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Gracious heavenly Father, we come and we pray again, not out of mere habit or custom but out of a real sense of need. I need Your help to preach Your Word. I don’t want to rely upon past experience or past graces or study or habits. I need Your Spirit. And we Your people do not want to rely upon our own human ears. We need the ears of faith. So work by Your Spirit that You would preach mightily to us through Your Word, that we would be changed, we would be helped, we would be equipped, Jesus would be lifted up. We pray in His name. Amen.
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to 2 Corinthians chapter 12. As our regular members and attenders know, we’ve been taking something of a circuitous path throughout 2 Corinthians for many months, some mornings, some evenings, some both, and then this last one out of order. In fact, I’m not going to be able to cover all of chapter 12 so I’m just going to attempt to do the first 10 verses. These well-known verses to many of us, and I trust will be beneficial for us as we begin this new year, and for some in particular as you find yourself this morning more than you would wish to be sharing in the same sort of sufferings that Paul experiences here.
2 Corinthians chapter 12.
“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.”
There are two different spiritual vantage points in the Bible, and they each have their place. If you live long enough, you will have occasion to look upon the Lord from both of these geographical places.
One such spiritual vantage point is the mountaintop. Think of how many times God arrived and spoke to His people on the mountain. Come back tonight, you’ll hear about the Mount of Transfiguration. You think about God meeting Moses on Sinai, or showing the Promised Land to Moses on Mount Nebo, or being lifted up in some prophetic vision to the mountaintop to see from the Lord’s hand. That’s one spiritual vantage place. The mountaintop and you can see far and wide and hear from the Lord.
The other is the valley. And we have many occasions in Scripture to read of valleys; the valley of dry bones, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” and just as the mountaintop is a place of great theophany and revelation and experience and glory, so the valley is a place of struggle, suffering, endurance.
This sermon, here as we enter into the second week of 2022, is for everyone here who finds themselves this morning in the valley. And if you’re not in the valley and you think, well, good, I can tune out for the next however many minutes, well, I wouldn’t recommend it because someone you know is in the valley, and at some point in this year you will be walking through a valley. We can count on it.
But this is I particular for those of you this morning, you know who you are. No one has to remind you of it. You come here weighed down, burdened, seeing through a glass dimly, walking through the valley.
I want you to notice two words here at the end of our reading. Look at verse 10. Paul says, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content.” And look at with what he is content. He is content, it doesn’t say with a vacation in a villa in Florida somewhere, well, that’s a nice place to have contentment. He’s content with weakness, insult, hardship, persecution, calamity. In other words, he’s at peace with difficulty.
And then notice the other word up in verse 9, “I will boast all the more gladly.” It’s one thing to say, “All right, you’ve wrung it out of me, I will boast I guess if I have to of my weaknesses,” but Paul says, “No, I will do so gladly.” He’s thankful for his weaknesses. This is strange. Who looks at his life and says this sort of thing, “I am content with calamity, I gladly boast in my weakness.”
Now don’t think that Paul was superhuman, that somehow Paul enjoyed suffering. No one enjoys suffering. That’s why it’s suffering. Paul talks elsewhere in this letter of his various burdens, his tears, his afflictions. So Paul is a real person, real feelings, real pain. We read here he wanted to get rid of this thorn in the flesh. He did not want to experience the pain, just like we don’t want to experience pain. And yet he says, “I’m content with weakness. I gladly boast in weakness.”
Think of all that we’ve seen in Paul’s life in this letter. His health; he’s been beaten, flogged, at times cold, naked, hungry. Think of his job. Well, maybe his health isn’t so great, but his job… No, he’s suffering from very low approval ratings in his job. He seems to be falling apart, he’s overwhelmed. He’s not only underpaid, he’s not paid anything, and at times he says, “I have my anxiety for all the churches.” Well, but Paul, your relationships are really good. No, he’s being deserted, rejected, people are questioning his love, closing their hearts to him. And yet, facing all of that, he says, “I will be content.”
How, how can we experience this same contentment, this same glad boasting in weakness? We don’t want to just say, “Well, that’s the Apostle Paul, of course Paul can do it.” No, Paul was a man of like nature as we are. In fact, he faced even more insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities, and yet he comes to the end of this great section and he says, “I am content and God’s grace is more than enough for me.”
