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The Ignominious God
March 11, 2012
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The news is constantly filled with scandals. The public loves them; otherwise the tabloids would have gone out of business long ago. In a matter of hours, this mornings’ celebrity gossip will be replaced with an entirely new set of dramas. Scandal abounds; be it from Hollywood, corporate America, Capital Hill, or even the church. The Bible, too, is full of scandals and fools. We don’t need to repeat the long litany of flawed characters that make up the pantheon of biblical personalities–from Jacob, thief of his elder brother’s birthright, to King David, the adulterer and conspirator to murder, all the way to Jesus’ crew of dimwitted disciples.
We might begin to wonder about God’s discernment of character. God, it seems, is in need of a better personnel manager or casting director.
Paul was another scandalous choice. Before he was an expert in new church development, he was a brutal and relentless persecutor of Christians, responsible for encouraging a mob of infuriated Jews to stone a man to death. Paul, it could be said, was a wicked and rotten human being. So when God told Ananias that he was to anoint Paul as his “chosen instrument,” Ananias said, in effect, “Lord, you must be thinking of someone else.” God’s choice was simply too foolish and scandalous.
Perhaps that’s why later, when Paul was writing to the church at Corinth, he reminded them: things of this world that seem like low foolishness to us may be high wisdom to God. Paul then pointed out the most foolish thing God had ever done: God had come into the world as a low-class worker from the backwater town of Nazareth.
Paul’s next bold move was calling Jesus a “stumbling block to the Jews.” What he meant to express was that the idea of God living among us as a lowly peasant was such a scandalous thing the Jews couldn’t believe it. They were expecting a powerful king; and instead they got a servant who was mocked by his own people. For Jews living in the 1st century, this depiction of God was nothing short of scandalous.
The very word Paul used to make his point, translated in English as “stumbling block,” is the Greek word skandalon, from which we get our English word scandal.
Jesus was born into scandal: from his parents’ disgraceful marriage, to a smelly barn, then escaping to Egypt under cover of darkness. Jesus grew up in a place of which people said, “Nothing good comes from there,” then became a friend to prostitutes, tax collectors, and working-class roughnecks. Jesus was indeed a stumbling block, a scandal to those who wanted a pure messiah. Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 8:14: “He will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on.”
The Israelites tended to overlook the prophecies. They didn’t want to believe them. They were expecting a military ruler, a king, a superhuman. Instead they got a helpless baby in a manger, and finally a bleeding, beaten figure dying ignominiously, like a fool, on a cross.
The message of scripture is clear: God chooses the scandalous. God uses the weak, the nobodies–and God redeems even the worst among us. For reasons we cannot understand, this human vessel is God’s tool of choice. In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth he writes: “But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7). It is to God’s glory that the foolish and weak are used to achieve a grand purpose. Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than in the concept of incarnation, of God assuming mortal flesh to touch us, heal us, and die with and for us.
We have a God who comes into a brutish world to touch and heal our wounds. The first part of the incarnation story is Jesus’ birth and ministry of healing; the second part is what we remember during Lent. It is a journey that culminates with Holy Week, commemorating a shameful torture upon a Roman cross. Even the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we celebrate on Palm Sunday, was a scandalous occurrence. Jesus did a very undignified thing. He poked fun at both his worshipers and his detractors: he rode humbly on the back of a baby donkey. To understand the magnitude of that scandal: imagine President Obama riding through town on one of those little go-carts that clowns drive. But with that laughable donkey ride, Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies and taught us something about humility.
The associated word Paul uses in this passage is foolishness. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-21). The question we must ask ourselves this morning is, are we willing to appear foolish for the sake of the gospel?
But what does this sort of foolishness look like?
Well, let me first tell you what it doesn’t look like. (Bear in mind, this is coming from a woman with a tattoo of John Calvin…) You may have recently seen TV or internet advertisements for The Thorn: An Easter Experience. If you visit The Thorn’s website you’ll promptly see the question, “Looking for a new way to celebrate Easter?” Followed by an invitation to purchase the Thorn Easter Experience Church Kit which promises a powerful Easter experience for your entire congregation. The kit includes: a pre-written, coordinated sermon; compelling video illustrations for your sermon; video “roll in” to start your service; dramatic monologues with scripts and instructional videos; bulletin inserts; promotional materials; visitor gift books and much, much more.
Like the money-changers, selling sacrifices outside of the temple in John’s gospel, they’ve morphed God’s word into something marketable.
The message of the cross is not something that can be packaged-up and sold for $99. It’s not a tool to be used for manipulating the spiritual experiences of others, and it certainly should not be a ploy to attract new members. The message of the cross is not a sensational melodrama. No. It’s the scandalous, enigmatic, and paradoxical event in which the God of the universe overcame the power of death with the power of the cross.
What does foolishness look like? Consider this Atlanta doctor who has a remarkable record of success in healing his patients. The hospital chaplain had a chance to discover why. He writes of one particular patient who had a horrible infection on his feet. His feet were disfigured, nasty, and covered in pus. The doctor came in, and with a gentle bedside manner, un-wrapped the bandages. The chaplain says he was almost overwhelmed by the infection’s odor. But the doctor was unfazed. Then he gently touched and massaged those horrid feet as he inspected the progress of the healing. He did this daily until the man was completely healed. The chaplain’s point is that this doctor didn’t remain in the sterility of his office. He became involved with the flesh of his patients.
The wise tell us to feel guilty when we’re not constantly working to advance ourselves or our families; while the foolish tell us, not all the work we do should benefit ourselves and those we love. The wise tell us to ignore panhandlers; while the foolish tell us, treat all people with dignity, no matter what they look like. The wise tell us to save face when we’re ashamed by our addictions or personal struggles; while the foolish tell us, the only way to experience true companionship is to be vulnerable and share with others that which scares us most. The wise tell us that the power of the cross is that 2,000 years ago a Palestinian Jew named Jesus was unjustly sentenced to death and executed on a trash heap outside of Jerusalem. But the foolish tell us: the power of the cross is that since the beginning of time God has not stopped dying for us; and not once in the history of the world has death had the final say.
The scandal of the cross is that even now God enters our world in the most foolish of ways, as an unlikely child, a friend to the worst of us, and dying ignominiously; and that message requires no marketing ploys, no grand productions, no hip vernacular to attract the masses; it requires only the foolishness to accept it and the courage to proclaim it, both with our lips and with our lives.