The Cross as Foolishness (11am)
Topic: The Meaning of the Cross Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:18–1:25
In my opinion foolishness is really underrated. It’s the kind of stuff that gets laughed at, looked down on, and overly criticized. It’s the stuff folks will call immature or childish or disappointing. And, believe me, I know. I was a youth worker. Being a youth worker is such a weird and wonderful and terrifying challenge. I remember feeling so torn when I was first starting out. I had adults who wanted me to relate to students who thought the funniest thing in the world was a well-timed bodily noise while at the same time having those same adults expecting me to compose myself like a seasoned pastor. It’s a weird balance. But you know what I found? Sometimes you need to do something that looks foolish to some in order to reach the ones you’re seeking.
For me, that was the truth. The first time I truly felt like a part of my youth group as a kid was when I got into a crazy wrestling match with some other students and two of the adult leaders on a mission’s trip. I’m sure that to the folks sitting on the beach, that the scene of two grown adults throwing a bunch of teens around the ocean looked weird. But I felt like I belonged. I’d go onto returning the favor. When I was a camp counselor I did the silliest, sometimes grossest things so that one really homesick kid could feel like a part of the cabin and that he belonged. As a youth pastor, it continued. Embarrassing myself in games like Dance Dance Revolution, making cracks about myself…I was never concerned with making a fool of myself as long as it served as a way for my students to feel more comfortable with me. It didn’t even end when I came here. In the past month, I’ve taken a pie to the face and shown our youth group that the proper method for consuming jello is to slurp it-up like a vacuum.
My point is this: what might look like foolishness to some may actually be a means for creating a lasting memory or relationship for others. Last week we started our new series called “The Dimensions of the Cross.” The goal for us as a church, is to explore the different angles, meanings, and implications of the most significant object in human history. Last week we began by looking at the cross as a clean slate. This week we find another dimension of the cross. The dimension of foolishness. We return to the writings of Paul and this time we’re in 1 Corinthians.
(Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
I’m willing to bet that there aren’t many of us who would like to hear the word “foolishness” used when someone describes our faith. It can come off as demeaning, arrogant, and close-minded. And yet, that is the exact word that Paul uses to defend the most central and pivotal claim of the Christian faith.
One of the things I think we can forget is that each biblical writer possessed a personality and certain strengths and weaknesses. David had an unparalleled ability as a wordsmith. As both a musician and one often in fervent prayer, it is no wonder the Psalms are filled with such beautiful and personal language. Well, Paul had his own gifts and style as well. He was a drastically well-educated man. What he lacked in tact he made up for in sheer wit. He was a master at rhetoric and possessed an uncanny ability to perceive the trains of thought of those he spoke to so that he could head them off at the pass, so to speak.
In the context of our text, Paul needed his wits. Corinth was a city known for its knowledge and philosophy. It was a place that celebrated and valued wisdom and learning over almost everything else. So, it makes sense that the Christian faith would come under attack in a space like that. It’s no different than the instances we hear in our own time of renowned scientists or academics taking shots at the validity of Christianity today. In truth, it’s hard to blame them at first.
C.S. Lewis himself gave some advice to those trying to find a good comparison for what we say Jesus did in coming to earth. He said, “If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.” It sounds ridiculous to think that God would become man. And yet, that’s exactly what we know to be true. It continues with the cross. The plan for human redemption, the hope to restore a right and vibrant relationship between God and all of humanity, is summed up in the cross – a tool of execution and public humiliation. Again, it makes sense why the Corinthians struggled. But Paul doesn’t leave them in that struggle. Instead, he offers a brand-new focus.
The issue isn’t the truth of the cross, it’s the lens through which the people are trying to view it. In our text, Paul goes to great lengths to show the difference between the wisdom of humanity and the perceived foolishness of God. It’s a smart move. After all, as a general rule, we are geared to skepticism and an unwillingness to see our own point of view challenged most of the time. The Jewish people had a plan, a great plan for how God would save them. The Messiah would come in the role of a political and military leader and would liberate them from the hold their enemy had on them. The Messiah would be their victor, their champion. He would wield the rod of power and the sword. The people of God would triumph over God’s enemies behind the might and personality of the Messiah. That plan didn’t come to pass. Instead, the people received a cross and a publicly executed Rabbi.
One commentator says that the cross completely subverted the wisdom and plans of the world and turned it on its head. He says, instead, “God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah.” This would have shaken the people to their core. The most devout Jews would have been at a complete loss. And for Paul to call the wisdom and power of the Lord the cross…well, it may have been too much for some. That same commentator continues and says, “If that shocking event (the crucifixion of Christ) is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down. Everything has to be reevaluated in the light of the cross.” It’s no wonder Paul’s audience struggled.
