January 23, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
There are several ways to approach the Beatitudes. You could fruitfully consider them one at a time or you could look at the overall sweep and direction of these blessings. Since the Lectionary gives us the whole smack for just one Sunday, our best option is to look at the bigger picture and consider, in aggregate, what these Beatitude behaviors and mindsets add up to. That is, seen in context and taken all together, what is Jesus telling us about kingdom living just generally in Matthew 5?
Before we answer that, let’s notice the curious way in which Matthew launches the Sermon on the Mount. According to Matthew 4:25, Jesus’ ministry has just recently taken off like a rocket with his reputation as a healer spreading quickly. Within days he had throngs of people following him in the hopes that they could get something from Jesus.
But then in Matthew 5 Jesus suddenly interrupts his successful healing ministry. Make no mistake: the miracles Jesus did were important signs of his power and of God’s kingdom, but over and again Jesus makes clear that the main event of his ministry is teaching. So Jesus is not adverse to stopping the juggernaut of enthusiasm that was building around him in order to do the far less impressive-looking act of sitting down and just talking.
“He began to teach,” Matthew says in verse 2 because teaching was one of the main reasons why Jesus had come to this earth. In fact, it is even possible that one of the reasons Jesus applies the brakes to his successful healing tour was precisely because he knew that this was the kind of phenomenon that made people want to turn Jesus into yet one more icon of political power. The people wanted a successful, charismatic leader to help end Roman occupation and restore Israel to its former glory. And so the people started to follow Jesus in the hopes that they would be there when history was made as the Caesar was defeated.
Perhaps that prospect unsettled Jesus. Did you notice how Matthew 5:1 begins? “Now when he saw the crowds, he went up to a mountain and sat down with the disciples.” It is as though the very crowds are what drove him into this private teaching session with the disciples. It is as though Jesus looked around him, saw that things were taking off quickly in the direction of a “successful” career in the worldly sense of that term, and so he quickly backs off, retreats to a less accessible place, and says to his disciples, “Whoa! We need to slow down long enough for me to tell you what the real shape of life in my kingdom is. Because if we’re not careful, people are going to start to think I’m here to conduct business as usual when really I’m here to turn the world upside-down.”
Then, to prove his point, Jesus begins to turn the world upside-down. In the face of those who were hoping Jesus would be a bold and brash political leader who would take the world by storm, Jesus blesses the meek, the demure, the people who look like they’ll never accomplish anything. In the face of those who were hoping Jesus would rally the powerful and confident to his side, Jesus blesses the destitute and the quietly pious folks huddled on the fringes of the business world. Instead of promising swift liberation from Rome, Jesus blesses those who mourn over things like the Roman occupation!
In other words, Jesus says that he has not come to establish just one more political kingdom in which the powerful win, the confident grin, and the rich pull all the strings. He has come to usher in a new order where the last are first and where the truly excellent are the ones who get sneered at by the rest of the world.
So what would a Beatitude-filled person look like? Suppose you could combine the personality traits of the Beatitudes and put them all into one man (or into one woman, but we’ll go with a man for now).
What would Mr. Beatitude look like?
Well, he would be consistently kind and yet also a bit shy, shunning the limelight. He would always downplay his own actions by claiming they were never enough to achieve what he really wants, and so we might conclude he has a bad self image.
This would be a person quick to lend a hand to anyone in need but also quick to get a bit depressed every time he hears a news story about an oil spill off the Louisiana coast or after seeing pictures of children gassed to death in Syria–this would be a person as often as not who looked distressed and seemed often to be on the verge of tears; someone who could never shrug off anything. Lester Holt might always end newscasts with a smile and the winning words, “I’ll see you all back here tomorrow, good night.” But Mr. Beatitude generally finds the news to be desolating–just watching such broadcasts yields anything but a smiling “good night” for him!
