When I was growing up, we were quite faithful in attending the evening worship services of our church. In fact, I never got to watch “Bonanza” or, as Thomas Gill once told me was true of his experience here in this church, see the conclusion of “The Wizard of Oz.” We’d get near the end of the movie and then have to leave for church because Sunday night was for Training Union and worship.
And in a time before VCRs or TiVo, if you missed it, you just missed it. I remember attending eighth grade classes at Paragould Junior High the day after the Beatles premiered on the Ed Sullivan Show. Everybody was buzzing about this new rock-and-roll foursome from England called the Fab Four (“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”). You could tell who the Baptist kids were, though. We liked the Beatles’ music a well as anybody, but not on Sunday night. We couldn’t join in the conversation. We had been in church.
Funny, but I don’t feel particularly deprived because my folks made us go to church on Sunday nights.
I remember something else about Sunday nights at church. Occasionally, our pastor, rather than preach a sermon, would ask for impromptu personal testimonies from the people in the pews. More often than not, it was the same ones offering their testimonies who did it the last time around, and their stories rarely changed.
It was kind of like public prayers. When the pastor called on certain people to pray, you knew what they were going to say before they said it because they said it the same way every time. But we didn’t mind. Sunday night personal testimonies were a departure from the ordinary, and every once in awhile someone said something that was a bit new and different, and even invoked the raising of an eyebrow or two. “They really did that?! Why, I never would have known. Glad I came to church tonight.”
But then, as we left church, you could hear people saying quietly to one another, “Brother Whitney didn’t prepare a sermon for tonight. That’s why he called for testimonies.”
Paul is writing to his younger ministry colleague Timothy. You can tell that Timothy is younger because of the advice the more experienced Paul tosses his way, especially when it comes to the teaching of false doctrine. “Instruct certain people… not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith.” It’s doubtful Paul would have sounded that authoritarian to someone who was older. However, when it comes to Timothy, he gives lots of advice.
But for some reason, just when he really gets rolling, Paul switches gears. It may have been the word-association thing. Paul is talking about the law, and what constitutes sound teaching, “that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me” (1:11).
“… the glorious gospel… which he entrusted to me,” Paul says. You can almost see Paul, as he finishes writing these words, lean back in his chair, take off his reading glasses, and sit reflectively for a few moments. “…the glorious gospel… which he entrusted to me.” His eyes get a bit misty, he folds his hands together, almost as if in prayer. Then, after a few moments of reflection, he leans back over his writing pad and launches into his personal testimony.
“Speaking of God entrusting his glorious gospel to me… I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service…”
Paul then opens up his heart to Timothy as he reminds him of what he once had been… a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. “But I received mercy,” Paul says, “and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
There is no advice here; just an open-hearted desire to tell his young friend how far he had come because of the mercy and grace extended him in Christ Jesus. “But I received mercy,” he says, “and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me…”
I don’t know if it really happened, but there’s been a story circulating for at least as long as I’ve been a pastor – well over thirty years. I’ve never used it in a sermon, until now. This is the way the story goes…
A pastor search committee was having a difficult time finding a person they thought suitable for their church. They considered a number of candidates, but none seemed to be the kind they felt they needed for their particular challenges as a congregation. One candidate after another was rejected for having some fault or another. If he could preach, he was a lousy administrator. If he was a capable administrator, he couldn’t preach. That sort of thing.
Finally, one of the committee members lost his patience. He stood up and read a letter from a pastoral candidate. It went like this…
“Gentlemen, understanding your pulpit is vacant, I would like to apply for the position. I have many qualifications. I’ve been a preacher with some success and am also noted as a prolific writer. Some say I’m a good organizer, and I’ve been a leader in most places I’ve been.
What I do is a labor of love from the grace of God that is within me. Therefore, I require no payment for my services, and am willing to find employment elsewhere in addition to preaching the gospel.
I am over fifty years of age, though I have never preached in one place more than three years. In some places I have had to leave town when my work has caused disturbances or riots. Since you will no doubt want to do a background check, please be advised that I have been in jail three or four times, but not because of any wrongdoing on my part.
My health is not too good, though I still manage to accomplish a great deal despite my infirmities. The churches I have served have been small, though located in large cities. Admittedly, I’ve not gotten along very well with religious leaders in the cities where I have preached. In fact, some have threatened me and attacked me physically.
I am not too good at keeping records. I have even been known to forget who I have baptized. However, if you can use me, I will do my best for you. Thank you for your consideration.”
The member of the committee who read the letter said to the others, “Well, what do you think?” They were astonished. Why would they ever consider such a person as that? Who signed that letter? The man looked at them and said, “The Apostle Paul.”
