(I think this text from 1 Corinthians 1 speaks to the issues we’re dealing with in the church today, and so I address that in this sermon. CH)
“Weak Power and Foolish Wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)
A few days ago, the American Religious Identification Survey released the results of a huge, nationwide survey they conducted last year, the first one since a similar survey in 2001. They asked people to identify themselves by their religion, and they included every religion you could think of–Catholic, mainline Protestant, Evangelical, you name it. Perhaps the most interesting result to come out of this survey is the one group they found, the only group that increased in every state in the union. Guess which religious identification that was. Give up? “None.” That’s right, “none” was the religious identification that increased everywhere, all across the board. It points to a trend of increasing secularization in American life.
There is a religious recession going on, an ecclesiastical downturn. What’s behind it? Well, it’s obvious that our society is not buying what the church has to offer. But compounding the problem is that the church, then, in order to attract more customers, in large part has abandoned what she legitimately has to offer and instead has resorted to gimmicks. The world is rejecting, and the church seems to be embarrassed by, the genuine Christian message. Because the world is impressed by things like power and wisdom. And the genuine Christian message–the message of the cross–comes across as “Weak Power and Foolish Wisdom.”
But then this is nothing new. St. Paul faced the same situation back in the first century that we face in the twenty-first: people rejecting the gospel because it seems weak and foolish, not very powerful, not very wise. Paul puts it like this: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…”
Signs of power, appeals to human wisdom–those are the things that will impress people, back then and still today. Power and wisdom. Let’s take power first. “Show us a sign, Jesus!” How often did Jesus’ opponents demand that of him: a sign, a mighty display of power to prove his authority to speak and to act. You heard that in the Gospel for today: “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Of course, what was really behind this demand for a sign was that they didn’t like what Jesus was saying and doing. Jesus was exposing their greed and hypocrisy, overturning money-tables, and calling people to repentance. And his opponents didn’t like that. Thus the demand for a sign of power, in order to put Jesus on the spot, to test him and trap him, and to discount and dismiss what he was saying.
People still do that sort of thing today. They raise all kinds of smokescreens and put up all kinds of barriers, in order to keep Jesus at arm’s length and under their control. They don’t want that message of repentance to get too close. It makes them uncomfortable. So they make all kinds of excuses for not coming to church. “I’m too busy.” “We need the family time.” “Sunday is my only day to sleep in.” “Somebody at church said something once to offend me.” “Oh, I believe in God, but I don’t need church.” All kinds of cockamamie excuses. But they all boil down to, in reality, people don’t want Jesus to get too close. They’re afraid of his call to repentance and discipleship. They don’t want to admit that they are poor miserable sinners who cannot save themselves. They don’t want to hear they are in need of the forgiveness that only God can give them. And they don’t think the forgiveness of sins, coming through the message of the cross, is that big of a deal. It doesn’t seem very powerful. It doesn’t put money in my bank or heal my cancer. It’s not as entertaining as football or hunting or video games. Seems pretty weak.
And then there are people who are looking for wisdom. Human wisdom, that is. Something that appeals to their own ideas and opinions. Something that makes sense. Something that appeals to me, to my know-how or goals, or how to lead a better life. Something I can do, from the resources that are within me, to better my life. Something to make me happy. That’s what people are looking for. Give me seven habits I can work on. Give me ten steps to success and prosperity in these tough economic times. Give me a DVD and a three-ring binder. That’s what I want. Me in control. My needs, my desires, my goals. Steps I can master to make things better for me.
But the message of the cross doesn’t offer that kind of wisdom, mere human wisdom. It sounds rather foolish, in fact. “Some guy dying on a cross, a criminal’s death, 2000 years ago–sounds pretty dumb, if you ask me. And you’re saying that’s the most important thing you have to tell me? And that cross business–that I can’t add anything to it? That it’s not how good I am, and there’s nothing I can contribute to impress God any more beyond what this Jesus guy dying on the cross did for me?” “Well, yeah.” “OK, not interested.”
Power and wisdom. Give us that or else we’re not interested, that’s what our society is saying. So what has the church said in response? “Fine. We’ll junk that old sin-and-grace business, that forgiveness-of-sins stuff, or maybe we’ll put it on the back burner and pay lip-service to it just a little bit.” Take the cross down, whether literally or figuratively. Eliminate the blood talk, the poor miserable sinner talk–all that old, boring, irrelevant stuff. That’s so last millennium.
Razzle-dazzle, church in the fast lane–that’s what we’ll give ’em! Felt needs, pep bands, and lots of programs. Lots and lots of programs. Keep the customers satisfied. Keep them entertained. Hey, at least it will keep the doors open and we won’t go out of business. The cross? The cross . . . well, yeah, it’s back there . . . somewhere. I forget.
Pop Christianity, Christianity Lite, has pushed the cross so far into the background–in its songs, in its worship style, in its message, in what it says and what it doesn’t say–that it hardly resembles historic, biblical Christianity any longer.
Poor Jesus. How can he handle all this rejection? You can expect it from the world, but when the church turns Jesus from a bloody crucified Savior into a blow-dried life coach, something has gone terribly amiss. The message of the cross has gotten lost in the process.
But now I want to tell you why this church will continue to preach Christ and him crucified, every sermon, every service: Because this message of the cross is the one thing you need more than anything else, and you will not get it anywhere else. Listen to what St. Paul says: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Again, “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” And again, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
There it is. That’s the truth of the matter. The word of the cross, preaching Christ crucified–this is God’s way of saving people. This is real wisdom, this is real power. It may not put any money in your checkbook, but it will give you riches in heaven. It may not heal your cancer, at least not right now, but it will raise your body from the dead. It may not put hair on your head and make you popular with the girls–and for you girls, it may not trim your waistline and put you into bikini shape for the summer–no, it may not do any of those things, but it will put you right with God, now and for eternity.
If that’s not a big deal for you, then go ahead and claim your religion as “none.” Or be more honest and identify your religion as “Me, Myself, and I,” for that’s what it really is. But, my friend, if you know you are indeed a poor miserable sinner–that you have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what you have done and what you have failed to do–if you are troubled in conscience and want relief from your burden of guilt, then I have good news for you today: This word of the cross is a word for you! This message I preach to you today, Christ crucified–this is God coming to save you! This is real, true wisdom and power. It may look weak, it may sound foolish, but this is God acting to rescue you from your sins in the only way possible: The Son of God, Jesus Christ, died on that cross for you.
You could not save yourself. You could not pull yourself out of the pit you dug for yourself. Your goodness is not good enough. Your works won’t work. There is nothing you could do, or could add to what Christ has already done, to suffice. But, thank God, Christ did it all for you! When the holy Son of God is the one dying on that cross, shedding his infinitely precious blood, to cover your sin and guilt, and the sin of the whole world–that suffices big-time, and more! Sin is forgiven, all of it. Death is defeated, forever, as surely as Christ’s own rising from the dead.
And it is this message of the cross that brings it home to you. The word of the cross delivers the goods. All that Jesus won for you on the cross is brought to your address, with your name on it, every time this word is preached at this pulpit and sacramented at this altar and font.
And so we say with St. Paul, Christ Jesus has become to us “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption”–all those big-sounding words that simply mean that things are all right between you and God for eternity now, because God has made it so. Christ crucified did it, and the word of the cross delivers it.
So we will go on preaching and believing Christ crucified, the word of the cross. For God’s “Weak Power and Foolish Wisdom” is more than strong enough and wise enough to save sinners like you and me.