This would be a person who was transparently religious, someone whose heart seemed so centered on the God of his faith that most everything he did would come off looking like an offering. This would be a man who would seem perpetually restless and dissatisfied with lots of life’s facets. He’d be someone who consistently gave money to environmental groups, who volunteered to clean up highways, who pitched in on programs to aid the homeless, who talked at dinner parties about the need to do something to help those who live in poverty or who are gripped by addictions to drugs or pornography.
In short, Mr. Beatitude might not always be a barrel of laughs. As often as not he’d have a serious look of concern on his face or a tear of sympathy in his eye; he’d rather talk about substantive issues of global climate change or the war on poverty than engage in typical cocktail party blather. He might just be busy enough with helping the disenfranchised that some would sneer at him as someone who was naively “out to save the world.” (All of this is why it was such a travesty years ago when a certain TV preacher published a book titled “The Be (Happy) Attitudes.” Happiness is not necessarily in the mix for those who follow Jesus’ words here.)
He might even be seen as a trouble-maker and a nuisance, what with all his restless talk about issues, causes, and politics, not to mention the fact that there seems to be no satisfying the guy–he’s always hungering and thirsting for something better for others. And so it’s quite possible that among some people anyway, Mr. Beatitude would be ridiculed.
You see, the life of Mr. (or Miss) Beatitude will be a busy and restless and maybe even a nettlesome one not because he or she is trying to get to heaven but because folks like this have seen the kingdom in Jesus and they’re not going to settle for less ever again. As such, there is a curious paradox running through the Beatitudes. On the one hand it is clear that graced followers of Jesus don’t really “fit” in this world. In this sense Matthew 5 seems to validate the old spiritual that says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passin’ through.”
If, as Jesus predicts, we get ridiculed and persecuted, part of the reason will be because we’re not hewing to the world’s agenda. We’re going to challenge a lot of conventional wisdom and shake up the powers that be. On the other hand, though, the Beatitudes do not call us to be world-shunning folks. We are not to pretend that society or culture don’t matter, that politics is beneath our notice, that the environment can slide into a hell of pollution because this world isn’t our home anyway seeing as we’re headed for heaven.
No, instead the Beatitudes make clear that we are to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness not in the sweet by-and-by but right here, right now. We are to make for shalom here. We are to be meek right here and if we are, we are promised to inherit the earth–the earth, you may notice, is what Jesus promises.
Jesus easily mixes up his talk about “the kingdom of heaven” with his talk about this earth. Apparently in Jesus’ mind there is no dichotomy. You don’t have to choose between heaven and earth because down the line, the two are going to merge. In sum, blessed are you if you can see the world the way Jesus sees it. Congratulations to you if you already feel and act and live in these ways because it shows that when it comes to God’s kingdom, you “get it.”
There is a long-standing biblical debate as to whom Jesus taught: were these words addressed to everybody or to just Jesus’ inner circle of disciples? Many scholars believe that although some in the crowd may have overheard Jesus, it does appear that Jesus is forming a circle around him of only the disciples and that he is now teaching them. Recognizing that helps us to remember two things: first of all, the fact that these words were for the disciples reminds us that the Beatitudes are not entrance requirements for kingdom membership but instead are a description of what kingdom living is like after you have been saved by grace.
If Jesus had spoken these words to the crowds, then it is possible you could read the Beatitudes this way: “People, listen up! If you want to be on my good side, if you expect for me to take you to heaven, then here’s what you have to do: you have to be nice and merciful, work toward peace and only then will you be good enough for me.” But that’s not how it goes in Matthew 5. Jesus has already called the disciples through the out-of-the-blue invitation of grace. They are already kingdom insiders.
In other words, the Beatitudes show how you live after grace not how you earn grace (which you can’t do anyway, of course).
To the world, the Beatitudes look like a formula for a disastrously dull and melancholy life. Instead, as C.S. Lewis wrote, the people around us think that money and sex and booze and the high life are as good as it gets. To folks like this the Beatitudes sound roaringly stupid. But such people are like an ignorant little child who says that he’d rather just go on making mud pies in some slaggy alley in the slums simply because he can’t imagine what it means that you just invited him to go to the beach for the weekend. People in this world are far too easily pleased. They think mud pies is as good as it gets when really they and we all have been made for joy! Blessed are you if you know the joy that is our God in Christ for it changes everything!
