Monday, January 31, 2011

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, "Under the Cross"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. In today’s epistle reading, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, the Apostle Paul talks about the relationship between the wisdom of the world and God’s wisdom. So what’s the place of reason and knowledge in the Christian faith? What’s the relationship of the word of the cross, or the message of the Gospel, to human wisdom? And how’s God’s true wisdom taught in the cross?

Some people claim that Christianity is against reason and wisdom. That it’s irrational. They would call the Bible a book of legends and miracles that disobey the laws of nature. Some would say that Christianity is above reason and wisdom. That faith and reason belong in two completely disconnected realms. They would say that reason can neither prove or disprove nor explore the events and claims of the Bible. Still others might claim that Christianity is completely rational and that everything in the Bible can be logically explained and understood by science and human reason.

So why does human wisdom rebel against the message of the cross in particular? Paul said that for those who’re dying in their sins, the message of the cross is folly. Foolishness. It seems like a ridiculous message to them, and not worth their time. What is it about the cross that seems folly to them? Paul says it’s because the Jews sought after signs. This is just what Jesus said, that they were always looking for Him to perform another miracle. One pastor said that they saw Jesus like a walking emergency room, healing the sick and the blind and the lame everywhere He went. They wanted a miracle to prove that He really was who He said, but in reality there were never enough miracles to satisfy them, just like the Old Testament Israelites continued to grumble and lose faith despite all the miracles God showed them in the Exodus.

Also, many different groups of Jews had expectations about who the Messiah, the Savior would be. Some expected a revolutionary leader to overthrow the Romans. Others expected someone who would purify the Temple of all its abuses. But all had in common that they expected a powerful man. And almost all stumbled and were shocked and offended to see Jesus, their proclaimed Messiah, humble, weakened, and obedient even to death. Death on a cross was considered a curse for any Jew. This is why Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews. It’s very difficult to grasp that He took the curse of sins in our place.

To this day, not only Jews stumble at this idea that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Of course there have always been those outside of the church who ridiculed Jesus’ death on the cross as our way of salvation. But sometimes even Christians have tried to hide or shed the cross as a particularly unpleasant part of our belief. Our human reason becomes an obstacle to faith. I’ve mentioned before that even some well-known “mega-churches” with tens of thousands of members have intentionally avoided the use of the cross anywhere in their buildings or even avoiding to mention the cross of Christ. They fear that visitors and outsiders will be put off by that symbol of death.

In a different situation, a well-known atheist, Christopher Hitchens, was being interviewed for a magazine. Hitchens is well known for being one of the most outspoken and fierce critics of not only Christianity, but any and all religion, any talk of faith or the supernatural. He was interviewed by a woman who is a self-proclaimed liberal Christian and retired Unitarian Universalist minister. The most striking part of the interview was when she informed him, rather proudly it seemed, that she denied the teaching of the atonement, that Jesus died for her sins. His reply was simply: “I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

While is he flatly rejects any religious ideas, and specifically the message of the cross, at least he correctly understands what is at the heart of Christianity, and what it means to be a Christian. He knows that if one doesn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, that as Paul says, we of all people deserve to be pitied the most. So in telling her that she was in no meaningful sense a Christian, he was merely applying the Bible’s own definition to her. She later added that she was unsure whether God existed at all, but still felt there was something meaningful in the stories. What was so amazing about this was that an atheist understood better than a person who called herself a Christian, what the heart and center of Christianity was. The message of Christ crucified for our sins.

And that truly is the heart and center of our Christian faith. However much our human reason might rebel against the idea, or wish to change or ignore it, we cannot. To remove the message that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again from the dead, is to take the heart out of Christianity. Then all you are left with is a lifeless shell. Christianity cannot survive without it’s heart. We cannot make the message of the cross more agreeable to unbelievers by changing it—they will always find it to be a stumbling block, an offense. Take away the message of the cross from the church, and you take away its very life and the power of God for salvation. Tamper with the message and the church becomes spiritually very sick.

Paul said that Christ crucified was folly to the Greeks, because they seek after wisdom. It doesn’t seem wise to unbelieving, human reason, to save the world in the way that Jesus did. To our way of thinking, there must have been some better way. Why did Jesus have to go through that? Why didn’t God choose to reveal Himself in a much more glorious and powerful way? Writers and debaters of every age have wrestled with this, either mocking it or defending it. But Paul asks, where are all these? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? God destroys the wisdom of the wise. God chose not to reveal Himself through human wisdom. Writers, debaters, philosophers have spilled tons of ink and spoken countless words, claiming to show the way to know God. But God was pleased to show this man-made wisdom to be foolish, and to reveal Himself instead through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Even though it defied the understanding of the world, and even though it was a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to the world—Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s way of showing His seriousness about sin, but even more importantly, giving forgiveness to every sinner on earth. It was a cross of shame and humility, of suffering, abandonment, and cruelty. God bowed His head under all the grief and shame of the world, and bore it as though it all belonged to Him. He became sin for us, taking all our guilt and hurt, and suffering for it as though He were responsible for it all. Yet He remained truly innocent, and suffered only out of His pure willingness and love for us.

