CU Chapel Devotion
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
1 Corinthians 12:1-10
October 8, 2013


TEXT:  [Jesus said] "I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say,or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

            This morning, I want to introduce you to a young man by the name of Don Mortenson.  I met Don when I first started college back in 1982.  Don was in his early 20's, but you'd never guess it to look at him.  He was thin almost to the point of looking emaciated, and I doubt if he weighed any more than a hundred pounds or so.  His body was all bent over and crippled, and he walked with a cane.  Don certainly had his problems.

            When I met Don, he was part of a group of pre-seminary students.  He was studying to be a pastor.  He was taking his Greek and Hebrew classes, and fulfilling all of his prerequisites so he could enter seminary in a few years. 

            I got to know Don because I used to eat lunch with him.  During my first few weeks of school, I saw Don sitting by himself in a corner table in the cafeteria; so I went over and sat with him.  This started something that continued off and on for the rest of year.

            I found out that Don's problems started when he was a senior in high school.  As he was nearing the end of the school year and getting ready to graduate, he got very ill.  After going into hospital for tests, it was discovered that he was experiencing kidney failure.

            He began with dialysis as they searched for a kidney donor.  After a while, they located Don's father, who had deserted the family some time before that, and they convinced him to donate a kidney for Don.  Unfortunately, his body rejected the kidney, so he had to go in for another kidney transplant.  This time the transplant worked.

            But Don had other problems too.  All of the difficulties did other things to his body, so they removed three of his four parathyroid glands.  Unfortunately they didn't get the glands out before his body started to atrophy and deteriorate, turning his body into the frail bent-over person he turned out to be.  When he showed me a photograph of himself taken when he was in high school, he didn't look anything like the handsome young strapping person he was.

            As time went on, I realized that Don was slowly continuing to deteriorate.  Realistically, I began to wonder if Don was going to see the next sunrise, let alone seeing the inside of a seminary classroom.  So I wondered why Don was choosing to spend his remaining days on earth in a college classroom, subjecting himself to the arduous task of a pre-seminary education.  Why was he even there in the first place?  Why wasn't he spending his remaining days with his family, or traveling, or doing other activities that he would enjoy?  Why did he opt to subject himself to an almost impossible task?

            When I posed these questions to Don, his response was, "Well, Paul had his thorn in the flesh, and this is mine.  Satan wants me to give up out of frustration and be angry with God for doing this to me.  That's why I'm here.  I just pray that God is glorified in all this, and that he uses me in whatever way he sees fit."

            As we look at our Scripture reading today, this is Paul's rather famous "thorn in the flesh" portion of his first letter to the congregation at Corinth.  Paul had what he called a "thorn in the flesh," which was a "messenger of Satan," something that Satan was using to try to get Paul to deny his faith, and to stop being the powerful Christian missionary and theologian he was.

            Paul doesn't tell us what that "thorn in the flesh" was.  God didn't want him to share that, and for good reason too.  This is supposed to be one of those sections of Scripture that is subjective.  Everybody has their difficulties and temptations from Satan, and this is different for each and every individual.  So how this section of the Bible is applied works for a wide variety of situations.

            Paul's "thorn in the flesh" could very well have been a physical affliction, like it was for my friend Don Mortenson.  He might have been crippled, or maybe he had poor eyesight, or perhaps he was epileptic, or he could have been hard-of-hearing, or something like that.

            Or, Paul's "thorn in the flesh" could have been one of those "pet sins" that tempt people all of the time.  Maybe he was continually plagued with the temptation to commit adultery, or maybe he had an idolatrous love of money that was common amongst the Pharisees.  Maybe he was tempted to steal, or to do physical harm to his adversaries.  That could have been it.

            Or perhaps it was the persecutions Paul had endured, and would endure for the rest of his life.  In verse 10, Paul does say:   "That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."   Certainly Paul would know the problems persecution would bring; after all, he would be beaten, flogged, thrown into prison, abused, starved, and have a whole lot of things done to him because of his faith.  Eventually his faith would lead him to be executed by beheading.

            Certainly Satan was trying to end Paul's ministry any way he could.  But Paul realized this, and so he persevered with every ounce of energy he could muster, always relying upon God's grace to get him through whatever he had to face.  And that's the message that Paul is sharing with us today.

            Each and every one of us have our own  "thorn in the flesh."  I know that I have my share of them, and I know that you do too.  There are those things in our lives that Satan uses on us each and every day, all of the time.  He uses these things to attempt to draw us away from God, to cause us to lose our faith, and make us put the blame for all of our troubles on God.  Satan wants us to believe that God doesn't love us, that he has deserted us, and that he is punishing us when things don't go the way we would like them.

            Only you know what your own "thorns" look like.  But whatever they may be, we need to do exactly what Paul did.  We need to look to God for his mercy and strength.  We need to look to Jesus, who loved us so much that he endured suffering and rejection the likes of which we would never know, and subject himself to the punishment and death that we all deserve.  Our focus needs to be upon God's strength, and not our weaknesses.

            Listen to the words of encouragement Paul gives to us in verses 8-9:  "Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'"

            God does not want us to boast in our goodness or strength.  He doesn't want us to glory in ourselves and our own self-righteousness.  God wants us to give witness to his strength, his mercy, his grace, and his love.  Our lives are to proclaim his power in the midst of our weaknesses, and his hope in the time of our despair.  This gives glory to our Saviour Jesus who has saved us from whatever Satan has thrown at us, not because of our own strength, but through nothing but faith alone that looks to Jesus as our only hope.

            My friend Don Mortenson continued to get weaker and weaker.  In his second year of college, he was having to miss his classes more frequently.  When the Minnesota winter got worse, Don couldn't even go outside any more.  His room mate would bring him food from the cafeteria.  And as we were getting ready to break for Christmas, our Greek professor took our entire class over to the first floor lounge in the dorm where Don was living so he could attend class.

            The assignment was to translate Luke chapter 2, the Christmas story, and Don had done his homework.  He sat at the table with his Greek New Testament and his spiral notebook that had his translation written in a very shaky hand.  Don was also losing his eyesight, so he was wearing glasses with very thick lenses.  I remember him reading his translation with his nose just inches above his notebook.  And I heard his feeble voice say the words, "Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."    

            That was the last time I saw Don Mortenson.  He didn't come back to school for the second semester.  And as we were coming to the end of the school year, we got word that the Lord had called Don Mortenson to his heavenly mansion that had been prepared for him.

            I can safely say that Don impacted everybody that knew him, especially for those of us who were preparing for seminary.  I can still see him slowly making his way to class, and being the best student he could be.  He was a very sharp and gifted person.

            But I don't think he could have known the impact he had on the people who knew him, even for a very short time.  He knew about his "thorn in the flesh," and he met it head-on with the strength he had from the grace of God, which was sufficient for him.

            Life will always give us "thorns in the flesh" in various ways.  Satan will be working against us.  So when that happens, may we always meet these challenges and difficulties the same way Paul did.  The Lord told Paul,  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  And Paul's response was, "For when I am weak, then I am strong."