Author: Doug Bratt
What do you give to the person who already has everything? It’s not just a question for Christmas, birthday or other gift giving. It’s also, in some ways at the heart of the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday: What do you give to the One who already owns everything?
Micah 6:4-5 describes God’s extraordinary generosity towards God’s Israelite people. It’s a litany that contains memories that are still vivid for those people. The prophet describes a God who repeatedly rescued God’s Israelite sons and daughters from a variety of threats.
Micah 6, after all, rehearses not just Israel’s exodus from Egyptian slavery, but also the leadership God provided to facilitate that escape. It also details the story of how God foiled Balak’s plans to destroy Israel by sending, among other things, a talking donkey.
Yet by calling Israel (twice!) to “remember” (5) her travels to the land of promise, Micah suggests she’s somehow either forgotten them or acts as if she no longer remembers what God graciously did for her. In fact, verse 3 implies that Israel feels as though God has somehow acted not for, but against her. “My people, what have I done to you?” God asks there. “How have I burdened you?”
That easily happens, after all, when God’s children forget the gracious things God has done for us. It’s not just that we fail to remember God’s countless acts of love, mercy and kindness. It’s also that we quickly begin to imagine that instead of acting for us, God has actually somehow acted against us.
This presents Micah 6’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on the power of memory. They might ask how we keep memories of God’s gracious acts alive in such a way that they shape our understanding of and relationship with God. Preachers and teachers might also reflect with their hearers on how the loss of memory can pervert our view of God.
God has become so frustrated with God’s forgetful Israelite sons and daughters that God puts them “on trial” on Micah 6. The prophet sets these “legal proceedings” in the context of a kind of “heavenly courtroom” in which, according to verse 1, the mountains and hills serve as kind of jury.
This suggests that God’s case against Israel is so strong that God is confident that even the inanimate creation will recognize Israel’s guilt. Micah may even design Israel’s trial in this way to make readers wonder how Israelites whom God created in God’s imagine don’t get what even mountains and hills understand.
God begins our text’s “court case” by reviewing the pertinent facts of God’s generous and gracious history with the Israelites. God then moves on to describe what God wants from them.
Israel’s ideas suggest she assumes God wants some things from her. Maybe God desires burnt offering that will smell nice from the Israelites. Or perhaps God longs for a yearling that will taste good. Or how about a grander apology? How about thousands of rams like Solomon offered? Or 10,000 rivers of oil? Or maybe the sacrifice of an eldest son?
Of course, all of these offerings would be “religious” ones. These are offerings Israelites made to God in the past. In fact, some of them are things for which God historically asked. They formed an important part of Israel’s grateful response to God’s great grace.
This offers an opportunity for those who present Micah 6 to reflect on some of the “religious acts” God’s 21st century sons and daughters perform. What are some of those liturgical and other gestures that we offer God in thanksgiving for God’s great generosity? What are the dangers of assuming they’re the most important or perhaps only part of our response to God’s grace? How do we keep those religious acts in their proper perspective?
In verse 8, God, however, insists God doesn’t want any things from Israel. One prominent biblical scholar paraphrases it to mean, “It’s you, not something God wants.” God’s primary desire is not for God’s adopted sons and daughters’ activities and things, but for our hearts, minds, souls and strength.
Of course, that commitment to God of our whole selves displays itself in concrete ways. Our text’s summary of those ways basically comes down to loving each other with God’s love.
We usually think of love as attitude. We easily confuse it with something like romantic feelings or attraction. However, Micah 6 reminds us that God thinks of love as an action. The prophet begins God’s “wish list” by calling God’s adopted sons and daughters to “act justly.”
