Friday, March 20, 2009

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, "Foolishness, Wisdom, and the Cross"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 1. Here the apostle Paul speaks about the centrality of Christ crucified in Christian preaching. Thinking about this passage, I remember once when I was shocked and even a little offended when I saw a book my dad owned, titled, “The Foolishness of God.” What could that phrase mean? Isn’t it blasphemous? And then I found those very words come from the Bible, in this passage to the Corinthians. The book, it turns out, was not insulting God, but showing how God’s ways are far beyond human understanding and reason. Today we will look more closely at the foolishness of God and how the foolishness of God proves wiser than man’s wisdom. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We preach Christ crucified. It’s the heart and center of our faith and life as Christians. It’s the indispensible message that holds everything else together, that makes sense of all the Gospels and how God’s plan of salvation unfolded through history. Without the message of Christ crucified for sinners, we could no longer claim to be the church—at least not Christ’s church. Yet this isn’t a popular message. It makes us squirm to think about it. Paul wrote that it was no different in the first century. “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,” Christ crucified is a “stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” It was as unpopular then as now. But how’s the message of cross—the very power of God to us who’re being saved—how’s this a stumbling block and foolishness to the world?

First of all, for the Jews, the cross was the ultimate offense for how a man should die. It was shameful beyond measure. The book of Deuteronomy records, “If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut. 21:23). Now combine that with the Jews’ hope for a Messiah, and how they envisioned Him—more along the lines of His Triumphal Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem than with a “suffering servant”—and you will begin to see why the cross was a stumbling block or a scandal to them. They tripped over this offense, that the Messiah sent from God, would die on a cross and be under God’s curse. It was scandalous to think that God would use a man who died like a condemned criminal to save them! It was completely backwards! Or so it seemed.

To the Gentiles, this was mere foolishness. The Roman orator and author Cicero summed up what the Gentiles thought of crucifixion: “Let the very name of the cross be far away from Roman citizens, not from their bodies only, but from their thoughts, their eyes and their ears.” Even though this was the supreme penalty for Roman justice, and was quite a public spectacle, it was nevertheless so offensive and repugnant that they didn’t want to see, hear, think or talk about it. In fact, the Four Gospels’ account of the crucifixion of Jesus is the most detailed record of any ancient crucifixion. So shameful that it was barely written about. The Greeks mocked that Christians worshipped a dead man. But of course nothing could be further from the truth. Far from worshipping a dead man, the centrality of Christ crucified to our preaching and our message has everything to do with the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, and His death on the cross is in fact the power of God for those who’re being saved.

But until Christ’s return, this will always be the reputation of Christians and the chief objection to our faith—that it centers on the shameful death of Jesus, and His resurrection. To the eyes of the world, there’s nothing that seems wise or noble or powerful about God’s plan of salvation through the cross. Today we’re still offended by the cross, we still think it’s folly, and we still try to hide it from our eyes. What is the offense in this message of Christ crucified? We wish to excuse ourselves from having any blame in the matter of Jesus’ death. It’s easy enough to vilify those who put Jesus to death—in fact it’s very easy to do this as a preacher, a failure I’m certain I’ve made at times. We make the Jews and Romans to seem horribly cruel and hateful. We become His compassionate sympathizers, who would never have done such a thing. Jesus then becomes just another victim like us, and we stay (nearly) innocent of the whole thing.

But this is precisely the offense of the cross that we’re stumbling over. That we too had a direct part in His death, and that we cannot tolerate the judgment of God who sits over all our sin and says that we’re unworthy and deserve to be punished. We twist and writhe every which way to find a way out of the judgment, and see our way out as claiming to be victims. The cross shows us that we could’ve been the victim. God’s wrath could’ve been emptied on us, and we would’ve paid the ultimate price, and still failed to redeem our own skin. We realize that God is perfect in His holiness, and could’ve just as easily blazed us sinners out of existence…so futile is our attack of sin against Him. The cross shows us that rather than us being the victim of human sin, God Himself became the victim. His attack against sin was to die on the cross, for Jesus to face His full wrath against sin, but simultaneously pouring out His mercy and forgiveness on those who’d look to His cross and be saved. The offense of the cross is that it pushes us to realize that we can’t save any shred of our innocence, or cover our nakedness with fig leaves. That the solution isn’t making excuses or justifying our actions, but that we die there at the cross—dying to our sin through repentance and baptism. We admit our part in the bloody matter, and so we receive His absolution from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

So we can’t hide our eyes from the offense of the cross, lest we hide from our eyes our very salvation in Jesus. The work of salvation that Jesus accomplished there through His suffering and death are indispensible to the life and preaching of the church. If this isn’t our message, we may as well close the church. Self-help and pop-psychology, financial advice, ways to build self-esteem, can all be supplied by the secular world, with no mention of the cross required. If the church is just here to offer a “Christian replica” of what the world already offers, then we’re already irrelevant. Then we aren’t going to be salt and light—and we aren’t going to be giving the wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Is Christ’s death on the cross necessary for my financial success? My self-esteem? No. But is Christ’s death on the cross necessary for my salvation? For the forgiveness of my sins? For the wisdom of God to be known to us? For our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption? For peace with God and a clean conscience? Yes to all of these and more! And this message is relevant in every time and place and culture, because we all share the common ailment of sin.

To the eyes of the world, the cross just doesn’t make sense. That so much good, that our salvation, forgiveness, life—could come from something so horrible and despised and shameful as the cross. The world judges success by wisdom, power, and fame—by the praise of mankind. This is what has been called a “theology of glory.” A theology of glory is the mindset that when everything is going good and well and we’re healthy, wealthy, and wise—then God is shining His favor on us and we know that we’re pleasing to Him. On the flipside, a theology of glory says that when there’s weakness and poverty, when there’s death or loss in our life—this is a sure sign that God is angry with us. In other words, a theology of glory tries to determine God’s favor or His attitude toward us by the external circumstances of life. And so the heart of a theologian of glory thinks, “I’m a good, moral, upright person; I’ve a large family, am blessed with prosperity and a good job. Life is good, God must be satisfied with me.”

