From the Shallows to the Depths

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

The video of this service can be seen here. The sermon begins at the 32:50 mark.

We’ve been looking at the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. Two weeks ago we learned about God’s foolishness for choosing the cross as a means of redemption. Last week we learned about God’s foolishness for choosing nobodies to be part of the church. So today we finally open chapter two explaining that Paul’s messages have reflected this foolishness of God: To foolish people, Paul has preached nothing but the foolishness of the cross.

But of course this is what he says. Isn’t all preaching the same? Isn’t it the task laid upon all preachers to preach the foolishness of the cross, to let go of themselves and be guided only by the Spirit?

As most of you know by now, I come from Appalachia. Yes, I come from a city, but it’s still Eastern Kentucky. And though I grew up in a church with worship a lot like our worship in this one, I was surrounded by churches that worshiped differently. These were churches that believed very strongly that their pastor should not have anything prepared before climbing into the pulpit. And these preachers were expected to have a style—a voice and a cadence that bore little resemblance to normal speech. They might start out normal and perhaps the last few sentences would sound normal, but in between they would crescendo and build to a furious climax. It was often breathless, sometimes with great hiccoughs at regular intervals. The words came out fast and barely comprehensible, and the amount of repetition was overwhelming.

The end result was that these pastors seldom said anything new—they just delivered the same message over and over again. Churchgoers who were taught that this was what preaching was supposed to be looked with disdain on Christians like the ones that went to my church who listened to pastors whose voices were normal and who prepared their sermons ahead of time.

And if we’re to take Paul literally here at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 2, then perhaps my Holiness and Hardshell Baptist neighbors were right and my church was wrong.

And I came to you in weakness and in fear and trembling. My proclamation was not made with wise words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. —1 Cor. 2:3-5

The problem with this sort of literalism, however, is that it’s only partially true. Only if we stop there are these words eternally true for all preachers and all Christians. But, of course, Paul didn’t stop there. “Yet among the mature, we do speak wisely,” he went on to say in the next verse. It’s not the kind of wisdom the Corinthians were going to hear from those the world considered powerful and respectable, Paul admitted, for God’s wisdom is different from human wisdom… which is how he started out this whole argument about the deep meaning of the cross.

Once a church began to mature in the faith, Paul saw it as his responsibility to stop talking to them in weakness and trembling, and to start preaching God’s wisdom, a hidden mystery, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.

I’ve recently decided to re-read my favorite book (actually six books in three volumes), which is The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m currently right in the middle, at the beginning of Book 4. Now one of the things that a lot of people ignore about Tolkien is his religion. He was a deeply Christian man. This is something people make a big deal out of when they talk about his friend C.S. Lewis, whose stories were thinly veiled allegories about Christianity. But Tolkien was just as serious about his faith, and his books were just as Christian. It’s just that they were more metaphor than allegory. Tolkien doesn’t spoon-feed you his faith like Lewis does. But it’s there for anybody who doesn’t want to deny it.

And one of the clearest Biblical messages Tolkien provides is about the wisdom of God, secret and hidden. For in The Lord of the Rings, the wise and powerful have to trust in the weak and foolish to save the world. It’s not enough to say, “Well, it’s a mystery we can’t understand, so we’re still going to trust in our own way.” No, faith is required to be part of a plan that sends the weakest of people into the stronghold of the enemy to destroy that which gives great power. It’s not exactly the message of the cross. But it certainly helps us understand the message of the cross—foolishness in the eyes of the wise, and weakness in the eyes of the powerful.

And I believe this is exactly what Paul is trying to say to us here. Once we learn about the story of Christ, we need to move on from repetition and words designed for strangers to the faith, to an exploration of what God’s wisdom is and how it’s actually at work in our lives and in our world.

And if you look at our church covenant, I think it’s possible to see it in the way we live our lives together. It doesn’t just tell us that we agree to be converted to faith in Jesus and then to convert others to faith in Jesus. It calls on us to understand and grow and reach out—not just to spread a message, but to share our values.

I’d like for us to think about this from time to time. Here we find comfort when we feel afflicted. But let us also be aware that, in the church, we should expect to feel afflicted when we are too comfortable. We come here, not to hear the message we want to hear, but to hear a message that at times seem foreign to us and counter to our culture.

One way we have of looking at it—a way that I’ve talked about before—is that we have agreed not so much to interpret love according to our understanding of the verses of the Bible, but to interpret the verses of the Bible according to our understanding of love. This makes us have to think about things, and sometimes we might err on the side of grace. But this seems to put us in good company—name’s the company of Jesus.

So in a few minutes, when we turn to our church covenant—the covenant that we repeat when there’s a baptism or when we receive a new member—let’s remember that when we adopted it and when we repeat it, we’re committing ourselves to growth, to change, and to delving further into the wisdom of God, sometimes secret, sometimes hidden, but always wiser than human understanding.
—©2023 Sam Greening