Here again those who preach and teach this text will want to clarify what God thinks of as justice. We usually think of it as circumstance. We easily assume justice is just the absence of immoral things like unfairness, racism, and prejudice.
However, the prophet speaks of justice as something we do. So to act justly is to work for, among other things, the well-being of all whom God has created in God’s image. To act justly is to let the Holy Spirit bring every area of our lives into conformity with God’s will. To act justly is to work for a society that reflects God’s order for human life.
However, God also longs for God’s children to “love mercy.” That too takes concrete shape. Those who love mercy show loyalty to each other. We establish and foster healthy relationships between people on opposite ends of spectrums, between, example, rich and poor. Those who love mercy care for others with respect and generosity.
God also longs for God’s adopted sons and daughters to “walk humbly with” our “God.” To live in intimate relationship with God, to pay close attention to God. Those who walk humbly with our God pay closer attention to God’s desires than our own. We turn our eyes toward God for guidance and correction.
Those who preach and teach Micah 6 may choose to point out a couple of characteristics of what God longs for from those whom God has graciously saved. While God desires certain behaviors from us, they may not always be what we think of as religious actions.
Nowhere in Micah 6, for example, does God ask God’s Israelite children to spend more time in religious meetings or give more of their money to religious causes. The prophet doesn’t claim God longs for God’s sons and daughters to pray more. No, God longs for us to act in concrete ways much the way God in Christ acts. God longs for us to treasure the things God treasures, like justice, mercy and a close relationship with God.
On top of that, God’s longing for God’s people is for us to turn ourselves especially towards those on society’s margins. Justice and mercy are all too often doled out in tiny portions to our most vulnerable neighbors. Those who preach and teach this text may want to explore just who those vulnerable people are and how we might act more justly and mercifully toward them.
That, after all, is what the prophet calls “good” (8). It’s what’s proper, not only for those whom God has redeemed, but also for all those whom God creates in God’s image. God is, after all, not just our neighbors’ creator. God is also their sustainer, their caretaker, a role God invites us to join God in playing in the world God so deeply loves.
In his book, To End All Wars, Ernest Gordon describes his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II along the Kwai River. His Japanese captors forced their prisoners to work in low-lying swampland. They beat to death or simply beheaded any prisoners who seemed to lag.
Eventually a combination of beriberi, malaria, dysentery, typhoid and diphtheria took its toll on Gordon. Basically paralyzed and no longer able to eat, he asked his fellow prisoners to bring him to the Death House where prisoners went to die.
However, while Gordon was in the Death House, God’s Spirit moved along the Kwai River. One particular event exemplified that movement. When no one confessed to stealing a Japanese guard’s missing shovel, he began to scream, “All die! All die!”
As he raised his rifle to fire at the first prisoner in line, a prisoner of war stepped forward and said, “I did it.” The enraged guard then raised his rifle high in the air and beat the man to death with it.
However, when the prisoners inventoried their tools that evening, they discovered the guard had made a mistake: no shovel was missing. They realized that their fellow prisoner had voluntarily given his life in order to spare them.
Gordon remembers how God used such selflessness to change the prisoners along the River Kwai. They began looking out for each other instead of themselves. Two Christian Scots demonstrated this change by coming to the Death House every day to care for Gordon.
They dressed the ulcers on Gordon’s legs and massaged his atrophied muscles. By doing so, they gradually restored him to what passed for health along the Kwai River. Those Christians showed their love of mercy by tenaciously nursing Gordon back to health.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 15 opens with a question that will trouble a lot of people in many congregations. It’s a question put to God. Now, questioning God is not a problem for most Christians these days. In fact, it’s much in vogue. Folks like David Dark speak eloquently about the necessity of asking questions if our faith is to be vibrant and relevant. His most recent book is entitled, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, including God. He rails against certainty, dogmatism and tradition, and he glorifies doubt, open-ended wonder, and radical questioning.
