Friday, August 14, 2009

Fool's Wisdom

The following is #3 in a series of sermons based in First Corinthians. They were written about twenty years ago, so some of the cultural allusions may be dated.

I Corinthians 1:18-25


I have been thinking about marketing. Do you ever pay as much attention to the television commercials as you do the program, and with a critical eye? TV commercials reveal our cultural values. They show us how we think.

How would you mount a successful ad campaign? What is it that commercials try to touch in us when they are wanting us to think a particular product is important? It seems to me that the motivation behind every advertisement is one (or a blend) of four things: a promise to help us find comfort, pleasure, prestige or security.

Take four random commercials. A heat pump will make you more comfortable. You will experience more pleasure if you eat a Wendy's hamburger; it supposedly has more 100% beef. Driving a BMW will give you prestige. Your investments will be more secure with Merrill Lynch (or whoever).

Now the reason I bring this up is to ask this question: How do we market our faith? What is it we capitalize on to draw people to our church? Is it comfort –– air conditioning, padded seats and accessible parking? Is it pleasure –– beautiful music or stimulating sermons? Is it prestige –– having the nicest facility or most programs? Is it security –– the pastor is always there if you need him or maybe it's a church that manipulates people into emotional dependency. What is it that is at the base of who we are and what we most hold on to in the church? That is what Paul addresses in this passage.

The one we need to see immediately is that Christians do not think like non-Christians. Christians do not have the same values as non-Christians. And the reason for that is at the very heart of our faith.

In v17 Paul concluded his last thought by saying that human wisdom takes away the power of the cross of Jesus Christ. Now he wants the Corinthians to know exactly what he means, and we need to understand it too. I am not a good mathematician, but I will give you the foundational thought here using a mathematical formula: the full wisdom and power of God equals the cross plus nothing. If we try to add anything to the message of the cross of Jesus Christ to make it better and even more attractive, all we do is destroy the very essence of the message.

Our Christian faith recognizes the existence of two mutually exclusive polarities. On the one hand there is human wisdom and on the other is what God has done through the cross of Jesus Christ. We have a choice to make: we either embrace human wisdom or we embrace the cross; it is impossible to do both. I want us think about why that is so by looking at three questions.

First, what is wrong with human wisdom? In the context of which Paul is speaking, human wisdom leaves God out. It is based on the limited human perception of reality. It deals with life in this world as though that is all there is. Two cultural characteristics help illustrate this.

I mentioned earlier the priority human wisdom puts on comfort and pleasure. That is why our culture is so entertainment crazed. Among other things, we watch television to escape from a real world where we cannot control comfort and pleasure; we enter a false world where they can be guaranteed.

Another priority human wisdom has is security. In the aftermath of an airliner crash there were interviews of some people involved in the rescue. One of them lived in a nearby affluent neighborhood and worked on Wall Street, one of our ultimate symbols of security. This man admitted being shaken by what he had seen. He even said that suddenly even Wall Street did not seem so important. Human wisdom is inadequate when we are taken beyond the realm of our earthly existence. What good is Wall Street to the people who were killed in the crash?

The ultimate farce of human wisdom is that it always results in death while offering life. There is no guarantee for comfort, pleasure, prestige or security. We will all die. We will not carry our possessions with us. We have little to say about whether our end will be painless or painful, and what others think about us will not matter so much when that time comes.

Paul's phrase for people who live from the perspective of human wisdom is in v18 –– he calls them those who are perishing. And not only does that encompass people who are humanly religious, it is explicitly directed at them. Paul divides a human approach to religion into two categories: one is those people who see God as Power and the other is those who see God as Reason.

In Paul's day it was the Jews who saw God as Power. Over and over they asked of Jesus, "Show us a sign" (Matt. 11:38,39; Mk 8:11; Lu 11:16; Jn 6:30). Their premise was this: Show us you are who you say you are; validate your Messiahship. They were looking for God to do for them what he had done for Israel in Egypt at the Exodus. They had figured God out (they thought); their own wisdom dictated what God needed to do, and how it was to be done.

