March 02, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions
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).
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.
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!
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.
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 some of the most difficult and intricate pieces ever composed for the violin, and he played them with not only the world-class skill that Mr. Bell possesses but he played them 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: Scott Hoezee
Growing up I heard the “Reading of the Law” every single Sunday morning in church. In our Calvinist stripe of the Reformed tradition, this recitation of the Ten Commandments served the dual purpose of at once convicting us of our sin but also of laying out the rule of gratitude for how we should live (Calvin’s “Third Use of the Law”). But to be honest, most Sundays those words just created a general buzzing in my ears.
It got to be like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school or singing the National Anthem before a baseball game: you just did it and got through it. It was rote. It required no thought. Once in a great while some guest preacher would gussy it up, using fresh language for the Ten Commandments, or applying them in some other clever way, and that was surely always enough to make me sit up straight in my pew and pay attention. Otherwise the sheer repetition of it week to week caused few if any to even raise an eyebrow. It surely quickened no one’s pulse to hear Exodus 20:1-17.
“And God spoke all these words . . .” my pastor, Rev. MacLeod, would intone each Sunday. And then we heard “all those words.”
But how very different it was the first time around! At Sinai in the middle of the harsh and terrible wilderness, when God spoke “all those words” on that long ago day narrated for us in Exodus 20 (and yes, Exodus 20 is a narrative and not a set of principles meant to be rarified so as to be suitable for framing) the words and the sound of the words blew the people away. There was, we are told in verse 18, “smoke on the mountain” even as the sound of Yahweh’s majestic voice shook the roots of the mountain and caused the Israelites a kind of terror they had rarely before known.
The people were undone by God’s having spoken all those words. No one slouched in a pew that day. No one heard these words as a familiar buzzing in the ears. And no one—not Moses or Aaron or Joshua or anyone else—needed to gussy up the words to get people’s attention. The words very nearly laid waste to the entire landscape around the mountainside and were as frightening to the ordinary hoi polloi of Israel as if a dangerous tornado were swirling their way.
Of course, it’s relatively easy for us to chalk up this spectacle to merely the sights and sounds of it all. We could imagine, for instance, the good folks at Industrial Light & Magic at Lucasfilm pulling out all the CGI stops to create a special effects masterpiece meant to recreate all the splendor in living color and in 3-D.
But would that really get at the heart of what unhinged the hearts and minds and nervous systems of the Israelites that day? Partly. But only partly. Because the real truth of the matter is that what the people encountered that day was not just a sight-and-sound event that we could try to recreate with THX Surroundsound in a movie theater. What they encountered was raw holiness. What they encountered was the presence of the Creator of heaven and earth entering his creation so as to give out—for the first time in a sustained way—the blueprint for living and flourishing in the cosmos he had set up in the beginning. What happened in Exodus 20 was a collision of the unstained and utterly pure God of the galaxies with a world that had quite badly gone off the rails for the very reasons that would get spelled out in the Law that God spoke “in all those words.”
In other words, what the people encountered—and what blew back not just their hair but their very sensibilities—was God’s vision for life as it should be and could be. The people encountered goodness, holiness, shalom. They encountered in “all those words” a vision so powerful in its beauty, so weighty in its moral splendor, as to render the world around them tawdry, bland, and tragic all at once.
It goes without saying that we don’t quite sense the power of all this when we hear the words read in church these days. It also perhaps goes without saying that neither do we convey such moral grandeur when we use the Ten Commandments as a finger-wagging rebuke when we try to post them in various public places as though just displaying these laws will turn things around in schools or courtrooms.
There is a majesty to the Creator’s intoning the instructions for shalom, a majesty that is simply the sheer heft of holiness—a heft we often fail to appreciate today. In too many places (even in places of worship) we value familiarity, conviviality, and casual latte-sipping atmospheres over a sense of a grand encounter with the God of the galaxies. That may be bad enough but in Lent we can reflect on this from also another angle: a failure to engage fully with who God is and what his vision for shalom is really all about diminishes also the cross of Jesus.
