Once again, we were privileged to celebrate a child’s baptism at the church in worship on September 25. Young Rocco and his family joined us as we continued to explore the meaning and relevance of some of the idioms that have found their way into the English language as a result of the King James Bible.
“A thorn in the flesh”. According to dictionary.com, that means, “a source of continual irritation or suffering: That child is a thorn in the teacher’s side.” As we wander through the more than 250 idioms that have entered the English Language as a result of the King James Bible, my hunch is that this is one that is familiar to you. Have you heard that saying before?
Even if you’ve never heard it, if you’ve ever had a splinter in your finger, or a rock in your shoe, or a buzzing in your ears, you know exactly what this phrase means. “A thorn in the flesh” is indicative of a pain that just won’t leave us alone, or a discomfort that is seemingly endless.
In popular culture, the phrase is well known: it’s used in the titles of many books, as well as in songs performed by the Eurythmics, Quicksand, and the Subdudes. Earlier this week there was a news article that referred to former New York Mayor Ed Koch as “a thorn in Obama’s side”.
The saying comes, of course, from the letter of Paul to his friends in Corinth, although it’s possible that he himself may have borrowed it from the Old Testament book of Numbers, where God warns the Israelites: “But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell” (Numbers 33:55, KJV).
Paul is narrating a larger story of great faith and hope. He begins 2 Corinthians 12 with an account of a time when someone – perhaps Paul himself – was literally taken to heaven. He talks about a scene of incredible joy and beauty – things were literally perfect, he says. And then, as if to bring him back to earth, he was given this “thorn in the flesh.”
Exactly what Paul meant by “a thorn in the flesh” is a mystery. In fact, the theories are endless. Some scholars say that the thorn was the hostility and beatings he endured as an apostle. Others use this passage to say that this proves that Paul was going blind, or was epileptic, or fought against homosexual temptation, or was subject to fits of rage and temper…and those are just six of the more common explanations – there are literally hundreds of ideas as to what was meant.
Regardless of what specific circumstance in his life Paul is acknowledging here, the meaning is pretty clear: things are going pretty well, and then the devil comes along and does his stuff and now a formerly perfect picture is marked by pain. Have you ever felt that way? Your life is going along pretty well, and then all of a sudden the evil one interrupts that flow and you find yourself in dis-ease. You are angry at the devil!
It’s interesting to note that the Old Testament Reading is just about the opposite of Paul’s situation – almost like a photographic negative, where everything that was dark is light, and vice versa. The book of Lamentations is thought to be the work of the prophet Jeremiah. This man had the unfortunate nicknames of “the weeping prophet” and “the reluctant prophet”. For years and years, Jeremiah told the people of God what they did not want to hear. Finally, the predictions come true and the prophet finds himself looking at his beloved Jerusalem, lying in ruins. Everything about Jeremiah’s life, he says, is terrible. Who’s fault is that, according to Jeremiah?
Now, I have a friend who uses pronouns rather indiscriminately, and when she talks about “him”, I’m never quite sure who she means. There are several “hims” in her world, and about the best I can hope for is that I’m not the “him” she is currently angry with.
But with Jeremiah, there is no such confusion. I only asked you to read starting at verse 13, but if you go back to the beginning of this chapter, you will see that Jeremiah blames his misfortune on “him” at least 18 times. “He” has driven the prophet into darkness, and made Jeremiah’s skin waste away and has blocked Jeremiah’s path. “He” is a bear lying in wait and a lion in hiding. “He” has shot an arrow into Jeremiah’s vital organs. Who is “he”? It is God. Jeremiah looks around and sees his life as a shambles, and he carries the load of blame and places it squarely at the feet of God. Who has caused my life to be so miserable? It’s the Lord.
Have you ever felt this way? Things are just going from bad to worse in your life and you look up and shake your fist at the sky and say, “Why are you doing this to me?”
The Apostle Paul, star of the New Testament, author of pages and pages of scripture, and general theological heavyweight, see his life filled with pain and irritation and says, “Ah, yes. Well, that’s all from the evil one.”
And the Prophet Jeremiah, no theological slouch himself, author of just about as much of the Old Testament as anyone else, sees his life filled with pain and irritation and says, “Well, of course. God did that.”
And so the Bible explores the problem of evil. Why do bad things happen? Why is there pain in the world? Does God cause suffering? If not, can he prevent it? Why does he allow it?
