Monday, February 10, 2014

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, "Wisdom from the Spirit"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. There are many things that the church—both worldwide and in the local congregation can do, according to the varied gifts and talents that God entrusts to individuals and communities. They can sponsor schools, hospitals, ministries to the disabled, the homeless, to youth or to families. But there is above all, one thing that the church must do, and that is to proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Without this central message, without Christ crucified filling and shaping the church’s life, it ceases to be church, and becomes something else. It disconnects from the wisdom of God and pursues in vain the wisdom of the world. Without Jesus Christ and His cross, the church loses its reason to exist. Paul said it very clearly to the church in Corinth: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He likewise told the Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, ESV)
Because this is the heart and center of the Christian faith, Paul turns the attention away from himself, and toward Christ. He admits he’s no great speaker, and has no impressive appearance, but actually is glad, because he doesn’t want them to believe on account of himself or his wisdom, but on account of the wisdom and power of God. Later in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, God told Paul that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God counted Paul’s weaknesses as a strength, and because of them the power and grace of God were made all the more evident in Paul’s life and preaching. Nothing has changed today. The church of Christ should never form on the basis of the popularity, the impressiveness, the cleverness or fine speech of the pastor or messenger of the gospel, but rather on the content of the message, which should always center on Jesus Christ crucified for our sins. And such a plain and simple message has its power from Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, whether preached by the simple country parson or the pastor with two earned doctorates in theology. For it must be the Gospel that shines, not human achievements or cleverness. So quite despite ourselves, the Gospel has its power to save.
Our faith should never rest on the personality of the messenger or their persuasiveness, but on the content of the message—the gospel that is the power of God for salvation. The office of pastor exists to exalt and glorify Christ, not the pastor. And God grant that we learn that same humility of Paul. Paul was at pains to show that he did not come as a salesman or slick talker, but that he strove to speak the sincere and honest truth. Likewise the church should be leery sales or marketing techniques to try to win people to the Gospel, and favor instead a plain and open statement of the truth. Trusting that the Holy Spirit will convert and convince people’s hearts (2 Corinthians 4:1-6; 2:17). That Paul urges this is not to say that he ever shied away from an opportunity to speak the Gospel, or chose to be passive or silent, but rather determined not to be manipulative or cunning, but rely on the message itself to win people to Christ.
Last week we talked about “seeing but not seeing” and what it means to gain true insight and understanding taught by the Holy Spirit. Our reading from 1 Corinthians continues that thought as Paul describes the earthly wisdom of this age, which relies on our own faulty intelligence, and which God reduces to nothing and proves incapable of understanding the things of the Spirit. In our fallen human intelligence, we often try to reduce God to an understandable size, or to rationalize the mysteries of God. But this is foolish, as the Psalmist remarks: “How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep! 6 The stupid man cannot know; the fool cannot understand this” (Ps. 92:5-6). Or Isaiah remarks: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9, ESV) These passages teach our place beneath God, and remind us that God’s deep thoughts and higher ways are beyond our human understanding. After all, God would be very small, and not really God, if we could reduce Him down beneath our understanding.
But if God is demoting this human wisdom that lacks understanding, He is at the same time promoting His own wisdom; the way to true insight and understanding. The Holy Spirit teaches us. Faith is not the rejection of reason in the favor of ignorance, but it is the rejection of earthly wisdom in the favor of a higher spiritual wisdom. This spiritual wisdom seeks to know Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That cross of Jesus seems to our human minds like a sign of contradiction. A paradox. The weakness and suffering, the humiliation and shame, as the vessel for God’s strength, glory, and power. The most accursed death on a tree bringing blessing, life, and honor. A rejected and hated man receiving God’s singular approval and love, above all others. God giving His Son Jesus to bear down all of our sins to His cross and grave, and all the mockery and shame, without so much as a taunt or cry for revenge in reply. God was most of all satisfied with this love, this sacrifice, and this pure goodness that overcame evil and hate. God was pleased with His beloved Son Jesus, who did His Father’s will. God chose seeming weakness and foolishness to bring low our earthly power and pride.