Golgotha properly bowls us over with another form of divine majesty and holiness when we see what even the holy God who blew the Israelites away at Mount Sinai had to do to realize the reality of a world of flourishing and shalom. The cross is God’s answer to the question, “What can make things right again? What can realize God’s vision for this cosmos?”
If we downplay that vision, we downplay what Jesus had to do to realize it. But downplaying all that is most surely not what the Season of Lent is all about.
One of my favorite scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy comes in the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf the wizard had just fallen in the mines of Moria, felled by the terrible Balrog, a fiery and demonic creature of the ancient world that had been attracted to the Fellowship by the powerful Ring of Power that Frodo carried. That had been a spectacle of sheer horror as a creature of intense power and evil undid the great wizard.
But it’s the next scene that I like even better because it has a grandeur to it more powerful than any Balrog. The Fellowship arrives in the great realm of the Elves, Lothlorien. This is a realm ruled by the goddess-like Galadriel, Queen of the Elves, and a figure of significant moral power and (one could very nearly say) righteousness. As Galadriel greets the Fellowship, she looks at each member in turn. When she looks upon Frodo’s Hobbit companion Sam—a figure of sheer moral goodness in Tolkien’s world—Sam is able to smile at her and she at him. They share a bond of goodness.
But when Galadriel’s gaze falls upon the duplicitous Boromir—who has already been sorely tempted to take the Ring away from Frodo by force so as to wield its power for himself and for his people of Gondor—Boromir cannot abide her gaze.
He begins to quake and shiver and must look away. When Galadriel’s goodness meets Boromir’s badness, the guilt and sorrow of the disconnect between who Boromir wishes he could be and who he actually is becomes simply too much for him. You can watch the clip here (the moment with Boromir comes at about the 2:30 mark).
Something of this was going on for the Israelites when God spoke from the mountain, too. It wasn’t just the smoke and the fire and the thunder.
It was the holiness of it all that unmade them.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
C.S. Lewis once called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” So it’s no wonder lyricists have set a number of beautiful interpretations of it, including “The Heavens Declare Your Glory” and “God’s Glory Fills the Heavens,” to music by famous composers such as J.S. Bach and Franz Haydn.
Rolf Jacobson suggests that the psalmist organizes Psalm 19’s glorious hymn of praise around the central theme of “word” or speech.” Verses 1-6 speak of the creation’s “words” of praise to God. The “heavens’” words, however, may be inaudible. While the NIV translates verse 3 to mean, “There is no speech or language where [the skies’] voice is not heard,” it may also mean, “They have no speech, there are no words; no sound is heard from them.”
In any case, the psalmist insists God’s glory is visible in God’s handiwork that is the “heavens” and “skies.” The Reformed confession of faith that is the Belgic Confession makes a similar claim in Article 2 where it insists “the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures … are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity.”
Psalm 19 asserts creation somehow joins the worshiping congregation in praising its Creator and Sustainer. After all, what God creates isn’t itself divine, as parts of the poet as well as our culture insist. Instead, things like the “heavens” and “skies” point to the glory of the One who made them. The praise they offer is as unceasing as the rhythms of day and night. God’s creation praises the Lord on a daily basis throughout the day and night. That praise also extends across the whole world, just as the heavens and skies cover that world.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 19 may want to look for ways to help worshipers explore how to slow down enough to “listen” for that praise in a world that’s often far noisier than its skies. They might also want to ask if those heavens don’t actually make any audible noise, how do they declare God’s glory? Might we think of this a bit like the way we think of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings? After all, when one studies something like “Starry Night,” one can hardly help but notice and perhaps praise Van Gogh’s artistic genius. How much more, then, might God’s handiwork declare its maker’s praise?
Part of God’s handiwork that somehow declares God’s glory is the sun (4b). While some of the psalmist’s contemporaries thought of it as divine, the poet asserts that it’s merely one of God’s creatures. It’s certainly a creature that’s eager to do that for which God created it, giving off light and heat as the earth circles it. In fact, the psalmist compares the sun to a bridegroom who’s straining to leave his parents’ home for his wedding or a racehorse that’s chomping at the bit to start the race. The latter image recalls scenes of thoroughbreds racing in something like the Kentucky Derby, eagerly lunging forward toward the finish line.
