1 Corinthians 1:22-25 * March 11, 2012 * Lent 3 * Pastor Leyrer
Dear Friends in Christ,
We’ve all heard the following three responses and have probably used them ourselves.
Example #1: Go back to your days on the playground. Someone makes a grandiose claim about themselves or a friend. They matter-of-factly talk about or being able to do something that seems highly unlikely or almost impossible. The response is: “Oh yeah? Prove it.”
Example #2: Someone tells us something that clearly does not follow the path of proper logic and simply does not compute. They tell us if we do this, then the result will be that, which to our way of thinking defies all reason. The response is: “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Example #3: A sales person makes a wonderful promise to give us something very, very nice for free. We’re told there is no fine print and there are no strings attached; that it’s all part of a sales promotion the company is doing and they just want us to have it. Based on past experiences the unspoken response is: “If something seems to be too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”
Interestingly enough, those three responses – “prove it”, “that doesn’t make sense”, and “sounds too good to be true” – are often applied to Christianity. My guess is that somewhere along the line you’ve found yourself intentionally or unintentionally drawn into a religious conversation. When you expressed or explained your Christian faith, it’s entirely possible you encountered one or all three of these responses.
This shouldn’t surprise us. The fact is Jesus Christ has always brought mixed reactions – something the Apostle Paul understood, personally encountered, and makes quite clear in our text for today where he speaks to us on
THE REACTIONS TO THE CROSS
1. By the sign-seekers
2. By the wise of this world, and
3. By the child of God
“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…”
Paul was a highly learned and intelligent man. In addition to his God-given abilities we can fairly surmise that with his wide-ranging travels and interactions with men and women of every national and spiritual background, he also had the equivalent of a PhD in people. He knew how people ticked and he knew what they thought. Later on in this letter he’ll make the well-known statement that he willingly became “all things to all men” in order to gain an audience for the Gospel and therefore have the opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ.
While his approach to people changed depending upon the situation, the message itself did not. Paul preached “Christ crucified.” Words of a well-known American revival hymn were obviously not written by him, but Paul himself could have easily said them:
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame;
and I love that old cross where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain.
In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, a wondrous beauty I see,
for 'twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me.
The message of the cross Paul preached was not complicated. It was not difficult to understand nor, conversely, was it easy to misunderstand. It was not hidden. It did not call for some secret knowledge or indoctrination. Paul simply and boldly preached “Christ crucified.”
That simple, unvarnished message continues to be the essential, foundational teaching of every church today that can truly call itself Christian. In fact many Bible believing churches use these exact words of Paul as the tag line on their church stationery or as the unapologetic statement emblazoned on their church sign: “We preach Christ crucified.”
Crucified? Yes. Why? For our sins. For what purpose? So, forgiven, we may be restored into a right relationship with God now and forever. That’s it. That’s the message.
But not everyone believed it. Paul talks about two distinct groups that rejected the message of the cross. Each had their own preconceived notions of how things should be when it came to matters of religion and faith. Sadly, God’s plan of eternal salvation through a Savior and a cross didn’t fit the bill for either one of them.
Paul talks first about his own nation, the Jews. It should be noted that Paul himself was a Jew and many early Christians were as well. God brought them to an understanding that the Messiah they were looking for and who had been prophesied about throughout the Old Testament was indeed Jesus Christ. So in those early days of the church many Jews had come to faith in Jesus as their Savior. But certainly not all; Jews who rejected Jesus are the ones Paul is talking about.
This was the “prove it” crowd. Even though Jesus Christ had done plenty of miracles in their midst which clearly proved that he was God, it was never enough. A good illustration of this is our Gospel lesson for today. “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do this,” they said, and they would ask Jesus that same question again and again because they were sign-seeking people.
They, of course, were not interested in the many signs of grace and mercy for their souls Jesus provided them; they wanted signs of power. The Savior they wanted would juggle the clouds at their command and rearrange the planets for their delight. He would change their position as a conquered people under Roman rule to a mighty nation whom no one could touch.
