God's stupidity - 1 Corinthians 1:18 - 2:5
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
You don’t have to be a Christian all that long before you come across situations such as these: Two women in the church refuse to speak to each other because one always used to set out the flowers on Easter Day but now the other one does it instead; a gifted musician decides to boycott a church service because they have not been invited to take part although there are enough musicians taking part already; a group of Christian students decide to form their own group because they want to ‘speak in tongues’ in public meetings and the CU leadership have decided that is not appropriate; a church member decides to leave his wife for another woman because God has ‘told him’ that is what he is to do. By the way all of these scenarios have happened. How do you deal with the people involved? What sort of things might you bring to mind if you are tempted to do any of these things- which by the way, you probably will be? Is it just a matter of saying, ‘It isn’t godly, behave better?’ That is you command people to do the right thing? Well, the apostle Paul when faced with such problems and many more besides, decides to take a more indirect approach-the effects of which will be far more profound and lasting. He says, ‘Let me take you not to a command, but to a cross. And as we stand there together in our minds eye let us consider the One who Created you, writhing in total agony, hands and feet hammered fast to a peice of wood and take time to think about what really matters.’ And that is what we find the Apostle Paul doing in our passage from 1 Corinthians-it is all about the cross.
First, we have the message of the cross: v18, ‘For the message of 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; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."’ There is a bit of pun in verse 18 which relates back to verse 17. In verse 17 Paul literally says, ‘For Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the Gospel- not with wisdom of words (lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power) but with the word of the cross.’ Paul is making a contrast by telling us what he refuses to do and what he must do. He refuses to engage with ‘wisdom of words’, that is, a style of speaking which is designed to impress and ‘wow’ his audience. Instead he is going to speak about something which to his hearers is not only meaningless but downright sick making; he is going give a word about a cross. Do you remember how a few years ago there was that terrible outcry when the beheadings of some of some of the hostages captured by Muslim extremists in Iraq were shown on the internet? It was gross and repulsive. Well, that is exactly the reaction the people in Corinth would have had when Paul turned up talking about crucifixion. To try and win people with this kind of talk was ‘foolishness’ in the extreme. All the market analysts would have told Paul this was not a product people wanted to buy. But he does it anyway. Now, why?
As we have seen this links back to verse 17 with the word ‘for’. And there we are told that this message of the cross is the message of the gospel which Paul proclaimed. What is more, it is clear that Paul was not into a ‘doing ministry’ - like baptising people- but a teaching ministry, preaching a message about a cross. It is interesting that whereas today an awful lot of heat and little light are generated between Christians over the issue of baptism –‘Are you for believer’s baptism or paedobaptism?’ Paul seems relatively unconcerned about baptism. He can hardly remember who he has baptised, it is not that important to him (sorry Baptists amongst you). But preaching? That is very important. Why? Because the power lies in the substance of the message not in the symbolism of the sign (Sorry sacramentalists amongst you). And how does this power which resides in the message of a crucified Christ show itself? Is it by people becoming wealthier than they were before they came to church? Is it by some physical manifestation like falling down? No, the message has much greater power than that-it has power to ‘save’. Now in saying this Paul presupposes what the rest of the Bible teaches, hence that quote for Isaiah 29-this is not anything new, God has always operated on this principle that he will destroy all human pretensions to wisdom and power and so knock down all our cockiness. God has a tendency to do that you know! Again we ask: why?
Just think for a moment. What is the original sin? What drew Eve to reach out for the forbidden fruit? It was the promised lie of the serpent that ‘You will be like God.’ In a word- pride. Placing ourselves at the centre of the universe. And we are so self centred. I could easily prove it to you: if I were to show you an old school photograph of your class, the year you left school. Which person would you look for first?! Pride makes us think of ourselves as better than we are and everyone else worse than they are. And we will find all sorts of ways of making sure that we stand above other people. It can be snobbery- I have had a better education than someone else. I have a better job. I have a better accent ( a northern one!); I have a better outfit or- as we see here – I have a better spiritual gifting, I belong to a better religious group, even- I have heard this- I have a better Bible translation. Pride- even amongst Christians- which lies at the root of the problems in this church in Corinth and many of our churches today! But God says that in the most important thing of all, in the matter of your eternal salvation, you contribute nothing except your sin. ‘You come to me’, says God, ‘on my terms or you do not come at all. And the terms on which you come to me are precisely the terms on which I came to you in the person of my Son Jesus - weakness and powerless-on a cross. Nothing grand, no impressive demonstration of divine strength as we would understand it- nothing but an ugly, repulsive spectacle. And yet that is where I have provided the means whereby all your filthy consciences can be made clean and you can have a fresh start, by my Son taking your punishment in your place.’ Now, who but God could have thought up such a thing? No human being in a million years would have dreamt of this being the way we get right with God. It is a message which saves, you see. And if you are here tonight and do not know God, it is because you have not accepted the message of the cross. It is a simple as that.
