Wisdom in the Wilderness – Sermon for Lent 3B

Watch a video of this sermon.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25

We are smack dab in the middle of Lent this week. We’ve been wandering in the wilderness, tempted by Satan to grab power wherever we can get it, to look for affirmation in all the wrong places. Like Peter, we want to make Jesus fit into our limited idea of what a Savior should be. And, like Peter, we tend to deny that we know Jesus when it matters most, instead of denying ourselves and taking up the cross Jesus asks us to bear.

Bearing our cross means living our lives in a way that should raise questions among the people we meet outside the church.
Questions like:

  • What makes Christians different from everyone else?
  • Why do Christians stand out in sharp contrast to the ways of the world around us?
  • How do they manage to give sacrificially, and still have enough to be satisfied?
  • How do they always seem to know exactly the right thing to say, or the kindest thing to do when someone is hurting?
  • How do they manage to show so much love to people they barely know?

In first century Corinth, people had stopped asking those questions. And the church was in deep trouble. Made up of several groups that met in homes, what we would call house churches today, this church was a mess. One of the church leaders, a woman named Chloe, had sent some of her people to ask Paul for help. So Paul writes a letter, not just to Chloe, but to the whole church at Corinth.

Remember that the city of Corinth was strategically located between two important seaports. There was constant merchant traffic through the city, and Corinth was also home to some very popular pagan temples. One of those was the temple of Aphrodite, where there may have been as many as a thousand temple slaves serving the goddess of love. (Sex trafficking is nothing new.)

Corinth could be compared to our modern day Las Vegas. You know, that place that’s also called “Sin City.” While what happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, whatever happened in Corinth spread throughout the Roman Empire, because of its prime location along a major trade route. What a great mission opportunity, right, to spread the gospel? But the church in Corinth had lost its bearings, and that great mission opportunity was being wasted.

So, when we read First Corinthians, we have to remember Paul is writing to his most troublesome church. It’s a church that is experiencing rivalries among groups and leaders. This congregation has allowed sexual sin to go unchallenged. It has adopted the social hierarchy of the culture around it, giving preference to the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and weak. This church has adapted to the pagan culture of Corinth, instead of following the counter-cultural way of Jesus.

Chloe’s people have alerted Paul to the problems they are experiencing in Corinth, and Paul is writing to respond. His letter includes three major themes: he writes to correct bad theology, to correct bad behavior, and to reorient the Christians in Corinth toward the cross of Jesus Christ.

18 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. 19 For it is written,
         “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
         and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1Corinthians 1:18-25)

Carla Works is a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. She writes that Paul “reminds the believers of the topsy-turvy nature of the cross. God chose the most shameful thing in the world, because the values with which the world operates — where some have privilege and status at the expense of others — look nothing like God’s reign.”[1] She goes on to explain that our translation of the word for “foolish” is more polite than a literal translation. The Greek word for ‘fool’ sounds a lot like our English word for ‘moron.’ So Paul is saying that the pagan world considers belief in Christ to be ‘stupid.’

But Paul doesn’t let the Jewish believers off the hook, either. Remember that Corinth is a very cosmopolitan city. The young church there is made up of both Jews and Greeks, and the Jewish intellectuals are not living out their trust in Christ any more faithfully than the Gentile Christians are. “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? … For Jews demand signs, and Greeks desire wisdom …” Paul writes.

It’s easy for us to shake our heads at those foolish Corinthians. That is, until we read Paul’s question, “Where is the debater of this age?” And suddenly we remember all those arguments we’ve been following, or maybe even been part of on social media. Arguments about politics and moral issues, arguments about rights and rules, arguments about values and opinions – arguments that do not, in any way, point people to the saving grace of the cross of Christ.

And every time we engage in these arguments, even as silent observers, we fall into the same trap the Corinthian church did. We’ve let the ‘wisdom’ of the culture around us have more influence on our thinking than the realization that God loves us so much he would die for us. And yet, “has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” What kind of fools are we, to ignore the scandal of the Cross?

Like the Corinthians, we supposedly have believed in the scandal of the cross. So why is Paul reminding them – and us – of what we already have accepted?[2] The problem for the Corinthians was that God’s scandalous wisdom had not been translated into their daily lives. The problem for us is that we are just as foolish when we don’t let God’s scandalous wisdom penetrate into our lives and change us. God uses what the world considers stupid to shame the “wise.”