I see in these verses four heart attitudes that yield glad contentment in the midst of life’s difficulties. Think of these four heart attitudes as four great snow tires. You’re going to have to imagine when you would need snow tires, but four great tires, or you even got the chains on them, they are ready to go through a foot of snowdrift. They’re ready to face the slipperiest road. You want these four tires on your SUV so you don’t skid off of the road. You can go through life’s difficulties, and they’re still difficult, but you can drive in a straight line. Four heart attitudes.
Number one – think lightly, not proudly, of your most impressive spiritual experiences. This is the first heart attitude we need to cultivate. Think lightly, not proudly, of your most impressive spiritual experiences.
As best as we can tell, the false teachers around Corinth were boasting in three things. They were boasting of their lineage, their accomplishments, and their ecstatic experiences. So what Paul is doing in this so-called fool speech is he’s matching them boast for boast. We’ve seen lineage accomplishments. Here he comes now to talk about his experiences.
He starts in the third person. He says, “Well, I knew a man,” but clearly he then comes to refer to himself, verse 7, “To keep me from being conceited.” So though he wants to and in an example of humility talk about himself in the third person, it’s obvious, and everyone would have known it already, he’s talking about his own experience. He says in particular, verse 2, “I want to tell you about an experience a man had, I had, in Christ fourteen years ago. Boy, was this a real amazing experience. Twice,” Paul says, “I don’t even know, was I in the body or out of the body. I don’t know exactly. It was such an overwhelming, ecstatic experience I can’t even tell you exactly what was happening. But I was caught up,” see verse 2, “caught up into the third heaven.”
Now don’t make too much of that, that you have a very literalistic view of heaven’s various terraces. Some Jewish sources said that there were five heavens, some said seven, some said ten. Most of the time they talked about three. Perhaps because of the language from the Old Testament, heaven and the heaven of heavens. You find this sometimes in Deuteronomy or Nehemiah, for example. It’s likely that there wasn’t some literal “now you take the escalator up to the third heaven and, sorry, you’ll have to go, you know, you’re only in the second heaven but your loved one is in the third heaven, they got a better mansion somewhere up there, that’s where the moms live, the dads are down maybe in the second heaven, grandparents, of course, they get to visit as much as they want up into the third heaven.”
No, the important part is verse 3, this is equivalent to paradise, a man caught up in to paradise. What he’s saying is, “I had a vision. I don’t even know if I was in my right body or not, but I was in the very best that heaven had to offer.”
Look at verse 4: “I heard things that cannot be told, which man cannot utter.” Whether he heard some sort of prophecy about the future or more likely they were just things that were so glorious he didn’t even have human language to utter them on this side of heaven. The Greek says inexpressible words which a man is not permitted to speak. In other words, this is quite a dramatic spiritual experience.
Now notice, unlike best-selling books that always come and go, Paul didn’t die and go to heaven and then come back, and he certainly didn’t die as a little kid and then come back and write about. In fact, he is very reluctant to talk about it. He’s not saying, “Well, I had this, now’s the time to write a book about it, now’s the time to go on a speaking tour about it. In fact, I don’t even want to talk about it.” And as we’ll see in a moment, in fact, he was given a messenger from Satan in order that he wouldn’t be overly proud of this.
But what he had was clearly a dramatic spiritual experience, caught up into the heavenlies of heavens.
Imagine someone says to you, “So, where were you this morning? You seemed a little spaced out, there in your room. Where were you?”
“Well, uh, a little place, maybe you’ve heard of it. Heaven.”
“What were you doing there?”
“Uh, God’s just telling me secrets.”
“Can’t tell you. It’s really between the two of us. Can’t really talk to you about it.”
Yeah, that would be a pretty amazing experience.
Imagine tomorrow morning you’re awakened and there’s a caravan of black SUVs parked outside of your house. Men in black suits with earpieces step out of the car and they escort you to a nearby helicopter. You fly briskly to Washington, D.C., and you land on the east lawn. They bring you into the oval office and the President turns around in his chair and he welcomes you. He asks everyone to leave and he proceeds to tell you what exactly is in Area 51. He knows, and now you’re going to know.
