Wisdom and Foolishness
This sermon was preached by Pastor Jim Kniseley at Resurrection on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 2, 2014. The text is I Corinthians 1:18-31.
Dear Friends in Christ,
TodayŐs second lesson caught my attention. Paul is addressing the idea that the message we share about Jesus Christ can sound pretty foolish to non-Christians. Those outside the family of faith hear us talk about the cross and crucifixion and think we are delusional. You lift up an instrument of torture and death as the chief symbol of your religion and you think that will attract people to being Christian? You must be out of your minds!
For a moment consider how comfortable we in the Church have become with believing that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and that our future in eternity is based on what happened on Good Friday and Easter. We accept it wholeheartedly and teach it to our children. Do you realize how our beliefs run counter to the wisdom of this world? Do you realize how many people do not believe as we believe? The values and expectations of the world are decidedly self-focused. Denying oneself, sharing with others, and being spokesmen for God are not part of the worldŐs agenda.
Paul writes about two groups of people in his day that would have real trouble with the message of Christianity and the symbol of the cross. The first group is the Jews. The Jews despised crucifixion. The Old Testament says, ŇAnyone hung on a tree is under GodŐs curse.Ó So the commonly accepted opinion was that someone crucified was being punished by God and there was no good news about it. For Jews the cross was a symbol of shame. If a symbol was to be chosen for Christianity, it should be something that showed victory and triumph, such as a kingly crown or a throne or a victory banner.
The other group that Paul addresses in todayŐs letter is the Greeks. Greeks in PaulŐs day thought the path to eternal salvation was wisdom, as exemplified by great minds like Plato and Socrates and Aristotle. They were taught that the goal was to raise oneŐs thinking above the mundane of this world to the cosmos. Shake off worldly and human thoughts of pain and suffering and death. These bad things donŐt really exist. We donŐt have to even think about injustice.
To the common thinking of Jews and Greeks, Paul can only say: Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.
Paul used the members of the Corinthian congregation as his best example of the foolishness of God. He told them that not many of them were very great in the eyes of their society. Most were laborers or servants or slaves and lived a hand to mouth existence. Only a few of them had worldly wealth and position. Yet, God had made of this congregation a family of faith. He took what others might consider being the lowly and weak and was making them into a force to build up GodŐs kingdom on earth.
ThatŐs how God continues to work in our day. Our congregation is not made up of the superstars of society. WeŐre teachers and electricians and nurses and engineers and military and students. We are the ones God depends on. God depends on Sunday School teachers, greeters, people singing in the choir, people participating in Christian Education, young and old alike working in youth ministry.
If you and I were putting a congregation together and didnŐt consider the wisdom of God vs. the wisdom of this world, we would go out and choose only the smartest and richest and most influential to make up the membership of this congregation. We would concentrate on getting the finest facilities and best programs and largest savings account we could in order to be safe and secure and comfortable. If that occurred, some surely would think, Ňwe have it made!Ó I think that Paul would say that God is not very pleased.
I came across an article this week about a United Methodist Minister that Pastor Carol and I knew. Pastor Steve Sallee* served Cokesbury UMC in Knoxville, where CarolŐs sister and family attend. He died last year. When Steve came to that congregation they had plans for a Family Life Center. It was across the street from their main campus and was formerly a LoweŐs Building Supply Store. It was quite large. One of the first things that Steve did was ask the trustees to change the name of their building from the Family Life Center to the Community Outreach Center. Why? Because it changed the focus from looking inward, to what was good for them and for the members of their congregation, to what was good for the world, those outside this congregation. For Cokesbury, the results were amazing and the outward focus of that congregation is inspiring.
Some of you may remember AesopŐs fable* about an old crow who was out in the wilderness and was very thirsty. The old crow had not had anything to drink in a long time. He came to a jug that had a little water in the bottom of it. The old crow reached his beak into the jug to get some of that water, but his beak wouldnŐt quite reach. So what did he do? He started picking up pebbles one at a time and dropping them into the jug. The water rose until finally the crow was able to get a drink. That is my understanding of the way God has chosen to work in this world. Each of us dropping in our own little pebble – teaching Sunday school, serving as a Shepherd, volunteering as an usher, giving an extra gift to feed the hungry. Each of us serving in his or her own special ministry, doing that little task that may not seem so important at the time, but pebbles are accumulating in the bottom of that jug, and the water is rising, and one of these days God is going to bring in His own Kingdom. That is GodŐs plan. It is centered on groups of people like our Resurrection Family. GodŐs Work, Our Hands.
Now the obvious question is: are you dropping your pebble? Are you using your gift to the glory of God or was God just being foolish in centering His plan in us? ThatŐs a question only you can answer. TheyŐre foolishness to the world, this cross and this church. Are they foolishness to you? Are you willing to be a part of GodŐs foolishness for the sake of this world?
*Illustrations from The Foolishness of God by King Duncan