February 26, 2018
The Lent 3B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 2:13-22 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 20:1-17, from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 19 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 21 (Lord’s Day 7)
Author: Scott Hoezee
We are impressed very often by all the wrong things. In John 2 everyone was impressed with the physical Temple. It had been undergoing construction for over four decades already and was not even finished. It reminds me of the Ken Follett novel The Pillars of the Earth that narrates the construction of a European cathedral that literally stretches across generations of construction workers and craftsmen. Some projects in days gone by were so grand, the person who laid the first brick just knew that if one day the final brick got laid high up on the spire of a bell tower, it might very well be his great-great-great-great grandson who put on that finishing touch.
How could one fail to be impressed with such a grand undertaking? And in John 2 and in Jesus’ day, how could one fail to be impressed with Herod’s Temple? It maybe did not quite hold a candle to the original splendor of Solomon’s Temple but since that building was long gone, one takes what one can get, and Herod’s edifice was quite something to behold. (In another passage elsewhere in the Gospels the disciples have their own jaw-dropping moment upon seeing the Temple in Jerusalem, too).
Typical of John, of course, we get a theological aside—a holy parenthetical—to inform us that the “Temple” in question was Jesus’ own body. The very Son of the Living God was standing right in front of these people but they were far more impressed with brick-and-mortar than they were with flesh-and-blood. Even if they had understood the reference to his own body, though, you get the feeling they would have been unbelieving and unimpressed by also that claim.
Unless of course it was true. Yes, it would have been ludicrous to hear someone claim to be able to restore the decimated World Trade Center site in three days’ time. But what would be more impressive: claiming you could raise back up the buildings or claiming that you could (and would) reassemble the body of every last victim who had been pulverized, vaporized, and torn to shreds in that great terrorist cataclysm?
That would surely be the grand miracle because that would not be something we could do at Ground Zero or anywhere else. Yes, we can re-build the physical structures. It just takes years to do. But we could take every second that has passed in the 13.7 billion-year history of the physical cosmos and it would still not be time sufficient to reconstruct a single human being who ever lived or raise someone up from the dust. We cannot engineer that.
Jesus does that. It happened to him first so that all may follow. That is the One who stood in the midst of that allegedly “impressive” Temple that day in Jerusalem. No one saw him for who he was. No one recognized him nor what he was really saying. But one day we will all see him for who he is. The message of Lent and Easter assures us of this. And as the Apostle Paul will later tell us, when we see him, we shall be made like him.
Thanks be to God!
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]
Whatever Jesus saw that set him off that day in Jerusalem, there is one little detail we should notice because it might just give us a clue as to what this should mean for us even yet today. The telling detail is John’s insertion in verse 17 of Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house consumes me.”
If you look back at Psalm 69, you will find that it is a psalm of lament, a heartfelt cry to God on the part of the psalmist. The reason the psalmist cried out was because he was being looked down on and poked fun of on account of his faith. So the original context of the verse quoted in John 2:17 is someone who is zealous for the house of God but who is suffering because of that enthusiasm. If I tell you that I have great zeal for the ministry and the purpose of First Church, you might take that to mean that I am devoted to that church, that I am dedicated to making sure that unholy activities are kept well away from First Church. Zeal for God’s house, we think, means protecting it.
But that is not quite what the writer of Psalm 69 meant. His point was that because he was zealous about the house of God, his neighbors made fun of him, insulted him, told him he was a backward-thinking idiot for finding so much meaning in something as silly as a temple. Psalm 69 is about suffering for your faith. It’s about how the world sneers at us for claiming that a worship service is more valuable than anything that could ever happen in the citadels of worldly power. It takes faith to believe that what we do in worship on a Sunday morning matters in an eternal sense. It takes faith to believe that what a preacher conveys in a biblically true sermon is vastly more vital than anything that could ever emerge from the U.N. or from the office of any president, king, or prime minister. The writer of Psalm 69 believed that the ancient temple of Israel was the center of the universe, the house of God, the dwelling place of the cosmic Creator. And his neighbors saw this zeal for God’s house and they laughed out loud. How could he believe such an outlandish, silly thing?
