Here’s Your Sign
(1 Corinthians 1: 18-25)
Easter and the weeks running up to it are perplexing to many people as it appears that we Christians are celebrating death. Birthdays are easy to celebrate. You celebrate them with parties, presents, funny cards, and cakes. How do you celebrate death? Unless you’re Ukrainian and from the old country it’s hard. After the funeral and burial, we used to have some jim-dandy celebrations at the St. Louis Club in Syracuse complete with a meal, music, dancing and plenty of alcohol. Somebody would eventually remark that the recently departed would have really enjoyed the party. Death confounds people. The Jews and Greeks two thousand years ago were confounded by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we celebrate each Easter which continues to confound people even today in our own age of enlightenment.
The Apostle Paul had heard about the turmoil that was being experienced by the Christian Church in Corinth. There was a lot of infighting, side-taking and finger-pointing. The city of Corinth itself presented a very unhealthy environment for a struggling church to operate and survive. On the one hand it was the perfect mission field but on the other hand there was a lot of opposition and varying interests competing for the hearts and minds of the people. I’m sure they faced many pointed questions and criticisms over worshiping a dead man, one who proclaimed to be a king yet was unceremoniously killed by the ruling authorities.
In our scripture for today, Paul addresses the issue of human wisdom versus the message of the cross. He says that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. He’s talking about people who are foolishly pursuing their happiness in earthly pleasures. Their lifestyle is slowly killing them. Their lives are empty and hollow, devoid of any meaning or purpose. To them, the message of the cross is the last thing they want to hear, especially if it means giving up all they have to follow a savior who couldn’t even save himself. Paul says the message of the cross is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. Paul quotes Isaiah 29: 14 to them which says, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. Paul asks, where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. What I believe Paul is saying is that during the time of Jesus’ ministry his teachings were called into question by the wise, the legal experts examined the teachings of Jesus for inconsistencies and the debaters who challenged Jesus have moved on to other issues to engage their minds. God, Paul said, was pleased to save those who heard the preaching and teaching of Jesus and believed. They heard what Jesus had to say and didn’t feel threatened by it. It was those who felt threatened by what Jesus was saying that felt compelled to do all within their power to discredit him and his ministry. God’s way of thinking is not like the world’s way. God offers eternal life, which the world can never give, which confounds those who work so hard to obtain it by other means. What good it is to spend a lifetime accumulating human wisdom and yet never learn how to have a personal relationship with God?
Coming to the crucified and risen Christ to receive eternal life and the joy of a personal relationship with Jesus, the Savior of the world, just didn’t make sense. It couldn’t possibly be that easy. There had to be a catch. Paul points out that the Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.
Many Jews considered the Good News of Jesus Christ to be foolish, because they thought the Messiah would be a conquering king accompanied by signs and miracles. Jesus had not restored David’s throne as they expected. Besides, he was executed as a criminal, and how could a criminal be a savior? Quite frankly, Jesus was a threat to their status quo. As bad as conditions were in Israel, the religious leaders insured that their lives would be tolerable, even if it meant misery to the people at the hands of their Roman occupiers. They wanted signs, yet they refused to acknowledge the signs they witnessed that had been supported by what the prophets foretold. Not just one sign, but many. Try as they may to discredit Jesus they couldn’t prove he wasn’t who he said he was, the Son of Man. What a relief it must have been when Jesus died the death of a common criminal. I think it is important here to point out that not all the Pharisees doubted what Jesus was saying. Some did think there might be something to this Jesus as he seemed to have all the right answers and preached with an uncommon authority the likes of which they had never encountered. John’s Gospel mentions a Pharisee named Nicodemus who came to see Jesus at night to ask him questions. Nicodemus had been part of the discussions and debates regarding this Jesus problem. When he approached Jesus he said, we know you are a teacher come from God as you couldn’t do these miracles if God were not with you. Notice Nicodemus said “we” which signified an acknowledgement on the part of the Pharisees that Jesus had more than a casual connection to God. Jesus revealed the Good News to Nicodemus and explained what it meant to be born anew. Apparently, this meeting with Jesus resonated with Nicodemus because, later when the religious leaders attempted to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up in his defense. Not only that, after Jesus was taken down from the cross it was Nicodemus who accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to claim Jesus’ body and prepare it for burial.
The Greeks also considered the gospel foolish as they did not believe in a bodily resurrection. They did not see in Jesus the powerful characteristics of their mythological gods. They thought no reputable person would allow themselves to be crucified. To them, death was defeat, not victory. Their Gods didn’t suffer such a humiliating end.
Paul points out that to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This, he says, is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
The Good News of Jesus Christ still sounds foolish to many. Our society worships power, influence, and wealth. Jesus came as a humble, poor servant, and he offers his kingdom to those who have faith, not to those who do all kinds of good deeds to try to earn his gifts. He certainly wouldn’t make it in one of those reality shows. He’d be the first to go. His reality is not their reality. The message of Christ’s death for sins sounds foolish to those who don’t believe. Death seems to be the end of the road, the ultimate weakness. But Jesus did not stay dead. His resurrection demonstrated his power even over death. And he will save us from eternal death and give us everlasting life if we trust him as Savior and Lord. This sounds so simple that many people won’t accept it. They try other ways to obtain eternal life, but all their attempts will be in vain. The “foolish” people who simply accept Christ’s offer are actually the wisest of all, because they alone will live eternally with God.
Please pray with me.
How grateful we are for the Good News of Jesus Christ and the message of the cross that Christ died for our sins so we could live in eternity with him. How thankful we are that we have been set free from the grip of sin and guilt and that we are free to choose to worship a humble and poor servant who offers us a place in his kingdom just because of our faith. O how we love Jesus because he first loved us. Help us, by the lives we live, to be a sign to others of what it means to live a life free from the shame of pursuing the earthly pleasures of this world, a life filled with joy, grace, mercy and love. In the name of Jesus Christ, who died to set us free, we pray, Amen.