“God’s Grace… the Missing Peace!” – 2 Corinthians 12:1-10
1. The Missing Piece
In the book The Missing Piece, children’s author Shel Silverstein tells the story of a circle from which a large triangular wedge has been cut. The circle wanted to be whole with nothing missing, so it went around looking for its missing piece. But because it was incomplete and therefore could roll – actually bump – along only very slowly, it admired the flowers along the way. It chatted with the worms. It enjoyed the sunshine. It appreciated the butterflies. It found lots of different pieces, but none of them fit. So it left them all by the side of the road and kept on searching. Then one day the circle found a piece that fit perfectly. It was so happy. Now it could be whole, with nothing missing. It incorporated the missing piece into itself and began to roll again. Now that it was a perfect circle, it could roll very fast, too fast, in fact, to notice the flowers or to talk to the worms. When the circle realized how different the world seemed when it rolled so quickly, it stopped, left its piece by the side of the road, and rolled slowly away, once more appreciating the world in which it lived.
2. Waiting for things
Aren’t we sometimes like the circle with the missing piece? We somehow feel incomplete, discontent, looking for something to round out our lives – pun intended! What might that missing piece be in your life?
Maybe you look around at the friends you have in your life and everyone can play an instrument and is musical, while you have trouble playing music on your phone. If only you could pick up a guitar, or tinkle the ivories on the piano, or belt out a jazz tune on the saxophone. That would be the missing triangle piece of your life.
Maybe the missing piece that would really round out your summer would be the opportunity to travel. It’s been a long time, right. You haven’t been able to go anywhere, anytime. And it would just do your heart and your mind and your body good to be somewhere else, and not have much to do at all.
Or maybe the missing piece for you is that last course to complete your degree, to get those letters behind your name, and to use that as a springboard to success in the future. But covid derailed you, and now you lack motivation, and you don’t want to do another online course. So, you just keep rolling along – bumping along really, like that circle with a wedge missing – but never picking up speed in life. You’re working some shift work job just to make ends meet, or you’re working in the food service industry, because you have to, but you’re really waiting to get to that special job, that trade, that profession, something that really interests you, something that you would find satisfaction in… but it’s the missing piece.
Maybe your missing piece is that special someone to spend the rest of your life with. You’ve tried the bar scene, you’ve tried the online dating service thing, you avoid the blind dates your friends or family suggest, and you know that hook-ups are generally hook-downs. You want to find that person that you really connect with, that has the same priorities and ambitions and beliefs as you have. But that person has so far been elusive.
And so, like the missing piece circle, you are just discontent with your lot in life. Or maybe discontent with your loot in life, and you really think that… if only I could win the lottery, even a little lottery, I wouldn’t have to worry, I could do some of the things I’ve been dreaming about, and I would be happy. That would be a BIG missing piece to fit into my life.
To be discontent with your life is to be ungrateful to God. God has given you your life, your personality, your abilities and passions, your opportunities, your relationships and family. To be discontent is to snub your nose at God and say, “Thanks, but no thanks. I want more. I want different. I want better.” So we discover that the apparent missing piece of our life contributes directly to the peace and contentment that is missing from our lives – the missing peace.
3. Paul’s missing piece (missing peace)
Paul was one of those people with a missing piece, a discontent, and the subsequent missing peace. We heard his complaint in the Epistle reading. But before we get to that, let’s remember who he was and what he had done.
Paul mentioned boasting, and not boasting… except boasting of his weaknesses. When he wrote to the Christians in Philippi, he actually said that in his former life, he had reasons to boast with respect to his credentials as a Jew: he was circumcised on the 8th day, an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, a law-abiding and blameless Pharisee, one who persecuted the new sect that followed that Jesus guy.
But that all changed when he met the risen Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus. Thanks to a man named Ananias, Paul was instructed in the faith in Jesus, he was baptized, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he received his assignment to be God’s chosen instrument to take the name of Jesus to Israelites, and also to Gentiles (non-Israelites).
Paul mentioned boasting in 1 Corinthians 9, too. He talked about how he was flexible in his missionary approach, and how God used him in various circumstances to proclaim the Gospel and to be God’s instrument to save people. He could use his freedom as a Roman citizen to talk to free men. He could be a servant to win slaves. He could use his Jewish identity to connect with Jews. He could point out his own weaknesses in order to relate to those who were weak. But in every one of those situations, his purpose was to be “all things to all people” in order to have some of those people come to faith in Christ.
And before we get to Paul’s complaint, let’s recall what he suffered as he tried to be “all things to all people.” Paul lays out a long list of his sufferings – a list that he says he could boast about when others boast of their credentials. That list is found in 2 Corinthians 11 – just a few verses before what we heard today. I won’t tell you everything, but he did experience 39 lashes five times, he was beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, he faced hunger and thirst, cold and sleepless nights, and a lot of other dangers, too.
