Saturday, March 7, 2015

Ugly Beauty

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Lent 3
March 8, 2015
William G. Carter

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. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

It is the season of Lent, the season of forty days before Easter. From the early days, the church wisely decided we cannot get to Easter without some time for preparation. Resurrection is going to happen, with or without our consent, so why not prepare? We can pray, we can fast from the world’s goods,  we can give alms. But the best preparation is to speak of the cross.

The heart of the Christian faith is that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. Everything we do and say is funneled through that truth. When springtime finally thaws, when the birds sing their doxologies and the daffodils explode in yellow glory, it is easy to speak of resurrection. Life begins again, especially after a long cruel winter.

In our office, we have been shopping for worship bulletins for Easter. Most of them have scenes from spring time, happy and colorful glimpses of nature in its Northern Hemisphere glory, even though Easter has nothing to do with nature. Easter is the breaking of the laws of nature. It is the raising of the dead, not the recycling of the seasons. Resurrection is strange and odd and unprecedented. It runs counter to everything we observe about life – that we are born, that we grow, that we mature, and that we die.

But the cross is no less difficult to comprehend. Jesus was born, and he grew. Sometime in his early thirties, he was put to death. The stories say he did nothing wrong. To the contrary, he did everything right: He healed the sick, he fed the hungry crowds. He lifted up the lowly. He exposed the superficial and cracked open the calcified. He told the truth about God, he told the truth about us. And for that, he was put to death. 

What are we going to say about this?

The apostle Paul said, “This is what I preach. This is all I know. This is all I want to know: Christ crucified.” His detractors said, “Don’t you have a new sermon?” But Paul replied, “This is my only sermon.” Everything he lived for was subject to the cross. His years of study to  learn the laws of God, his earnestness for living a holy life, his zeal for keeping God’s people pure – all of it was placed at the foot of the cross. And he knew from practical experience what many marketing experts have long since decreed: you can’t grow a church by talking about the cross.   

People want success and the cross is one man’s failure. People want life and the cross is a death. People want to win and the cross is a loss. And Paul says, “This is what I preach.” Such an unusual thing to preach.

Tomorrow night at 8:00, millions of hopeful romantics will tune in to see an Iowa farmer named Chris select the woman who will free him from being The Bachelor. Who’s going to win? Who’s going to lose? Speculation is high. People we know talk about it every day. They have watched “The Women Tell All” episode and formed their opinions. Tomorrow they will give up three hours of their evening to see who alone shall win and discuss who deserves to lose. And they will do this because they live in a world that says winning is the only thing that matters. Even though there is only one person who will win, it’s all about winning.

And Paul says, “I talk about the cross.” No wonder he says it’s pretty foolish. He calls it a scandal, a stumbling block. In a world of me-first, survival of the fittest, winning at all costs, it is something the world at large cannot comprehend. But the cross is the heart of the Christian mystery, and so we talk about it.

But why? Why the cross? A number of reasons, I suppose. Here is the first: because the cross exposes the way the world is. God sends Jesus into the world, to teach and heal, to reveal God’s grace and truth, and the world kills him for it. We live in a world that resists its own healing. That’s what the cross reveals. This is not a world that can save itself. The whole world needs God.

If we ask a lot of Christians what they believe about the cross, they will quickly say, “Jesus died for our sins.” True enough, but let’s hear that for what it is- that is a statement of faith. It is an affirmation, it is a proposition. Yet before we rush to say it and move on, let’s take the crucifixion as the people saw it day: a young man who did nothing wrong, nailed on wood between two thieves, surrounded by onlookers who jeered him, soldiers who spat upon him, abandoned by his friends, piercing the heart of his mother who watched all this, in excruciating pain, left to suffocate by his own weight.

There was no obvious atonement visible to those people who surrounded Jesus on the cross. On that Friday afternoon, regardless of what the preachers have told you, it was not obvious that Jesus died for our sins – but it was crystal clear that he was dying because of our sins. As the centurion says who presided over the execution says in the Gospel of Luke, “Truly, this man is innocent.” (Luke 23:47).

Call it sin, call it sickness, call it a rebelliousness that pushes away God. As Paul says in his writings, “We have no excuse” (Romans 2:1).