Psalm 19’s verses 7-10 signal a noticeable shift. The Hebrew name for God changes from el to Yahweh. What’s more, the verses become poetry with what Jacobson calls “crisp and measured meter.” Most of all, however, they shift our attention from the creation that quietly, if not inaudibly declares God’s praise to Torah that very tangibly declares God’s glory. Verses 7-10’s six phrases have a similar structure. Each lists a synonym for God’s law, plus an adjective, plus a description of that law’s positive impact on those who gratefully observe it.
So a description of the creation’s inaudible words of praise to God morphs into a description of the concrete word of God as we find it in God’s law. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession mirrors that shift. After all, it insists that God “makes himself known to us more openly [than in creation] by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life for his glory and the salvation of his own.” In other words, while God’s creation declares God’s glory, God’s word declares that glory even more plainly.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 19 may want to help people consider how the wider culture thinks about God’s law to which the psalm most specifically refers. Do people think of the commandments, for example, as a killjoy by which God tries to take away all freedom and fun? Do they think of them as a kind of one-ton albatross that tries to drag them down?
Psalm 19’s poet clearly doesn’t think of God’s law that way. One might say he thinks of it as more like an owner’s manual. After all, a car owner might consider that manual to something that restricts his freedom to use the car as he chooses. So he might choose to exercise his freedom by doing something like running the car without putting gasoline in its tank. However, the people who designed and made the car know what’s best for it. So the wise owner is the one who follows the owner’s manual’s instructions by periodically filling the car’s gas tank with gasoline.
Psalm 19’s author uses a number of synonyms for God’s “owners manual for people” that is God’s written revelation. However, no matter which synonym she uses, she always points to the positive benefits of obeying that law. Some of the imagery the poet uses is very vivid. In verse 7, for example, she insists it revives our soul like a cold glass of water revives our drooping bodies and spirits on a hot summer day. In verse 8 she notes that God’s law makes even the simplest people who obey it wiser than members of the Mensa Society who ignore it. And in verse 10 the psalmist insists that God’s law is even more precious than two of God’s creation’s most valuable commodities: sweet honey and valuable gold.
Yet in verse 12 it’s as though while the psalmist knows all of this about God’s glorious creation and law, he recognizes that he has still disobeyed that law. It’s almost as though he recognizes that he has treated God’s valuable law like a worthless piece of junk. After all, knowledge of God’s perfect, trustworthy, right, sure and precious law isn’t enough all by itself to keep God’s sons and daughters faithful. We need God’s gracious forgiveness for sins of which we’re both aware and unaware. We also need the Holy Spirit to equip us to respond to God’s grace with thankful obedience. After all, as Jacobson notes, it’s not the law but the Lawgiver who graciously makes both God’s children and their prayers “pleasing” in God’s sight.
People have always considered gold to be one of the most valuable minerals in the whole world. So the psalmist may have shocked his contemporaries when he insisted that God’s law is “more precious than gold.”
Yet in the last decade alone the price of gold in American dollars has risen about 450%, from about $260.00 to over $1200.00 an ounce. One analyst predicts the price of gold will jump as high as $2200.00. So can God’s people still insist God’s law is “more precious than … much pure gold”?
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions
This is a great text for this third Sunday of Lent because it focuses our attention not on Lenten disciplines (important and helpful though they may be), but on the cross of Christ. That’s what Lent is all about. Indeed, the cross of Christ is what Christianity is all about. That’s not a popular message in this day when the shrinkage of the western church tempts many preachers to make the message of Christianity less offensive by removing or at least decentralizing the cross. Everywhere I hear preachers asking how can we re-imagine the faith so that it is more palatable to a secular age.
