By Ray Trygstad
A Sermon for August 9, 1998
Wesley United Methodist Church, Naperville, Illinois, USA
You know, sometimes we have to go back to our roots to really take a good
look at something. That's the case with me today. I actually memorized the
section of Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians that we have heard read
today; I don't thinkwell, actually I knowthat I couldn't recite
it today. But I do know that I learned it from the King James Version, and
I still consider it to be some of the best phrasing, the finest prose, that
I have ever heard. Let me share the King James version with you:
17For Christ sent me not to baptize, but
to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ
should be made of none effect. 18For the
preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which
are saved it is the power of God. 19For
it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing
the understanding of the prudent. 20Where
is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath
not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
21For after that in the wisdom of God the
world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching
to save them that believe. 22For the Jews
require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
23But we preach Christ crucified, unto
the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
24But unto them which are called, both
Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
25Because the foolishness of God is wiser
than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
26For ye see your calling, brethren, how
that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble,
are called: 27But God hath chosen the foolish
things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things
of the world to confound the things which are mighty;
28And base things of the world, and things
which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring
to nought things that are: 29That no flesh
should glory in his presence. 30But of
him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness,
and sanctification, and redemption: 31That,
according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.
He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.
There's a story about three people attending a church service one Sunday
morning seeking help through the preaching of the Word. One was a businessman
who had failed and was contemplating suicide. The other was a young man whose
wages were not sufficient to support his extravagant way of life; he was
planing to steal from his employer. And the third was a young lady who had
been tempted from a life of virtue. As they mingled with the congregation
the choir rose and sang a magnificent rendition of a classic anthem, and
the pastor stepped to the pulpit and addressed an eloquent prayer to God.
Then he opened his notes and delivered a scholarly address entitled "Is Mars
inhabited?". The three spiritually hungry persons who came looking for bread
were fed stones. The businessman committed suicide; the young man stole from
his employer and ended up in prison; the young woman returned to a life of
shame. Those three people discovered what thousands and thousands have discovered
through the centuries: there is no peace, no power, no forgiveness, no salvation
in the philosophies or wisdom of men.
Paul's mission in his preaching was not sway people with the force of his
rhetoric, with "wisdom of words". It had to be the message, the cross
of Jesus Christ, and not any particular wisdom of Paul's. This is a real
challenge when it's time for any preacher of God's word to sit down
and write a sermon. The urge to make use of the "wisdom of words" is close
to overwhelming. It's darn hard to resist the impulse to oh, maybe show off
a little, to demonstrate our wonderful grasp of languageor at least
what we might view as our wonderful grasp of the language. At the same time,
it's really critical that what we have to say is engaging enough, is interesting
enough to keep you (or me) from going to sleep (although when I nod off,
I would ask you to please not take that as any reflection on the preaching).
So the only reasonable way to approach this is with a prayerful mind that
we might always communicate the wisdom of God.
The point is that Paul saw his mission as the "preaching of the cross":
foolishness to those that perish. The dictionary tells us that foolishness
means lacking in sense, judgment, or discretion; or absurd, ridiculous. These
are certainly views commonly held by many towards the preaching of the cross,
that old rugged cross on a hill far away. It was that way in Paul's day,
and for the most part it hasn't changed. Even many folks who believe in God,
who see themselves as religious, cannot bring themselves to accept the fact
that is the sacrifice of a life on the cross that assures their own salvation
rather than their own efforts. We know that the cross is truly the power
of God: in Christ's atonement and resurrection we see a God who loves us
so much He would die for us. Many would consider dying for someone else to
be the ultimate in foolishness but we (and Paul) see it as the culmination
of God's promises in the Old Testament. A good example of someone applying
the wisdom of the world to this sacrifice can be found in the works of Mary
Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, who wrote:
"One sacrifice however great is insufficient to pay the debt of sin, the
atonement of sin requires self-humiliation on the sinners part. That God's
wrath should be vented upon his beloved son is divinely unnatural, such a
theory is man made."
Isaiah wrote "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing
the understanding of the prudent." When he wrote this the people of Judah
were being threatened by an attack from the Assyrians. The wise men of the
court counseled that they should make an alliance with the Egyptians, but
Isaiah, as God's prophet, appeared in their midst and uttered these words.
So this concept of God's wisdom confounding the wisdom of the world was nothing
new. The problem at Corinth, or one of the problems at any rate, was that
many if the Corinthian Christians had become impressed with the wisdom of
the Greeks, which even today stands as a significant portion of human thought.
Paul is trying to make it clear to them that this wisdom, this philosophy
(which in fact means "love of wisdom") was no path to compare to Christ's
atonement, that by the fact of this sacrifice he made foolish the wisdom
of this world. Unfortunately we sometimes let ourselves be overcome by the
wisdom of the world; it is so compelling, and is expressed so eloquently,
that we find ourselves losing sight of that cross on hill far away.