You would feel pretty important. On the way out, he says, “Let’s just keep this between the two of us, you know what I mean?” You would get back, and before it’s even lunch time the helicopter brings you back, the SUVs bring you back, and you go back into your room. Your friends, family, spouse, says, “Where were you?”
“You’re not going to believe it.”
“Well, can you tell me?”
“I can’t tell you.”
That would be some experience.
Paul has something far greater than that. Not the President or some secret about whatever is there in Area 51, but the heavens of the heavens. Things inexpressible to mankind. Yes, you would feel quite important.
Paul says, “I had this experience. It’s true, it happened, it was amazing.” Yet Paul says, “That’s not my boast.”
Wouldn’t it be your temptation? I mean, you would ride on that thing for the rest of all time. That would show up in every Christmas letter from now on: “By the way, just so you remember what happened fourteen years ago, pretty cool, I got a new DVD series come out about it. I got the t-shirts. I went to heaven and all I got was, you know…” You’d have everything. You’d have the merch, you’d have it all. You’d want to talk. You would be hanging your hat on this experience.
Paul says, “I don’t even want to talk about it.”
Profound spirituality experiences can come our way, even mind-boggling, supernatural ones. I wouldn’t surmise that any of us have had an experience like this, but I bet we could talk about strange experiences, not quite able to explain. Maybe one or two key moments throughout our lives where the presence of the Lord felt so real and our spiritual vitality was so alive. I bet we’ve had some of those experiences.
And yet we should follow Paul’s example and treat them lightly, not proudly.
Mountaintop experiences can be good, but they can present us with several dangers.
One, there’s a danger of living in the past. Thinking we are more mature than we are because of some event we’ve had. This happens sometimes. Maybe you really were on fire with the Lord when you were in college and you were in a great campus ministry and you were just growing like crazy and you were getting up and you were fasting and memorizing Scripture and praying and you were doing all of that, and now you know what? That was ten years ago, twenty years ago, that was forty years ago. But you’re still living off of that.
Or some conference you had, or some retreat. There’s a danger of the mountaintop that you think that because you went to the mountain one time that that must be who you still are. Of course, pride is a danger. Paul talks about that here.
There’s also the danger that you become accustomed and you need the next mountain. This especially happens with young people. You think, “Well, that was a great mountaintop experience,” and then when you’re not on the mountain and you’re just in the plateau which is most of life, you say, “Well, I need another mountaintop to keep going. I need another hit of spiritual dopamine.”
There’s a danger in thinking that a profound spiritual experience is the same as Christian maturity. It’s not. Now I am not against experience. I’ve had one or two before. They’re fine. Good. Even Presbyterians like experiences. But let’s realize that experiences alone do not make us qualified to lead others, do not make us qualified to speak for God, even profound experiences. Christian history is filled with a list of frauds who have seduced or deluded followers by claiming divine authority for their mission based upon some personal ecstatic experience.
So whether our experiences are completely authentic or somewhat exaggerated, they are not the measure of Christian maturity. They are not the basis for Christian authority.
Paul is all about experience, but with the exception of his unique call as an apostle on the Damascus Road, he does not rely on these for his credentials. He does not wave around the third heaven card for the Corinthians. He only brings it out, very reluctantly, now because he has to expose the folly of the false teachers and their experiences.
What Paul relies on is what the Lord has gotten him through with his many weaknesses, what the Lord has done through him, his ministry fruitfulness. He points, in other words, to life and doctrine. Look at who I am. Look at the life that I’m living. Listen to the message that I’m teaching, and it comports with the message you receive, the apostolic preaching of the Gospel.
Paul teaches us, by example, think lightly, not proudly, of your most impressive spiritual experiences.
I hope you’ve had some of those sweet times with the Lord in your past, and some of those great experiences, whether in a hospital room or a vacation or a conference or retreat or some many years ago, and I hope you learned from them and I hope you give thanks for them. But let us not mistake them for lessons or reasons to exercise authority or leadership. Let us not depend upon them, but let us think lightly, not proudly.
Here’s the second of the snow tires, the second heart attitude. So that’s the first, you need to think lightly, not proudly, of your spiritual experiences.
