ray trygstad:


Wisdom and Folly

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 think—well, actually I know—that 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 language—or 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 other's sins.

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 sins—even if the sacrifice were God Himself—was 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 apatheia—an 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 bats—or ants creeping out of their nests—or frogs holding a symposium round a swamp—or 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 any wisdom.

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
Email: trygstad@trygstad.org
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