-range 155mm howitzer — a self-propelled gun that resembles a tank. He was out on patrol in Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded. When the smoke cleared, Caesar looked down and saw that his right leg was severed in three places, flipped backward, just dangling by the skin. He tried to give his machine gun to a fellow soldier, but discovered it was bent. Then he yelled for the howitzer hatches to be closed, and thought to himself, “Oh man. This is it. My life is over.”
But he didn’t die. The insurgents responsible for the attack disappeared, and Caesar was transported to safety. At Walter Reed Hospital, his missing limb was replaced with an artificial leg of plastic and steel. 
Still, he felt despair about his future. He was in pain, and was worried that he’d never be able to run again, or be attractive to women. He received word that eight men from his platoon had been killed by a car bomb in Baghdad, including one of his role models. The news was devastating.
But little by little he began to shift focus. Caesar met other injured soldiers and heard them talk about their recoveries. He began to look for the best, and realized that he was fortunate to make it back from battle with just one missing limb. “I’m grateful for that,” he told The Washington Post. “I’m thankful for just being here.”

Caesar now completes marathons in racing wheelchairs, and has found a job with the V.A. He sees the loss of his leg as a minor setback, and believes that he has come out of the war with more wisdom, compassion and appreciation for life.  --Hilbert Caesar has experienced “post-traumatic growth.”  God’s grace is more powerful than roadside bombs.
A number of psychiatrists and psychologists are beginning to see that not all soldiers return from war with shattered spirits. A number are emerging from the experience feeling enhanced. Now this is not to say that war is heaven — rather than that other place. It’s not desirable or healthy or good. But it can lead to personal growth.

The same thing happened to the apostle Paul after he was stabbed with a “thorn” in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). We don’t know exactly what this thorn was, although biblical scholars have suggested that it could have been anything from epilepsy to stuttering, depression to eye problems. What’s important is that Paul considered this affliction to be a painful trap or torture designed to take him out of the spiritual battle plan. 

Back in the first century, sharpened wooden stakes were often placed in pits, with the hope that enemy soldiers would fall on them and be impaled. These stakes were also used as a method of torture. Sharpened stakes were the roadside bombs of the ancient world, and they were described in Greek by the word skolops — the exact same word that Paul uses for his thorn in the flesh.
So Paul was stabbed — by a messenger of Satan, he says — “to torment me, to keep me from being too conceited” (v. 7). He could have given up, assuming that his life as an apostle was over. But instead, he discovered that it was just beginning.

Three times he pleaded with the Lord to remove the skolops, but God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).  God’s grace is more powerful than a thorn in the flesh.
Power is made perfect in weakness. As amputee Hilbert Caesar says, “It makes me appreciate life a whole lot more.”
Power is made perfect in weakness. As Adam Replogle, a tank gunner who lost his left hand in Iraq, says, “Sometimes it takes people a lifetime to realize what [life is] all about … you go through something like this and it grows you up a little bit.”
Power is made perfect in weakness. As Tom McNish, a former Air Force pilot who was a prisoner in North Vietnam, reflects: “There is no question in my mind that the experience I had in Vietnam has had an overall very positive effect on my life.”  Not that McNish recommends it for anyone else. Or that he would want to do it again. It was truly a time of suffering, after all. But you can’t have post-traumatic growth without trauma.

Think of a time when you have experienced spiritual growth. A shift in priorities. An increase in personal strength. A renewed appreciation for life. A deepening of personal relationships. Have these improvements been the result of smooth sailing and easy living?
Hardly. These kinds of growth come from stress, struggle and suffering.  My year in Iraq provided me opportunity to suffer a little and to grow a lot.  Despite the training we received before arriving in Iraq, I still wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, and that was stressful.  Even though I never went outside of a military base in Iraq, I did travel to bases all over the country visiting my soldiers--that was a little scary at times.  Throughout the time there, rocket and mortar attacks were very common.  Usually, casualties from these attacks did not happen or were minimal, but not every time.  One time when a rocket attack was lethal, I  volunteered to go to the base where the attack happened just hours after we lost 5 heroes and dozens were injured severely.  I experienced the presence of God working through me to provide comfort and hope to many of the soldiers who lived through that horrific morning.  It was very demanding physically, emotionally & spiritually, but God’s grace was more than sufficient for me that week.  Living through that confirmed God’s calling on and presence in my life.  My faith is still growing as a result.  God’s grace is more powerful than grief and fear.