In truth, we are still struggling. Many in the world can’t wrap their mind around a God to begin with, let alone one that would allow themselves to be the victims of a public execution. This struggle is given proof by the decline many churches see in their attendance records and lists of visitors. It contributes to a growing contingent of folks called the “Nones”. Not “nun” as in the Catholic school teachers but “Nones” as in none or zero. For more reasons than I can extrapolate on this morning, people struggle with the truth and power of the cross. But it is not limited to those who refuse to identify with the Christian church. There are even those who would claim to be followers of Christ who are so troubled by the work and action of the cross that they sacrifice its mystery and transformative power for some more palatable. One author named John Dominic Crossan takes this route. A member of a group known as the Jesus Seminar, Crossan identifies as a Christian and yet cannot embrace the truths which give weight to that identity. His views on the resurrection are the most troubling, I feel. Instead of a resurrected Christ, Crossan postulates in his biography of Jesus that Christ’s body fell from the cross and was eaten by stray dogs. When you stop and think about how he could have arrived at that conclusion, it is more sad than it is anything else. But it captures the struggle many have between the foolishness of God and the wisdom of humanity.
Often people will believe that the opposite of faith is doubt. I don’t believe that at all. The opposite of faith is apathy – a complete and utter emptiness in terms of belief. Doubt is merely the rigorous work that leads to a strong faith. Doubt is resistance training the faithful endure so that their faith might be the strongest and truest it can be. Paul, here in our text, is compelling his audience to do the hard work of wrestling. Wrestling with entertaining the idea that perhaps our best laid plans and airtight philosophies might very well pale in comparison to the intentions and motivations of the one who created us. And Paul knows this is a hard labor. It was then and it still is today.
Paul describes how the cross of Christ is a stumbling block for some and joke to others. It’s a stumbling block for the Jews because it isn’t what they wanted or expected. They wanted a conquering king and powerful leader, not a vagabond teacher in a tomb. To them, God didn’t do what He said or what they thought He said He would do. So, they struggle. For the Gentiles, the whole thing seemed like a laughable joke. They respected logic, wisdom and process. The cross represented the polar opposite of those things. They would no sooner buy into that than they would a false form of arithmetic. And I don’t feel much has changed.
We still have our stumbling blocks and we still scoff. What is it in your own life? What is it about God’s plan that doesn’t measure up to what you feel you were promised? We all have some perception of what God is like and what a relationship with Him should mean. Too often it is associated with happiness. If we just believe in God and love others than that means we should be taken care of. But when loss strikes our family or tragedy appears or some other crippling uncertainty we’re left standing there, staring up to the heavens, and saying to God: “This isn’t what I was promised.” I hit a moment like that two years ago when our home suffered a fire and I was turned down for a ministry position. We all have those moments, those expectations, those stumbling blocks.
Maybe you are more Gentile than you are Jew. It isn’t an expectation that holds you back but instead an inability to put it all together or make sense of it. For some the mystery of faith and the element of the supernatural throws us on our head. We can’t process it through our usual means and so we laugh or scoff at the faith others seem to hold so easily, with such naivety. In that case, it isn’t necessarily an instance in our life that holds us back but instead a preconceived notion of our own intelligence and an unwillingness to consider something more, something bigger, something more wonderful.
Friends, if there is something holding you back, whatever it may be, I want to ask you to suspend it for just a moment. I’m not taking it away. I’m asking you to simply put it next to you for a second. Because I believe there is a truth in our text and in the cross itself, a dimension, that can shatter the hardest of stumbling blocks and ease the deepest of doubts. The truth of the cross, the foolishness of the cross, the power of the cross points us to a quality of our God that we cannot afford to miss.
The lengths that God will go to pursue those whom He loves, even if that length is foolish. God will do anything, ANYTHING, to restore us and bring us back to Him. When we hear the account of the Garden of Eden and get to the end we quickly gloss over the part where God kicks Adam and Eve out of the garden. We often assume he does so in anger. We rarely reflect on the sadness and heart-brokenness God felt that day. We picture him as the unforgiving landlord evicting his tenants as opposed to the grieving and heart-heavy parent watching His children destroy themselves. We read about the list of punishments doled out but often forget that an innocent creature was killed so that Adam and Eve might wear its skin and have their nakedness covered.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life.” I fear we quote John 3:16 so often that we forget to allow its powerful truth to sink in. When we were lost and destined only for darkness and punishment, our God pursued us to the darkest of places. To the trial where we should have been declared guilty. He walked the path of public shame and humiliation. A path that was ours to walk. And he was nailed to a cross. A cross that was ours. Nails that were ours. He succumbed to death. Our death. Our God pursued us to the very place of our death so that He could give us life and bring us home.
There was no wisdom we could conjure to get us out of what we were heading toward. The strongest of us is unable to fight off the unimaginably terrifying strength of temptation, sin, and death. But when our own wisdom fails, the foolishness of God wins the day. When our strength is gone, the weakness of God prevails. The cross is the simplest and the most complex of truths. It has dimensions we may never consider. And some that we might consider foolishness. And praise God for that. For the foolishness of the cross. Let’s pray.