Speaking of his own transition, Dark writes, “Over time, the Bible ceased to be a catalogue of all the things one has to believe (or pretend to believe) in order not to go to hell. Instead, the Bible became a broad, multifaceted collection of people crying out to God…. And Christianity, far from being a tradition in which doubts and questions are suppressed in favor of uncritical, blind faith, began to assume the form of a robust culture in which anything can be asked and everything can be said. The call to worship is a call to compete candor and radical questioning—questioning the way things are, the way we are, and the way things ought to be.” Dark says that this awe-filled questioning is so central to faith that “only a twisted, unimaginative mind-set resists awe in favor of self-satisfied certainty.”
While a careful reader might wonder about the provocative way Dark writes, he definitely speaks for many modern Christians. And, of course, there is abundant biblical evidence that questioning God is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of Job, for example. So asking God hard questions is a part of contemporary spirituality.
But the question that David asks God at the beginning of Psalm 15 is not that kind of question. It is not a challenging question. It is more like a catechism question, a question designed to teach someone a truth, a question asked not by a rebel demanding a revolutionary answer, but by a rabbi teaching a traditional answer. Indeed, some scholars see Psalm 15 as a liturgical call to worship designed to be recited to the worshiping congregation as they get ready to climb the steps into the temple. It asks a question that aims to prepare people to meet God. “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?”
Not only is the question very different than the kind of question asked by the David Dark’s of the church, but also Psalm 15 answers that question in a way many church folks will find offensive, if not downright laughable. In the laid back, latte sipping ambience of many contemporary churches, the notion that God might actually demand something of us before we can come into his presence is as foreign as forelocks and phylacteries. The God of the 21st century asks only that we show up. Come as you are, no questions asked, no requirements. Just come on in.
Now, of course, as an evangelistic strategy such a casual approach has much to commend it. For too long the church put too many man-made barriers in the path of seekers. Let’s get rid of them all. But Psalm 15 insists that there are some God-made requirements for those who would “dwell” and “live” in God’s presence. We should be able to come as we are, but we should not expect to stay there. As a pastor friend put it, the church must have “a low first step, but a long center aisle.” Come as you are, but if you want to stay here, you’re going to have to clean up your act. Conversion is simple, discipleship is not.
This is not an easy thing to sort out and keep straight. On the one hand, the list of requirements in Psalm 15 could easily lead to a “check list morality” and “works righteousness.” You have to do all these things before God will accept you. If you do these few things, you are clearly a superior saint. On the other hand, ignoring the list of requirements in Psalm 15 could easily lead to “cheap grace” and an antinomian moral carelessness. I suspect that many Christians today will resist Psalm 15 for one or both of these misunderstandings.
What Psalm 15 calls for is the same holiness that fills Leviticus; “be holy because I am holy.” Jesus echoed that very clearly as did most of the New Testament writers, calling Christians to that “holiness without which we cannot see God.” (Hebrews 12:14)
So, we’ll have to preach it carefully. It will help to point out that the opening question is a direct address to God, which implies that God and God alone has the authority to determine who may approach him. No man made rules here. But God does have rules. Like it or not, we humans may not just mosey into God’s presence. It is a legitimate question. Who may do that?
Do what? Here again, it pays to be careful. The Psalmist talks about dwelling and living, not approaching. Does that choice of verbs suggest that approaching God in the first place as a seeker is simpler than dwelling in his presence on a day to day basis? There are no behavioral requirements for “getting saved,” but there are things we must do to stay united to God? We are justified by faith alone, but sanctification requires faith and obedience? What does it take to dwell permanently in God’s presence, to live in union with Christ? Any sinner may come to God crying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” But for sinners to live in close communion with Christ we must develop the character traits listed in Psalm 15.
Again, be careful here. Note that those who may live in constant communion with God are not a class or group of people (like priests), or those who perform certain religious actions (like sacrifices), or who practice ritual purity. No, what God is looking for is moral righteousness. Psalm 15 gives 11 answers to the opening question, but we shouldn’t push that number. This is a picture, not a prescription, a characterization, not a code of ethics. Note that the Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Commandments are not alluded to here at all. Does that mean God doesn’t care about family life or sexual ethics or a covetous heart? Of course not. David is sketching, not filling in all the moral spaces.