But it is also a message which divides. The only division which God allows and which cannot be avoided is that caused by the Gospel between those who have not believed and are perishing and those who have believed and are being saved. Ultimately all the other demarcations whereby we elevate ourselves and denigrate others are seen to be pathetic. The first century had its divisions like we do- Jew-Greek, Roman-Barbarian, slave-free. And of course you aligned yourself along the appropriate axis. And we too have our divisions: the professional vs the manual, the rich vs the poor, the educated vs the uneducated, north vs south, the youth vs everyone else. Well, in the light of eternity what do they matter? In a billion years time if you are in heaven or if you are in hell what will it matter that you got a good degree or no degree at all? You can be a slave and be saved, or you can be rich and going to hell. And what is it that splits humanity right down the middle? It is the cross. There are those who look to the cross and see hope and eternal life, and are those who if they look at it at all, see nothing but contempt. It is a message which divides.
And this is a message which frustrates too -vv 20-25. Paul begins with these rhetorical questions in v20. Where is the wise man? That is, where is the man whose world view or philosophy leads you to the cross? Does communism lead you to the cross? Does hedonism with its insatiable thirst for the next pleasure seeking thrills lead you to the cross? Where is the scholar, literally, the scribe, the expert in morality? Does morality lead you to the cross? If you feel you are moral at all that simply makes you feel morally superior and will never lead you to God for you will never feel you have any need of him. I tell you plainly it is often the morally respectable person who is the most difficult to convert. What about the philosopher? That is the debater with great powers of oratory, the David Starkey’s of this world, or as we might now think, the spin doctors who with their cleverly worded sound bites can entice people to buy anything and vote for anybody? Do these people lead you to the cross? No, no. Since in the wisdom of this world-that is a wisdom which effectively cuts God out of the picture, they did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of what is preached to save those who believe.’ And we are back to the message again of a kind God, a humble God, a God who stoops down to save the intellectuals, the street kids, the glue sniffers, the well heeled and the highly respectable and the most ordinary of people. But he will only save them as they believe in the cross-and so everyone is brought down to the same level. So no one can boast- v29. The six year old child who has put her trust in Jesus is exactly on the same level as the sixty year old university professor who has put his trust in Jesus. I tell you, nothing equalizers in the same way as the Christian message does.
But what is it that some people are looking for in order to believe, what kind of message are they happy to accept and which if you adopt will get people coming to your churches? Well, they are the two things God refuses to give. First, the Jews demand miraculous signs. ‘Yes Jesus we will believe, just give us a miracle or two? And what did he do? He refused- Matthew 12:38. Why? For at other times he did miracles. Yes he did, but never to order. Never do you see a miracle performed with the express purpose of eliciting faith. God is God and he will not be domesticated, he will not be treated like some performing genie. ‘Here God jump through this hoop and then we will believe.’ But just supposing he did? Supposing you said, ‘God make fire come down from the sky and it happened’? What would happen the next day when you are feeling down and need a bit of a boost for your faith? Well, he would have to do it again. And again the next day and the next. And in so doing, it is we and not God who occupies the centre of the world you see. And may that not account for the fact that for some of us there is never a contentment in the Christian faith, there has always got to be a moving on to the next spiritual high- leg lengthening one year, Signs and Wonders the next, Toronto the next, gold fillings the next and on and on it goes? And each time we move a little further away from the cross.
But the Greeks what were they looking for? Wisdom. Now this is not the same as knowledge, as if God is opposed to us using our minds. No, Greek wisdom was concerned with show, so that it was not so much what was said but how you said it that mattered. They looked for polished performances from their teachers- clever wit, the pithy remark, the well honed phrase. In a word it was style. And what age do we live in today-but the age of the celebrity which is all to do with- style- looking good, being seen to be in the right places, being clever, witty, charming. And to be frank, what is it that some of us are looking for in our gospel preachers today? Isn’t it pretty much the same things? The slick performance, the coiffure hair, the flashy suits, the one who can make us laugh and send us home feeling better about ourselves giving us a good time? But -where is the cross? The medium of the rich, the glossy, the impressive is decidedly at odds with the message of the cross-because the cross isn’t very pleasant, it isn’t very glossy-it is ugly. So what happens? Well, the message has to be changed-so that the focus is not humbly repenting of our sins and giving over our lives in the service of Jesus Christ, it on becoming rich, powerful, healthy, successful. Sure, the word Jesus may be used but he is not the Jesus of the cross. Even the Bible might be referred to but it is not the Bible properly interpreted which has as its focus the cross. You watch the God channel and you will see it. What does Paul say in v23? ‘But we preach Christ crucified- a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles’. In other words, our message is a total switch off to those who are locked into this image conscious, self-driven age, but ‘to those whom God has called’-v24 –‘both Jews and Greeks - Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ There is power and wisdom here, but it is not what we would normally call power or wisdom-v25, it is in fact far superior. When Paul speaks of God’s foolishness or stupidity or his weakness being stronger than man’s strength, he is not using those terms in an absolute sense- there is no real weakness in God of course not. But rather he is saying, even if God did have weakness it would still be a billion times stronger than ours. Here I think Paul is alluding to Proverbs 8-where God’s wisdom which made the universe is spoken of as a person, well now we know who that person is -Jesus, the second person of the Trinity so that one who made the heavens and the earth-is also the one who dies on a cross, impaled on a gibbet like a piece of raw meat hanging on a butchers hook. Why? Well, to reconcile us to God-so that as Paul says in v 30 he is our wisdom, our righteousness and our redemption. Jesus is all we need and so it is in him we can boast, not ourselves.