The longer we live, the more stories we have to tell.  The proof of God’s activity in my life, in Paul’s life, and in the lives of the Corinthian and all Christians, is ultimately not magnificent spiritual visions or miraculous physical healings. The proof of God’s activity is the grace that sustains us even in our weakness, for it is in those moments that we recognize the power is not our own but must come from God. Boasting in our own power is foolishness and accomplishes nothing; boasting in our weakness may just remind us that “the power of Christ” also resides within us. The thorns, stakes and roadside bombs of life are unfortunate, but if we let Him, God can redeem those situations and we learn some powerful life lessons... First, trauma moves us from isolation to community, second, trauma shifts us from self-reliance to God-reliance and third, often God will give us deliverance and victory in the midst of the pain!
Through trauma we often move from isolation to community. Looking back on his experience in battle, Hilbert Caesar says, “The guys I served with were awesome guys.” Shared suffering creates a bond that sometimes is even stronger than our biological family.  Times of pain and suffering can force us to turn to each other, rely on each other, and serve each other — sometimes in sacrificial ways. SSG Caesar insists, “I would go through it again — for the guys I served with. Yes. Absolutely. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”  

We are created in the image of God.  Our God is relational--One God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Therefore, to truly live into the divine image in which we were created, we need to be in healthy relationships.  Trauma can be the catalyst that moves us from isolation to community.

That reminds me of a story...A fellow slid his truck off a road and ended up in a ditch. A farmhouse was nearby so the motorist asked the owner if he had a tractor he could borrow to get his truck back on the road.
“Nope, but I got my mule, Blue,” said the farmer.
“I doubt a mule is strong enough to pull my truck out.”
“You don’t know Blue,” said the mule’s proud owner.
So Blue was hitched to the truck. “Pull, Blue!” 
The truck didn’t move. And the farmer then called out, “Pull, Elmer!” 
The truck moved a little. Then the farmer yelled, “Pull, Biscuit,” and the truck was free.
“Thank you so much,” said the truck owner. “But I have a question. You called your mule by three different names. How is that?”
“Simple,” said the farmer. “Blue is blind. And if he thought he was the only one pulling, your truck would still be in the ditch!”  As long as Blue didn’t think he was doing it all himself, he was able to do the job!

We are not alone.  Jesus promised to be with us always. The greatest way through which we experience the presence of our Risen Lord is in the gathered body of believers, the ecclesia, the Church.  In the life of the church, it is typically trauma that moves us from isolation to community. Sure, festivities can be fun, but their effect is usually superficial. What binds us together as members of the Body of Christ are illness, grief, struggle, adversity, confusion and crisis.  

Share a meal with a neighbor at a potluck, and you’ve got contact. Carry a meal to a neighbor after a death in the family, and you’ve got community.

Soldiers find that they gain strength and inspiration from each other as they talk about their injuries and their recoveries. They become more resilient as they offer encouragement and support. Helping others in shared suffering is the greatest path to recovery.  The same is true as we gather in the church to talk honestly about our struggles, and to share insights we’ve gained from our successes and failures. Whether the challenge is raising teenagers, overcoming addictions, managing money, or adjusting to the loss of a loved one, there is a tremendous benefit in moving from isolation to community. When we gather together, we discover that power truly is made perfect in weakness.  God’s grace is more powerful than thorns, stakes, roadside bombs or anything else life throws at us.

The second benefit of trauma is that it shifts us from self-reliance to God-reliance. It’s clear from Scripture that this was a major move for the apostle Paul, a superstar of the early church who described his qualifications by saying, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews … as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6).  Today, Paul might say: Yale University, Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law, Wall Street, the White House. But Paul tosses all these credentials away, pitches them into the garbage, because he has discovered the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. For Paul, a connection to Christ is what saves him from sin and makes him right with God, and he values this relationship above all else. 

Because of Jesus, Paul moves from self-reliance to God-reliance.
But this is not the end of his story. Paul encounters suffering. A roadside mine is triggered, a bomb explodes. This skolops, this sharpened stake, this roadside bomb, this personal trauma, has the effect of mediating God’s grace to him. Paul knows that even good revelations can shift his focus away from God and toward himself, and so the thorn comes.  Satan tries to discourage Paul, but instead the effect is to keep him connected to Christ.

“Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,” admits Paul, “but [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’” (vv. 8-9). Paul begs that the thorn will be removed, just as veterans of war plead that their pain will end, and their bodies will be restored. But the message Paul gets is that God’s grace is sufficient, in any trauma, in any time, in any situation.  God’s grace is more powerful than thorns, stakes and roadside bombs.
Here’s the deal: Sometimes deliverance and victory come by removal of the source of pain. That’s not how it worked in Paul’s case. The lesson he learned is that often God will give us deliverance and victory in the midst of the pain!

This is what the men cited above came to learn — even if they might not express it that way. God’s grace is sufficient. God’s gift of himself, his gift of Jesus, is enough — enough to overcome any obstacle.  God’s grace is more powerful than thorns, stakes and roadside bombs.

This is what Paul learns in his time of post-traumatic growth: God’s grace is sufficient. God’s grace is powerful.  This is a lesson that we can learn as well, as we discover the power of God’s grace in our communities of faith, and in our increasing reliance on the Lord. In fact, we may even follow Paul in actually boasting of our weaknesses, because when we do this the power of Christ will dwell in us. “I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ,” says Paul to the Corinthians; “because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.” (v. 10).

Reliance on God moves us from weakness to strength, from agony to ecstasy, from cross to resurrection.  It’s a perfect power. On the other side of pain.  Our God is an awesome God and His grace is the most powerful thing in the universe!  Amen.

1 comment:

Mitchell said...

Happy Veterans Day, and thanks for your service.