Of course, that reshaping of the gospel goes all the way back to Bultmann’s de-mythologizing project. Today even those who reject Bultmann’s way of dealing with modernity are wondering how to make the gospel more attractive to its cultured despisers. Writing to early Christians in the city of Corinth, cosmopolitan folks who may have valued eloquence and style over faith and conviction, Paul has a simple message. Whatever you do, don’t forsake the cross. I did not preach the gospel “with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (I Cor. 1:17)
That leads Paul into this profound section about the centrality of the message of the cross in a world that sincerely believes “Christ crucified” is foolishness. As I reflected on this passage, I kept returning to the concept of the axis mundi. That phrase means the axis of the world, the world’s pillar, the still center on which the world turns. Nearly all of the world’s cultures have an axis mundi, whether it’s a mountain (like Mt. Fuji in Japan or Mt. Kunlun in China or Mt. Zion in Israel) or a man made structure (like the ziggurats of the ancient Middle East or the towers that house financial institutions in the modern world). Here Paul says that the true axis mundi, the genuine fixed point at the center of the world is Mt. Calvary and, more specifically, the cross and the one who died there.
Paul freely acknowledges that “the message of the cross is foolishness,” but only to those who are perishing. In that shocking statement, Paul uses a word that hints at the identity of those who are perishing. “Message” is the Greek word logos, which to the Jews could be a reference to the law or to wisdom, while to the Greeks it was the reason behind the cosmic order. In using that word Paul is acknowledging that message of the cross is an offense to both the religious mind and the reasoned mind. Indeed, both kinds of people see the word of the cross as nothing less than foolishness. And both kinds of people are perishing because of their rejection of the cross.
“But to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Interestingly, Paul doesn’t say that the message of the cross is the wisdom of God (though he will say that later). We might expect that word as a parallel to the word “foolishness.” But Paul chooses “power” here, perhaps as a way of emphasizing that the logos of the cross is not merely good advice to us, telling us what we must do to be saved. Rather, that logos is a message about what God has done. More than that, the cross itself is God’s power at work doing what we cannot do. The message of the cross is not first of all a system of thought or a way of life; it is God’s actual power at work to save those who cannot save themselves, no matter how hard they think or how well they live.
Knowing that this message is hard to believe, Paul quotes Old Testament Scripture in verse 19 to show that God has always functioned this way. Way back in Isaiah 29:14, God was destroying the wisdom of the wise, who thought they knew how to save Israel. God frustrated their most intelligent plans and schemes. Then, spraying the machine gun of his sarcasm over the whole world, Paul spits, “Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the law, whether Old Testament or Roman? Where is the expert in argument?” When all of the intelligentsia “of this age” stands before the wisdom of God, their wisdom is shown to be foolishness.
Does that mean that the entire intellectual enterprise of the human race is worthless? Is Paul claiming that all human attempts to understand the world and prescribe how to live happily and fruitfully are simply useless? Is there nothing we Christians can gain from studying the world’s philosophies and religions? Given the way Paul connected to Greek culture in his sermon to the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17), that seems too negative a stance toward the intellectual efforts of “those who are perishing.”
I like the way Henry Barclay Swete put it way back in 1903. “I plead then, for an attitude on the part of the clergy toward the culture and knowledge of our times which shall be neither indifferent or hostile on the one hand, nor weakly concessive on the other. We are bound to resist all demands for the practical abandonment of any article of the faith…. But we are also bound, as disciples of the Word [does he mean logos?], as ministers of the Light of men, to welcome all fresh truths, physical, historical or of whatever kind, not only as truth, but as making in the end for the victory of the Truth itself.”
I think that what Paul rejects here is the attempt to know God, to approach God, to be reconciled to God from below, from our side, by our own efforts. “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him….” Paul sounds a bit like later philosophers here, like Lessing with his “ugly broad ditch” between then and now and here and there, or like Kant with his radically separate realms of the phenomenal and the noumenal. We simply cannot think or feel or act our way up to God. We cannot know God or relate to God through our own wisdom.
Thus, God in his wisdom invented another way to God. And it wasn’t only his wisdom at work; it was also his love, his sovereign good pleasure. “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” Salvation can be gained not by thinking, not by doing, but only by believing the message of the cross. But it’s not the message itself that saves. It was the event itself, the actual crucifixion of Christ; it is the person himself, the Christ who was crucified.