By the same token, the Greeks were infatuated with their own brilliance. Reason, understood in a human context, was ultimate. So for both Jews and Greeks, the ultimate idolatry had been committed on the basis of human wisdom –– insisting that God conform to our prior views as to how "the God who makes sense" ought to do things. Such is the nature of human wisdom, and such are the reasons there is something wrong with human wisdom.

If human wisdom is not the way to go, then there's a second question: Why is God's wisdom foolish? This is one more way to see why human wisdom is so wrong. The folly of human wisdom is that it calls God's wisdom foolish, when in fact it's just the other way around. And again, why is God's wisdom seen as foolishness? The answer is one of the great themes of the Scriptures –– the great reversal.

Jesus put it this way in a prayer recorded in Luke's gospel: I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children (10:21). There is a spiritual barrier in the lives of people who do not know God so that the senses and the material become the standards for judging reality. Or, in the words Paul will use in the next section, God uses the things that are not to nullify the things that are.

What are "the things that are?" They are the things we see, things we recognize as being important in this world –– things like comfort, pleasure, prestige and security, and the particular things which promise them. And "the things which are not?" Well that is harder to explain because we are then trying to see and understand the very things the world says are foolish –– the things which do not even appear to be true.

There is one example which I think proves the point, and it is such a good illustration of God's foolish wisdom that even many Christians fail to see it. It's the practice of nonresistance.

You see, the world's wisdom says that if you want to live, you sometimes have to kill. What Paul presents as fool's wisdom –– which comes from God –– says if you truly want to live, you sometimes may need to be willing to be killed. The world's wisdom promises what looks like life, but is really death; God's wisdom calls for us to embrace what looks like death in order to find life. The world says "you're a fool" if we live for what God says is the ultimate wisdom.

That brings up the third question: What is the issue of fool's wisdom? The short answer is: life and death; being saved or perishing. It is the message of the cross.

Let's go back to our marketing analogy. How do we present our faith? With all due respect, how do we "sell" the church? One perspective on our answer might be to ask, how did God show his wisdom? What did Paul understand the message to be?

His answer is in v23 –– but we preach Christ crucified. When God needed to show his ultimate wisdom he did not give mighty signs or enter a debate with the best minds on earth. God has more power and wisdom than we can fathom, but when God did his ultimate act on earth, it was something that any human reasoning would call sheer stupidity.

God's wisdom –– and our message, if we are in tune with God –– is Christ crucified. Maybe we have heard that so much we have lost our sensitivity to what it means. To use the illustration Gordon Fee gives in his commentary, "Christ crucified" makes as much sense as "fried ice."

According to human wisdom, one either has a Messiah or a crucifixion –– not both. Having a Messiah means power, splendor and triumph. A crucifixion means weakness, humiliation and defeat. Human wisdom says why not have a salvation.... why not preach a message that will attract the sign seeker? the lover of wisdom? or the one who wants comfort or pleasure or prestige or security more than any other thing in this world? To ask that question is to miss fool's wisdom.

To embrace fool's wisdom is to take an awful risk. It is to turn away from everything that our ties to this world would tell us are most important. All we are left with is the essence of faith. We either trust God, believe that life can come from death and so be saved, or we keep our pretensions and perish –– pretensions that this world, our place in it, and the things we have are somehow immune from the death that is already all around us.

Before we are anything else, if we are indeed Christians, we are people who both follow and model our lives after a man who died a criminal's death in public execution. It is only by faith that we call that a victory; the unbelieving world certainly does not see it as such.

When we each live our lives in the world, and when we base our church life on that same model, people without fool's wisdom will see us as people possessed with a madness. But that is what we are offered today –– either the way of the world with its outward respectability, or the way of the cross with a call for us to come and die. That is the wisdom God offers. Which are you choosing?

We are in a marketing war for our very souls. On one billboard there is a collage of pictures; they show life as a well ordered experience with libraries, nice homes, shop-ping malls and restaurants, and happy people. On another billboard is 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. To this day it looks like the world on the other billboard is actually winning. I only ask you this one thing: Whose commercial are you believing?

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