Wisdom and foolishness, power and weakness, these four words, and the way we understand these words and how they relate to God’s saving work through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, is at the heart of our reading from 1 Corinthians today. So let’s dig a little deeper.
Verse 18, in the Greek, says something this: To the ones who are still in the process of dying, the message of the cross is senseless, but to those who are in the process of being saved, it is the power of God. The word translated as foolishness in the translation we read today comes from the root word from which we get our English word, moronic. It means something more like, just plain silly. And, really, what could be sillier than a God who, after becoming one of his own creatures, allows those creatures to put him to death? I mean, what kind of God is that?…
We humans, down through the ages, have created lots of gods in lots of images, and one thing that holds true, nearly across the board, is that the gods of our making are made in our image – maybe not literally, I mean they may not appear in human form, but in a deeper sense they are made in our image in that they reflect our innate and fallen propensity toward vengeance and violence, and toward calling such vengeful violent acts: a seeking after justice. Think about it. How many times have you heard it, or even thought it yourself when faced with some horrific act or some violent crime, how many times have you watched some news report and heard a victim or a victim’s family member say something like: “I just want justice.”, when what they really mean is something more like: “I just want to see that person suffer as much as possible, for having caused such suffering in my life and the lives of others?”
And I get it. I do. I think if someone were to hurt my daughter, or my wife, if someone were to do them harm, I’d probably be right there myself. But doing violence isn’t the same as doing justice. And the message of the cross, if it allowed for retribution and vengeance, wouldn’t be the foolish thing that it is. It’s precisely because we have made a god in our own image, rather than accepting God for who God is revealed to be in Jesus, and especially who God is revealed to be through Jesus on the cross, that we miss the point and fail to see the cross for the foolish, absurd, utterly silly thing that it is!
In the cross of Jesus we’re left with no choice other than to offer complete and utter mercy in response to those who do us harm. And in this utter and complete mercy we begin to see the power of the cross…
Paul goes on from here, in verse 19, quoting a bit of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 29. Here’s a bigger section of that text.
I will again do amazing things with this people,
shocking and amazing.
The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.
15Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the LORD,
whose deeds are in the dark,
and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
16You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?
God knows the games we play, making gods in our own image, regarding the potter as the clay, regarding the creator as a thing of our own creating. We call this sort of self-aggrandizement wisdom. We call it power. But God sees it for the foolishness that it is, and calls us on it! God promises to destroy the wisdom of those who consider themselves wise, and to set aside that which we call understanding.
We place a very high premium on being right, don’t we? I mean, who doesn’t want to be right? Who doesn’t place a high value on understanding? Who would argue that wisdom is a bad thing? And yet that which we call wisdom is often nothing more than a chasing after knowledge that puffs one up, and makes one feel superior to another. But such supposed wisdom is antithetical to the Gospel of the crucified Christ. The wisdom of the world says:
- Bigger is better
- More is better
- Get as much as you can while you can, and hold on to as much of it as you can as tightly as you can as insurance against the possibilities of troubles that just might come in the unknown future that lies ahead.
While the message of the cross says:
- Lay down your life if you want to find it
- Take up your cross and die to self and then you’ll experience true life
- The power of God almighty is most profoundly revealed and encountered in the form of Jesus hanging dead on a Roman cross
And so, to the mind of the bigger is better world, this message of the cross is moronic, silly, absurd, foolish…
Now, let’s jump for a moment to our Gospel text from John 2 – the cleansing of the Temple.
After Jesus clears the Temple, challenging the moneychangers who were getting rich on the backs of the faithful, the Temple authorities demand a sign from him – some proof that he has the authority to act in this way, and Jesus responds: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Only, the authorities don’t understand what he’s saying. They think he’s talking about Herod’s Temple which had been under construction for decades at that point. So they ask: “How are you going to raise up in three days what’s taken 46 years to build?” And then John says that Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body. Jesus was on his way to the cross right from the start. This is only chapter 2 of John’s Gospel and Jesus is already on his way to the cross. Death –
The tearing down of the temple of his body – and resurrection – the rebuilding of that body in three days – were the very reason for his incarnation in the first place.
Sin and death are defeated once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in this we find the true power of God. Oh, but it doesn’t look like power, does it? Not to our eyes, and not to our minds, it doesn’t. We want a God who is strong, almighty, omniscient, immutable, impassionate, unchanging. But what we get is Jesus. What we get is not a god made in our image. What we get is Jesus who, not being strong and almighty, becomes truly human, in all things except sin, suffers human weakness and who cannot do all things. We get Jesus who, not being omniscient, does not know all things, who grows and learns and develops like any other human being. We get Jesus, who not being immutable, impassionate and unchanging, goes through the passion, dies a real human death, and who is raised from the dead on the third day, so changed that his closest friends don’t even recognize him.
And there it is: the power of the Gospel, the power of our message, the power of God found in what the world can only see as weakness and foolishness. But God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Jews demand signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but the power and wisdom of God is found in the cross, found in a God that doesn’t look at all like the gods of our making. The power and wisdom of God is found in the crucified Christ, hanging dead on a Roman cross, and in the lives of those who are joined to his dying and rising in the waters of Holy Baptism who go out into the world proclaiming the foolish message of God’s saving love in Christ Jesus our Lord.