God’s Foolishness – Sermon for Epiphany 4A on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

02.02.2020

I got a message this week from someone complaining about our church sign – she thought it was blasphemy to call God foolish, and she wanted us to take down the sermon title. I wrote back to her that I was glad it caught her attention but I was sorry the sign offended her, and she would be welcome here this morning to hear more from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, about the foolishness of God.

But I didn’t change the sermon title.

We think we’re so smart, don’t we? We think we have it all figured out. Those of us who’ve been practicing Christianity for some time might even think we know what’s appropriate to say about God and what isn’t.

So when we see some church calling God foolish, our righteous indignation flares up. That stranger’s complaint actually made my point: sometimes we get so distracted by a detail, a word like ‘foolishness’, that we miss the bigger story. Our vision is obscured, and we can’t see the greater context of God’s redeeming love.

There are lots of things going on this weekend to distract us and obscure our vision – it’s Groundhog Day and the Superbowl is this evening (go Chiefs!), and in some churches they are celebrating the presentation of Jesus at the temple. Other churches are blessing the candles that will be used in the coming year as they celebrate Candlemas. And on top of everything else, it’s the first Sunday in Black History Month, and it’s Palindrome day: 02.02.2020. There are many ways we can be distracted, even by things pertaining to faith, but our purpose is still this: to see Jesus, to show Jesus, and to share Jesus.

Sometimes Jesus is hard to see because of our predisposition to be offended when others don’t see him quite the way we do. Sometimes it’s hard to show Jesus in our lives, because things in the world distract us. Sometimes we find it hard to share our experience of Jesus with others because, frankly, we’re too proud.

Micah reminds us that God values our humility more than our pride. And when you get right down to it, that sin of pride that seems to lurk behind just about every other sin there is? Well, it’s really about having power. We like having power. We want to be in control. And when we think we have power, it goes to our heads and feeds our pride. We might even become boastful. The Apostle Paul helps us see where our boasting should really come from.

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. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
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?
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.
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters:
not many of you were wise by human standards,
not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;

God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not,
to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

There is tension brewing in the church at Corinth. We had a glimpse of it last week. Some were aligning with one church leader, while others had decided a different leader was more their style. But there is a deeper tension at play in this story, and I think it’s one we have all experienced at some time or another.

I mentioned before that we crave power. We want to have control over our own lives. And that need we feel for power, that tendency we have to depend on our own wisdom, is constantly doing battle with our real need – to depend completely on the mercy of Christ, and surrender to God’s will.

God turns our assumptions about power and wisdom on their heads. What appears powerful and wise is actually foolish. What appears foolish is actually what saves us.
In a contest between God’s foolishness and human wisdom, foolishness wins every time. Here’s the irony: when God’s foolishness wins, so do we.

So let’s go back for a minute and take a look at what was happening in 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 apparently 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. 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.

Paul’s 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.

Also, keep in mind that our translation of the word for “foolish” is more polite than the 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 ‘moronic.’

Seminary Professor Carla Works 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] And that just doesn’t make sense to people who are outside of God’s kingdom.

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?”

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 moronic 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 outcasts 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]

I used to think of Micah 6:8 as a “To Do” list – love mercy (check), act justly (check), walk humbly with God (check). And it would be easy to see the Beatitudes in the same way – if you want to be blessed by God, you need to be meek and hungry for righteousness. But neither of these passages are a list of things we need to do in order to earn God’s blessings.

In both of these readings, God was announcing a new way of being in community, with God and with each other. Seeking justice and mercy with humility is the result of God’s grace, not something we do in order to earn it. 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 for those the world might consider unworthy, unwanted, foolish. For us.

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (vv26-27).

God chose you, so that you could choose Christ, who 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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