David begins in verse 2 with a general description, using words that were part of the established tradition of Israel’s religion. “All of them are cases of conduct that effect the well-being or shalom of various levels of community.” (Mays) If we would live in God’s presence, God requires that we be “blameless.” That doesn’t mean we must be perfectly sinless. It refers to having a whole and complete devotion to God’s will. Further, we must be righteous, which means we must do what is right as a matter of habit and principle. And we must speak the truth from the heart; our words must be governed by a heart that is devoted to God. Then in verses 3-5 David applies those three general moral qualities to three concentric circles of life (the neighborhood, the religious community, and the larger society).
The Psalm ends with a statement as shocking to modern ears as the opening question. “He who does these things will never be shaken.” Really? Being a good person guarantees that nothing bad will happen to you? Of course, that is not what David meant. Reading David’s other Psalms is proof certain that bad things happen to good people.
What can David mean then? Well, think about the way Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount. The opening verses of that Sermon (Matthew 5:1-13) sound very much like Psalm 15, don’t they? Then in Matthew 7:24 Jesus sums up everything he taught about kingdom living by saying, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” When the storms of life come and beat against that house, it “will not fall, because it had its foundations on the rock.”
So, those whose lives show the character qualities listed in Psalm 15 may live through tumultuous times that shake the very foundations. But they will not be shaken to the core. The forces of chaos will not undo them. This is a promise not of a trouble free life, but of security in God’s presence, both now and forever. “He who does these things will never be shaken.”
But who does these things, always and perfectly? No one, and that’s why we are shaken so often by the events of life. So, does that mean that we are shut out of God’s presence? Here it is crucial to read Psalm 15 in the light of the New Testament. We must do what is righteous (verse 2) and when we don’t, we must do what will make us righteous. Think of the tax collector in Jesus’ famous parable. A notorious sinner who had done none of what Psalm 15 calls for, he only got as close to God as the far edge of the Temple where he simply begged for mercy (Luke 18:13). And Jesus said, he “went home justified before God.”
The purpose of Psalm 15 is not to judge and condemn those who do not meet these requirements, but to call and encourage all of God’s people to be this way. The Gospel declares that the God who demands these things is the God who forgives us when we fail and enables us to grow in holiness.
Indeed, he is the God who brought the Temple to us, “tabernacling” among us in the flesh of Jesus (John 1:14). That is the great difference between us and David. We meet God, not in a building, but in the person of Christ. Does that mean we have to live a certain kind of life before we can enter into the life of Jesus? Thank God, no! But it does mean that if we are going to dwell in him, live in him, be united with him, enjoy his presence, we will have to live by Christ’s Spirit. If we do live by the Spirit of Christ, we will develop the fruit of the Spirit, which bear some resemblance to the character qualities and behavior in Psalm 15.
As I said at the beginning of and throughout this piece, Psalm 15 will strike many in your congregation all wrong, which is a good reason to preach it. Preach it as a call to righteousness and a call to Christ who is our righteousness (I Cor. 1:30). Be strong and strict in preaching these requirements; a morally lax church needs to hear about a holy God. But be gracious and merciful in calling sinners to Christ, who did everything we fail to do and who is everything we are not. Conclude with this. Because Christ is our righteousness, we must strive to be that kind of person. As James Luther Mays put it, “We may be tempted to take the righteousness given by grace to faith as an excuse for the failure of our lives, but the Psalmist insists that it is rather the purpose and the power of God to regenerate them.”
Though people may react negatively to the central idea of Psalm 15, everyday life is filled with examples of requirements to gain entrance. To get into Costco, I need my membership card. To gain admittance to a black tie gala, I need a ticket and a tux. To play golf at a nice country club, you have to be or know a member. And, most ubiquitously, to get into your computer, your on-line bank account, your investment portfolio, and a hundred other privileged places, you have to know your password.