And this does not just mean the cross. God continues to favor the weak, the poor, the outcast, the undereducated, and those who live on the margins of society, because God invites all to become people of God. Just as Jesus ate with outcasts when he walked this earth, Christ continues, through us, to welcome the sinner into his fellowship.

St. John Chrysostom once said, “You dishonor this [communion] table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food someone [Christ has] judged worthy to take part in this meal.”

Nathan Mitchell adds, “So every time Christians gather at the Lord’s table, they acknowledge their solidarity with the world’s poor, with all the outcast and marginalized–the unlovely, unloved, unwashed and unwanted of our species–and they also make the radical political statement that the world’s present socioeconomic system is doomed. It will, Christians believe, be replaced by God’s reign, where all have equal access to the feast, where the only power is power exercised on behalf of the poor and needy, where God’s agenda is the human agenda, where God has chosen relatedness to people as the only definition of the divine.”[3]

Where do you find yourself at Christ’s Table? Do you find your highest value in what the world considers to be important? Or do you find community among those for whom the scandal of the Cross means everything?

Remember those Commandments we read together at the beginning of worship? They were countercultural in their day. In Jewish tradition they aren’t even called Commandments. They are called the Ten Words or Ten Teachings. They taught people how to be the people of God in the midst of a pagan society. They sounded foolish to the Anakites and the Amorites and the Canaanites, but following those ‘words to live by’ set apart God’s people and made the other nations wonder, how is their God so powerful, so different from our puny gods?

In the gospel lesson, as Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the temple, he is making a countercultural statement, too. Those moneychangers were necessary for Temple worship – they converted Roman coins into temple money that could be then be given as a token, or used to purchase animals appropriate for sacrifice. This was important for people who traveled from far away. It was impossible for them to bring animals for sacrifice that would still be acceptable by the time they got to Jerusalem. They had to buy a “proxy.”

But Jesus was announcing a new way of worship, completely eliminating the need for animal sacrifice. Jesus flipped the tables on the whole sacrificial system.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes:

Let’s correct a few misconceptions
from your Sunday School comic book pictures.
First, he doesn’t use the whip on people.
He uses it to herd the animals out.

Second: he’s not mad. This isn’t an outburst.
(It takes time and patience to braid a whip.)
It’s carefully staged symbolic street theater: a protest.

Third: the moneychangers belong there.
They exchange Jewish coins, acceptable for offerings
or for buying sacrificial animals,
for the “unclean” Roman money that people carry.

It’s how you make a sacrifice.
And they aren’t overcharging.
Jesus isn’t criticizing “commercialization.”
He’s protesting sacrifice.
(Mark says he wouldn’t allow anyone

to carry a vessel through the temple.)

A deep instinct tells us our brokenness before God
can be fixed by transferring it elsewhere—
making another creature (or person, or race)

suffer for us. A little saving violence. A scapegoat.
Jesus disrupts our “sacrifices.”
(After all, we’re not making the sacrifice, the sheep is.)

He doesn’t use the whip to hurt people,
it’s to rescue the sheep.
“Stop this,” he says, on behalf of God.
“I will be the sheep.”

Our brokenness is accepted, as is.

God is the one who suffers.
We break all ten commandments
when we pretend otherwise. Steve Garnaas-Holmes

You see, there is no substitute, no proxy offering you can make for your own soul. Jesus overturns the whole ransom system and says, “give yourself instead.” Because that’s exactly what Jesus did.
He gave himself.

We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that we can somehow buy God off when we write a check for missions, instead of rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty, instead of working side by side with those we hope to serve. We think we can use cash to satisfy our spiritual deficiency. But God isn’t in the business of taking bribes. God is in the business of creating life, life for us and life with us.

In both of these readings, God was announcing a new way of being in community, with God and with each other. Paul reminds us that this new way of being together may look foolish to others. But it is how we proclaim Christ crucified, and how we reveal the power of God and the wisdom of God.

As we gather at Christ’s Table now, Jesus invites us to lift up the foolishness of the Cross and enter into the mystery of God’s great love, not only for us, but for those the world might consider unworthy, unwanted, foolish. Christ invites you to his Table now, to share the feast. Will you take your place alongside your brothers and sisters, whoever they may be, and recognize that Christ’s cross makes us one?

[1] Carla Works, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3576
[2] Ibid.
[3] Nathan Mitchell- quoted by David Bjorlin on Facebook

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