Sunday, February 3, 2013

Where Weakness Wins

Text:  1 Corinthians 1:18 - 2:5

WELL, TONIGHT'S THE SUPER BOWL, AND it's too bad the Steelers aren't in it.  They just weren't strong enough or smart enough or healthy enough to make it to New Orleans.  It's a real disappointment, but that's the way it works in this world.  To get to the big game you have to be smart and fast and accomplished, and that doesn't go just for football, but for all areas of life.  To really succeed, it takes smarts-- or, shall we say, wisdom-- and it takes strength.  Weaklings and fools need not apply

But in our Scripture reading for today, we have the Apostle Paul extolling the virtues of weakness and foolishness.  What's going on?  Have we been wrong all along about how the world runs?  Does he want us to see that in this life it's the weak fools who really win?

Not at all.   But St. Paul isn't talking about the game of this earthly life.  He's talking about a game that's much, much, bigger than that.

When it comes to understanding the Scriptures, the first rule is "Context, context, context".  That means first of all how the verse or passage works in the book its in and in the Bible as a whole.  Then it means understanding the historical and cultural context of the passage, what it would have meant to its first readers.  After that, we can begin to apply God's eternal Word to ourselves.

So even though you have the Scripture readings projected up on the screen, I hope you won't stop opening the Bible in the pew or bringing your own Bible to church and having it open during the sermon.  It will help you understand the context of what's being preached.

So what's the context of our reading from 1 Corinthians?  First and foremost, its context is the entire Bible, and entire Bible is the record of how God the Father brought salvation to a lost world through His Son Jesus Christ and how the Holy Spirit applies that salvation to the ones He has chosen.  As Jesus taught the disciples on the road to Emmaus, all of Scripture is about Him.  The first letter to the Corinthians is in the New Testament, which deals with how God brought the good news of Christ's salvation to the world and how His church worked through what that would mean in their lives.  In this letter the Apostle Paul responds to some misunderstandings that had come up in the church at Corinth, so they could live before God and with each other in a way that glorified the Lord who had saved them.  And the immediate context for what we read today starts at verse 10 of chapter 1 and goes all the way to the end of Chapter 4.  It has to do with wisdom and foolishness, weakness and strength, and being united in Christ instead of divided like those in this fallen world.

So if you do have your Bibles with you, I ask you to look over at verses 11 and 12 of chapter 1.  There Paul writes,

My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this:  One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas [that is, Peter]"; still another, "I follow Christ."

Over in chapter 3, verse 5, the Apostle writes,

What, after all, is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Only servants, though whom you were called to believe-- as the Lord has assigned to each his task.

All right, what does this have to do with strength and weakness?  Just this: In the 1st century Grecian world, the teams (you might call them) that were the most looked up to and admired were not always the wrestlers and runners and chariot racers.  They were the schools of the philosophers.  The philosophers were the wise ones who could teach enlightenment and help you gain the ideal life in this world and in the next.  Now, these schools weren't like a college classroom with a professor up front lecturing.  Rather, think of a group of men (and a woman or two) gathered in a shady colonnade in the market place discussing and debating the latest ideas on wisdom and the ideal life.  The different schools of philosophy didn't agree on this, and so of course there were divisions between them.  Which one was the wisest?  Which one made the strongest, most noble case?  It was important to the Greeks.    Even the lower classes looked up with envy and admiration to the philosophers.

Before they were saved, the Corinthians might have said, "I admire the Stoics"; or, "I favor the Epicureans"; or "I follow Pythagoras."  But now, listen to them: "I follow Paul!" and "I follow Apollos!"  They were treating the Good News of Jesus Christ like just another worldly philosophy and seeing the apostles as leaders of different, opposing schools.  They were quarrelling about who was the wisest, the strongest, the best!

We don't have that exact problem in our day.  But sadly, we do have Christian leaders who will take their stand on some secondary point of doctrine, like social justice or worship styles or women in ministry, and insinuate that those who don't feel the way they do on it probably aren't saved.  We have everyday ordinary people-- maybe ourselves, God help us!-- breaking up into factions of one, each picking and choosing what bits of Scripture we'll emphasize and worshipping a Jesus of our own making.  As we can tell from verse 17, this partisan spirit threatens to empty the cross of Christ of its power.

Why is that?  Because, as we read in 1:18, "[T]he message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

Again, is Paul getting ready to tell us that weakness and foolishness is the real, true way to triumph in this earthly life?  Not at all!  Rather, he's telling us that what God has done for us in Christ has nothing to do with the world or its strength or wisdom at all!  He quotes from Isaiah 29:

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; 
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."