Second, receive gratefully, not bitterly, the gift of discouragement. Well, that’s hard. Receive gratefully, not bitterly, the gift of discouragement. You see that in verse 7 with his famous thorn in the flesh. Paul was lifted up so high that he had to be brought low. He calls it a thorn. The Greek word is skolops, and you can read all of the commentaries and everyone try to imagine what this is and no one knows for sure. Perhaps it was something of a physical nature. People speculate Paul must have had headaches and got migraines. Or it was ears, or maybe when he talks about writing with such big letters it’s because there’s something with his eyes. Or people say he had bad eyesight and that was giving him headaches. Or it was an illness or a disability or a disfigurement or a speech impediment. Maybe it was something physical.
Maybe it was something relational, some kind of dark night of the soul or a depression or opposition from others or constant flak from the Judaizers or the super apostles or strained relationships with the churches.
There are so many theories of what it is, and it’s likely good that we don’t know, because if Paul said, “My thorn in the flesh, which are migraine headaches,” all of the migraine headaches would have said, “See? There it is. Paul. I got it.”
But Paul doesn’t mention what it is, and we’re then not meant to know what it is. It’s a thorn because everyone of us in this room can relate, even though we don’t know and maybe we didn’t suffer the exact thing that Paul did whether physical, relational, or emotional. We all can know the experience of having a pain that does not seem to go away.
It’s called a messenger of Satan. You see verse 7? A thorn in the flesh, that’s how we often hear it referred, but also a messenger of Satan.
One author says, “His vision of heaven necessitates a messenger from Hell.”
A thorn was given him in the flesh. Verse 7 says in order to keep him from being conceited, to keep him from being over-elated with his own experience.
So be careful. Before you think, “The one thing I need in 2022, if I could just have this amazing mountaintop, heavenly experience, this private revelation from the Lord,” be careful what you ask for. Because once Paul got that, he needed to be brought low lest he would become conceited.
The thorn was a gift to Paul from his gracious heavenly Father. Yes, we see the interplay of God’s sovereignty, of Satan under God’s authority. Just like with Job, Satan needs permission to torment Job, so in one sense this is a messenger from Satan. Why? Because it’s painful, it’s not desirable, it’s some evidence of the Fall. It’s a messenger from Satan. And yet above that it’s ultimately under God’s providential care. A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan.
Now we read in verse 8 that Paul doesn’t then plead with Satan, “Get behind me, Satan.” No, he understands that ultimately though this may be a messenger of Satan in its effect and in its pain, yet it comes from the Lord’s hand.
“God brought the elated Paul down to earth and pinned him there with a thorn,” is how one author puts it.
Being tormented by a messenger from Satan was better than being ruined by pride. That’s the lesson for us. I wish it wasn’t the lesson. I wish there was some other way, but here there was no other way.
To be pinned down by a messenger from Satan was better than to be ruined by pride. God is gracious to hide our fruit from us. He gives us enough encouragement to keep us going and He hides enough to keep us humble.
Have you ever prayed, “Lord, topple me over before I tear things down”? Have you ever prayed, “Lord, if living into old age would mean that I would ruin some of what you have done through me by Your grace, then let me die a young man”?
Think of the kings of Judah. Isn’t it the pattern throughout Israel’s history, there is this recurring theme that God’s man will be brought low and he’s humble, and in a moment of humility he cries to the Lord, and the Lord helps him and then he becomes strong, and then in his strength he becomes vain and he’s toppled over again.
2 Chronicles 12:1: “When the rule of Rehoboam was established and he was strong, he abandoned the law of the Lord and all Israel with him.”
2 Chronicles 26: “Uzziah’s fame spread far for he was marvelously helped until he was strong. But when he was strong, he grew proud to his destruction.”
2 Chronicles 32: “In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death and he prayed to the Lord and He answered him and gave him a sign, but Hezekiah did not make a return according to the benefit done him, for his heart was proud. Therefore wrath came upon him and Judah and Jerusalem.”
The pattern repeats itself over and over: Humble, helped, strong, proud, cast down.
I said at the beginning that this sermon is for those of you who are walking in the valley, and it is. But even more dangerous than being in the valley… See, we don’t want to be in the valley, the valley doesn’t feel good, the valley is dark, the valley has suffering. But you know what’s more dangerous than being in the valley? Walking in strength.