Why do that for us? Why would God become man and bear the worst indignities and insults and pain, although no one required Him to do it? Why suffer all that willingly? Because God loved us so greatly, and in the mystery of His wisdom He knew there was no other way. God confounded all the wisdom of the world, all the attempts to know God or to figure out how to please Him. God used things and people that in our eyes would be foolish, weak, and despised to shame our wisdom and strength. Paul gives us the reason why God did this seemingly inexplicable thing. Why God chose such an unusual and extraordinary plan of salvation. It was so that no one could boast in God’s presence.

God didn’t choose to work through any of the ordinary channels of power—whether that be military or political power—so that no one might trust in these things to save. He didn’t choose to work through the wise men and philosophers of the day, so that we might not boast in our human reason and skill. Instead of making priests and teachers of the law His apostles, Jesus chose uneducated fisherman and a despised tax collector. Paul himself was oddly chosen to serve Christ, because he had first been an enemy of the cross. He tried to persecute and kill Christians. God takes the lowly and despised things of this world and puts them to His service and glory. He turned the cross, and instrument of death and shame into the tree of life where Christ brought every good to us—forgiveness, life, and salvation.

The cross keeps us from boasting also because in that one time event, God accomplished the whole deal. All of salvation was paid for. And the rub or the offense to our unconverted human reason is that we didn’t get to play the starring role. It’s not about us, and we didn’t and don’t do anything to earn it. Rather, so far from earning it, the only thing we contributed was our sins and guilt to lay on Jesus. Again, our human reason is offended. We wish for our own goodness to be seen and validated by God. For us to get at least some partial credit for being a good enough person. We want God to see our righteousness—not realizing that before God, all our righteousness is like filthy rags. When we try to parade our own goodness before God, it’s like we’re clothed in filthy old rags. Our goodness falls so far short of God’s goodness. In our sinful mind we cannot fathom how pure and perfect God’s goodness is.

So this is why God chose the humility and shame of the cross, and the weakness and non-resistance of Jesus to His death on the cross. It was so that our human nature would have no grounds left to boast on before God. That we would give up all the glory and honor to Him, and that we would boast only in the Lord and His cross of our salvation. We truly can boast in Him, because His power and wisdom is not at all of ourselves.

So what place then is left for reason? Is Christianity irrational because our fallen reason can’t understand or comprehend God’s wisdom? Does Christianity banish reason from the church? A search of the Scriptures reveals that this is not the case—but that God is a God of knowledge, that the fear of Him is the beginning of wisdom, and that He and His creation teach wisdom to the humble. So how do we reconcile the two? As one writer put it, before reason can enter the church it must be converted from “a judge into a penitent, from a master into a servant, from a professor into a pupil—or, more precisely, from a pagan into a Christian.” What does he mean by that? That human reason goes wrong when it sits in judgment over God’s Word. When human reason considers itself higher than God’s Word. When our reason becomes the master or professor that tries to trump what God teaches.

If that is how we try to use reason, our wisdom will be made foolish and weak by God. But the proper way and the blessed way for us to use our reason is when we submit our mind to God, and accept His Word as Truth. To place our reason under the cross. When we repent of our pride and seek to learn from God as a student, rather than to instruct Him. Luther liked to say that we should grant the Holy Spirit the honor of being wiser than you are. So even when our mind stumbles and cannot grasp God’s plan or will, to realize that in all things He knows best. When we cling to the message of Christ crucified for our sins, we may not receive the appreciation of the world, but we will learn the wisdom of God and know His power for our salvation. For this, we will gladly be considered fools, for Jesus’ sake, Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. In what ways does the “wisdom of the world” consider the Christian faith to be foolishness? What Biblical teachings clash with our human reason? What have you wrestled with? Why does our mind and reason rebel against God’s word?
2. Why in particular is the cross of Christ a “stumbling block to the Jews?” Romans 9:30-33; Gal. 5:11; 1 Pet. 2:6-8. Why is it “foolishness to the Gentiles?” Acts 17:18-21, 32; Acts 26:22-29
3. Why is the word of the cross the heart and center of Christianity? 1 Cor. 1:18, 23; Luke 24:25-27, 45-47. How does this message give life and power to Christians?
4. How does our mind become humble and submissive to God? How does this locate reason in its proper role? Consider the following quote:
“Reason as such has by no means been abolished from the Christian church. But before it can enter there, it must be converted from a judge into a penitent, from a master into a servant, from a professor into a pupil—or, more precisely, from a pagan into a Christian.”
5. When reason is in its proper role, as a student of God and His Word, how does Scripture praise this gift of knowledge in contrast to the blind ‘knowledge’ of unbelief? 1 Sam. 2:3; Ps. 14:1-4; 19:1-4; 94:8-11; Prov. 1:7; Rom. 11:33; 15:14; cf. Eccl. 1:8; 2 Cor. 10:5; 2 Tim. 3:7
6. What is the true wisdom of the cross of Christ?

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