That is the verse John throws into this story. And it tips us off that what this is all about is how sharp our spiritual vision is. Do we know what matters in life and what doesn’t, and are we willing to put up with the world’s scorn rather than give up on our faith? So maybe Jesus threw out the moneychangers because their ever-expanding emporium was eclipsing the real meaning of the temple. Maybe the temple had started to look like just any old Jerusalem flea market, and so people were forgetting that to have faith was to believe that God’s house is most definitely not just any old place. Maybe Jesus wanted to shake people up so they could remember that to have faith is a radical thing that should make us radically different from those who do not have faith.
Jesus’ fellow Jews had the wrong focus. They no longer had the radical faith of Psalm 69. The psalmist endured insult and injury because of his outrageous belief that the living God actually dwelled in the temple. But some of the Jews in Jesus’ day had forgotten. They saw it as their own accomplishment in which they could do whatever they wanted because it was, after all, their place. They had built it and it was theirs.
Jesus reminded them that it was God’s place, or was supposed to be, and if they didn’t perceive the presence of the living God there, then there was nothing distinctive about the temple at all. Jesus was a little more sensitive to such things than the average person in Jerusalem. Maybe others could walk past kiosks, cash registers, and blue light specials in the narthex of God’s house and not bat an eye, but as the very Son of God who himself would soon become the living, walking, breathing temple of God, Jesus took the affront of all this personally.
My colleague John Rottman once called my attention to a story from a few years back. It seems that one day in a busy Washington D.C. Metro station, a man with an open violin case in front of him played his fiddle for the passersby. Quite a few children and young people stopped and stared but were soon enough hustled off by their parents. About half a dozen people stayed for a minute or two before moving on to catch their train. A couple of dozen people threw money into the open violin case. After a while the violinist had collected a total of $32.17.
But the musician in question was no less than Joshua Bell.
Of course, we are quite sure that by the time John wrote this Gospel Herod’s Temple was also now gone, destroyed in the sack of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Commentators think that one of the reasons John makes “Temple” such a major theme in his Gospel—moving up the cleansing of the Temple to the start of Jesus’ ministry instead of near the end when it most likely did occur chronologically—was to reassure his readers that there WAS and IS still a true Temple: it is Jesus. But to get to that . . . read on!
In John 2 Jesus makes room again in the Temple for the truly spiritual business of the place to happen in ways that had not been possible once commerce and a flea market had taken over. What Jesus did literally shook things up and so the leaders asked Jesus to produce some credentials to authorize the bold and brazen thing he had just done. Jesus said “Destroy this Temple and I’ll raise it back up in three days.”
A ludicrous claim, of course. Granted, if someone were able to raze the entirety of the Temple edifice only to have Jesus wave a magic wand over the ruins and restore the whole shebang in a scant three days, that would have been beyond impressive. If a person could pull off such an architectural and engineering feat, that powerful action would be more than enough to validate any power or authority he might claim for himself.
But no one took the claim seriously. It would have been like someone’s approaching “The Pile” that was the wreckage of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero after 9/11 only to say “Give me three days and I’ll have them back up again.” It took the better part of a year just to haul away the debris. Rebuilding was an obvious impossibility.
Three weeks earlier he had played to a packed house in Boston where tickets for the good seats went for $100 a pop (and even the cheap seats cost more than Bell collected in the subway station that day).
Unbeknownst to the distracted passersby, Bell was playing one of the most difficult and intricate pieces ever composed for the violin, and he played it with not only the world-class skill that Mr. Bell possesses but he played it on a Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million. The whole stunt had been orchestrated by The Washington Post to see if anyone would notice. No one truly did, save perhaps for a few children who sensed something was up.
Too often in life we don’t realize what is standing right in front of us. Rather like what we read about in John 2.