Paul underlines the centrality of Christ crucified in a very clever way by talking about those who think the message of the cross is foolishness; the Greek for foolishness is morian, moronic. On the one hand, there are the Jews, who represent all the people in the world today who simply want “the facts, nothing but the facts.” Show us the evidence. We want to see actual miracles, signs that will prove to us that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah promised for ages. The idea of a suffering Messiah or, worse, a Messiah that died on a Roman cross under the curse of God, is not merely nonsense; it is blasphemous. A crucified Messiah was a skandalon, a stumbling block for everyone who thinks that if God is going to save the world, he will do it through his almighty power.
On the other hand, there are the Greeks, who represent all the people in the world who don’t care about “the facts,” about alleged historical evidence of the truth of Christ crucified. Paul is talking about people for whom the message of Christ crucified just doesn’t make any sense. The idea of a crucified God simply doesn’t fit into the mindset of those whose gods fight and fornicate on Mt. Olympus or who have no gods at all. The Renaissance mindset (“Man is the measure of things”) has no room for a God who becomes human and dies for humanity. The whole idea is simply foolish superstition.
Paul knows those people, just as we do. What is his approach to them? How will he preach about Jesus to those who demand evidence of God’s power and to those who are governed by the prevailing wisdom of the day? He preached Christ crucified, even though he knew that this message was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. He didn’t change his message to fit his audience, precisely because Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Do you want to see the power of God saving the world? Look at the cross. Do you want to see the wisdom of God saving the world? Look at the cross. There was no other way the power of God could save us from sin without destroying us sinners. The cross of Christ was the only way that made sense given the nature of God and humanity and the world.
I know that won’t satisfy the demands of the Jews and the Greeks of the world, says Paul. So let me just say this one last thing about the power and the wisdom that matter so much to proud men and women: “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” Paul is not admitting that God is ever foolish or weak. He’s saying that if God could be foolish and weak, the most foolish and weak thing God could ever do would dwarf the most intelligent and awesome thing humans could ever do. More than that, he is asserting once again that what the world sees as the foolishness and weakness of the crucified Christ is wiser and stronger than anything the human race could ever achieve. The cross is the axis mundi for everyone.
I love the way Kierkegaard put it. “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd.” That sounds like a denigration of the faith, but that’s not how he meant it. Here’s his intention. “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it will be altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable of neither inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.”
It was Protagoras, a pre-Socratic philosopher, who first said, “Man is the measure of things,” or something like that. What he meant is that individual humans, rather than a god or an unchanging moral law, are the ultimate source of value, truth, and meaning. That idea became central to the Renaissance that shaped the mind of the modern world. In his book, DaVinci’s Ghost, Toby Lester examines DaVinci’s famous drawing, “Vitruvian Man.” You know the drawing, the naked man with outstretched arms and spread eagled legs, whose appendages form the radius of a circle within a square. Lester points out that the circle represented the cosmic and divine and the square represented the earthly and the secular. That was DaVinci’s graphic way of depicting that man is literally the measure of things. Man’s proportions are exactly that of the circle and the square, of heaven and earth, of the divine and the profane. Each human is a microcosm of the universe. Thus, in the Renaissance human thinking and power were the measure of all things, the limits of what was possible.
Lester writes that DaVinci’s drawing captured “the intoxicating, ephemeral moment when art, science and philosophy all seemed to be merging, and when it seemed possible that, with their help, the individual human mind might actually be able to comprehend and depict the nature of… everything.” Man is the axis mundi. It’s a mindset even older than the Greeks and even more creative than the Italian genius. It goes all the way back to a garden when a very creative lie destroyed the peace of paradise. Eat of that tree over there and “you will be like God knowing good and evil.”
Thank God for another tree where God restored the peace by doing something that looked foolish and weak to humans who think they are the measure of things. God hanging on that tree is the true axis mundi. Christ is the measure of things.