But equally a theologian of glory is the person who says, “My life is miserable, and my job is failing, I’ve lost my security and my home, God must be punishing me…or there is no God at all.” The theologian of glory tries to read the events, the fortunes and misfortunes of their life as a guide to what God thinks of them. Every one of us is by nature a theologian of glory. In the irreverent comedy “Bruce Almighty,” Bruce is the perfect example of a theologian of glory, when he sneers that God is like a big kid who is burning ants with a magnifying glass, laughing at us in our misery.

But we all identify with this struggle. So what’s the alternative? The alternative is the theology of the cross. The theology of the cross doesn’t try to peer behind the mystery of God’s will, and figure out why the good things or bad things in life are happening to us. But the theologian of the cross instead rests assured that we know God’s heart and attitude toward us through God’s visible suffering and the cross. The theology of the cross puts Christ crucified for sinners before our eyes, to see that God has shown His favor to us, even in the midst of suffering, trial, and temptation. The heart of a theologian of the cross says, “Though all around me I see pain, loneliness, and death, I know that God has not abandoned me—for He has pledged His love and mercy to me through the death of Jesus Christ. Jesus was forsaken on the cross for my sin, so that God won’t forsake me.”

Read the book of Job sometime, and consider it in this light. The book of Job is a case study in the comparison of the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Job had gone from being the epitome of success, to experiencing the heart-wrenching loss of his children, his flocks and herds, and his health. His three friends were poor comforters, and were all theologians of glory, as they each told him that this was a sure sign that God was punishing him for some hidden sin that he refused to confess. But Job, in the midst of his suffering, didn’t turn away from God, but spoke tremendous words of faith—even though he questioned what God was doing. He said to his wife, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10) In his despair he cried out, “Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him!” (Job 13:15a). He said, “All the days of my hard service I will wait for my renewal to come” (Job 14:14b). “I know that my Redeemer lives!” (Job 19:25). The theologian of the cross, like Job, may look at the circumstances of life and feel like God is a million miles away, and making us suffer without reason. But he still trusts that God is good, and He is near to us, even in the pit of despair.

Countless Christians have suffered persecution in prison, times of tremendous pain and loss, times when they’ve been brought so low they feel they can hardly bear it—yet they’ve known through it all, that Christ is with them. With all the world’s disfavor and rejection—whatever circumstances in your life seem like God has turned His face away—when we look to the cross we know with certainty that God still has favor on the broken-hearted, on the repentant. God will hear those who call to Him, and He doesn’t hide His face from us when we’re in distress (Psalm 102). But His face isn’t found in the circumstances around us, good or bad—His face toward us is the suffering face of Jesus, weighed down by our own sin on the cross, bleeding with the crown of thorns. That in that face we see where God truly did hide His face, God truly did pour out His wrath against our sin—but all so that we might be spared. So that in the face of Jesus we would find forgiveness and life—and the nearness to the God who suffers for us.

In the cross God has made foolish the wisdom of the world, shown that the strong and powerful and the wise man and the debaters will become powerless and weak. All proud self-achievement and pretense will be brought low, and the humble, the suffering, will be exalted. God chose to use the weak things, and the things that are not—even people who were not wise, not powerful, not of noble birth—so that through their weakness, God’s power might be shown. The cross removes all our boasting, so that our one boast may not be in ourselves, but in the Lord. For He has rescued me from the pit, and set my feet on level ground—and though all the earth should give way around me, and every hope around me collapse—I will trust in Christ crucified, and know that God is ever my refuge and strength (Ps. 46:1-2).
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. How is the cross foolishness to the Gentiles (world) and a stumbling block (scandal) to the Jews?
2. Why is the call of the church and of preachers to “preach Christ crucified?” Why won’t a substitute message suffice? Consider this criteria for a Christian sermon: “Did Christ need to die on the cross in order for this to be true/to happen?”
3. What is wisdom in the eyes of the world? What is the mindset of a “theologian of glory?” A “theologian of the cross?”
4. Look at the life of Job. How does his dialogue with his friends and eventually with God, bring out the contrast between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross?
5. How has God’s foolishness and weakness at the cross proved wiser and stronger than men?
6. How has the lowness of our own calling (in worldly standards) again proved God’s wisdom and strength?

Sermon Corrections:
A couple of mistakes were pointed out to me in recent sermons, which I would like to correct here: In my sermon on the Transfiguration, I mentioned that Moses and Elijah had died centuries earlier. In actuality, Elijah did not die, but as the reading from 2 Kings 2:11-12 indicated, he was taken directly up into heaven. Secondly, in the same sermon I mentioned that the voice of the Father from heaven was only heard twice in Jesus’ public ministry, at His Baptism and Transfiguration. I found that at least one other occurrence is recorded in the Gospels, in John 12:23-33. Can you find any others? Thirdly, I made a theological mistake in the sermon on Abraham’s test of faith, when I stated that God chose Abraham because of His faith. To state it more accurately, God does not call us “in view of our future faith” or any other quality in us, but we are first chosen (predestined) solely by His grace, then we are called and justified by faith (Rom. 8:29-30). Further, we “cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ [our] Lord or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called [us] by the Gospel” (Small Catechism, Explanation of the 3rd Article of the Creed). This is to say that God’s gracious calling comes first, our faith comes afterward as a consequence!

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