Third Sunday in Lent

Readings: Exodus 20:1–17 | 1 Corinthians 1:18–31 | John 2:13–22

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

St. Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, who were a gathering of people from largely Greek backgrounds, yet they were called together to belong to God through Jesus Christ.  But in being called to belong to Him, they often found themselves at odds with the world around them.

They were at odds with their pagan neighbors whose values were based on the stories of the gods, the direction of Fate, the moral lessons of poets and philosophers, and often what was deemed acceptable by their position in society.

They were at odds with those who believed that reason was the way to better mankind, and that we could unlock the mysteries of life by contemplating and arguing for the right way to “walk” (Peripatetic tradition).

And though outsiders may have classified them as members of a Jewish sect, they were at odds with mainline Jews because they believed that Jesus was the Christ.

So, Paul traces the lines which divide them from their fellow man: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  The thing which separates Christians from both the religious and the reasonable is the cross. 

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, 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

By the cross, God exposes the human folly of self-made salvation.  Many will seek assurance from religious rites, tradition, miracles, and mystical experiences.  When the Apostle says “Jews,” [1] he’s not only talking about the Semitic people; but all who are tracing a partly-true, but man-made religious path to God.

Many also, especially today, tout the wisdom of reason, the certainty of empirical evidence, and avoiding the ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and superstition of the past.  These are today’s “Greeks,” who may be willing to dip a toe in the supernatural, but are ready at the slightest sign of weirdness to flee to the safety of a closed, material universe.

And both of these paths will give a person a kind of peace. A temporal peace, at least.  God is spirit, and the way to know Him is through the spiritual realm.  God has also given us our reason, abilities, an ordered universe, and He has revealed Himself through human language.  But neither of these have ever been meant to be a do-it-yourself solution. 

The cross crushes both of these, because it’s in Jesus Christ that all human striving comes to a dead stop.  It shows that man’s use of religion results in the debacle where they crucified the Lord of Glory in order to preserve worship on their terms.  The reasoned pagans like Pontius Pilate stood dumbfounded at Jesus’ unwillingness to save His own life.  The battalion of soldiers stripped and mocked Him as a king with no army.  Then they publicly humiliated Him, gloated at His mortality, and wrote Him off as a criminal.

It’s not just about seeing the right signs, or hearing a bulletproof argument.  The Apostle says further in chapter 2, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14)

But this is confused for us, because in our day, we live on the other side of hundreds of years of Christendom.  Starting with the days of Constantine in the 300’s AD, society was so intertwined with the Christian Church that it was difficult to distinguish Church from civilization.  Baptism and citizenship were nearly synonymous in most places.  Biblical morals became the good morals of society.  The Church thrived as an institution that normed and united people over vast regions.  However, it wasn’t that there were necessarily more people in the Kingdom of God because of this outward influence. People then, as now, still fall into these two classes: the natural person, and the person in whom the Holy Spirit dwells.  Both so-called “Jews” and “Greeks” fall into the natural category, even though they outwardly might blend in with the latter.  That’s one of the pitfalls of the idea of Christendom in the world.

Even in our country, we are a nation with roots in Christendom, but increasingly it’s clear that people’s heart is not with Christ.  Even still, there’s a confusion between the genuine people of God and moral agnostics.  In the Ten Commandments (actually, “The Ten Words”[2]), given from Mt. Sinai, the bulk of what we hear is do’s and don’ts.  The natural man who lives on—even in believers—is convinced that the right set of rules will make a people who please God.

We like that, because if people will just keep these rules, life is easier for everyone.  It isn’t just the honoring of father and mother that leads to long life in the land (Ex. 20:12).  If people would just worship the true God, invoke His Name, join together in worship, submit to authority, protect life, uphold marriage, respect property and income, speak about others with dignity and respect, and not lust after what belongs to another—then we’d all be a lot happier.  This was expressed in the popular song by Canadian rock group, Nickelback, “If everyone cared and nobody cried/ If everyone loved and nobody lied/ If everyone shared and swallowed their pride/ Then we’d see the day when nobody died… Amen. Amen. I am alive.”[3]

It’s true that human society thrives on principled people, stable families, justice, and equity.  History has shown this to be true, and many skilled philosophers have affirmed good ethical systems.  But this is not the same thing as the Christian Church.

Today, in the Name of Christ, people campaign to keep monuments of the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses, fight to end abortion, bring prayer back in school, and resist the tide of transgenderism.  While all of this helps curb the perverse human will, these things can never save.  They have their place, and in that way the children of God are a blessing to an increasingly lost humanity.  Paul commands us in Philippians 2, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”  But the only light that can save is the light of Christ Himself, who was offered up for all people.

The Church is “the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” (Augsburg Confession, VII) You can have a group of like-minded, conservative people whose values align with God’s Word, but that doesn’t make them the Church.  “We preach Christ crucified,” Paul says, because this is what we need—us, who have sinned against God and neighbor in thought, word, and deed.  So there’s us, who are of little account, not powerful or many, sometimes able to influence but often not heard: God has elected you.  Sinners of all different backgrounds, classes, political opinions are gathered to Christ because His Spirit has taught them not the trust in their abilities, or values, or anything else under the sun to save, but hold fast to Jesus who can and does.

We live in times that are more and more like that of our first-century brethren in Corinth.  History shows that the Christian ethic did eventually win over the “bread and circuses”[4] of Roman hedonism.  And to have that again would be nice from a temporal standpoint, but what’s really key is that the Church is here to uphold God’s holy Law and declare the precious forgiveness in Christ to as many as are called with us out of the world.  May God grant this in our age, with a fruit that lasts for ages to come.  Amen.

[1] These verses don’t use the definite article, “the” which leaves it open to a variety of religious paths to God.

[2] Exodus 34:28, see ESV footnote

[3] “If Everyone Cared” written by Chad Kroeger, Michael Kroeger, Ryan Peake, and Daniel Adair

[4] Juvenal, Romans 2nd century satirist (Latin: panem et circenses)

Church in the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

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[1] the wisdom of the wise, and He will reject and render void[2] 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.”[3]  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.”[4]  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.”[5]  In that faith, you will truly be blessed.  Amen.
[1] ἀπόλλυμι destroy utterly, kill, slay, and of things, to destroy, demolish, waste (Perseus Greek Study Tool)
[2] ἀθετέω “cancel, render ineffectual” (Perseus)
[3] Luke 10:16
[4] Matthew 18:18, 20
[5] Luke 1:38