Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
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Wisdom and Foolishness

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
            “The world” is never going to embrace the gospel. Some people will embrace it, but “the world” never will. “The world,” in the New Testament, describes a system of values and beliefs and behaviors that has no place for God. To the world, the gospel will always be foolish.
            The gospel message is centered on the cross, and the world rejects what the cross stands for. That was true in Paul’s day. Paul calls the cross a SKANDALON, in Greek. You don’t need to go to seminary to know the meaning of that word: “scandal.” One of the central events in the gospel story is a scandal to the world. 
            The cross was a scandal to the Hebrew mind. They were expecting a conquering warrior Messiah in the first century. When they received a meek, humble, poor Messiah, who died on a cross, most couldn’t accept it. “He couldn’t possibly be the Messiah. He was hung on a tree.” Deuteronomy 21:23 said “anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed by God.” So Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah.
            “The Jews wanted a sign from heaven to prove it.” They wanted miraculous signs to prove Messiah had come. Now, wait a minute, you’re probably thinking. Didn’t Jesus do a whole lot of miracles? Yes, he did miracles. But read the Gospels and notice how often Jesus was “low key” about his miracles. Often they were only done in front of a few people or even just in front of the disciples. Other times Jesus asked people not to talk about them. Jesus didn’t really do any big, flashy miracles for everyone to see. He didn’t jump from the roof of the Temple to be carried to the ground by angels. By contrast, others who claimed to be Messiah did claim that they would do big, flashy miracles. One man claimed he would stop the Jordan River. Another claimed that at his word, the walls of Jerusalem would crumble. Neither succeeded, but that was what people were expecting. 
            The cross was a scandal to the Greek mind. To the Greek way of thinking, God was totally apathetic. He had no feelings or emotions. He certainly didn’t “love” the world. And he could not possibly suffer. God is a spirit, and the thought of him lowering himself to become flesh and to suffer was completely foreign to the Greek mind. 
            Also, the Greeks held philosophy in high regard. They considered themselves to be more educated and wise than all other people. They loved rhetoric, the ability to weave endless arguments and say clever things. To them, the gospel message was too simple, too mundane to be true. 
 
            Many of the early believers came from the lower classes, which Paul mentions here. They were uneducated, common people. Not all of them, but most were. They were looked down on by the educated, the wealthy, and the nobility. Education itself can be a form of status symbol. A person with a degree might easily hold it over the head of someone who doesn’t. “The gospel must be false because it appeals to the simple-minded.” An early critic of Christianity, a man named Celsus, wrote of Christians that they were “the most uneducated and vulgar of persons.” 
            To the Roman mind, the gospel was a scandal. In Roman thought, it was power and status that mattered most of all. A person on a cross has none. Crucifixion was the death penalty of the poor, slaves, foreigners, the unimportant people of the world. No one of significance would die on a cross. 
 And the world still calls the gospel foolish. It stands in contrast to the values of the world: Wealth, power, fame, status, achievement, and so on. The cross is symbol of weakness, scorn, and shame. It is a symbol of failure. A person on a cross has failed to make anything of himself. 
            But the cross is the wisdom of God.  It reveals God like nothing else could. We know the heart of God, the deep, abiding AGAPE love of God because of the cross. 
            The cross will always challenge the world’s way of thinking. How does the world think now?
            Many people today say human beings are essentially good. If there is evil in the world, it’s because we have been given bad influences or poor education. If we could just remove those influences, teach people better, then the world would become a thoroughly good place. The world doesn’t believe in sin, that there is a willful tendency in every human being to rebel against the good and against God, if there even is a God. Who needs a Savior to die on a cross when people are basically good? 
            Many say that there is no such thing as right and wrong. There is no universal truth. What is good for one may not be good for another. All truth is relative. The world no longer believes in absolute truth or God-given standards of right and wrong. It’s offensive to talk about how all people “have sinned and fallen short.” 
            Many people say things like, “I think of God as _____________.” Is that a legitimate way to know God? Can we think our way to God? What if my God is nothing like your God? How do we know which one is real? How many different understandings of God are out there? Millions? 
            Isaiah 55 says this: “My thoughts are different from yours. My ways are far beyond anything you can imagine. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” If that’s true, then we can’t know God by our thoughts. The only way we could know God by our thoughts is if God was so small, so insignificant, so like us that he would not really be worthy of our love and devotion. If it’s true, then the only way we can really know God is if he reveals himself to us, he makes himself known to us. That’s why we attach so much importance to Scripture, because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit. It reveals God like nothing else. 
            Now, it’s not that human wisdom is bad. That’s not what this passage is saying. It’s not that human wisdom is bad and divine wisdom is good. Rather, it is telling us that human wisdom is limited. 
            Let’s be honest, the Church hasn’t always done the best job here. At times, the Church has stood in the way of human wisdom. Galileo was put on trial for proposing a model of the universe that was at odds with the teaching of the Church. That was wrong.
            Some Christians still do that. There is an anti-intellectual element in the Church: “Education will ruin your faith. No book but the Bible.” Book-burning is an extreme example. I had a couple join one of my churches one time after leaving another church. The reason they left: The other church was going to have a book-burning. The pastor told everyone to bring all the books but the Bible from their homes to be burned. The husband said to the wife, “We just spent $500 on new encyclopedias. We’re not going to burn them. Let’s go to the Methodist church.” Not that anyone buys encyclopedias anymore… 
            Human wisdom isn’t bad, but it is limited. We can’t know God by our own wisdom. And there are other limitations to our wisdom. Science can tell us what the universe is like, how it functions, and so on. But science can’t tell us why the universe exists. It can tell us how the human body works, but it can’t tell us why we ask these kinds of questions. 
On the other hand, we also have to be careful not to turn Christianity into nothing more than another intellectual system. Our faith is about a relationship with God, not having the right opinions or the right ideas. At times, Christianity has been reduced to nothing more than a philosophical system. 
 
            This text also reminds us that we have to stay humble. Verse 30 says “No one can boast in the presence of God.” The same word that means boast in Greek, KAUCHAOMAI, can also mean rejoice. The question is, “Where is the attention going? Who is receiving credit for what has been accomplished?” Is the attention going to oneself? Then it’s boasting. Is the credit going to God? Then it’s rejoicing. Jeremiah 9 says this, “Let not the wise man gloat in his wisdom, or the mighty man in his might, or the rich man in his riches. Let them boast in this alone: That they truly know me and understand I am the Lord.” Our boast is in what God has done, not what we have done. 
            I think it was easier for the Church to stay humble when we were a poor and persecuted religious minority. It was easier to accept that the world thought we were foolish then. It was easier to embrace the values Jesus laid out in the Beatitudes that we heard earlier from Matthew 5 earlier; easier to embrace being meek and poor then. Things changed, right? The Christian faith became the dominant culture of the Western world. And we got used to that. We found it harder to embrace humility and meekness. And it became easier to push aside the poor and meek and embrace more worldly values. 
            Unfortunately, that’s still alive in the Church today. I know of churches that resist hosting groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. “We don’t want those kind of people in our church.” A church that I know refused to become the host site for a monthly food bank distribution.  Their reasoning, “They’ll ruin the carpet.” But I think the truth was that they didn’t want those kind of people, poor people, in their building. They were acting like the world, embracing its wisdom, its desire for status and respectability.
            If the Church loses its Kingdom values, if the Church starts acting like the world, thinking like the world, embracing the values of the world, then it stops being the Church. 
 

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