Saturday, August 22, 2009

People of the Cross

This is sermon #4 in my 20yr-old series from First Corinthians. I have to do considerable reformatting from my old word processing system to put these here. Let me know (comment) if it is worth it to you. Thanks for reading!

1 Corinthians 1:26-29


One of my daily devotional readings right now is a collection of writings by A. W. Tozer. This past week's reading had the observation that a preacher can get along with everyone if he gives a lot of objective truth but does not insist that it be applied to real life. Real preaching, he says, makes people feel the nails and the thorns.

The objective truth Paul is giving in the Corinthian letter at this point is the message of the cross, but it is not a truth without application. The cross is not merely something to believe; it is a way of life. Both are utter foolishness as far as the world is concerned.

The message is foolish because it is based on a crucified Christ –– someone who, in the eyes of the world, is a loser only trying to be a winner. And what kind of people will be attracted to that? In the eyes of the world it is the same perception –– losers.

In the previous passage we ended with a choice to be made between two commercials. One billboard offered what the world calls "the good life." It is the world of nice things and beautiful people –– a world where anyone can make it if only he can break into the circle of education and poise and power. The other billboard offers a lonely man who claims to be the king of the world, only his crown is made of thorns and his life seems to have ended in failure. Christians are people who believe the man who died on the cross is really the winner. For what other reason would we identify with him?

Now that much is well and good, but Paul is adamant that it does not end there. The way we prove that we really believe the man on the cross is the winner is when we turn from the values of the other billboard and embrace the values of the cross. And that, obviously, is sheer stupidity in the eyes of a world whose whole perspective is molded by the billboard showing the good life.

If this sounds threatening to you, then good –– you are hearing it rightly. There is a sense in which you and I are asked to choose such things as weakness, losing and death for Jesus' sake. How can we dare do such a thing?

The first thing is to believe that what the Bible tells us happened at the cross is true. Jesus won. A whole new world order began –– the kingdom, and although we can only now see it by faith, we believe that Jesus and his kingdom is the lasting reality. It is what will remain when the world as we presently know it is gone. That is part of what Paul is talking about in these rather abstract statements: "the things that are" and "the things that are not." "The things that are" are those things in our present world which are readily recognized by our senses. "The things that are not" are things in our world which are either unverifiable (like resurrection), or devalued (like losing). That was the point in the preceding paragraph where Paul exalted "fool's wisdom."

There is a second reason, though, that Paul gives for choosing the cross over the good life. It is the point of these verses today, and it deals mostly with how this foolish message applies to us as we live in a world that cannot comprehend the cross. Yes, the message of the cross is foolish to the world, but the other thing is that the people of the cross are also foolish to the world. You and I are fools. Can we live with that?

Paul asks us to think of three things which will help us to be willing to be fools who live by the message of the cross. First, think about your past (v26). Second, notice God's pattern (vs27,28). And third, understand God's purpose (v29).

It is a good thing to think back in our own lives. Think back to when Jesus came into your life. (Maybe you cannot pinpoint an exact date, and that's okay. But if you cannot recognize that Jesus has radically altered your life you would do well to make sure he is in your life.) We need to think about what we were before we knew Jesus.

For the Corinthians it meant recognizing they were not wise, they were not influential and they were not "well-born." That is why they were open to the gospel. They were hungry for something, and Jesus seemed to offer it. And even for those people who (in the eyes of the world) were wise, influential or well-born, if they are Christians it means they recognized that those things were no real advantage after all.

I'll illustrate with my own life. Before Jesus came into my life, I was a loser. It was not so obvious, maybe. After all, I was only fifteen, and I came from a Christian home. How bad could it have been? I will tell you –– it was bad. In my heart, I already knew I hated God –– if he was there, and I tried to convince myself he wasn't. All I knew was that I did not want any part of what my parents (and their church) stood for. I also knew what appealed to me. The two big things at that time were sex and luxurious possessions. I didn't know how to get either, but deep inside I knew I was willing to do anything it took. That would be happiness.

The reality, though, was that I was not happy. I was nothing special in school. I was just discovering that "underground" pornography existed. I remember making a couple of bets with a young bookie in the high school to get money. (I heard years later he had been killed as result of gambling debts.) I was part of the crowd of guys you still see standing near the corner of the school yard, smoking, maybe being obscene, but trying desperately to be "cool" –– whatever that means. As I look back, apart from what Jesus did in my life, I would have never gone beyond my hometown, never accomplished anything worthwhile, and probably would have wound up in jail or dead.

Yet here I am today –– I'm a pastor (of all things); I have graduate degrees; I have a good family and a nice home; I have a bit of influence in my church, and I'm even recognized for having wisdom. But do you know what? I'm still a loser! These external things people see do not mean a thing apart from the possible witness they give to what Jesus can do in a person. Any recognition I might draw, and certainly all the blessings I enjoy, have their source in Jesus Christ. It all began those years ago when the Holy Spirit made me see that I would do far better by giving my life to the one who died on the cross instead of trying to reach the mirage the world offers.

And with all due respect, what is true of me is true of each of you, just as it was with the Corinthians. No, our stories are not the same, but at the core of each of us –– if we truly belong to Jesus –– is the realization that apart from him we are still losers. Either you had nothing even by the world's standards, or you had some of its advantages. In neither case does it matter. The ground is level at the foot of the cross; not a single thing that any of us possesses gives us an advantage with God –– not brilliance, clout, achievement, money, or prestige.

