Power and Wisdom

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent
March 3, 2024

Last week, we heard Jesus tell us to take up our cross and follow him. After all, the Lenten season is the time of year we’re most likely to talk this. Christians may talk and sing about the cross any time. But as we get closer to Good Friday and Easter, it’s a subject that’s on our mind more and more. We can’t properly celebrate the resurrection unless we remember Jesus’ death. And we can’t remember his death without thinking about how he died.

And how Jesus died was something only his followers could accept. He died the death of a criminal, and so to think about the implement of torture and execution the Romans used to kill him was simply too much for most people.

And that’s why Paul opens his first letter to the Corinthian church by addressing the elephant in the room—something that every member of that church was painfully aware of: namely that just about everybody around them considered their message about the cross to be a nonstarter.

Depending on who they were, their non-Christian neighbors had different reasons to object to this message. But, basically, to be a Christian in the first century was to go against the grain and accept that God had worked out our salvation through the death of Jesus—even death on a cross.

The majority of Hebrews objected to the message of the cross because it demonstrated weakness. Messiah was going to be a glorious ruler who brought about justice and righteousness and universal peace. But Jesus was humiliated and killed. This was the opposite of what they felt should happen.

The majority of Greeks were logical people. The idea that death could result in life was foolishness. They had centuries behind them of being the most logical people in the world (or at least in that part of the world). They weren’t about to waste their time on a belief system that said that God could renew the world through the corruption of death.

But Paul reminded the Corinthians that God’s ways are not human ways: The weakness of the Crucified Christ was infinitely stronger than human strength; the foolishness of the message of the cross was infinitely wiser than human wisdom. Those who depended on human strength and wisdom would never understand what the Corinthians knew—that Christ is the very power and wisdom of God.

At its heart, Christianity is a paradox. A paradox is something that, on the surface, seems self-contradictory, or even absurd. But when you look into it, you find out that that there’s deep truth to it. How could a feeding trough in Bethlehem hold the King of the universe? How could the Son of God be nailed to a cross? These are paradoxes that are not only true to us, but they can move us to tears.

But we don’t look at the deep truths of Christianity and think of fancy words like paradox. Such a word probably never occurs to us. We look at the Infant in the manger, and perhaps the first word that comes to us is joy—joy that God has broken into the world, joy that—no matter who we are—God is with us.

Or perhaps we think of hope. If the Baby in Bethlehem is, in fact, a King, then there is hope for all the children of the world. Because of him, God is present in every cradle, and every child everywhere should be cherished and protected.

We gaze at the cross, and our minds don’t turn immediately to deep theological truths or debates about the nature of the atonement. Perhaps the first word that comes to our mind is love. “This is how God loved the world…” [John 3:16, NLT]. Because of the cross, we know that all Jesus’ talk about love wasn’t hot air. He loved completely. He loved unconditionally. And he loved to the end.

Or perhaps when we see the cross, we think of trust. I trust Jesus to keep his word, no matter what. And I trust that, no matter how bad things may seem, God can bring me through this (whatever this is for me or for you). If the Crucified One is alive, then there’s nothing I’ll ever have to face that means this is the end of me.

So when we preach that Christ was crucified, and some are offended and others say it’s all nonsense [1 Cor. 1:23], let’s remember that we’re not preaching weakness, we’re proclaiming God’s strength; and we’re not bragging about foolishness, we’re demonstrating the very wisdom of God. For nothing better defines power than victory over death. And nothing shows more wisdom than sacrificial love—even for those who don’t return it.

Believe it or not, you can find this in the psalms. The 107th Psalm is a very long hymn that recites all the ways God was with Israel through slavery in Egypt and the trials of the wilderness. Some would look at these things and see weakness: How could this accursèd people be the chosen of God? But if you pay attention, you can see God’s presence with Israel through it all. In the very last verse, the psalmist says that “those who are wise will take all this to heart; they will see in our history the faithful love of the Lord.”

And so even here in the Old Testament, we see the connection people of faith make between wisdom and love. And when you think about it, what could be more wise than looking at the story of a people in the light of God’s presence with them?

In the week to come, we will be surrounded by doubters and scoffers, those who can’t see any sense in our faith, and those who would ridicule us for it. And so, as we gather around the table this morning, let us see ourselves in the light of God’s presence in our lives. Let us taste and see God’s goodness. And let us drink from the cup that shows us the unending love of God’s love.
—©2024 Sam Greening