Judaism and Christianity are revealed religions. They are not religions conceived
by man, because "the world by wisdom did not know God". God has had to reveal
Himself, first to his prophets and then personally through Jesus Christ.
Paul is teaching us that we need not decorate the Gospel with any earthly
wisdom to make it more palatable; the pure foolishness of preaching that
cross on the hill might never make an impression on anyone but believers,
but nonetheless this is the message we are called upon to preach.
The Jews of Paul's day expected a Messiah who was much different than a carpenter
from Galilee; they expected a mighty king, who would overthrow the Roman
government and restore the people of Israel to their rightful place in the
world. They expected a very obvious Messiah, displaying all of the
"signs" that Paul referred to. The concept of a suffering Messiah, and even
more so of a crucified Messiah, seemed obscene to them. It was the manner
of Christ's death that was the "stumbling block" to the Jews; it wasn't that
they didn't believe that the Messiah could die. In fact, many Orthodox Jews
in the Lubavitcher tradition today believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi
Menachem Schneerson, was the Messiah even though he died in June of 1994.
But in Deuteronomy we learn that anyone who hangs from a tree is cursed of
God, so in the eyes of the Jews, Jesus could not have been the Messiah because
he was cursed. In coming to this conclusion, they overlooked other prophecies
such as Isaiah 53, which showed that the Chosen of God would be cursed for
To the Greeks, any solution to the problems of evil and sin could be discerned
by the wise, by the philosophers. They sought complex solutions to the problems
of life; anything as transparently obvious as a single sacrifice atoning
for all of humanity's sinseven if the sacrifice were God Himselfwas
so simplistic as to be suited only for uneducated dolts and the mentally
deficient. They also believed that one of the characteristics of God (or
gods) was apatheiaan inability to feel or be influenced by human
emotion, and the concept of a loving God was an anathema.
"...not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are
called" was a pretty good summation of early Christianity. They were Jews
and the lower elements of society, especially slaves and working men. An
early critic of Christianity, Celcus, summed it up like this in the year
178: "Let no cultured person draw near [to Christianity], none wise, none
sensible; for all that kind of thing we count evil; but if any man is ignorant,
if any is wanting in sense and culture, if any is a fool let him come boldly.
. . We see them in their . . . houses, wool dressers, cobblers and fullers,
the most uneducated and vulgar persons . . . like a swarm of batsor
ants creeping out of their nestsor frogs holding a symposium round
a swampor worms in a conventicle in a corner of mud." It's not that
much different today; Christ's churches struggle just as much in wealthy
communities as they do in poor and middle class ones. But the real point
is that God chose what was regarded as weak and foolish to embark on the
greatest task he ever gave mankind: to spread the news of our salvation.
God turned conventional wisdom "upside down"; as member of the Willow Creek
Association wrote in a devotional, "The world says, 'Do something and be
somebody!' God says 'You are somebody, now do something.' The world says,
'take all you can get, and you will get more!' God says, 'give all you have,
and you will receive.' The world says 'hate your enemies, run over people,
climb to the top!' God says, 'love your enemies, help people, be a servant...'"
Throughout the Bible we see God choosing the weak things to "confound the
mighty"; we see Noah, building a huge boat high and dry in his driveway,
Samson killing thousands of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, the reluctant
prophet Jonah being cast from his ship and saved by being swallowed by a
whale, and a young shepherd boy killing the mighty champion of the Philistine
army with a small stone from the creek flung from his sling. I especially
like the King James Version language in verse 28, where Paul says "things
which are not (en oh tee), to bring to nought (en oh yu gee aitch tee) things
that are". He has chosen things that are not, that don't even exist, to bring
things that do exist to nothing, zero, nought. An example of the wisdom of
God which is not what we might expect it to be, nor what logic would dictate
it to be.
Finally Paul tells us that we are in Christ Jesus, who "is made unto us wisdom,
and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption." It's all there. It's
all done for us. All we have to do is believe. Through the backwards wisdom
of God, we are redeemed: saved from condemnation due us because of our sin;
sanctified: made holy and righteous in the sight of God; and finally, granted
a measure of God's wisdom, which allows us believe even when it might run
counter to the wisdom of this world. So he that glorieth, which is much more
properly translated in other translations as boast, let him glory in the
Lord. Our salvation is not our work; it's His, and our only boast can be
in how glorious and compassionate is our God.
That old rugged cross, on a hill far away: wisdom: or folly? Should you decide
which it is? No. He's decided for us, and God's folly is greater than
Let us pray: Dearest Father, thank you for Your wisdom, which confounds
the wise but secures our salvation. Help us to live our lives as an alleluia
to your grace, and grant us your Spirit that we might always know Your wisdom
in our lives. In Jesus' holy Name we pray, Amen.
Copyright 1998 Raymond E. Trygstad; all rights reserved. May be copied
and distributed freely in its entirety if accompanied by this statement.
Copyright 1999 Ray Trygstad, Naperville, Illinois