“Weak Power and Foolish Wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)
Every so often an organization called the American Religious Identification Survey conducts a national survey to find out how Americans are identifying themselves by their religion. And so we have data to compare from complete surveys taken in 1990, 2001, and 2008. In 1990, 86% of Americans identified themselves as some sort of Christian–Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, non-denom, you name it. By 2008, that number had dropped ten points, down to 76%. In 1990, the percentage of the population that said they had no religion was just 8%. By 2008, that number had gone up to 15%. And since 2008, the trend lines have only gone more in that direction. There was a survey of college students in 2013, and it found that 33% of that younger generation said they had no religion. 33%! These people are called the “Nones,” spelled “n-o-n-e-s,” meaning those with no religious self-identification. What we are seeing is an increasing secularization in American life. We’re witnessing the rise of the Nones.
Friends, 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 many churches, in trying to attract more customers, have abandoned what they ought to be offering and instead have resorted to gimmicks and entertainment. In that way, the world is not even hearing the genuine Christian message. Large parts of the church seem to be embarrassed by genuine, historic, biblical Christianity. They have watered down the message, in order to cater to the world. And the world is impressed by things like power and wisdom. But the genuine Christian message, namely, the message of the cross, Christ crucified–this 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. People were rejecting the gospel because it seemed so weak and foolish. It was not very powerful or wise. As the apostle says: “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–these are the things that impress people, both 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. “What sign will 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. For Jesus was exposing their greed and their hypocrisy, overturning money-tables, and calling people to repentance. His opponents did not like that. They hated Jesus for it. Thus the demand for a sign of power, in order to put Jesus on the spot, to test him and trap him, to discount and dismiss what he was saying.
People still today do that sort of thing. They raise all kinds of objections. They put up smokescreens and all kinds of barriers, in order to keep Jesus at arm’s length. They don’t want the 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.” “Sunday is family time.” “Sunday is my only day to sleep in.” “Yeah, well, somebody at church said something once to offend me.” “Oh, I believe in God, but I don’t need church.” “I don’t believe in organized religion.” All kinds of excuses. But they all boil down to this: People don’t want Jesus to get too close. They’re afraid of his call to repentance and discipleship. They prefer someone like Joyce Meyer, who says she is not a poor miserable sinner. People don’t want to hear they are in need of the forgiveness that only God can give them. They don’t think they need to be forgiven. They don’t think that the message of the cross, is that big of a deal. It doesn’t seem very powerful. It doesn’t put money in the bank. It’s not that entertaining. It 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, that will help me to lead a better, happier life. Something I can do, from within my own resources, to give me success and happiness and to achieve my goals. That’s what people are looking for. Give me seven habits I can work on. Give me ten steps to success and prosperity. Give me a “how to” message. That’s what I want. Affirm me. Make it all about me. 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, a mere human wisdom. In fact, it sounds rather foolish. “Some guy dying on a cross, 2000 years ago, and you’re saying that’s the most important thing you have to offer? That sounds pretty lame to me. This cross business–you’re saying there’s nothing I can add to it? That there’s nothing I can do to impress God? That it’s not a matter of how good I am, that instead it’s what this guy Jesus did by dying on the cross for me?” “Well, yeah.” “Well, in that case, I’m 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, the forgiveness-of-sins stuff. Oh, not entirely. It is in the Bible, after all. But maybe we’ll put it on the back burner and pay a little lip-service to it, just a little. But mainly we’ll assume you already know that stuff. Hey, look, we’ll take down the cross, if that makes you uncomfortable. All that religious stuff. We’ll make church look like the programs you see on TV! We’ll play the kind of music you like to listen to! Whatever makes you happy.”
“Peppy praise bands. Auditorium seating. A dynamic speaker, projected on our big screens. We’ve got a fitness center. A coffee shop. Lots and lots of programs. Niche marketing to all the desirable demographics. Millennials–hey, look, we are experts on what millennials want!” Sociology, not theology, wins the day. Gotta keep the customers satisfied. “Hey, at least it will keep the doors open, and we won’t go out of business. Oh, 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 in what it doesn’t say–that it hardly even 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 crucified Savior into a life coach in khakis and a golf shirt, something has gone terribly wrong. The message of the cross has gotten lost in translation.
But now I want to tell you why every faithful church and every faithful preacher 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 this is one thing you will not get 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. This is the truth of the matter. The word of the cross, the preaching of Christ crucified–this is God’s way of saving people. This is God’s way of saving you and keeping you strong and firm in your salvation. This word of the cross is real wisdom, it is real power. It may not put money in your bank account, but it will give you riches in heaven. It may not heal your infirmities, at least not right now, but it will raise your body from the dead and give you total healing for eternal life. It may not put hair on your head and make you popular with the girls. It may not trim your waistline and get you in bikini shape for the summer. No, it will not do any of those things. But it will put you right with God, both now and for eternity.
If this is not a big deal for you, well, then go ahead and claim your religion as “none.” Or be more honest and identify your religion as “Me, Myself, and I.” For that is what it really is. Frankly, no one has no religion at all. For there are really only two religions in the world: It’s either Jesus as the Savior for sinners, or else it’s yourself as your own god. Take your pick, but it’s either one or the other.
But, friend, if you do know that you are a poor miserable sinner–that you have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what you have done and what you have left undone–if you are troubled in your conscience, and you want relief from your burden of guilt, then I have good news for you today: This word of the cross is for you! This message that I am preaching to you right now–this is how God is coming to save you! God is at work through his word! The preaching of Christ crucified–this is true wisdom and real power. The cross may look weak, it may sound foolish, but this is God acting to rescue you from your sins in the only way there is: by the Son of God, Jesus Christ, dying on that cross for you.
You could not save yourself. You could not do enough good works to pull yourself out of the pit. Your goodness is not good enough. Your works won’t work. There is nothing you can do to add to what Christ has already done for you. And thank God, he did! When the holy Son of God is the one dying on the cross, shedding his holy precious blood to cover all your sins, and the sin of the whole world–that is as good as it gets! Sins are forgiven, all of them, the whole damn mess. Death is defeated, vanquished, forever, as surely as Christ’s own rising from the dead.
And it’s the word of the cross that brings all this home to you. This God’s delivery system, operated by the Holy Spirit. The complete package, delivered to your doorstep, with your name on it–delivered fresh every time this word of the cross is preached at this pulpit and sacramented at this altar and font. Forget Amazon Prime–this is Amazing Prime!
And so we say with St. Paul, Christ Jesus is for us “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” All these big-sounding words that simply mean: Things are all right between you and God. Yeah, it’s all right! God has made it so. Christ crucified did it, and the word of the cross delivers the goods to you.
So the world will do what the world will do, and spineless churches will go along with it. But we here will go on preaching and teaching and believing in Christ crucified and the word of the cross. For God’s “weak” power and “foolish” wisdom is more than strong enough and more than wise enough to do the job.