Now by God’s grace He can give us give us grace to walk in strength and many of the great kings had great strength, like David, but they had great sin.
Beware where you are strong, for there you will be most under attack. Isn’t that always the case? You can see it clearly in other people more than you can see it in yourself. You think about the people you love, you think about your boss, you think about the people you work with. It’s almost always their greatest strengths are their greatest weaknesses.
Where are you strong? Every one of you, even if you’re in the valley this morning, you all have some area of strength. Maybe it’s money, beauty, humor, intelligence, offspring, influence, success, likeability, athletics, music, cultural cachet, position, privilege… Wherever you are strong, realize that’s where you are most liable and susceptible to attack. So whenever weakness can crush our pride, we ought to receive it gratefully.
Listen, there is no enemy in your life, no enemy in my life, so sinister, so stubborn, or so strong, as your pride. Do you believe that? You should. I should. You might think, “Well, the greatest enemy I have is the government. Or the greatest problem I have is this person I have to work with. Or the greatest problem I have is this person that I have to live with.”
No, all of those things could be true, but there is no enemy in your life or my life that’s so sinister, so pervasive, so insidious, as pride. That means any realization of our weakness, any discouragement that could kill some of our pride, ought to be received as a gift from God. He means to keep us safe.
There are so many of my sins I don’t see. My wife sees them, my kids seem them better than I do. Some of you, no doubt, see them. I am sure of this, however. Whatever sins I have that I don’t see, I’m certain that I’m more prideful than I know.
Likely you are, too. We are full of self-reliance, self-regard, self-conceit. We live to be recognized, to be liked, to think ourselves better than others. If we’re here this morning, we think, “Well, I don’t really know that that’s me.” That’s probably because we feel like we’ve climbed to the top of that mountain and we don’t even see it. We are all in need of much humbling from the Lord’s gracious hand, so let us be prepared to receive gratefully, not bitterly, whatever godly discouragement He might give us. Not a despondency, I’m not talking about a clinical depression. I’m talking about the pride that needs to be cast low. I’m talking about Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
When you are brought to see your poverty of spirit, there you are in the position to be blessed. God lays us low because He loves us.
Here’s the third heart attitude: Accept believingly, not doubtingly, God’s severe mercy. Accept believingly, not doubtingly, God’s severe mercy.
Notice in verses 8 and 9, Paul prayed and he did not get what he prayed for. So verse 9, “But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.'” Verse 9 should put an end to any notion that Christians always get exactly what they pray for. You just got to have enough faith and you’re going to get what you asked for. No.
Well, but you say, “Pastor, Jesus makes all of these amazing promises about whatever you ask in My name.” Well, that’s true. Jesus promises that the grand end of prayer will be accomplished, but He doesn’t guarantee the means that we would choose. That is to say we pray for His name to be hallowed in all the earth, we pray for His kingdom to come, we pray for His will to be done, and God promises “I will always that answer that prayer. I will glorify My name. I will bring My kingdom to come.”
But here’s the kicker. We don’t get to choose how God will hallow His name, how His kingdom will come, how His will will be done.
It would be nice if we all in 2022 got to live out a glory story. You know people who seem to have a glory story in their life? Well, they probably don’t, but it’s easy to look that way on social media. It’s easy, maybe, when you just interact with them a few minutes every Sunday. You know people who seem to be living the glory story: I prayed; I got better. My business took off, our family came together, we have the most amazing wonderful times, all of our children know the Lord, all of our grandchildren know the Lord, my church grew, I made a fortune on Bitcoin, etc., etc. Glory story.
Now, listen. If you have people like that in your life, don’t hate on them. They’re probably not telling you the truth, but even if they are, give thanks to God for His immeasurable grace. Don’t be cynical about His power. Maybe He did answer those prayers in amazing ways. Give thanks to God, even if that’s not your story.
But for most of us, that’s not our story. If we live long enough, we will have seasons where it’s not any of our stories. Sometimes you have to say, “This doesn’t seem to be getting better, and it’s not going to get better, at least not soon. It’s going to hurt. The hurt’s not going to go away. Maybe time will help, as the Lord heals a little bit, but it’s going to be there. So God, you’re going to have to help me learn to live with this, because it doesn’t seem like it’s all going to turn around.”