“…a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy…”
Mercy? What does Paul mean, “mercy”? In one of his other letters, this time to the church in Corinth, he refers to his “thorn in the flesh.” He calls it “a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me…” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). But as far as we know, Paul went to his grave with that thorn in the flesh still intact. You call that mercy?
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Thanks for the thoughtful exegesis and sermon preps. I appreciate the work, and find it helpful. Some weeks I don’t refer to it at all; other weeks I need it badly!”
TRY SERMONWRITER! A user-friendly resource for busy pastors!
And on more than one occasion he recounts that famous story of his conversion on the Damascus Road. Why, if we didn’t know any better, we might be tempted to think that Paul talks too much about himself. But how else do you give your personal testimony if you don’t talk about yourself?
After all, it’s not as if Paul – or at that time, Saul – had asked for the job. Jesus fairly accosted him on that road to Damascus, knocked him down, and then blinded him so he couldn’t get away. And what did it get him? At another point, when Paul is talking about himself (he does that quite a bit, you know), he tells of how he had suffered five – count ’em, five – public whippings and three beatings with a rod. He had been stoned, shipwrecked, and imprisoned. All this because Jesus wouldn’t leave him alone. You call that mercy?
And all this in addition to that “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know what it was, but evidently it was so painful – or maybe we should say shameful – that he doesn’t identify it. “Thorn in the flesh” is a way of disguising it so that while he can tell us about it, he can’t, or won’t, tell us exactly what it was. And while he doesn’t tell us what it was, he tells us that he begged God three times to remove it. You know what my response to that is? Just three times? Is that all? If I had a malady that severe, I think I’d be begging God every waking moment to take it away from me.
You get the feeling that maybe Paul has gotten rather calloused over the years. So much has happened to him that he just doesn’t feel the pain anymore. It happens.
A little over seven years ago, when I had my last knee surgery, a week after the procedure Janet and I went back to the doctor’s office for a review. His surgical nurse showed us a video tape of the surgery. It looked like a tunnel flooded with water and we were like tourists, just going on a little excursion. “Now,” she said, “around here is your AC… Wait a minute, you don’t have an ACL!” By the way, just in case you don’t know, that stands for Anterior Cruciate Ligament. When it comes to knees, they’re really quite useful.
“No,” I told her, “I think I lost that in a church league basketball game about 1981.”
After awhile, you just learn to live with the pain, or you learn to live without such things as ACLs.
Is that the way it is with Paul? He’s learned to live with that awful “thorn in the flesh,” has become rather numbed to the beatings, has learned to expect being thrown in jail? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, he refuses to talk of anything else but God’s mercy and grace that have been given to him.
It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. We tend to complain about every little hiccup that comes our way, not realizing that God’s mercy has been given to us in such measure that we hardly even recognize it because we’re so busy complaining.
My guess is, however, that we have more in common with Paul than we may realize. We too have our thorns in the flesh. We’ve been beaten down a time or two. Look back over the journey of your life and you’ll find some shipwrecks lying in your wake, some things that you’d rather not talk about.
Well, what if you were called upon to give your testimony? Would you talk about these things? Would you admit to your thorn in the flesh? Would you tell about your beatings, your shipwrecks? Would you, through your tears, mention God’s mercy and grace lavished upon you even, and especially, in those times you know you didn’t deserve it?
The story – and I have it on good authority that this one is true – is told of a woman whose life was coming apart at the seams. One of her friends told her about a silent retreat being held at a local convent, and she decided to try it even though she had never done anything like that before.
After her arrival, she received her room assignment and was standing in the dormitory elevator with her suitcase in hand when a short, plump nun stepped in beside her. The woman pressed the elevator button for the fourth floor, the nun pressed hers for the third. Then the nun asked, “What brings you to us, my dear?” The woman began spilling her guts. “My mother has just died, I think my father may be an alcoholic, my marriage is falling apart, and I feel like I am going crazy.”
Before she could say anymore, the elevator dinged and the door opened to the third floor. As she was exiting to go to her room, the nun gave the woman a funny little smile. “God must love you very much,” she said, and then the door closed.1
Your personal testimony might be filled with the death or the failure of loved ones, with broken relationships or all manner of difficulties, emotional and physical. The Apostle Paul may have nothing on you when it comes to whatever that thorn in the flesh might be. But remember this: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance – worthy of full acceptance – that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” To save you and me.
Don’t you think that’s worth your testimony? After all, God must love you very much.
Lord, help us to consider our personal testimony, and then, when given the opportunity, share it with others. It may be by telling our story, like Paul did so often, or it might be by living it, as Paul did every day. Either way, find us faithful, we pray, because we know that you must love us very much. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), pp. 168-169.
Copyright 2007, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.