Author: Doug Bratt
If we were to poll North Americans about what God is like, most of those who believe in God might say God is nice or forgiving. If we were to poll them about what God looks like, many would answer God looks like a loving grandparent or kind uncle or aunt.
How can we know what God is like? John Calvin identified three uses for God’s law that makes up the bulk of the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. It convicts us of our sin by reminding us of to what we’ve failed to live up. Calvin also noted that God’s law is also a good guide for civil law that structures orderly living.
However, Calvin thought that the most important function of the law is to teach us how to faithfully respond to God’s grace. As Reformed Christians profess, God’s law shows us how to be thankful for all God has done for us. God’s law shows God’s adopted sons and daughters how to glorify God and lovingly witness to our neighbors to the gracious God whom we serve.
Yet an incident that takes place shortly after God graces Israel and her leader Moses with the gift of God’s law got me to thinking about another function of God’s law. According to Exodus 32, Moses was gone so long from the Israelite camp at Sinai’s base that the Israelites doubt he’ll ever return to them.
So they begged Aaron to “make for us gods who will go before us” (Exodus 32:1). Among other things, that plea suggests the Israelites wanted a god they could actually see. So Aaron collected and melted the Israelites’ jewelry from which he created a god that looked a lot like a calf. The Israelites then sacrificed burnt offerings and present fellowship offerings to that visible god.
However, that, of course, infuriated God so much that God longed to destroy the Israelites so that God can effectively start over with Moses. Moses convinced God to spare most of the Israelites. Moses, however, seemed to need further assurance that God would not obliterate the Israelites. So he begged God to show him God’s “glory” (Exodus 33:18).
In response, God offered to somehow cause God’s “goodness” to pass in front of Moses. However, God insisted God could not show him God’s face because “no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). God only graciously gave Israel’s leader a glimpse of God’s “back.”
Yet while no one can live to tell about seeing God, the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday gives us a kind of glimpse of God. For example, in the seventh commandment God calls God’s children to “not commit adultery.” If, after all, spouses couldn’t trust each other to be faithful, we’d always be suspicious not only of each other, but also of any threats we might perceive to our marriages.
Of course, some of God’s adopted sons and daughters expand that to call all people, whether single or married, to faithfulness. The seventh commandment invites all of us to live decent and chaste lives. After all, sexual intimacy outside of marriage undermines our self-control, faithfulness and patience, among other things.
Yet God is also so concerned about such faithfulness because marriage closely replicates the bond between God and God’s people. God’s law challenges you and me to mirror in our relationships God’s undying affection for us. God is utterly faithful to God’s promises and people, no matter how unlovely or unlikable we are or become. So spouses who remain faithful to unlovely or unlikable spouses mirror God’s faithfulness to God’s sometimes unlovely or unlikable children. People catch a fleeting glimpse of God in such unconditional faithfulness.
God is also concerned that we not give false testimony against our neighbor. Yet God doesn’t want us to be truthful just because deception, slander or gossip puts other people in a bad light. God also doesn’t want to us to give such false testimony because God only speaks the truth about himself, God’s creatures and God’s creation.
You and I want to be truthful in all our dealings because God is always truthful. You and I speak well of others not just to protect their reputation, but also because God always says what helps people. People catch a fleeting glimpse of God’s truthfulness when God’s adopted sons and daughters always and only lovingly speak the truth.
Because this Lord alone is the giver of every good gift, we’re free from the need for other gods. We’re free to rest in God’s good provision for everything. We’re free from the need to envy, hate or be angry with other people.
Because the Lord is our God, God’s people are free to love and be loyal to not only our parents, but also to all whom God has granted authority over us. We’re free to do what we can for our neighbors’ good and treat them as we’d like them to treat us.
