Lent 3: Foolishness
1 Corinthians 1. 18For 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.
Ah, the foolishness of God, how much wiser it is than the wisdom of men.
I was nurtured theologically on that theme. I was graduated from a secular university where I regularly argued with an agnostic professor who flattered me backhandedly by suggesting that I would be wasting my life as a preacher, so why not do something useful with my intelligence and energy.NB At seminary, immersed in the writings of the Apostle Paul, I found a cudgel, in I Corinthians 1, with which to strike back at my professor and others whom Schleiermacher described as "the cultured despisers of religion." In my mind, if never in actuality, I sneered at my dear professor, "You think you're so smart... but all of your wisdom is but a thimble full of seawater compared to the ocean of God's wisdom." Face to face I probably would have deferred to him and not used a clever (and belligerent) analogy; but you get the point: I had a mind to wield the cross of Christ as a weapon of destruction against those who dismiss the wisdom of faith in the name of the Enlightenment.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the world. This theme - the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men - has been used over and over again by defenders of faith (mea culpa); and defenders of the faith have thereby convinced "cultured despisers of religion" that the foolishness of God may, after all, be foolishness. Like Shakespeare might have said, "Me thinks the Christian doth protest too much."
Let me explain the context of this foolishness theme.
When Paul's letters to the Corinthians were written, he owed allegiance to two worlds, one national and the other religious, Rome and Jerusalem. Neither the political nor the spiritual authorities in either place listened with sympathy to the faith he expounded, faith in an obscure Jewish prophet named Jesus, that in this one human life was the fullness of God. Kindly put, they thought he was incredibly misguided. Paul, to his credit, did not cruise on blithely in the ship of faith; he took note, careful note, of the reaction of non-believers to his beliefs, most famously that failed afternoon at Areopagus (Acts 17). Out of that experience perhaps Paul observed, with a relevance lasting two thousand years, that "Christ crucified [is] a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles."
To Jews, because no self-respecting heir of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would dare imagine (blasphemy of blasphemies!) that the Holy One of Israel, the Creator of the universe, the Sovereign of history, would ever deign to enter human flesh. Which, of course, is the charge brought against Jesus by the Sanhedrin, that he said he was God, a crime punishable by being pilloried on a tree.
To Gentiles, meaning the spiritual offspring of Aristotle and Plato, the cross is utter foolishness, because, for all the legends of Mt. Olympus, there simply is no way the ideal would allow itself to be corrupted by the real. Flesh and spirit are adversaries. The divine cannot become human. And it will never die. Own up to it, friends of Jesus, the thought that God would suffer and die for us on an instrument of execution for bad people, that, even to us, is a whopper of incredible magnitude.
Paul rightly names it "the foolishness of God." And we who believe, and want to believe, do the Good News (that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself... yes, on the cross) a grave disservice when we proclaim it obvious; when, that is, we don't see it also as an unbelieving world sees it. The Scandal of it. The Stumbling Block it is. Even, yes, when we behold it as the Wonder of God's wisdom and mercy.
God knows (indeed, God does!) that each generation provides those living through it with moments when the wisdom of this world founders... for all the world to see. There are moments, that is, when we are humbled by circumstances we thought were safely under our control. I'm sure I don't have to draw a diagram to tell you when those humbling moments have overwhelmed us; but, if you need a nudge, just compare the money in your retirement account today with the balance there last June. The future arrives not only with bright promises, but also with black holes. Human wisdom, in other words, is a fragile thing; only it isn't ready most of the time to acknowledge it.
Which brings us to Paul's conclusion in I Corinthians, that "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." By foolishness and weakness he means the cross, the killing cross, where the best man who ever lived is impaled, brought to so ignominious an end by the best law and the best religion the world had ever known up to that dark moment on Golgotha's naked hill. Years ago, in a cemetery in Manchester NH, awaiting the arrival of a hearse, the widower, a retired Methodist preacher, wondered aloud how I could preach six Sundays in Lent and nine days in between on the cross. His era in seminary was big on Jesus the example and the cross as martyrdom. I tried to explain (and no doubt failed) that for me the cross is the lens through which I view history, personal and communal. That the truth of it on issues of good and evil, life and death, hope and despair, love and hate, all of eternally significant issues by which we are buffeted in this life, is ever applicable and inexhaustible. That is why most of the time in my preaching we arrive at last at the foot of the cross. That arrival would certainly please my homiletics professor, Paul Scherer, just as it surely provokes those possessed of the wisdom of the world to whisper in my direction the epithet, "Foolishness."
So be it. Call the cross what the world will. It gladly turns the other cheek and refuses, as once I was wont to do, to wield its truth as a cudgel against agnostic professors. After all is said and done, none of us gets to heaven by the rightness of our opinions but by the grace and mercy of God's foolishness.
NB. The professor's daughter is now an ordained UCC minister. Talk about the humbling circumstances the future brings!