So far as I can tell, there is not an unambiguous answer in the Bible. In Job, we see that Satan is clearly blamed for causing all kinds of agony (although he has God’s permission to do so). In Exodus, we read that much of the suffering connected with the plagues sent to Egypt is a result of the fact that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In Isaiah, God sends the foreign enemy to punish a disobedient Israel, whereas in James, we read that God does not tempt people with or towards evil. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ disciples want to know whose fault it is that a man is born blind. Who is responsible for the adversity he encounters every day?
Some might read that and say, “Well, there you go. Another area where the Bible simply contradicts itself. I don’t see why anyone bothers reading that book at all.”
But I don’t see it that way. Instead, I would say that since the scriptures offer different viewpoints on this issue, that indicates that the Bible is not particularly interested in answering the question of “Why is there evil in the world?”
“Whose fault is all this evil?” is not, so far as can tell, a very helpful question for those of us who confront evil on a day-to-day basis. Look at this: my father died of cancer. Like many cancer victims, he smoked. A lot. And my friend, who I’ll call Sally, has been fighting the evil cancer for several years. And she has never smoked. Ever.
Did my dad deserve to get cancer? Did Sally? Does anyone deserve cancer? No. It is evil. And as I sat with my father, and as I have sat with Sally, neither of them spent much time asking “why did this happen?” What they are more interested in knowing is: “how can I possibly get through this?”
“How can I get through this?” Ah, now there’s a question that the Bible can answer! Jeremiah, who confronts the pain of a world that’s fallen apart – a place that is in shambles before his eyes…says, “I will remember God’s character. I will not forget that God is love personified. God is mercy. God is faithful. God is good. Because these things are true, I can wait. I can hope.”
Paul, who dealt with a personal conflict that was simply tearing him apart every single day – an ongoing struggle with some life-limiting situation – said, “I can rest in God’s strength, not mine. God is grace. God is power. God is strength. God gives me what I need for today, and promises that he’ll come back to meet me tomorrow.”
Do you see? When it comes to the question of evil in the world, the Bible is ultimately concerned with you and I having the assurance that no matter where we are or what the situation, we are within God’s grasp. We will get through it.
And I hope that for some of you in the room, this is a word of encouragement. You might very well be in a hard place right now. Perhaps, like Jeremiah, you feel as though your world has collapsed. You’ve had terrible news regarding your job or your health or your family. You have been devastated. Perhaps, like Paul, you are struggling with one particular relationship, or trying to become free of a certain habit or, well, ‘thorn in the flesh’. The good news for you is that you can get through this.
The ultimate story is that evil, pain, and chaos does not win in the end. As the old hymn says, “This is my Father’s world! O let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” God reigns – in power and in glory, and that’s good news! Beset as you are by pain or disease or irritation, you have the ability to choose, to trust, to move forward in relationship with God. And even on that day when death wins its little battle with you or with me, we hold fast to the truth that pain and death do not get the last word. We are resurrection people, and God has infused this creation with resurrection power. So take heart, church! Be encouraged!
And at the same time, this is a word of challenge for those of us who are not, right now, in particularly hard places. It is a word of challenge for those of us who are parents, or grandparents, or who answer baptismal questions on days like today.
I just said that God’s people have the ability to choose, and to trust, and to grow. That’s true. How do we get that? How do we foster the ability to do those things? How do we encourage, or engender, faith?
For Jeremiah and Paul, it would seem that memory is a key factor. When confronted with deadly pain and evil, they both reflected on truth that they already knew. Someone taught Paul and Jeremiah about the nature and character of God. When the tough times hit them, the things that they already knew helped them to get through the difficulty. There were, for each of those saints, people who spent years teaching them about the love, mercy, faithfulness, goodness, strength, graciousness, and power of God.
Who will teach the children of this community these eternal truths? How can we shape these young spirits so that when the tough times come for them – as you know that they will – the children we love and serve will have access to the same resources that saved Paul and Jeremiah? Today, we baptize Rocco. That’s a great thing for him and for his family. But how will he remember that? Who will help him to remember the truths in which he has been anchored?
I suppose that I haven’t really thought about it before now, but it occurs to me that when I started to preach this series of messages that are rooted in the ways that the King James Bible has affected our language, I was in some way extending a “thank you” to all those people who have given me an appreciation for the beauty and truth and power of God’s word. I am grateful for the people who taught me time and time again about Daniel and the lions and Noah and the ark; for the women who drilled parables and miracles into my skull; for the men who probed my questions about the interpretation of scripture; for the saints who listened to crazy ideas and bad sermons and long youth group lessons. I am grateful, profoundly grateful, for the people who were there for me.
And I promise to stand with those who are following me. And today, it is my privilege to stand with you as one of those who remembers who we are, who God is, and where we are heading…and who will seek to give that memory to the children with whom God has blessed us. Thanks be to God! Amen.