Now maybe some of us know to say that in terms of our salvation, but how many of us know how to live life out of that perspective? Yes, we know (at least some of us do) to not seek brilliance, clout, achievement, money, or prestige in a ”worldly” way, but how many of us do not seek to "baptize" those things in the church? And I ask this personally –– how do I handle the influence I have in the church? How do I present the "wisdom" which comes out of my mouth? How shall I view the blessings God has allowed me to enjoy –– an education and a home and a social standing I would never have had apart from Jesus coming in my life? Then think of any "advantages" you have according to world values. Do we truly live from day to day with the realization that things like that do not count? When we have trouble there, Paul says to think about the past.

The second thing we need to do to live in the foolishness of the cross is notice God's pattern. Whenever we are tempted to shift our allegiance back to the world of the flashy billboard, we need to remember what that means. It always puts us in the position of God's antagonist; he always chooses against people who give priority to the advantages of the here and now.

We cannot get around it: God chooses the foolish things (and people); he chooses the weak and the lowly and the despised. Why? The answer is given in three purpose clauses ("henna" clauses in the Greek): to shame the wise, to shame the strong and to nullify the things that are (which means to make void the things the world thinks are so important). We can always expect God to work that way.

That means if any of us has the chance to personally look smart.... if we have the chance to exercise some influence –– to throw some clout, we need to remember that God does not work that way. We could accept it so much easier if the world did not work that way –– but it does. And sometimes the world invades the church.

You and I forget. We think if we can force this or that issue then things will be so much better. Or maybe someone else does that (I've heard of clout and power blocks more than once in the past week). Can we believe that when that happens we are most like Jesus when we do not retaliate in kind? Do we truly believe God can get the most glory through weakness and losing? The Bible shows that to be God's frequent pattern.

If God chooses the foolish, the weak and the lowly, then we align ourselves with God when we choose the same for Jesus' sake. Now I will be honest and say I do not always know what that means. Does that mean Christians should avoid everything that would suggest privilege or power or position or possession? I think not, and in another sermon someday I may be able to elaborate on my reasons why. And yet.... I certainly do not want to say that privilege or power or position or possessions are squeaky clean. The most cursory reading of Jesus says something else. The things the world uses to get ahead are at best only to be used loosely. At worst, they are a trap.

But who is to say when we cross that line from using loosely into the stage of grasping and clinging? One clear way to tell is when we start using those things as a way to judge others or use them for ourselves in order to look good or get our own way. We would do well to ponder these words from Gordon Fee in his commentary on I Corinthians: "Every middle-class or upper-class domestication of the gospel is a betrayal of the gospel."

There is a reason for that, and it is the third thing we need to do: we need to understand God's purpose. But first let me say this –– I'm aware that this whole subject is one where almost any of us could feel targeted, and all of us can feel guilty. I do not say these things to scold; I say them to remind us (and that includes me) of what it means to follow our Lord. In preparing this sermon I saw the issue so clearly, and I felt the struggle with all that I have, from this world's point of view, so acutely.

Why does God not let any of our worldly advantages count? Paul tells us in v29–– so that no one may boast before him. But what does that really mean?

The first sin was an act of independence from God. The promise of the serpent was, "You don't need God. You can do it by yourself." That has been the attitude of sinful Man ever since then. We still hear it today: "We can eradicate all our societal evils with enough education." "Poverty is a social disease to be cured." "Crime is a mistake people make until they can be rehabilitated." "Sin is not sin at all. We should not think in terms of right and wrong; think instead of healthy or unhealthy patterns of behavior we have learned." "We control our destiny."

The verdict of the Scriptures is that we are losers. Given a good world, we only botch things up. Given a chance to do wrong, we'll take it. By ourselves, we only see this world. This life becomes the highest priority, and we'll do anything to make it, in the words of last week's sermon, comfortable, pleasurable, prestigious, and secure. And as long as life is going in those directions, we think we have it under control. The truth is, life lived that way is certain death because it leaves God out, and God created us to have life through him.

Our situation is so bad that only God can change it. And our self-deception is so great that as long as we think we're still pretty good or have a little something to offer God on our own, we cannot believe what God says about us.

So what has God done? He has made salvation available through a most ridiculous plan, humanly speaking. He wins by losing. He shows his wisdom by proving human standards of wisdom wrong. He exalts what we count as worthless, while at the same time declaring as worthless what we respect the most. And then he invites us to choose all of that over what seems to be the sure thing the world is parading all around us.

One thing is sure: if we actually do what God says –– if we accept his ways, we will not be able to take any of the credit for the things in our lives. We will know God does not accept us or use us because of our wealth, our education, our social standing or anything else. And if we really believe that, we'll not try to use any of those things to make ourselves look good.

What does this mean for us? It means we will not use a position to wield power over others. It means we will allow others to do that to us if they dare, because we know God will turn the tables. It means we will not use vain things to promote our church and the gospel; we will best serve God if we are known for simply and even naively obeying the one who frustrates human wisdom.

It means we will see each other as people who God equally loves.... as people he desires to be made over in the image of his Son. We will see each other as having equal access to God's grace, and we will know that one of us needs it as much as the other.

It means we each seek to always remember that God's grace needs to begin with ourselves. I have nothing to offer him but a needy sinner.... a loser, that only he can make into a winner. And even then, it may not look like winning from the world's point of view.

The message of the cross seeks people of the cross. This is a bit of what it means, and I commend it to you today as I try to understand more and more of what it means for myself.

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