Foolish, Weak, Low (1 Corinthians 1)
1. St. Paul writes his epistle to the church in one of the greatest social centers in the ancient world. The city of Corinth was a great place for learning, a great place to show your strength and a great place where positions of power were coveted by most of Greece. So Paul chooses his words carefully as he addresses the Christians in our text this morning. Corinth's prestige for wisdom, strength and social status provide the great lens for us to see ourselves today in America.
2. What is considered foolishness by the world? One definition--one that has stood the test of time--is the lack of wisdom and/or understanding. A lack of education continues to be seen as foolishness to most of the world. Another definition in our world today would be an acknowledgement of God. Oh sure, we have many people now talking about "God." Our President makes remarks about "God" often in his speeches, hoping to give some sense of hope in this time of uncertainty. Like "God" is the eternal equivalent to Staples'® "Easy Button"™. This "God" is a multi-faceted being that lends himself differently to different religious groups. That way one can talk about "God" and not have to define Him. This generic "God" of America can fit into any mold. That way no one has to worry about the God who appears on the cover of our bulletin this morning in the lightning and fire atop Mount Sinai. This generic "God" everyone likes to talk about isn't scary. He's everybody's best friend and only wants you to be happy. But the God who appeared on Mount Sinai and said, "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3), is scary. He is the One to whom each and every person is accountable for everything they say, do and think. That's a scary notion. One that the world tries to flee at all costs. They devise all sorts of philosophical, "feel-good" ideals for people to ascribe and subscribe to so that "God" becomes less scary. But there is one small problem with the God of the Bible. In the words of Mr. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, "He's not a tame lion." He's not tame and He exudes what the world calls foolishness. As St. Paul writes, "For 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" (v18). Jesus crucified for you is utter nonsense to the world. They would rather believe that they are accidental permutations of mutations over billions of years so that they can discount the notion of a God that can hold them accountable for their lives.
3. But at Christian universities all over the world, that foolishness is taught side-by-side with the wisdom of the world. Colleges like those in the Concordia University System present both the wisdom that this world sees as necessary to earn a living and establish a career alongwith the foolishness that establishes the seeds of faith in the soul that leads not only to living in this world but the life everlasting that we confess in the Creed. What is utter nonsense to the world is the power of God in our lives. They are presented side-by-side, especially in confessional circles, because they are bound together by the doctrine of vocation. God has given each individual person their gifts and commands that they use them to further His kingdom. Whether that is as a student, teacher, administrator, accountant, mechanic, whatever your job, it is a gift from God that you are able to do this. It is His power, working through the gifts He has given you, that drives you to do your job to His honor and praise. The knowledge and understanding that God came down and took on human flesh in order to be crucified drives you to praise and honor Him. As we confess in the First Article of the Creed, "All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him." Professors at Christian universities seek to instill this knowledge that you can be a faithful Christian and have a successful career. They are not mutually exclusive. It is not foolishness. It is the power of God. The true power that transcends anything from this world.
4. In the city of Corinth, there were biennial Isthmian games held at the sanctuary of Poseidon. They were an addendum to the Athenian Olympic games. Great feats of strength and endurance were performed. They were where the best of the best from Greece and Rome came to prove themselves as powerful athletes. Whether it was wrestling, chariot racing or pankration, the athletes would give everything they had to win. To prove themselves superior. To prove they can do it by themselves--another grave violation of the First Commandment. Not only stressing their own importance, but giving all praise snf honor for their success to a false god. The greater the combatant's ability, the greater the reward. Everything hinged on success. It was an honor to compete. It was a greater honor to win a contest. It was an even greater honor to be crowned the champion of the games. Much could be done--like today's athletes--for the champions. Fame, honor and riches to name just a few. Roman citizenships could be won. Family prestige and honor could be regained. Wars could even be decided by the Isthmian games. These games held great impact for everyone involved. Their power was immense among the people of the ancient world. This power was only an illusion because the authority bestowing the power upon the champion might not be in authority two years later.
5. But there is one power that is eternal: the Cross of Jesus Christ. That power is the true power that changes lives. That's why the Christian Church throughout the ages, and escpecially during the early church, was made up predominantly of members of the lowest social classes. This is referenced even by St. Paul: "For consider your calling, brothers: ... not many were powerful, ... [but] God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong" (vv26-27). The Cross of Jesus Christ doesn't look to be a great symbol of power. In fact, it looks exactly the opposite. It looks like a great symbol of defeat. That's why St. Paul can call the Cross "a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (v23). But the Cross serves as a great symbol of victory because it wasn't a war against a human or a nation that Jesus was waging. He was waging the war "against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12). It was the war against sin, death and the devil that Jesus was fighting on the Cross. Battling sin by taking the punishment you deserve as He hung there. Battling death as He died when He had paid the price and then rising from the grave. Battling the devil as He thwarted all his evil plans and purposes, bringing in the kingdom of God. The kingdom that doesn't have geographical boundaries. In fact, the grave doesn't even form a boundary as we'll confess in a few moments as we come to the Lord's Table and commune with each other and also "with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven" gathered around the altar. The same kingdom that comes "when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity" (SC III). The Cross' power definitely is eternal if we need not fear even death because of His Holy Spirit, knowing that "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39). That's the true power that each of us possesses and from where we should derive our comfort.
6. Unfortunately, our comfort level has decreased over the last decade, but almost drastically over this past year. The economic downturns that have resulted in the loss of jobs, cutting back on spending and increased worries about the future are rampant. Our country's comfort level is down because of the uncertainty that surrounds us and bombards us daily through the news media. It's similar to the situation in Corinth in the first century. They had just regained their status as a prominent city in the province of Achaia not long before Jesus was born. They had risen from the status of a secondary city to an important seaport and prestigious member of Roman society. They took pride and comfort in their newfound standing in the Empire. They had pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. They had proven that they were no longer low and despised. They were envied by other cities in the Empire. It boosted their collective ego and did wonders for the self-esteem, but it did nothing for their souls. None of their might, no height they reached in society or nobility, would help their souls. That only came through the proclamation of the Gospel.
7. Through simple words salvation is delivered. There's nothing flashy with the words. In fact, St. Paul said right before our text, "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the Cross of Christ be emptied of its power" (v17). St. Paul was an accomplished rhetorician. That much can be determined by simply reading his epistle to the church in Rome. But that wasn't his purpose. His sermons weren't always necessarily entertaining, as evidenced by people falling asleep during at least one of them (Acts 20:7-12). He preached a simple message as he says shortly after our text: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ crucified" (2:2). The heavenly message of the forgiveness of sins by the sacrifice of God's only Son in a manner that even the most unlearned hearer would understand and take comfort in. The message is simple: Jesus Christ died and rose again for you, to take away your sins. Whether you've earned multiple degrees in college and beyond or you're a small child sitting on your mother's lap, the message is proclaimed in a low level so that all may understand: Jesus Christ died for you so that you may live.
8. "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world ... so that no human being might boast in the presence of God" (vv27-29). "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (v25). "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares YHWH" (Isaiah 55:8). What the world thinks of as foolish, weak and low God considers wise, strong and noble. The Cross of Christ is the source of your life. Without it, you would have no life, no meaning, because through His suffering and death, Jesus has shown you His Father's mercy. Mercy beyond all comprehension. Truly "the foolishness of God is wiser than men" (v25). May the simple message of Jesus Christ crucified for you comfort you through this Lenten season. Amen.