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Foolishness and Wisdom 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
01/30/11

Micah 6:1-8
1 Corinthians 1:18-31



According to the Jewish historian Josephus, he was not attractive – he describes Paul in one sentence as "bald-headed, hook-nosed and bowlegged." He was not as effective a public speaker as many others, by his own admission. He was not a man of great wealth or one who ever wielded much political power or influence, though he was a citizen of Rome. His expressed goal of taking the Gospel to Spain, to the ends of the known world, his dream, he never got to accomplish. And in his own lifetime, I am fairly sure he ever knew a fraction of his lasting impact. But Paul turned out to be one of the most influential human beings over the course of human history that ever lived. Through his travels, and especially through his preaching, he left an imprint upon key cities across the Mediterranean world. But his lasting impact upon the world is felt through his letters that he wrote to early churches and individual Christians, about whom he cared passionately.

Many of these letters have become for the Church over time Holy Scripture, though Paul surely had no idea in his own lifetime that this would be so. Yet through these letters the power and passion of the man can be felt, and his ideas and ways of thinking have helped to make Christianity the largest, most widespread religion in the world, and still the world's fastest growing faith.

I am not sure anyone can adequately explain why Paul became one of the most important and influential human beings ever to walk the planet, but I am willing to wager that one reason was his passion and commitment to what he believed about Jesus Christ, and especially what Paul believed about the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection. Paul never wrote much at all about Jesus' life, he never mentions at all His birth, except to say that Jesus came "in the fullness of time." Paul never wrote anything from a parable or a sermon of Jesus' in any of his letters, though presumably he had learned much about Jesus in the years following his Damascus Road encounter with the Risen Christ. But what Paul did do was travel throughout the Roman Empire making the case for Christ, first always in his own people's synagogues, and then to Gentiles as well. Paul created a hearing for the followers of Jesus Christ, and then through his letters literally shaped the faith of the Church.

Today's text is vintage Paul, written to the divided, quarreling Christians in Corinth: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God." That is how important Paul thought the cross of Jesus, His death and resurrection, were. Paul thought it literally divided the world. It would turn out, of course, that the death of Jesus would literally divide the way we mark and measure time, though now we try to downplay this fact in an age when we are embarrassed by the sweeping claims of Christian faith. But Paul thought the whole world was marked by the cross of Jesus – "those who were perishing" thought it was "foolishness," but to those who believed as Paul did, "those who were being saved," it was "the power of God."

Paul could not have been more perfectly prepared to carry on his life's mission to change the world for the Gospel. First, as a Roman citizen he was free to travel and ultimately, he was a citizen allowed to plead his case before the highest courts of the Roman Empire. But more importantly, he was born a Jew in modern-day Turkey, sharing the same faith with Jesus. More to the point, he was trained a Pharisee, a student who was schooled in Torah, the Law of Israel. Just as crucially, Paul was educated as a Greek. He spoke their language, read their poets, grew up living and learning in a Greek culture.

As such, Paul understood his audience. This is why he was able to observe: "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…." If you are ever going to make your case about any idea you care about, you have to understand the objections your audience is going to have to your ideas. Paul understood. He knew that Jews demand signs if you are trying to make the case for God. Remember how Moses was given by God a series of miraculous signs to convince the people that Yahweh was with him? That is what the Jewish people of Paul's day were apt to demand: miracles or mighty acts that point to God.

That is why the Gospel of Christ crucified was a stumbling block to them. The word in Greek is "skandalon" – we get the word "scandal" from it. It is something that offends or repulses or elicits opposition. Paul knew that many faithful Jews would be offended by the notion that Yahweh, the Almighty, the Creator God, the transcendent One, would become a human being. And they were even more offended that this God-man would be crucified, killed as common criminals were shamefully, publically killed in Rome to maintain order, to keep the so-called "Pax Romana."

Paul also understood that his singular message of the cross as the most important action God ever took would be seen as foolishness to the Greeks. The Greek word is "moria," and we get "moron" from it. It was foolishness because every Greek knew there was not just one God, but a whole Pantheon of gods from which to choose. And their gods lived on Mount Olympus, high above the fray, where they imparted wisdom and divine favor. They surely did not die on a cross atop a garbage heap in a far off place like Jerusalem! 

A few years ago I did a wedding at Brookgreen Gardens in the low country of South Carolina. It was an exquisite setting, a beautiful night, a stunning bride, a packed open courtyard. And suddenly, I realized that I was standing with the bride and groom right before a fountain with a giant statue of Diana, or Artemis, the goddess of hunting, rising out of it. It was too tempting an invitation to pass up the opportunity to talk to this young couple about what it means to worship and serve the one God in a Christian marriage!

Paul walked by two dozen altars and temples and shrines on his first trip to Corinth to tell of this one God. So Paul knew such a message of the cross would be utter foolishness to Greeks, a stumbling block to Jews, unless – unless you suddenly recognize that all of it was done for you, that Jesus died on the cross for you.

Then the cross is suddenly changed. No matter who you are, when you see the cross, God's great love for the world, when you experience that forgiving love as something real and something personal – that God did it all for you – suddenly the cross is seen for what it really is – "the power of God and the wisdom of God." Is that something you know? Do you know that Christ died for you? This is the heart of the Gospel.

And it was what led Paul to say, "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters...." To know that Christ died for you is also to hear God's call and claim upon your life. Paul knew that many in the Corinthian church understood this. They believed it. Yet it is apparent that in spite of this great fact, that some members of the Corinthian church were boasting, as if all that they had and were did not come completely because of God. "He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus...," Paul had to remind them.

Boasting and human pride can be so destructive of communities anywhere, but especially in the Church, where it is only by God's grace that we are even part of it. "Talent is God-given," said Charles Spurgeon, "so be thankful. Conceit is self-given, so be careful." C.S. Lewis said, "A proud person is always looking down on others; and of course, as long as you're looking down, you cannot see something that is above you."

The cross ought to do many things to us, but surely it should humble us and empty us of any shred of pride. I love Charles Colson's word on boasting. He said, "It is ludicrous for any Christian to believe that he or she is the worthy object of praise; it would be like the donkey carrying Jesus into Jerusalem believing the crowds were cheering and waving their palms for him." There is too much donkey in too many of us!

So let's keep our eyes where Paul kept his: On the cross of Jesus Christ, "the power of God and the wisdom of God."

AMEN.
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