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Author: Scott Hoezee
Drinking from the proverbial fire hose, that’s what these verses from 1 Corinthians are like. In verse after verse Paul scales ever higher theological heights and ever grander rhetorical flourishes as he stares, mouth agape, at the mysteries of God that all coalesce around the cross of Jesus Christ. Few passages in Scripture so swiftly capture the weird logic, the majestic reversal that just is the Gospel of Christ Jesus and its message on how it is that the universe gets saved.
No one saw this coming. The world has its standards. The world knows what is strong and what is weak, what is effective and what is ineffectual. The world has defined intelligence and wisdom and can identify them when it sees them. The world has likewise defined stupidity and foolishness and can spy those things pretty readily too. History teaches us who comes out on top. It’s a dog eat dog world. Only the strong make it to the top. Had Paul known of Mr. Darwin, he would have pointed to the “survival of the fittest” that defines all progress on planet earth. These are things the world knows well.
It reminds me of a couple of scenes from the Godfather movies where the ways of the world become clear. As the old don of the family, Vito Corleone (Marlin Brando) is preparing to hand over the reins of power to youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), he advises Michael always be careful, smart, hard-thinking. “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to be careless” the old man says. “Women and children can be careless but not men.” In the second film Michael refers to his older brother, Fredo, who got passed over and whom Michael can never trust with anything important. “Fredo has a good heart but he’s weak and he’s stupid and this is life and death.”
Our is a world of intelligence, wisdom, guts, and courage. Might makes right and nice guys finish last. It’s like some of the rapid-fire lines from George Carlin’s classic “Modern Man” routine: Push the envelope, manage risks, be a high flyer, get ahead of the curve. Don’t snooze or you’ll lose, keep the pedal to the metal, have a power lunch and take a power trip. Or as even some popular preachers tell us, “Nobody plans to fail but some fail to plan. Tough times never last but tough people do. High achievers spot rich opportunities swiftly, make big decisions quickly and move into action immediately. Follow these principles and you can make your dreams come true” (Robert Schuller).
Well, no, Paul says. This is the way the world works, true enough. And if you are scrappy and brave and are willing to claw your way to the top of the ladder—no matter how many little people you have to step over along the way—you can and you will achieve success as defined by the wisdom of the age and the savvy of the most intelligent among us. This is very simply how to get things done.
But not with God. Not with the way of salvation. No, here God upends it all. We are not saved by power but by weakness. We are not saved by worldly wisdom but by apparent folly. We do not enter the pathway to eternal life through the portals of Wall Street but by heading down a blind alleyway that appears to be a dead end. To riff on Frederick Buechner, this is the Gospel as Fairly Tale where everything is different than it at first appears. It’s the frog who is the prince waiting to be kissed, the blind beggar who is the most powerful man in the world, the ugly duckling waiting to blossom into the most resplendent of swans.
To understand this, Paul writes, you must—now to riff on Yoda—“unlearn what you have learned.” Forget graduate studies in business or law. Forget the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” or Andrew Carnegie’s best tips on how to win friends and influence people. God is going to take you back to school and its curriculum is decidedly unworldly, other-worldly, foolish, weak, ineffective. It’s graduate studies in the unlikely, a Ph.D. in the simplicities of Kindergarten. It’s a parallel universe in which the weak are strong and the foolish are wise and dead end cul-de-sacs lead somehow to shining streets of gold in a kingdom without end.
