Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany + January 29, 2017
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
We know a lot of stuff about the Bible, and about the Gospel, right? We know God, or we’d like to think. Maybe a better way to put it is in the words we just confessed in the creed: I believe in one God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When it comes to the Infinite God who dwells in unapproachable light, what we as creatures think we understand isn’t really that much. That’s because, as Paul quotes from Isaiah 29, God says that He will humble our knowledge so that He can teach us His own:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (Isaiah 29:14. Literally, God says He will utterly destroy the wisdom of the wise, and He will reject and render void human understanding.)
But in order that we better comprehend what this looks like, let’s turn in the Old Testament to the story of Naaman, the Syrian. Turn to page 311 in the pew Bible and follow along: 2 Kings 5:1-14.
In foreign affairs, if you’re going to another nation, seeking something great, you would go to the King. There’s a protocol for these things. Start from the top, one nobleman flattering another noble with an official letter. In proper foreign relations, you would also bring some kind of expensive gift to honor that leader and thank him for his benevolence. Instead, poor, sick Namaan almost starts a war.
Moving from the realm of politics to religion, Naaman dutifully goes to see Elisha the prophet to be healed. Now, granted, this isn’t the great prophet Elijah; it’s his successor. But maybe he’ll still be able to do something. Now, we all know that when a holy man does something related to his god, he chants obscure things, perhaps burns an offering, and draws on arcane powers to heal whatever is sick. Instead, Elisha’s messenger opens the door and relays the message to go wash in the muddy Jordan seven times and be clean.
After being embarrassed and almost starting an international incident, Naaman is himself insulted because his visit to the “prophet in Israel” looks like such a bust. It doesn’t meet his expectations of what a religious encounter should be. What kind of wild goose chase did this little Israelite girl lead me on!
But this isn’t a story about what is reasonable or rational. It’s a story about God and the powerful working of His Word. Thank God for Naaman’s servants who pointed out, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
So, St. Paul writes,
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, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
God humbles us by His wisdom, and brings what we think we understand into submission under His Word. Yes, we know the foolishness of the cross and how those who refuse to believe think the Gospel is a crutch for the weak. But sometimes we approach God with our reason like Naaman, only to have our thinking turned on its head.
Consider what pastors are. We would like them to be sagely, omnipresent, mindreaders, great orators, and by all means grow the church exponentially. After all, doesn’t Church history have great examples of the apostles and saints? People came from miles around to hear Martin Luther preach, and people still fondly remember the great oration of Billy Graham. Isn’t there a holy glow around the pastor you had growing up, who always seemed to be there at just the right time?
Yet like Naaman experienced, you don’t get Jesus or St. Paul in the pulpit; you get a messenger. You get an ordinary man. Nevertheless, the Lord has put His Word in your pastor’s mouth, and about this man the Lord Himself says, “The one who hears you hears me.” Because God puts His Word in this man’s mouth, He also says that you should obey him because he keeps watch over your souls, that you should show him double honor, and give this man just wages for his labors (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Timothy 5:17-18).
And because God has put His Word there, He promises to do great things—in baptizing and administering the Lord’s Supper, in teaching Bible study and confirmation, in shut-in visits and your pastor’s prayers for you. In this ministry, God will accomplish more than we can imagine because the “foolishness of God is wiser than men.”
Another place that God surprises us is regarding worship. To us worship should be directed toward God with our praises, our voices, and our works of devotion. “How great is our God, sing with me how great is our God…” It should be majestic, yet also give us a tingly feeling that God is among us. Worship should set us on fire like the finale of a rock concert, motivate us like going to a pro-life rally, and give us the sense of unity you get from going to a candlelight vigil.
But what has the Lord actually said? “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven….For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” God is where His Word is preached and believed. There heaven is opened to contrite sinners, the Holy Spirit is at work bringing forth faith and its fruits, the Body and Blood of God’s Son are received on our tongues, we sing the Word of God and meditate on His eternal truth, and we build one another up in humble yet powerful ways by sharing His Word.
Our German ancestors in the faith had a name for this. They called it Gottesdienst (God’s Service), which is where we get the name Divine Service. Worship is God’s service to us, not the other way around. Remember, this is what it means to remember the Sabbath rest: God speaks, and we listen. We rest from our labors and take our rest in His great acts of salvation and His continued work in us by His Spirit. It may not look flashy or feel exciting. It might not give you the nostalgic feelings you crave, but believe that God is at work in this place because that’s where He promises to be with His powerful Word.
Naaman’s understanding of God’s ways was put in its place, but in seeing God at work, he was blessed. In hearing the Word of God and believing, he received even more than he was seeking. He would have been happy to go home without leprosy, yet he also went home believing in the true God, restored in flesh and spirit.
So it is for us, when God humbles us. Even our finest hopes and dreams of what God could do for us pale in comparison to what He does for us through His Word. Heaven touches earth and we hear the voice of God in this humble setting, He opens His ear to hear our prayers and answer us, we are invited to share in the praises of the heavenly host, and we are joyfully invited to sit at the Lord’s Table and receive the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ which was offered up for us. So let God’s Word do His Work. Our response of faith is simply, “let it be to me according to your word.” In that faith, you will truly be blessed. Amen.
 ἀθετέω “cancel, render ineffectual” (Perseus)
 Luke 10:16
 Matthew 18:18, 20
 Luke 1:38