God's Foolishness (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

1 Corinthians 1:18-25


I sat with him in a place that reminded me of a living room (albeit with a white board) where the guests go to meet with the patients. In some ways it called to mind one of those parlors at some churches where brides and bridesmaids go to ready themselves and wait for the wedding to begin. Only this place did not have the feel of new beginnings about it. Hanging in the air and absorbed into the walls were hundreds of thousands of words uttered in despair by people who found themselves in dark places where no new beginnings seemed possible.

Before entering that room I had asked God to use me as an instrument for new beginning in the life of this man I had come to visit. Truth be told, I asked this of God with more than a little desperation. Sometimes being a pastor, being a representative of Christ’s church, seems like the most powerless thing in the world. I have seen that MASH episode probably a half dozen times where Father Mulcahy finds himself feeling utterly useless amidst surgeons and nurses who are able to make a difference in the lives of wounded soldiers in very concrete ways. Once again, I felt a little like Father Mulcahy on that day.

I had no power to heal. I had no power to make everything better. I had no power to take the accumulated failures of three decades and put them in a bag to be carried out with the trash. All I had with me was what he had asked me to bring—a modern version Bible that he could understand that I had taken from our library here at the church. And of course I brought myself. And, with me, I brought my faith and my hope for this man. I brought the love of Jesus who had spent a good portion of his ministry on this earth reaching out to hurting and broken people. But on that day the love of Jesus seemed a weak and paltry thing.

As visits go, my visit with the man seemed successful enough. He was very receptive and talked openly of what he was going through. I listened attentively and spoke encouragingly. As I was about to leave, he asked me to pray. Which I did, holding his hands and visualizing God’s healing flowing from my life into his.

He seemed to be a changed man when I left. And maybe he was for a day or two, maybe even a week. Then his addiction reared its ugly head and he was back where he had been dozens of times before and where he would continue to be—without hope, without the inner fortitude to change and stay changed, without anyone—pastor, doctor, counselor, wife, sons and daughters—who could give him what he needed to be healed.

There is power in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But there is weakness as well. And I want us to think about this weakness this morning with the help of Paul’s words in the first chapter of his first letter to the Christians in Corinth.

In some ways these Corinthian Christians are not so different from Christians in our own time and culture. They valued power and people with power. They valued people who could make things happen, who had the wherewithal to come into situations and by the power of their wisdom and their way with words make things go their way.

Have you noticed that certain people have a certain something about them that just exudes celebrity and power? We call it presence. There are some people that when they walk into the room there is just a presence about them. People pay attention to them. People are easily influenced by them. They are often very bright and gifted with the ability to make logical argument that sways people to their point of view.

Several years ago, when I first came to this church as pastor, we had an elder on our session who had this kind of presence. He was a highly successful and accomplished man. He had a way of taking an issue that we were discussing, cutting to the heart of the matter, and offering a solution that made sense. Like that solution or not, wonder whether it was really the faithful decision or not, it was hard to argue with what he had to say. Some people just have a force of personality that is very difficult to resist.

We value this force of personality in our leaders. We look up to people with this certain something that makes people listen. We look up to people with this certain something that makes things happen. In his letter Paul observes that the Greeks of his day looked up to people who had a way with words, whose wisdom was impeccable, who could sway an audience with the power of their rhetoric.

In his letter Paul also observes that the Jews of his day looked up to people with personal power who could change the course of history. Their sign of a great leader, anticipated in the coming Messiah, was someone who could come riding in on a war horse and lead the people towards victory over their enemies and a restoration of the throne of David.

This really was and is what people understand power to be about. Power is the strength to make things happen. Power is the wherewithal to get other people to do what you want them to do; and, if you are a Christian, to get other people to do what you want them to do for their own salvation and for the greater glory of God.

Truth be told, we all wish for it—the power to find the right words and the right leverage to make a troubled soul face the truth about himself and get the help that he needs to change, the power to save people from their own self-destruction, the power to make people stop doing what they are doing that is making us and others miserable, the power to set straight some person who is on the wrong track in a way that they will see the light and change their ways, the power to save our children or our spouses or maybe even our parents from their own brokenness, the power to make some resistant person see the truth of our faith in Jesus Christ.

We see it all the time—people trying to exert power to get other people to do what seems to be the right thing for them to do. Shaming or belittling them so that they will see the error of their ways, giving them the silent treatment to teach them a lesson they won’t soon forget, pampering them and doing for them what they should be doing for themselves in the hopes that kindness will change them, raging and even resorting to violence in an attempt to literally wipe out the wrong seen in the other person—these are but a few examples of how people use power to manipulate and change other people, to ramrod the changes that they want to see happen.

But this is not real power, Paul says to the Christians in Corinth. Yes, for those who are perishing, it is power. For those who come on the stage of history and try to push their way around for a while until they exit the stage and are forgotten, it is power. But, for those of us who are being saved, power is found somewhere else. For those of us who are being saved power is found in the message about the cross.

And the message about the cross is not to be found in complicated theological formulas. It is not to be found in abstract speculation about this or that theory of atonement. The message about the cross is the picture of the God of all creation who is revealed to us in the open arms of Jesus on the cross. The message about the cross is that the God behind everything is revealed in the open arms of self-giving love. And this love does not manipulate. It does not control. It does not attempt to run over people with superior logic or with words that attempt to intimidate or shame. It does not come striding in on a war horse ready to destroy anyone who gets in its way. This love seeks only to embrace us in our sinfulness. It seeks only to embrace us in our brokenness. It seeks only to embrace us as we are so that in the power of that love we can become who we were created to be. For those of us who are being saved the self-giving love of Jesus revealed on the cross is the power of God.

For many of the Greeks and Jews of Paul’s day it was utter foolishness. And for many Greeks and Jews and Christians and a whole host of other believers and non-believers in our day it is utter foolishness. Power in self-giving and non-manipulative love? Power in a God who was put to a cruel death on a cross? Power in one who continues to offer himself to us in love with the words, “This is my body. This is my blood”? Power in one whose life is still poured out in self-giving love for us?

Yes. For us who are being saved, who have not arrived yet but are in the process of being saved, this is the power of God. It is what is changing us. It is what is changing others. It is what will finally change the world. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

So we’ll keep on loving broken people. We’ll keep on doing what we can to share the self-giving love of Jesus with people whose lives we can never control. We’ll keep on pouring ourselves out for each other, sometimes in some pretty painful situations when lives seem to be falling apart. We’ll keep on coming to the table and letting Jesus give himself to us and going out from here to share food with the hungry in body and the hungry in spirit. We’ll keep on giving ourselves for the self-giving love many in the world consider foolishness. And we will do it because on the other side of the cross is resurrection; and, as it turns out, the greatest force for change in our lives and in our relationships and in the world is the self-giving love of Jesus revealed on the cross.

“…but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:23-25).

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, March 4, 2018

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