Sunday, January 30, 2011

January 30 - The Wisdom of the Cross

Living Water Community Church - Sunday Morning Worship 
1 Cor 1.18-31 - “The Wisdom of the Cross” 

 In today’s passage, 1 Cor 1.18-31, Paul tells the Corinthian saints that God saves us 
through the foolishness and the weakness of a Messiah who is executed on a cross in order that 
we, the ones who are being saved, will hear the emptiness of all the claims of power and 
privilege that distract us from the hard work of love. Paul says, “God chose the lowly things of 
the world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so 
that no one may boast before him.” That’s the theme of today’s passage. 
 In sixth grade I was in the Montana Middle School Science Fair. I was really proud of my 
project. I seriously expected to get first place. But here’s the dirty little secret--my dad had 
actually done most the work on the project. He came up with the idea; he led me step by step 
through the experiments; he showed me how to organize the data. I put in some time on the 
project, but, in reality, if my presentation board won the gold ribbon, my dad would be the one 
who should put it up on his wall, not me. As things turned out, my science project had plenty of 
holes in it (I was never too good at following my dad’s instructions step-by-step), and the judges 
rated me quite low. 

 Now, I want you to picture my awkward sixth grade self pompously bragging about my 
science fair project to all my science fair friends. It’s pretty ridiculous, right? First, I was 
bragging about work that I hadn’t done, work that my father, not I, had done. Second, my project 
wasn’t even any good. I was bragging about a project that really wasn’t worth all that much. 

 Paul accuses the saints in Corinth of bragging like misguided sixth graders. Last week 
Kristin told us about the division that plagued the saints in Corinth. No unity in their church. 
Instead there were factions, each claiming for itself one of the early teachers to pass through their 
community--Paul, Apollos, Peter, or some, those really “spiritual” ones, claimed to follow no one 
but Jesus. In the passage that we’re studying this week, Paul confronts the empty, deceitful ways 
of thinking that motivate such factions, such divisions. He exposes them to the tragic and 
glorious light of the Messiah executed on a cross, and he directs the saints to stop seeking 
human honors and to seek the God who saves and redeems them. Paul’s words speak to us today 
also. He calls us to change our hearts and to change our actions. So open your Bible, if you 
have one with you, to 1 Cor 1.18, or follow along on the text projected on the wall. 

 While you find 1 Cor 1.18, I want to refresh your memory of what Paul says just before 
our passage. First Corinthians is a letter, so we need to read it like a letter. Each paragraph flows 
out of and carries forward what the previous paragraph says. 

 First Corinthians 1.18 flows out of and carries forward the conversation Paul begins in 1 
Cor 1.10. Paul announces that he’s heard the shocking news that the Corinthain saints aren’t 
loving one another; instead, they’re quarreling with one another, feeding rivalry and fostering 
division. In vv 12 and 13, Paul exclaims, “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow 
Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul 
crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” Paul is appalled at these divisions-- 
they run absolutely contrary to the preferential love for one another that Jesus taught his 
followers to show. He sums up his disgust with these divisions in v 17: “Christ did not send me 
to baptize”--Christ did not send Paul to build the cult of Paul--“but to preach the gospel--not 
with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
 Here is where v 18 picks up. If you have a Bible, put your finger on the page and follow 
along as I read v 18: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, 
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The message of the cross is foolishness. 
The message of the cross is the power of God. 

 Where you stand can really change how you see some things. I used to hate the city. I 
grew up in the mountains in Montana. My parents moved there to get away from the city. Cities, 
I heard, were sites of violence, drug abuse, poverty, racial conflict, and corruption. Cities were 
things to flee. But things change--I changed. I moved. I used to live in Montana, but later I lived 
in the cities of Skopje, Macedonia, and Chicago. And moving to these different places changed 
the way I saw the city. Is the city a site of violence, substance abuse, poverty, racialized injustice, 
corruption, heartbreak, all things falling apart? On most days, yes. But now I see this place where 
we live as a mission on which God has sent us. Since I’ve moved, I’ve also begun to see the 
beauty, the glimpses of the kingdom in our neighborhood, the grass pushing up through concrete. 

 In v 18, Paul tells us that the cross is like that. Where one stands in regard to the cross 
affects deeply the way in which you see the cross--and not only the cross, but as Paul goes on to 
make clear, everything. To most people, nothing could be more absurd than a crucified savior. 
But to those of us who see Jesus’ obedient death on a cross as the door to salvation, God’s power 
is nowhere more present. Those who do not walk through that door, who remain in bondage to 
sin and death, know our crucified messiah as a failure. But those of us who are following Jesus to 
freedom discover that those who mourn really are comforted, those who righteously suffer do 
receive God’s kingdom. 