And this wisdom of God is so far above our earthly wisdom or understanding, that we don’t even have a scale to compare it by. We can’t even imagine the greatness and the goodness of what God has done for those who love Him. Do you get that? That “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, ESV). Beyond our imagination, God is incredibly good! And He has incredible things in store for us. Since this is so, it should be unimaginable to us that heaven could be anything but the best God can give us—and truly it will be, because God is giving us Himself! To know Him, to be in His presence, and to share in His goodness and holiness forever.
And just as the wisdom of God is not in the cleverness of the preacher, but in the simple, plain statement of the truth, so also it is not known by the wise, the writers and debaters of this age, the powerful or those of noble birth, but the wisdom of God is revealed to the foolish, the lowly, and despised (1 Cor. 1:20-29). To shepherds, to outcasts, to tax collectors and sinners. This understanding is not on the basis of your IQ or who you think you are, but it is on the basis of the Spirit’s generous giving. The Holy Spirit doesn’t discriminate based on age or on earthly wisdom, but works where He pleases God is pleased to give this “window” of revelation and insight into His person and His love, through the Holy Spirit, and He gives it not to the proud and mighty, but the humble and lowly. God has opened His heart to us in the person and life of Jesus Christ, in His love on the cross, and in the sending of His Holy Spirit to teach us all things. God has not revealed to us all the mysteries of existence or the mysteries of His being, but He has revealed to us the mystery of salvation. The mystery of His love unfolding for us in the unlikeliest of ways, in the humblest of ways, that the world just cannot grasp. This He desires for you to know with His Spirit, so that “we might understand the things freely given us by God.” 
In the Spirit we know Jesus most of all as merciful, generous, and loving. We know He freely gives His blessings. We know He does not put up with human pride, arrogance, or wisdom, but freely gives us all that we are lacking when we come to Him in humility. Rather the wisdom of the Spirit turns us away from pride and boasting in ourselves, our works, or our wisdom, and turns us to the humility of Christ, the continual hearing and receiving of His Word and gifts, and the constant recognition that we have more to learn. True wisdom never concludes, “I have arrived!”—and have nothing more to learn—but always remains in a humble posture toward God, ready to continue receiving His free gifts and understanding. Not only ready, but eager for them! God has given a salvation beyond our imagining, and prepared a goodness beyond our knowing for those who love Him, and He has opened and revealed His heart to us in Christ Jesus. Let us pray for His wisdom to be upon us. Lord Jesus, the Wisdom from God, grant us an understanding heart and mind, to hear and receive your Word with gladness, and gain true insight. Send us wisdom from your Spirit, that we might never boast in anything except You, crucified and risen for us. For You are our Life and Salvation, sent from the Father Everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Why did Paul not rely on “lofty speech or wisdom” to proclaim the message of God? 1 Corinthians 2:5. What did his message focus on by contrast? 1 Corinthians 2:1. Why must this also be the heart and center of our proclamation?
  2. The Corinthians thought that Paul sounded impressive in his letters, but gave a weak appearance when speaking in person. 2 Corinthians 10:9-12; 11:5-6. Paul accepts this criticism (1 Corinthians 2:3-4). Why does he argue that this keeps from obscuring the power of God? 2 Cor. 12:9-10
  3. After contrasting a wisdom of men from a wisdom of God, Paul states that he does indeed impart the wisdom of God to people. This wisdom of God seems like foolishness to the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-31), but it is the power of God for salvation. How does Paul use this wisdom of God against the wisdom of the world? 2 Corinthians 10:4-6; Acts 17:2-4, 17ff; cf. 1 Peter 3:15.
  4. In 1 Corinthians 2:9, Paul paraphrases the Old Testament, most likely Isaiah 64:4 and borrowing ideas from some other verses, like 52:15. What does this passage tell us about the salvation God has prepared for us? How does it feel to know that we as humans don’t even have a “scale” for imagining or understanding how great it is?
  5. The world understands little to nothing at all of God’s works, and even we understand only glimpses, as “through a mirror darkly”, but then in the final consummation of God’s plan, we shall see, “face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12). What is the basis of the knowledge or understanding of God that we do have? 1 Corinthians 2:10-16. How does this spiritual insight and understanding illuminate for us the glory of the cross of Jesus Christ and its centrality for salvation? What comfort does it bring to believers? 

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