Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Transforming Grace

2nd Corinthians 12:1-12 and Mark 6:1-13

 There’s an old expression that I think that fits here:  Familiarity breeds contempt.  For some reason, we human beings think less of those we know than those we don’t.  

 It was even true for Jesus.  This was during the early part of Jesus’ ministry, which was mostly defined by popularity.  People were excited about Jesus and his teachings and his miracles, but not in Nazareth, not his own home town.  There, Jesus was just too ordinary for them.  

 “Where did he get all this wisdom?  Where did he get this authority to do the miraculous?  We know this guy.  There’s nothing special about him.  He’s just a carpenter.  He’s just an average working stiff.  He’s no better than us.”

 “He’s just the son of Mary.”  That was probably a dig at Jesus.  Normally a person was referred to as the “son of” their father, not their mother.  It was probably a way of saying “Jesus is an illegitimate child.”  After all, these people knew that Mary was with child before she and Joseph were married.  “His brothers and sisters live here too.  There’s nothing special about them, so obviously there’s nothing special about Jesus.”  

 And they refused to believe in him.  So Jesus was unable to do many miracles there.  Not because he lacked the power, but because it was contrary to his mission.  God does the miraculous in response to our faith, not to prompt our faith.  Jesus couldn’t do much there because they had no faith in him.

 Not to sound too self-centered, I hope, but I think I know a bit of how Jesus felt.  I can remember some times in my life when I was “rejected” because of peoples’ familiarity with me.

 When I was in college, I went through the process to be approved as a Candidate for Ministry.  And one of the steps is that my home church had to approve me for ordained ministry at charge conference.  In my home church, we often had charge conference on Sunday morning, immediately after worship.  It helped to get people there.  The time came for the vote to approve me, and they sent me out of the room, and when I came back, they announced the results of the vote.  I can’t remember how many votes I received, but I do remember that there six votes against me.  As I was walking out of the sanctuary, I got in line behind two women.  They didn’t know I was there.  And one said to the other, “Did you vote for him?”  “No, I remember when he

was a little kid, running up and down the halls of the church, carrying on, causing trouble.  A boy like that has no business being a pastor.”  I had to laugh.  

 But it wasn’t the only time either.  When I was in college I worked a few summers at Jumonville, one of our church camps.  One day the director of the camp told me that someone had come into his office to question me working there.  He said, “I remember when he was a camper of mine when he was 12 years old.  Boy he was a troublemaker.  I’m not so sure he should be trusted to work here.”  

 On the one hand, these stories are pretty amusing.  But at the same time, they’re pretty scary.  What do we really believe about the grace of God?  Do we believe that the grace of God can change people?  Do we really believe God can use ordinary people for extraordinary things?  Sure we give lip service to the grace of God, but do we really believe God can use ordinary, regular people to do his work?  

 Jesus sure did.  He picked twelve ordinary, regular men to be his inner circle of disciples.  After his rejection at Nazareth, Jesus went back on the road.  He started traveling around the villages of Galilee.  But there were too many of them.  He couldn’t be in more than one place at a time.  So to extend his ministry, he sent out twelve ordinary, regular men in his place, to do his work.  They were ordinary men, but God could do the extraordinary through them.  And God did.  

 Jesus sent them out, two by two.  When a king sent messengers, it was customary to send them in pairs.  That way each could guarantee the testimony of the other.  

 And Jesus gave them authority.  He gave them his authority, to preach, to heal, to cast out evil spirits.  

 And he told them to take little for the journey.  Traveling light meant that they understood the urgency and importance of the task.  They were allowed to take a walking stick and sandals so they could travel quickly.  A staff might also give some measure of protection if they encountered trouble along the way.  But they were to take no food and no money.  They were not to take even an extra cloak to cover themselves at night if they had to sleep out.  They were to take no bag that could be used for carrying supplies or for begging for money.  They were to travel light and trust in God to provide along the way.

 They were to stay in the first house that welcomed them until they left town.  They were to avoid the appearance of seeking ease or comfort if a better offer of hospitality came their way.  

 And if they were rejected, they were to shake the dust from their feet.  It was customary for Jews to shake off the dust whenever they left pagan territory.  And if they were rejected, they were to treat that place as pagan territory.  They were carrying God’s message, and if they were rejected, it was really God who was being rejected.

 And they went, and through the power of God and the grace of God, they did the extraordinary.

 Second Corinthians 12 tells us of another ordinary man through whom God did the extraordinary:  the Apostle Paul.  Now we may not think of Paul as ordinary.  He certainly had a gifted mind and great endurance.  But he was ordinary in other ways.  He was not physically attractive.  He had bad eyesight and other problems.  And he struggled with the same temptations that we all do.  

 In 2nd Corinthians, we learn that his detractors in that city were elevating themselves based on their spiritual experiences, the visions they had.  So Paul also sets out to brag and boast, but not quite in the same way.  Paul boasts about his weakness through which the grace of God has worked.  

 If they could boast about visions, so could he.  He tells about one that he had 14 years earlier.  Now 2nd Corinthians was written about 57 AD, so 14 years earlier would be about 43 AD, which was during the “Silent Years” of Paul’s life, the time between his conversion to Christ and his ministry.  Perhaps this vision was the very one that set him out on his mission.  

 He was caught up to the third heaven, to Paradise.  In the Hebrew understanding of the universe, there were three heavens.  The first is the earth’s atmosphere.  The second is the sun, moon, and stars.  And the third is paradise, the dwelling place of God.  The word paradise originally meant a private walled-in garden, usually a royal garden.  It was the place where the King took his family and closest friends for intimate fellowship.  That’s our picture of heaven:  God’s private garden where he takes his family.  

 Whether it was in the body or out of the body, Paul couldn’t say.  Nor could he even say the things he heard there because they were so amazing.  

 But instead of boasting about that experience, Paul boasted about his weakness.  He wanted credit only for his own words and witness.  And after that vision, God gave Paul a “thorn in his side,” a constant reminder of his own weakness to keep him humble.

 Scholars have debated for centuries about what this thorn was.  Most think it was a physical ailment.  We know Paul had poor eyesight, headaches, and frequent stomach problems.  Some have speculated he had epilepsy or perhaps malaria or maybe a speech impediment.  Or the thorn may have been something else, perhaps sexual temptation or persecution.  

 In the end, we have no way of knowing.  And it’s probably for the best we don’t.  As long as his thorn is unidentified, we can identify with him, because we all have our own “thorns.”  We all have our own weaknesses and failures.  Few of us have visions, but all of us weakness.  

 God’s message to Paul and to all of us is this:  My grace is sufficient.  It is sufficient for whatever weakness, whatever persecution, whatever temptation, whatever pain, whatever trouble we have.  His grace is sufficient.  And God works best through our weakness.

 It’s not about us; it’s about God.  It’s about what God can do through us.  We are ordinary people, but God can do the extraordinary through us.  And when God uses us, we must remember to stay humble, because it’s about his grace working through us, not about who we are.  So no matter how much God changes us or how God uses us, it’s still all about God.  

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