 When we’re standing--no, better--when we’re following Jesus in the way of the cross, it 
changes how we see everything. It’s like moving to the city, or moving out of your parents’ 
house, or, I’m told, like having your first child. From this new location, this new path, everything 
looks different. 

 This change of perspective is what Paul emphasizes in vv 19 and 20 by citing a bit of the 
Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Paul quotes, “For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the 
wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ He continues, “Where is the wise sage? 
Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish 
the wisdom of the world?” 

 I was surprised when I looked up the passage Paul quotes from Isaiah. It’s Isaiah 29.14. It 
falls near the end of a prophecy about Yahweh’s impending judgment on Jerusalem and just 
before the beginning of a prophecy of Yahweh’s later restoration of the city. Isaiah shouts out 
Yahweh’s message: “Once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the 
wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” What is the 
astounding thing that Isaiah promises Yahweh will do? Is it judgment? Is it restoration? The 
prophecy isn’t quite clear. It leaves us wondering. 

 There’s also something in the message about the cross that should leave us feeling this 
way--ambiguous, a bit uneasy, a bit off balance, at least at first. You see, this world--this age, this 
culture--it has its own wisdom. From its perspective, there are things that are worthwhile, 
valuable, effective, and there are things that are not. Ask any of the teenagers sitting in the room; 
they’ll tell you. Some things are cool, and some things are not. Don’t ask why. Don’t try to figure 
it out. It’s just the way it is. 

 To be honest, as a junior higher and a high schooler, I was always quite concerned about 
what was cool, about what I’d have to do be one of the popular kids. In junior high, I spent hours 
fiddling with my hair in front of the mirror. I paid close attention to what brands the other kids 
were wearing. I wanted to fit in. Though I didn’t have a name for it at the time, what I was doing 
was trying to press myself into the world’s wisdom. I was trying to become what the world 
wanted, what it valued, what it thought acceptable, worthwhile, sensible, cool. 

 Some time in high school, everything changed for me. Something wonderful, something 
astounding happened to me, and, all of a sudden, what all my peers at Belgrade High thought 
was cool and what was not didn’t matter to ne anymore. What happened to me? What changed 
the way I saw things? The summer after my freshman year, I discovered through two youth 
group trips and many conversations with my youth pastor that Christianity is not just about 
who’s in and who’s out--that’s it’s not just about buying in on a deal with God to get my soul to 
heaven. I learned and came to believe that Christianity is about following Jesus on the mission 
that led him to the cross. Once I started walking on the missionary path of the cross, I began to 
see that I had been chasing after lies, mirages, misleading appearances up until that point. The 
cross changes everything. 

 Jesus’ cross is wonderful, astounding. It’s something that we would never predict. Why 
would God choose to redeem the world this way? It’s not efficient, it’s not sensible, it certainly 
isn’t cool. Is it judgment? Is it restoration? Theologians have argued in circles over what to make 
of the cross. All we do know is that it is beautiful, beautiful and scandalous, and it sets us free. 

 Paul knew that the glorious beauty of Jesus’ cross--of a crucified messiah--is offensive to 
the sensibilities of most people. Look at what he says in vv 21 through 23: “For since in the 
wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased through the 
foolishness of the message we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and 
Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach a crucified messiah: a stumbling block to Jews and 
foolishness to Gentiles.” The world is looking for a savior in its own image. The Jews in the first 
century were looking for someone to deliver them from Roman oppression. We today look for 
experts to give us the information we need, technology to solve the problems we can’t, witty 
people to entertain us, celebrities to inject our lives with a sense of significance. Maybe we’re 
waiting on better, more just government programs. Maybe we’re waiting for education to give us 
the competitive edge in a tough job market. 

 But Jesus comes to us and says, “Blessed are you poor. Blessed are you when you’re 
mourning. Blessed are you when you’re treated unfairly. Blessed are you when you’re laid off. 
Blessed are you when your kids tell you they’re hungry and you’re not sure what you’ll feed 
them. Blessed are you when your plans are frustrated. Blessed are you when you feel all alone. 
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against 
you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same 
way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” To the world, Jesus makes no sense. It’s 
ridiculous to call the cross and the cruciform way of life that led Jesus to it “blessed”--at least 
from the world’s perspective. 

 But then Paul finishes his idea in vv 24 and 25: “But to those whom God has called, both 
Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God 
is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Praise 
God, because God turns everything around. If the cross is true--if Jesus’ execution is in fact the 
way that God is fixing the world--then it is the world, not the cross, that doesn’t make sense. 
Popularity, efficiency, a sense of what is fair and fitting--Jesus’ cross invalidates all of these and 
redefines all of these. 