Isn’t it fascinating how Paul actually stopped praying? Now this is hard to, and you don’t want to go too far with this because there’s parables like the persistent widow that Jesus told so that you would always pray and you’d not give up, and yet maybe next to that prayer we need something like this where Paul says three times and then God said, “My grace is sufficient.”
I’m not sure how to hold that together, but here’s one theory. The parable of the persistent widow is the widow crying out for justice. Here it’s Paul crying out to be relieved of his personal pain. So maybe one of the lessons is, yes, if it’s a just, keep banging on the gavel, and here maybe there comes a time.
Now it’s not some formula, you only get to pray three times, make them really count. But I preached on this years and years ago and I made this point, and I did have a woman come up to me after the service and she said, “That was so helpful, because there’s things in my life that I’ve felt like I just need to pray every single day of my life. And you know what? The prayer actually becomes just a cycle of anxiety and worry in my life, so this was really freeing to hear.” Maybe there’s some times and some certain prayers you need to say, “All right, I’ve got enough other prayer warriors in my life. Would you pray for it for me? Because when I pray on this, it just becomes cycling and spinning down the drain of more and more anxiety and worry.”
And there are those times God says, “I hear you. My grace is sufficient for you right now.”
This is not one of those that just, “If you would pray a thousand more times, I’m going to click it. No. You need to learn that this is not going to change, at least right now. That’s not my plan for you. My plan for you is to know more of My grace.”
I’d like, me, Pastor Kevin, I want better circumstances. God says, “Sometimes I’ll change those, but you know what? Instead of giving you more and better circumstances, I will give you more and better grace for those circumstances.” In other words, don’t try to control your destiny even by prayer.
God had other plans for Paul. In your weakness, I want My power to rest upon you. You see that in verse 9. The power of Christ may rest upon me.
One of the hardest things about suffering is when it seems purposeless. I’ve used this analogy before, but you know, the pain of childbearing, I’m told it’s painful. It has looked to be painful the times when I’ve been in the room. Won’t compare the residual pain of a husband who’s suffering there as we stand and watch, munch on snacks. But it’s a different kind of pain.
But here’s the thing about childbirth – something’s happening, something good is happening. You can see, there’s a purpose in this pain. Isn’t this what makes some suffering so excruciatingly painful? You go, “God, what possible reason could You have for this? Why? Why now? Why in the midst of this? Why another thing? Why? How can you possibly have any plan?”
It’s when pain seems purposeless that it becomes unbearable. So part of what God wants us to see, there’s always purpose in the pain. And here’s one of them – so that the power of Christ would rest upon you.
That word “rest,” “episkinoo.” You’ve heard the word “skene” before, from John 1, it’s a word that could be translated “tent” or “tabernacle,” that God may tabernacle with you, that God may rest upon you, that God may dwell in His presence there. That’s part of the purpose, that you would believe that God is with you and He’s got a plan even when you can’t see it.
You will have many occasions in life, and some of you have that occasion right now, to fight the fight of faith, to struggle to believe that God has a reason for His severe mercy towards you. What do you think Joseph thought when he was in the well? Or when he was betrayed by Potiphar’s wife? Or when he was forgotten in the prison? He didn’t see the end of the story.
Moses floating in the Nile. Daniel in the lions’ den. Jesus in the tomb. His apostles didn’t see the story then on that Saturday.
Power is weakness is a constant theme in 2 Corinthians. Have you noticed that?
Chapter 1, verse 8: Utterly burdened beyond our strength.
Chapter 4, verse 7: Treasures in jars of clay.
4:16: Outwardly wasting away, inwardly renewed day by day.
We see this all over the Bible. Abraham, good as dead, can’t have a son, God says I want you to be the father of many nations. Moses says, “I’m not good at speaking,” God says, “Okay, you go and talk to Pharaoh.” Gideon, before you win this battle, you have too many men, you need more weakness. David, you’re the youngest, you’re the smallest, go and fight Goliath.
You think about the parallel even between Paul and between Christ. Three times Jesus sought help from the disciples in the garden. Finally, He had to say, “Not My will, but Yours be done.” Paul maybe was self-consciously following the pattern of Christ who asked three times and three times God, in essence, said, “No, I will give you the grace to endure the trial that is before you. Your circumstances are not going to change.”