When that didn’t happen, they rejected him. Failing to understand Jesus on the terms he himself had graciously and repeatedly laid out regarding matters like sin and forgiveness and faith and salvation, they found his person and his message to be “a stumbling block.”
Especially the way things ended. In their eyes the absolute last place they’d be looking for a Savior is hanging dead on a cross. That was the opposite of power; that was a sign of weakness. And the only thing that proved to them was that Jesus was an utter and abject failure.
So, the sign-seekers needed proof. Others need to make everything subject to reason. Paul has this group in mind when he writes: “Greeks look for wisdom.”
In the Greek culture of Paul’s day “wisdom” was high on the list of desirable things. Greeks considered themselves to be the intellectuals and philosophers of their age and they put a strong emphasis on reason. If something didn’t conform to reason or logic, they wanted nothing to do with it. That’s why, for the most part, they rejected Jesus Christ. They were the “this just doesn’t make any sense” crowd.
The fact that Jesus is true God and true man as the Bible says was beyond their mind’s comprehension so they considered it to be “foolishness.” Likewise the fact that Christ’s death took away the sins of the world they found to be irrational. In that sense they shared some common ground with the previous group. According to their way of thinking and their mythology any god who died would be a weakling.
On top of that, the manner of Jesus’ death was distasteful and offensive to them. The cross meant something far different to them back then than it does to us today. They viewed it as a symbol of shame. For them a cross as a piece of jewelry would be the equivalent of wearing a gold plated hangman’s noose or guillotine or electric chair. God’s plan of salvation simply did not make sense to them; and because they couldn’t figure it out they dismissed it.
Both camps continue to be represented today. And as mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, you probably know some of them. And truth be told, there are times in our weakness or dark moments as believers when we may flirt with these ideas ourselves.
Certainly there are many who say they would believe in God if he would “prove” himself and, in their estimation, act a little more like the God they think he should be. The phantom idea of God they propose (and we use the word phantom purposely because it in no way reflects what the Bible teaches us about God and his ways) is that God should be always at the beck and call of anyone who wants him, taking their orders, and straightening things out.
We’ve all heard a variation of this theme: If God is so great and God is so good than why is there still – you fill in the blank. War. Famine. Childhood disease. Tragedies that rip our hearts out. People struck down in the prime of their lives, etc., etc. Because God does not prevent all bad things from happening personally and nationally and internationally and cosmically, he is viewed as a failure – and, therefore, unworthy of our honor. Such is the thinking of sign seekers.
There are also those who continue to elevate their own reason above the ways of God. In his second letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul talks about how we as Christians “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ,” but there are many in the world who reverse this and make the Word of God captive to their own thoughts. Consequently if something doesn’t make sense (example: the teaching of the Trinity) or doesn’t line up with conventional, worldly wisdom (example: the creation of the world) or doesn’t seem to be logical (example: salvation and forgiveness as a free gift rather than something to be achieved), it is dismissed.
So to many, the cross of Jesus Christ is still a stumbling block and foolishness. But – and this is purely by the grace of God – not to us. In contrast to those other two groups, “to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
To those of all nations who by the power of the Holy Spirit working in their hearts believe the Word of God, there is nothing offensive or weak or illogical about the cross at all. Rather we recognize the cross of Jesus Christ for what it is: the power and wisdom of God. It is power because through it our sins are forgiven and we are restored into a right relationship with God now and forever. It is wisdom because in a million, trillion years we ourselves would never come up with such a plan.
But God did. And in his grace he has brought us to understand that what the world may see as foolish or weak is in reality wise and powerful. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”
Therefore, when it comes to the Bible and everything it contains on any subject it contains, in contrast to the world which looks for proof or elevates reason above God or waits for everything to make sense, we as Bible believing Christians take the blessed position expressed by a twelfth century Christian named Anselm of Canterbury who said (I’m paraphrasing here): I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand.
And this is what we understand in all its glory: Christ crucified. For me. So I can live forever in heaven. So until I get there, I can be secure in his love and promises on this earth.
We know that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually isn’t. But in this case, it is. It is. Amen.