Fifty years ago yesterday, American citizens who were denied the right to vote marched across a bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were confronted by Alabama state troops, who had been ordered by Governor George Wallace to stop them. Joined by a quickly deputized posse of white men, these unarmed people were beaten by clubs, dragged by horses, and chased back across a bridge that was named after a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

Here’s the thing: that march happened on a Sunday afternoon in Alabama, at a time and place where every Christian church had probably been full that morning. In fact, it is not a stretch at all to believe that some of the same people who beat the marchers had gone to church that morning, sang the hymns, heard the scriptures, and threw a few bucks in the offering plate. Of course, it was Alabama, 1965.

The cross teaches us that we should never be surprised when people do terrible things to one another. That’s the kind of world we are in, and it’s the kind of world that gets into us. Paul says, “I have to preach that.”

Not only does the cross show us what the world is like, the cross also reveals what the Christian life is like. We follow Jesus. We care about the things that he cares about. We do the daily deeds that he has done. That means we get involved in other people’s lives. We dress wounds and promote healing. We spend time with people that the world rejects. We do not back off from the call to service. We do not ignore deep human need. We go to those who are most vulnerable and we stand with them.

This is hard work, but there’s no reason we should expect otherwise. There are a lot of religious con artists who will see you a bill of goods. They promise achievement and success and simple two-calorie answers to life’s persistent problems. And so enticing to think that faith will live you about difficulty, that prayer will always be answered, and that God will always give you whatever you want. 

That’s not the truth. Sometimes faith pushes you deeper, stretches you wider, or cracks your heart open to love those you don’t want to love. And the hardest prayer to say is the one that Jesus prayed on the night before he died, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” It is our desires that end up crucified, our willfulness that must be set aside, our schemes that must give way to God’s way.

In this sense, the Christian life is never about getting ahead of others or improving our lot in life. It’s about following Jesus. It’s about doing what he calls us to do. The Christian life is a cross-shaped life. The dog-eat-dog world doesn’t understand that, the rich and famous are confused by it. It simply doesn’t make sense that the way of the cross is the way of self-sacrifice, non-violence, and persistent, purifying love.

“But this is the Word I speak,” says Paul, “the word of the cross.” That’s the word made flesh in Jesus the Christ, the word that becomes enfleshed in those who follow him. It exposes the world for what it is, it maps ot the road of discipleship.

But there is an even bigger reason why we speak about the cross: because this is where we see God. Not high up on a cloud, not detached and indifferent like the small deities of Greece and Rome, not immovable, inflexible, and unemotional like all the legends that people tell about God – but God who comes to us in Jesus, willing to enter our suffering, willing to live among the likes of us, willing to risk everything to claim us and win us back, willing to cancel the sin and evil that nailed him to a tree. That’s the most amazing thing of all.

God is in the crucified servant Jesus – and what looks like an all-too-visible weakness is the holy power that will save us. This doesn’t compute for those who are logical. It doesn’t impress those who hope for a miracle. But in the cross God reaches right down into the grime of our lives and declares, “I have found you, I am with you, I will redeem you.”

And if you know how it feels to be found, you know the saving power of God. God comes to us in a simple woodcutter from Galilee. God comes in a man who knew what it’s like to get a splinter in your hand or dirt between your toes. God comes in a peasant who was not born in great privilege, who never had a lot of money, who never stepped into a palace until the last day of his life.

God comes to us, hidden in a man who was rejected, condemned, and crucified – and God says, “”You are mine, nothing can separate you from my love. If you are broken, I will rebuild you. If you have failed or lost, I will give you a new beginning. If you have no purpose, I will give you work to do.” Do you see why Paul speaks of the cross? Because this is how Paul speaks of God – a God who sets aside his power to catch us when we fall, a God who holds us together, then declares, “Let’s get about the work of a new creation.”

God turns it all upside down. The world looks at the cross and sees only weakness. For those of us who know what God is like, we see the power to save the world.

Paul says, “This is what I preach: the crucified Christ as the wisdom of God.”  Me too.[1]

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Thanks to Fred Craddock, beloved teacher, now a saint in God’s eternity. He ended a sermon on this text this way.  

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