Of course, the negative formulation of eight of the Ten Commandments may make it hard to see how they show us God. After all, they may lead people to assume that God only closes down our lives. However, God’s law actually opens up life. It protects not just individuals but also society from actions that have the potential to destroy it. God’s law recognizes the damage things like disrespect for authority, murder and theft can cause.
Of course, even the negative commandments also have a positive side. Even God’s gift that is the “You shall not’s …” invites us to do certain things that imitate God. The sixth commandment, for example, calls us not to murder. However, that at least implies that we must also love our neighbors as ourselves, as well as be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful and friendly towards them.
God’s call not to murder also challenges us to protect our neighbors from harm as much as we can. It even calls us to do good even to our enemies. This is, after all, exactly how God behaves toward all those God creates in God’s image. When we work to protect the dignity and sanctity of all of life, from the moment of conception until the moment of death, as well as everywhere between for every person, people catch a fleeting glimpse of what God is like.
We see this behavior, of course, most clearly in the third person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ. While no one can see God and live to tell about it, when we look at Jesus, we see God. In Christ, Christians profess, we see as much of God as we’ll ever see anywhere on this side of heaven’s curtain. In fact, in John 14:9 Jesus even tells his disciple Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
So even if those who proclaim Genesis 20 choose not to partner it with the Lectionary’s gospel text for the day, John 2:13-22, they may want to refer to it as an example of how we see God in Jesus Christ. There, after all, Jesus makes it clear that God’s house that is Jerusalem’s temple is the symbol of God’s presence among God’s people rather than a marketplace. Jesus’ actions show that just as God tolerates no rivals for God’s people’s affections, so God refuses to tolerate anything that mars God’s people’s worship of God.
A dentist had extracted EMT Jack Casey’s tooth under general anesthetic when he was a child. The procedure had terrified him. However, a nurse told Jack, “Don’t worry; I’ll be right here beside you no matter what happens.” When he awoke from surgery he found her still standing right next to him.
Nearly twenty years later people called Jack’s ambulance crew to the scene of a terrible accident. Jack crawled inside the flipped pick-up’s cab to pull the driver out of the wreckage.
Since gasoline was dripping all over the place, there was a real danger of fire. The driver kept telling Jack how afraid he was. So Jack told him, “Look, don’t worry. I’m not going to abandon you.”
After Jack had rescued him, the shocked driver told him, “You were an idiot. My truck could have exploded and burned up both of us.” Jack answered that he felt he just couldn’t leave him, just as his nurse had earlier felt she couldn’t leave him.
When we lovingly care for our neighbors, we also imitate God. Jack Casey’s faithfulness gave the accident victim, his ambulance crew and others a glimpse of the God who stays right beside God’s people to the very end of measured time and beyond.
Author: Stan Mast
As I begin this piece, I am thinking about Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Underground Railroad, which follows two escaped slaves, Caesar and Cora, as they journey on a literal underground railroad to the north and freedom. On this Third Sunday of Lent we are a little less than half way on our journey to the cross and freedom in Christ. Because we don’t experience the cruelty of our slavery to sin and Satan as acutely as Cora and Caesar experienced the cruelty of their “massa,” we may not have the same sense of urgency to move closer to Christ and freedom. Indeed, I can imagine a number of your parishioners saying, “Who needs this Lent stuff? I’m a Christian. I know my Bible. I believe the Gospel. I’m saved. Why should I bother with this special time of penitence?”
In a way you might not expect, Psalm 19 can help heighten the importance of Lent. I wrote extensively on this Psalm just a few months ago (see the Sermon Starter for October 8, 2017, on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website), so I’ll just add a few notes here about a Lenten application of Psalm 19. I find that Lenten angle in the progression from natural revelation in verses 1-6 to special revelation in verses 7-11 to penitential prayer in verses 12-14.
I’m well aware that some scholars would argue that the term “natural revelation” should not be applied to the claims of verses 1-6. And others don’t see any progression in the Psalm at all; they see it as two separate Psalms artificially glued together. But I agree with those scholars who see Psalm 19 as a united reflection centered on the concept of “word,” the word “spoken” by nature, the word spoken by Torah, and the word spoken by the Psalmist.