God’s severe mercy toward Christ meant exaltation for Him, salvation for us. If God had a purpose in the most exquisite, unimaginable pain in human history, the pain of the cross, He has a purpose in your pain. So we ought to accept it on faith that God raises the dead. He has a purpose.
Accept believingly, not doubtingly, that God has a plan in the midst of His severe mercy toward you.
Here’s the final heart attitude, quickly: We ought to walk expectantly, not fearfully, through the valley. Walk expectantly, not fearfully, through the valley.
So if you’re in the valley this morning, or when sometime in this year you go “I am absolutely, this is what Pastor was talking about, I am now in the valley,” here’s what God wants us to think. He wants to help you and He wants you not to think, “I’m in the valley, that means God has left me.” No, “I’m in the valley, that means God is up to something big. There’s power coming my way. There’s strength. Jesus is going to rest upon me as I walk through the valley. His grace will be sufficient for me. His power will be made perfect in weakness. I wish I wasn’t walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but I am and so God must be up to something good.”
Expect blessing in the valley.
We all want the mountaintops. The view is great. Exhilarating. But the water always runs down to the valley. Grace always flows down.
Yeah, the mountaintop is great, but the air’s thin. It’s hard to have something grow at the very top of the mountain. It’s good to take a picture. Good to be there for a while.
A number of years ago, I don’t know, I wasn’t even 40 yet, I wasn’t old enough to have a midlife crisis, but one of my friends from high school said, “Hey, you want to go climb a 14 or one of these 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado?” I was out there visiting family at the time and then he came and another friend from high school came, and we went up and I think they categorize those things 1, 2, 3, 4, and this was a 2, so basically nobodies like us, you don’t need training. Well, by the time we were scrambling on boulders to get up to I think Mount Yale, should have been Princeton, you know, but it was Yale, when we got to the top, I thought, “I could fall. This is not how I want to go out. If I’m preaching the Gospel up here, that’s one thing, but just walking up here… ” By the time you got up, it was very cold. We did it in the summer and you have to do it really early in the morning because there’s always a thunderstorm comes around lunchtime, so we were dumb guys and we brought this much water. We did a lot of dumb things. But we got up there, we made it. We took some pictures and said this is cool, it’s going to storm, let’s get down.
You can’t live up there. It was worthwhile to see, but we wanted to get back down where there was green, there were trees, there was life, and that meant making the trip down to the valley.
Grace always flows downward. Grace is meant to rest upon those who have been brought low.
If you’ve never read Pilgrim’s Progress, you should. Of course, as Pilgrim, as Christian is traveling there to the celestial city, he has occasion to walk through the Valley of Humiliation. But we will come again to this Valley of Humiliation, we read, it is the best and most fruitful piece of ground in all these parts. Behold how green is the valley. How beautiful with lilies. I have known many laboring men that have had good estates in this Valley of Humiliation for God resists the proud but gives more grace to the humble, for indeed in the valley is very fruitful soil and it doth bring forth fruit by the handfuls.”
And then listen to what John Bunyan says here: “And might it be a less for us to walk expectantly through the valley.”
“This is a valley,” Bunyan writes, “that nobody walks in but those that love a pilgrim’s life. And though Christian had the hard happenstance to meet here with Apollyon, that is the destroyer who wanted to come and ruin his faith. Yes, that happens in the valley, too. And to enter with him in a brisk encounter, yes, I must tell you, that in former times men have met with angels here in the valley, have found pearls here in the valley, and have had in this place found the words of life.
Brothers and sisters, if you are walking through the valley this morning, look around you. Be on watch. Look expectantly for blessing is coming your way.
Let’s pray, and as I close in prayer, fitting, I want to close by reading from the first prayer in the Valley of Vision. Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, You have brought us to the valley of vision, where we live in the depths but You see in the heights, hemmed in by mountains of sin we behold Your glory. Let us learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is receive, that the valley is the place of vision. Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter Your stars shine. Let us find Your light in our darkness, Your life in our death, Your joy in our sorrow, Your grace in our sin, Your riches in our poverty, and Your glory in our valley. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.