Now, you might imagine that those sufferings would be the basis of Paul’s complaint to God in chapter 12… but they weren’t. The basis for his complaint was a little pebble in his shoe. You know what I mean… if you have a little pebble in your shoe, under your foot, it can be aggravating and can give you a blister in just a few minutes of walking. You’ve got to stop, take off your shoe, and shake out that little pebble before carrying on. Paul couldn’t shake out that little pebble, so he prayed and asked, “God, if only you would take away that ailment, that ‘thorn in my flesh,’ that ‘pebble in my shoe,’ well, I’d be able to serve you better, more completely, more effectively.” We don’t know what that “thorn in the flesh” was. Paul calls it “a messenger of Satan” with a purpose to harass or torment him. It may have been a physical, spiritual, or emotional affliction – or something else entirely. Since he was not talking of a literal thorn, he must have been speaking metaphorically. Some Bible scholars have interpreted the thorn to be temptation, or a chronic eye problem, or malaria, migraines, epilepsy, even a speech disability. Some say that the thorn was a person. Whatever it was, it was a source of real pain in the apostle’s life. Whatever it was, Paul was convinced that if God would remove the “thorn in the flesh” from him, he would be a much more effective evangelist and missionary.
4. God’s response: grace… the missing peace
When Paul persisted in asking God for healing – he says that he pleaded with God three times – God told him that he needed to rely on God’s strength, not his own. God told Paul that grace was all he needed to provide the peace that was missing from his life. Grace is described as God’s generous mercy toward undeserving people. For all his spiritual pride and oppression of those who followed Jesus, Paul was certainly a person undeserving of God’s mercy. But of all the people we meet in the New Testament accounts, Paul seems to have understood God’s grace very profoundly, and written about it very thoroughly. Listen to how Paul describes God’s grace – for him, for us – in some of his letters:
“God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.”
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
“In Christ, we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished on us.”
“In Christ Jesus you are all sons and daughters of God, through faith.”
“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
“By grace you have been saved through faith.”
Take those words personally: you are God’s child; you are loved; you are forgiven; you are blessed; you are saved – all thanks to God’s grace in our Lord Jesus Christ.
5. Grace provides the missing peace
When your life seems to have a missing piece, hear and remember and take to heart God’s words for Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
If your missing piece is not being able to play an instrument, find peace and joy in listening to and appreciating the music that your friends and others play.
If your missing piece has been and still is the absence of travel, take time – like the missing piece circle – to walk through life slowly and enjoy the beauties of God’s creation where you are or where you can go… like a local hike and appreciating the trees and birds and flowers and worms and butterflies.
If your missing piece has been that last little bit of education and the springboard to your dream job, pay attention to how God can use you right where you are, with the people that you rub shoulders with.
If your missing piece is that special someone to spend life with, find meaning in your current relationships with friends and family, find time to care for people in need, and at the same time continue to develop and enrich your own character and personality so that if and when that special someone comes along you will be a really special someone for him or her.
I mentioned Paul’s boasting a couple of times. Here in this chapter, Paul boasts of his weaknesses. Let me tell you about one of my weaknesses:
Last week, I told you about fainting the very first time I led a worship service. Well, about 7 or 8 years earlier, I was in Grade 10 but still kind of short, and scrawny, maybe just over 100 pounds. I was weight training with my teammates after school one day as part of our preparation for the wrestling season. I was doing the military press, lifting the bar and weights directly over my head. One minute I was lifting the bar, the next I was picking myself off the floor. I don’t really remember what happened. I don’t know if I lifted the bar too many times, or if there was too much weight. I don’t remember exactly what happened… probably because I fainted. I think there was someone behind me – a spotter – maybe that’s why I don’t remember hurting myself. I do know that that day I left my mark on my high school – specifically on the wooden frame of the trophy case right behind where I was lifting the weights. I don’t know if that little gash is still there, but if it is, I’ll boast about it. I was trying to be strong, I was working to be strong, but I didn’t take into account my weakness. My weakness, my “thorn in the flesh” is my tendency to faint when I’m hot or when I exert myself. Don’t worry… it hasn’t happened for a long time now. Oh, I have been hot (last week), and I have exerted myself… but I haven’t fainted.
But it’s a good reminder for me, for you. Know what your weakness is. Know what your “thorn in the flesh” is. Know what your missing piece is. Know how Satan tries to harass and tempt you. In Silverstein’s book, the circle learned what God was also teaching St. Paul – that in some strange sense, we are more whole when we are missing something. We don’t have to be perfect, we don’t have to be complete and round in order for life to roll along. We do need to have God and God’s grace – that will give us the missing peace that we are looking for.
Count on God to work through your weakness to get His mission accomplished. Count on God to be your spotter, standing behind you when you faint in your weakness. God’s grace is sufficient for you. God’s grace is your missing peace, and contentment, and strength. Amen.