Yes, there is ambiguity in verse 3. Should it be translated “there is no speech or language where their voice is not heard” or “they do not speak, their voice is not heard.” In other words, is verse 3 and this entire first section about the universality of creation’s voice or is it about the inaudibility of that voice to human ears? But that question does not deny that the whole creation speaks of God’s glory, as the theme verse of the first section so clearly proclaims. “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
Whether we use the technical term “natural revelation,” it is clear that the Psalmist sees the glory of God in the magnitude of the universe, contrary to some scientists today who see that very immensity as an argument against the existence of God. To the Psalmist, the testimony of nature is overwhelming, even as it was to Paul in Romans 1. Indeed, said Paul, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature– have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that all humans are without excuse.” Everyone can know God from his revelation of himself in the created order.
But we can’t know God personally if we have only the universe to “read.” It is surely not accidental that in verses 1-6, the Psalmist uses only the word El, the generic Hebrew word for God, and uses it only once. But in verses 7-11, he uses the word Yahweh 7 times. The difference comes from the fact that verses 7-11 are about the glory of God in the Torah, which reveals God in much more intimate and detailed ways.
As all the alternative words for Torah show, Torah here means not just the Ten Commandments, not only all the other rules given to Israel, not even the entire Pentateuch, but the entire revelation of God written in the Old Testament (and, Christians would add, the New). God’s special verbal revelation of himself completes the non-verbal revelation in nature and does what that creation-based revelation cannot do. Verse 7 says it simply. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” Or as II Timothy 3:16, 17 put it many years later, “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the people of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
However, no matter how much revelation we have, no matter how overwhelmed we are by God’s glory in creation, not matter how well we know the Scripture, we are still sinners in need of God’s saving grace. Thus, after singing the glories of revelation in verses 1-11, the Psalmist falls on his knees with words about his own sin in verses 12-14. Revelation calls for response and that response must be repentance and reliance on the grace of the Redeemer.
This is a very important point for our contemporary world. In our efforts to be welcoming and gracious, many of us Christians are close to becoming universalists. All religions are simply humanity’s sincere response to the revelation God has given them. All are equally valid and people are saved by their best efforts to live up to the revelation they have received from God, whether that is the revelation of nature or the revelation of Scripture.
All of that sounds right and fair to our compassionate ears, except that Paul seems to say something very different Romans 3. After dealing with the recipients of both natural and special revelation, he concludes that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” None can be saved by their own efforts to respond to the revelation they have been given. All need grace, the grace that Yahweh alone can give. That grace comes to those who do what the Psalmist does in the last verses of Psalm 19. He prays, with the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
The actual words of his prayer are most instructive for this season of Lent. The Psalmist acknowledges with Jeremiah that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.” So, he prays, “Who can discern his errors?” In a world that sees guilt only as a feeling that must be dealt with therapeutically, the Psalmist knows that it will take the grace of God to help us face our real guilt. This is a central prayer for Lent. We can skate through the season and never really confront the errors of our way. After all, we are Christians. We know our Bible. We believe the Gospel. We’re saved. O Lord, save us from presumption and show us our sins.
And, forgive them, even, maybe especially the hidden ones. Does that mean the ones I hide from others, the ones that live in the darkness of secrecy, like trolls in the basement? Those sins are especially difficult to root out, because we don’t want to being them into the light of repentance. Even more difficult are the sins that we hide from ourselves, either because we are so intensely ashamed of them or because we simply aren’t aware of them. I’m thinking here of those unintended errors, those unconscious mistakes, those unnoticed sins of omission. Can something be a sin if we didn’t really choose to do it, at least not consciously? That is a good philosophical question. But let’s not allow fine points of philosophy to keep us from asking God to forgive very harmful things we have done or not done, of which we are not aware.