So how does God authenticate this message of Paul, giving it his divine stamp of approval? Is it by impressive supernatural events? In one sense yes, but not in the way many of today’s power merchants would have it. What is ‘supernatural’ -almost beyond belief - is the type of people who are saved- the converts of the cross-vv 26-31.
What sorts of people are saved by the message of the cross? First, Paul couches his point in the negative-not many were wise by the world’s standards, not many influential-having political clout, not many were of noble birth-that is rich. Not, we might think, the best advert for Christianity is it? How do we do it? We have a TV celebrity who has just become a Christian-lets bring him out. We have a politician over here, let’s hear his testimony. In other words we want to reverse what Paul says and claim many were wise, influential and noble who are Christians-that is bound to cause the world to sit up and take notice. I was interested to read a while ago a review of the TV presentation of the Alpha Course which on the whole was positive. But interestingly the reviewer had this to say: ‘My reservation is the young people themselves. All ten are attractive, personable people approaching Alpha with a variety of agendas.. The trouble is that they are so attractive, like the cast from a London sitcom; all Londoners, all employed and working in management, executive, legal or arts sectors. They dress smartly, live in nice flats and have enough money to have fun after work.’ But you see when Paul wants to impress the wisdom of God he parades the nobodies and says ‘Look at what God can do-he saves these’. Of course there were folk of noble birth and clever people in the Corinthian church-that is why he said not many-there were some- -but that is not the thing that is important-though the Corinthians, like us, thought it was. No, clever people by virtue of being clever cannot find God. Rich people by virtue of being rich cannot find God. Even religious or as we would call them today ‘spiritual’ people cannot find God by virtue of being spiritual. No one can find God. But God can find them. ‘He chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise’. I have mentioned to some of you before Robert Reed. Robert has twisted hands and his feet are useless. He can’t bath himself or feed himself or brush his hair. Because Robert has cerebral palsy. This disease kept him from riding a bike or driving a car but it didn’t stop him graduating from university with a degree in Latin. Neither did it stop him from becoming a missionary in Portugal. He moved to Lisbon in 1972, hired a hotel room and taught himself Portuguese. Then he would station himself daily in the park where he gave out leaflets about the Gospel. Within 6 years he led over 70 people to a saving faith in Christ, one of whom became his wife. Isn’t that very much a case of God choosing that which is weak to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise?
Which leads us to the messenger of the cross. When Paul came to Corinth did he arrive with a Gospel of power, bringing some impressive road show to town, walking onto a stage, confident, waving his arms causing people to fall to the floor, promising health and wealth? Hardly- looking at chapter 2:1-5. The style of ministry of the messenger was at one with the content of the message. Here was an unimpressive message and a very unimpressive messenger. Paul refused to pander to the world. Paul was certainly bright he could have dazzled them with impressive displays of intellectual pyrotechnics. As an apostle he had the ability to perform miracles. But what did he do? He tells us in 2:2, ‘I resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ Sure, he felt weak. Sure he was afraid-v 3. But as he explained the simple Christian message, that there is a God, we have rebelled against him, we are accountable to him and stand under his judgment and yet he has provided a way of escape and a way of knowing him by sending his Son to bear the curse of our sin on the cross, that he is alive and will return as our judge-it was that message stumblingly and falteringly presented without any frills, that the Spirit’s power was demonstrated. Not alongside the message, but through the message. And what was it that demonstrates this power of the Holy Spirit? It was that group of believers was formed in this pagan, moral cess pit called Corinth. Isn’t that amazing? And so these believers can have real assurance that their faith rests not on man’s wisdom but on God’s power, which is the power of the gospel. Think of it this way- supposing that Paul had been the flashy communicator. As a result someone says, ‘Yes I believe that’. Two things will happen. First there will be susceptibility to doubt. ‘Am I a real Christian? Perhaps it was just psychological, swayed by the religious equivalent of a good car salesman’. Second, there will be susceptibility to deception. Along comes another communicator, flashier, more persuasive than the first, but what he is teaching isn’t what Paul teaches-but still, off we go. It’s called the cult of personality which, as we saw last week, was happening in Corinth. But to be persuaded by the truth rather than the persuader, well then you are on much firmer ground aren’t you? I am a Christian not because I have heard great speakers, or seen supernatural things. I am a Christian because the Holy Spirit has taken the gospel of the cross and convinced me it is true.
In the light of the cross does it matter who arranges the flowers in church; whether I can sing in the music group; whether I am allowed to speak in tongues in a group or ensure I am seen as important? Is that the model Jesus has set for me? But when I stand in front of the cross I do see it is important to love and serve my Christian brothers and sisters and be there for them. I see that it is vital I share with others this Gospel message and not be led astray onto lesser but more impressive things-for the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
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