 At the end of the Beatitudes, Jesus explains his upside-down blessings by referring to the 
prophets. He says, “for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” At 
the beginning of this sermon, I said that Paul’s message about the wisdom of the cross asks us to 
change our hearts, to change our deepest values and expectations. If the cross--if a crucified 
messiah--is wise and powerful and beautiful, we must train our hearts to love the cross and to 
love the cross-shaped presence of God in our lives. What I mean is this: As Jesus states plainly, 
God’s way in the world is and has always been a way of weakness, of foolishness, of 
persecution. Pharaoh scoffed at Moses, the Israelites stoned the prophets, and Jesus was put to 
death on a two pieces of wood. Jesus leads us to this same God. This is the God whose Spirit fills 
us. And this is the God, the God of the persecuted and the oppressed, the God of weakness and 
foolishness, that we must love. 

 Retraining our hearts, reshaping our desires and expectations, is deep-down kind of work. 
We’re pressing right up against the boundary where what we have words for fades off into where 
our language dissolves into realities too deep for words. But if we continue to listen to Paul’s 
letter, he makes clear and concrete what now sounds murky and abstract. Listen to vv 26 through 
29: “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were 
wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were born into privilege. But God 
chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world 
to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things--and the 
things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” 
 This is where Paul gets personal. He says to the Corinthians, “You want proof that God 
works through weakness? I’ll give you proof. Look around you. Look in the mirror.” Paul comes 
awfully close to insulting the saints in Corinth to press home the critical point that God saves us 
through the weakness and foolishness of Jesus’ cross.

 Look at us! Are we celebrities? Are we wealthy? Are we the envy of our neighbors? If we 
think we are, listen to Paul’s words later in chapter 3, verse 18: “If any of you think you are wise 
by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you maybe become wise. For the 
wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” We are foolish, we are weak, we are the 
lowly, we are those who the world counts as nothing. Our bank accounts, they mean nothing. Our 
college degrees, they mean nothing. Our well-decorated homes, they mean nothing. Our witty 
Facebook conversations, they mean nothing. Our reputations, they mean nothing. Paul says it in 
Philippians and we sing it on Sunday: “All I once held dear, built my life upon, all this world 
reveres and wars to own, all I once thought gain I have counted loss, spent and worthless now 
compared to knowing you . . . To know you in your suffering, to become like you in your 
death . . . so with you to live and never die.” 

 These words sounded harsh to the church at Corinth, to all those saints quarreling over 
who was the best teacher. They chose to identify themselves with Paul or Apollos or Cephas in 
order to claim some of the honor associated with that particular person. They wanted to be in the 
privileged group of their teacher’s star pupils. They wanted first shot at the gold star stickers. But 
Paul’s words are a slap in the face to this kind of thinking. It’s like Paul puts a hand on the 
shoulder of my sixth grade self and says, “No matter how long you fiddle with your hair, you’re 
still not going to be popular. And this is okay; popularity isn’t the race God’s set before you.” 
The saints at Corinth are running as hard as they can in the wrong race. Privilege is not the prize 
Jesus sets before us. 

 Paul concludes his meditation on the wisdom of the cross by pointing to what our heart 
should be set on. He says, “It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for 
us wisdom, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in 
the Lord.’” Paul tells the saints to take pride in the God who works powerfully through 
weakness. He tells them to give up the race for privilege, power, and prestige. Instead they are to 
receive all of their wisdom, their holiness, their redemption--in short, whatever is of worth in 
their lives--as a gift which God gives to those who are weak. Let the one who boasts boast in the 

 This sort of change of heart will change the way we act. We are called by a God who does 
not respect the powerful, the clever, the wise, but instead chooses to work resurrection with 
lowly, normal people like you and me. The work this God calls us to is not a job for celebrities. 
There’s no glamor, no respect in the mission that Jesus leads us in. It’s a way of self-sacrifice, 
caring for those who don’t care back. It’s a way of vulnerability. We must boldly do what seems 
truly foolish: to set aside our own concerns and busy ourselves with what’s in the interest of 
others. We must boldly follow Jesus into situations that make no sense, situations where only 
God can work things out. We must follow Jesus in the way of love. 

 I was sitting around a dining hall table with some of the students at the winter youth 
retreat last week. We were talking about God’s desires. I was waxing eloquent about how God 
wants each of us to follow the path that Jesus walked. One of the teens interrupted me with a 
concerned question: “Josh, don’t you know where Jesus ended up? He was killed on a cross.” 
Jesus, our crucified messiah, leads us in the way of love, and the way of love is the way of the 

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