The wise ones of the Jews said the way to salvation-- that is, the way to power and glory with God-- was by making an effort and perfectly keeping the Law of Moses.  The wise Gentiles, especially the Greeks,  said it was through philosophy and enlightenment.  But God confounds them all with the fact of the cross, with a stripped and beaten Man hanging in agony on a shameful instrument of execution.  How foolish that seems to the unbelieving world?  Who could ever believe that one Man's death as a low, despised criminal could be the one and only way to divine fulfillment, happiness, and peace?  Through its wisdom the world could never know it.  If we thought about it ourselves for a thousand years we could never imagine it.  Even today, we have people in the church, in our denomination, who say the Cross of Christ is foolishness and we should forget all about it if we want to bring in the kingdom of God.  If you read news articles online or watch YouTube videos, you'll see how many people make fun of the idea that salvation from sin comes only through Christ and Him crucified.  The idea that we need to be saved in the first place makes them laugh even more.  Not only is the cross not obvious, it goes against everything the world knows is true.

But, as Paul says in 1:25, "[T]he foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength."  By the weakness and foolishness of the preaching of the gospel of Christ dead and risen again for our sins, God the Holy Spirit brings into our lives eternal wisdom and never-ending strength that we could never have imagined before He came and transforms our hearts and minds.

But how can we know this is true? Well, Paul says to the Corinthians, look what has happened to you:

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are . . .

Does Paul want them to start feeling proud of their lowliness?  Does he want them to compete for the title of Most Humble the way they've been competing over whose party is the greatest?  Certainly not!  Besides, the slaves and laborers of the Corinthian church knew there was nothing grand or glorious about their lot in life.  It was a dead-end, miserable existence.  Rather, if they should ever doubt the greatness of the cross, he wants them to think like this: "Hey, you know, that's right.  I'm only a slave.  I could never go near those groups of philosophers in the marketplace, except maybe to wash their feet.  I could never learn the path to enlightenment.  But here I am and I know the truth of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe!  To me, a mere slave, the eternal Creator has given the gift of speaking in tongues!  My fellow-slaves and I can prophesy in His name!  We can heal people and cast out demons!  We can do all these amazing things the greatest philosophers never dreamed of doing, and it's all because of what Jesus Christ did for me when He died on that cross over outside Jerusalem."  If God can transform our lives like that by the cross, don't you think He could cause the cross to become the means of transformation in the first place?  Or to put it the other way around, since God was able by the out-of-this-world foolishness of the cross to raise up His church in power and wisdom, can't we see how able He is to transform and glorify you and me?

Why did God do it this way?  Why go so opposite to what the world desires and expects?  The answer is in verse 29.  God wants to make sure that no one on earth can boast before Him.  He wants to make sure that none of us can say, "Here I am, Lord, standing in blessedness before Your throne,  because I made the effort and earned it!" or "Sure, that was all my idea, how to get myself saved."  No, Christ and Christ crucified alone is our wisdom from God, our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption.  If we're going to talk big about anyone's greatness, let us magnify the amazing greatness of the Lord.

It was to forestall any human boasting that, when Paul came to preach the gospel in Corinth, he made every effort not to sound like one of their hero philosophers.  He didn't claim to have special, hidden, higher wisdom and he didn't use the eloquent rhetorical devices the great lecturers would use.  Paul knew the Corinthians' yen for human strength and wisdom, and he wanted to distinguish the gospel from all that, so the transforming power would be that of the Holy Spirit alone.  So, he says, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified . . . so that your faith might not rest on man's wisdom, but on God's power."

"I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."  That is the message of the gospel.  That is the message of all the Scriptures.  Of course there are other things we need to know about God's dealing with us.  We need to know about God's righteousness and our sin.  We need to understand our need for a Savior.  We need to learn how to live our lives in thankful service to the Lord who has saved us.  We need to know about His return and how His righteousness and justice will prevail over all creation.  But the central thing is and must remain the cross, that foolish, weak, and shameful thing Jesus Christ submitted to one day outside Jerusalem.

Before all else, we need to realize how through it He has given us God's nobility, wisdom, and strength.   Whatever you do, especially whatever you as a church, be it the most routine meeting or fellowship dinner, do not ignore the cross, or depart from it, or forget its power.  For if you do, you'll wander blind in your human weakness and you're bound to lose.  If the preaching you hear from this pulpit gives you the idea that the Christian life is something you live by your own wisdom or strength of character, it is leading you to failure.  If any so-called Christian author would lead you away from the cross by reducing Christ's death to a mere good example, reject his or her false wisdom and return to the wisdom of God recorded in Holy Scripture.  Keep your eyes focussed on Him who in foolishness and weakness died for you.  He is Christ, for you the wisdom of God and the power of God.  And when it comes to a contest between the strength of man and the weakness of God, the weakness of God always wins.

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