In verse 13 the Psalmist even dares to ask God to forgive “willful sins.” When I read those words, I think of a friend who announced his intention to divorce his wife simply because he was tired of her “bitching.” He said, “I know it is wrong, but I’ll just ask forgiveness later and it will all be fine.” Or I think of all the folks hooked on pornography who hate their addiction and pray for forgiveness and then go back to that website every night. The Old Testament has stern warnings (e.g., Numbers 15:30-31) against “high handed sins,” where people boldly plow ahead with their sins even when they know they are wrong, wrong, wrong.
The Psalmist includes such sins in his prayer. Or does he? Some scholars think the Psalmist is asking God to keep him from “insolent” people who mock his piety. May they not rule over me and sway me from my discipleship. And even if the word means “willful sins,” notice that the Psalmist doesn’t so much ask for forgiveness as he asks God to “keep your servant” from such sins. Don’t even let me go there. That doesn’t mean that God won’t forgive such sins, but it focuses more on prevention than pardon. In sum, verse 13 is a frank acknowledgment that we can deal with our sin only by the grace of God. As one scholar said, “It is not the Law that makes the Psalmist blameless; it’s the Lawgiver.”
Finally, notice what the Psalmist calls the Lawgiver in the last word of the Psalm—“Redeemer.” In asking God to accept his offering of words and thoughts about revelation, the Psalmist ends with a powerful word about redemption. The word “Redeemer” is goel in the Hebrew, which all Bible students know from the story of Ruth where Boaz is her goel.
A goel was the next of kin who had to accept certain responsibilities to take care of a relative. If a piece of land was about to be lost by a member of the family, the goel was responsible to purchase it to keep it in the family. If a relative fell on hard times and sold himself into slavery to pay off his debts, the goel had to purchase his freedom back. If a brother died, the goel was supposed to marry his brother’s wife (Ruth’s story is a version of this one). In Israel’s history, Yahweh was Israel’s goel, who accepted responsibility for Israel and brought them out of slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon. Paul applies the same idea to Jesus in Galatians 4:1-7.
Here at the end of this Psalm about revelation, the Psalmist says in effect, it doesn’t matter how much revelation you have, it doesn’t matter how much you know about God and his will, it doesn’t matter how hard you try to do God’s will in your own way. You are still a sinner who needs to repent. And you need a goel, a Redeemer who is close to you and who has the power to pay what you owe and set you free.
To a church living in a multi-cultural world, the epistolary reading for this Third Sunday of Advent gives a summary commentary on Psalm 19. Often, folks who rely on natural revelation or special revelation don’t see the need for a goel, particularly the suffering Redeemer on whom we focus in this Lenten season. In the face of such a rejection of a Redeemer, says Paul in I Cor. 1:22-24, “We preach Christ crucified.” Here’s the summary of his argument. “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]
I opened with the Underground Railroad, and I’ll close with it, too. As Cora and Caesar ride the railroad ever northward toward freedom, they surface from underground at several stops. At each successive stop, it seems as though the conditions for slaves are better than the ones farther south. But in each case, they are soon bitterly disappointed. People are still racist and cruel, the system is still pitted against their freedom, and the implacable slave catcher, Ridgeway, is still in hot pursuit. The book ends with a turn to the west; maybe there is real freedom on the western frontier. Or maybe not. People are still sinners. The world is still a cruel place. And there are Ridgeways everywhere. Our own best efforts, even when informed by the most inspired revelation, will not set us free. What all of us slaves need is a Redeemer, “for if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Author: Scott Hoezee
Are there any other passages that sum up Lent better than these words from Paul? As I have noted before, this is like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. 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.
(By the way, this sermon starter is substantially the same as one posted on these same verses a year ago when in late-January 2017 these verses were assigned. So if this sounds familiar, you maybe had look at this sermon starter back then!)
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, wear a power tie and take a power nap. 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.”
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 Dale 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!
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]
Many thoughtful writers like Neal Plantinga 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. 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 . . .