And it is the cross that defines this whole new world. Because it was in the ignominious, shameful, accursed death of God’s own Son that the shining effulgence of all this counter-wisdom burst forth. It was the darkest moment in human history that led to the light. It was the death that led to life. The cross shows us God’s way of doing things like nothing else ever could
Oh, yes, true enough: the whole Bible had all along given hints and whispers of God’s penchant for unlikely heroes and non-starter methods. God starts a new nation with a pair of childless senior citizens. He’s got the whole world to choose from and he picks . . . Abram and Sarai? (Buechner again: “Shall a child be born in the geriatric ward? Shall Medicare pick up the bill?”) Again and again he chooses the younger over the preferred older child: Jacob, not Esau; Joseph, not the other eleven. He rescues his people by tapping a spokesperson who stuttered: Moses, not the better orators in Israel. He gave that nation its greatest king by choosing the runt of the litter, David, the younger and less strapping son even as God kept saying things like “People look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart.” The prophets said it again and again: it will be a shoot from a stump that is the sprig of hope. It will be the despised one from whom people hide their faces, the uncomely one, the sheep led to the slaughter that would be messianic arrows pointing to the way to redemption.
When that Coming One arrived, it was a goat’s feed trough that was his cradle, poverty-stricken people who would be his earthly parents. A carpenter’s son from the Nowheresville Nazareth would be the one who would spout parables no one could understand and who would say again and again that the greatest treasure, the eternal kingdom, the stuff that will really last that will look like the tiniest seed, the invisible yeast, the widow’s mite. He’d suggest that the meek who will inherit the earth, the weeping ones who would find laughter in the end, the last, least, lost, and lonely who would be God’s favorite kind of people.
Yes, yes, this Jesus person had been saying stuff like that all along but it was only at the end, only when he accomplished all salvation by dying on a cross that it became crystal clear that all along God had been truly serious about the best things coming from the least likely places. It was only when an instrument of cruel execution became somehow the gateway to real and eternal life that we recognized the things of God.
That is also why, as Paul points out, that people like the Corinthians themselves were God’s kind of people. They had not been power brokers in Corinth, not celebrities, not highly touted scholars, not the beautiful people gracing the covers of magazines. No, they had been simple, ordinary folks, looked down on by the world, despised by the power elite for the way they dressed in off-the-rack attire from Penneys, for the crudeness of their vocabulary, for the modesty of their single-story little cracker box houses or their $15 Super Clips haircuts. But guess what, Paul says, that makes you unlikely people a perfect fit for God’s unlikely Gospel of hope that centers on an old rugged cross. That makes you Beatitudes-grade people, superstars in the eyes of God, weaklings and earthen vessels containing all the power there is in God’s good creation.
That makes you Grace People. That makes you welcome targets for the Grace that comes from a bloody cross. It’s all right there in front of you, Paul says: the power of God, the wisdom of God, the salvation of God: it fits faulty and normal folks. Righteousness, holiness, redemption: it is all ours because by faith through grace we have been given the eyes to see deeper into the structure of things than what appears in the news headlines of the day, than what gets the TV’s spotlight, than what passes as today’s latest, greatest set of tips for successful living. We see down to what C.S. Lewis called “the deep magic of the universe” and its awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping reversal of all things we thought we knew.
This is the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as we drink from the 1 Corinthians 1 fire hose. Thanks be to God!
Many thoughtful writers like Neal Plantinga and Frederick Buechner have helped us appreciate the scandal of the cross, the paradox of its somehow becoming a symbol of hope. Being glorified on a cross, Plantinga once noted, is like being enthroned on an electric chair, getting exalted at the end of a hangman’s noose, finding success on the gurney of lethal injection. How odd it would be today if a woman wore a necklace with an electric chair pendant or earrings in the shape of a noose. How did the cross—as terrifying a symbol of death and painful execution as there was in the Roman Empire—become the thing to adorn your body with, to set atop a church steeple, to grace the covers of a million church bulletins?
Some while back I entered one of the most sobering spaces I have ever been in: it was the lethal injection execution chamber in a state penitentiary. And because the criminal being executed lays down on the padded gurney and because he has to have his arms exposed to put in the IV needles through which the fatal cocktail of drugs will flow, the gurney was vaguely cross-shaped. But there is no hope in this room. This is death, the end of the line, the place where you wind up when your every appeal for life has been rejected by the courts and when the governor has turned his back on your clemency request. There is no hope, no life, no glory here. Same as Golgotha. And yet for believers . . .