The Glory of the Shame
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There’s a story this is told about a football player named Roy Reigels. He was playing for USC Berkley in the 1929 Rose Bowl against Georgia Tech. On one particular play, Riegels found himself in possession of the ball after a fumble. He ran full tilt for the goal line and was stopped just short. A 65-yard fumble recovery! The fans were going crazy. The problem was that the USC fans were going crazy because Riegels ran toward his own goal line. The wrong goal line. The wrong team ended up winning (from USC’s point of view anyway) and for the rest of his life, Roy Riegels would go down in infamy and be known as “Wrong Way Riegels.” As in “Hey Wrong Way what’s going on?” Can you imagine?
We want God to prevent that kind of thing among us a family of faith my dear brothers and sisters. Paul was writing to the church in Corinth because they were going the wrong way. They were separated into divisive factions based on what leader they followed or even whom they were baptized by. They were divided in knowing how best to relate to the culture around them. They were divided by socioeconomic status, particularly when it came to the Lord’s Supper.
I don’t have to tell you about the many ways the church is divided, often based on how we worship together, how we do baptism, who gets to be a leader, etc. etc. We can be divided in our local churches by things like what kind of music we prefer, what leaders we prefer, what we think about any number of hot button issues of the day. We can label ourselves as Calvinists or Arminians or progressives or conservatives or….
We might even say like people in Corinth were saying that we’re of the party of Christ as if people who disagree with us aren’t or at the very least we’re wondering very seriously about them.
Paul starts where we always must start. At the foundation. The wisdom of God. That was our question all summer wasn’t it – “Where then shall wisdom be found?” What is the wisdom of God? What is the power of God? Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at God’s word this morning.
Very often we leave talk of answers to the questions that we’re asking to the end of the sermon. This morning I’m going to put this image out there right from the start, and it’s an image I want us to carry with us through this morning. May God grant that we carry it with us too as we go from here or go from our screens. Everything that Paul lives, everything that Paul preaches, everything that Paul sees – he sees in the light of the cross. Picture a glass cross, like in a stained glass window, with light coming through it as light would come through a prism. Everything that the follower of Christ sees is seen through this light. The light is Christ. The cross is Christ. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” This history-defining world-changing event through which the one called by Christ and the one who has answered the call sees… everything.
The wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world. The wisdom of the Kingdom of God and the wisdom of the age. There is to be no division among us based on the wisdom of the age. What was the wisdom of the age in Paul’s time? Philosophies of life that made sense and were explained by learned and eloquent speakers. Signs so that everyone could see and believe. The art of rhetoric and public speaking and persuasion. The possession of knowledge and the ability to express it well.
Now I know it can be difficult to look at a city in southern Greece 2,000 years ago and say sure Paul was decrying the wisdom of the age but what does this mean to us? What is the wisdom of our age? Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of the age?
Those who say that the golden rule is that he who has the gold makes the rules. This is true, right? Those who say that winning is not the main thing, it’s the only thing. Those who say that your value is based on how much you make (and you can never have enough money or things) and how much you consume and how conspicuously you consume it. If it’s not said explicitly it’s certainly lived. Those who say image is everything and monetize your image too, you might become an influencer because it’s not even about how much talent or fame you have necessarily but rather it’s about how many followers you have.
There is to be no division in the church. We are not to think of ourselves in binary categories. The only category Paul mentions here is between those who are being saved and those who are perishing, and let’s not get too presumptuous when it comes to those who are perishing because the books aren’t closed yet and let’s not get complacent, those who are being saved because we are being saved (present continuous tense) and it’s not simply a past event or a one and done thing. It’s something we’re called to persist in, to hold fast to.
We want to be doing this yes? If you’re not being saved you’re invited to come along. We’ll get back to this though. The thing is though, the saving story that we live in as followers of Christ is not primarily about us. It never is, speaking of things that go against the wisdom of the age.
You may remember in the summer we talked about the cross as a creative act of God. God has always been about saving in unexpected ways. We’re known by some as people of the Book and we’re called to live the story as it’s laid out for us in the Book. We’re called to be familiar with the story. So here’s a story. One time the Kingdom of Israel was under threat from the Assyrian Empire to the north. This was a serious situation. Most of us have never lived in a country that has faced an invasion and we can hardly imagine. Rather than turning to God as they had been called to do, they made an alliance with the mighty Egyptian Empire. This makes sense after all right? Seek powerful friends! It didn’t go well. In Isaiah 29:14 God speaks through the prophet and says “The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning will be hidden.”
Now I have to pause for a moment here and say this story and these words of Paul are not to make us anti-intellectual. We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. They are not a call to not listen to the medical experts or our doctor because all we need to do is trust God. We do need to trust God but again this is not setting up a binary choice. The thing about the wisdom of God is that God acts in unexpecting and surprising ways. The first half of Isaiah 29:14 goes like this – “… so I will do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing.” God calls a murderer (a manslaughterer anyway) to lead his people from slavery. A widow from Moab becomes part of a royal lineage. God calls a shepherd boy to become the next king of God’s people.
God dies on a cross. What?
This is the wisdom of God. It doesn’t make any sense to the purely analytical rational mind. No line of argument could ever get you to a crucified Messiah. I must say I find this heartening. You could not make this stuff up. You would not make it up. Imagine a few people getting together saying they’re going to start a new movement. They’ll have the leader of the movement say a bunch of things that aren’t really wise per se, they’re actually kind of hard to understand and he’ll say things like bless those who persecute you, pray for those who hate you. To top it off he’ll be killed in the most shameful way – a way that was meant to make an example publicly and to dehumanize and shame. It reminds me of something Pastor Bill said once about if this were all happening today, we would all be wearing little electric chairs around our necks and as earrings or having one at the front of the church. The scandal of the cross. Foolish to those looking for a rational argument. Oh and by the way then we’ll say he came back to life, that will really pack them in! A stumbling block – something to trip over – for those looking for a sign. And yet he was the sign. A greater than Jonah, a greater than Solomon.
Now if you’re with me in the whole Christ-following and discipleship thing, you’re not disagreeing with anything I’ve said. What are we to take from all of this apart from a recap of some fairly well know albeit foundational truths?
At which point I must pause again and ask “Are we used to this?” Do we think “Been there done that about the cross and about Christ and about God’s saving action in Christ?” For those of us who are being saved may God save us from this. The whole “I’ve arrived” thinking is surely more part of the wisdom of the age than anything to do with God.
Talk is cheap. God-talk is probably the cheapest. If all our talk of being saved by Christ and delivered from sin and death by self-sacrificing love is just talk then it’s nothing more than a noisy cymbal or a clanging gong. This whole thing is meant to look like something. What it mustn’t mean is people jockeying for power and wanting their wills done. It mustn’t mean people being drawn into factions for whatever reason people may be drawn into factions. It mustn’t mean that if the world thinks that the rich and the powerful and the educated are set apart, that our church must be made up of the same people, or that we should go after those sort of people because that will really help the Kingdom’s cause! It mustn’t mean that church leadership is only comprised of educated and powerful and rich.
Everything’s upside down in the Kingdom you see. It’s the end of self-assertion. It’s the end of having it your way right away. It’s the end of questions like How to Conquer Life or How to Have It All or even How To Win Friends and Influence People (which I think can most succinctly be answered these days with “Stay on top of your emails.”) The foolishness of the gospel. As someone has put it, “The gospel is not an esoteric body of religious knowledge, not a slickly packaged philosophy, not a scheme for living a better life; instead it is an announcement about God’s apocalyptic intervention in the world, for the sake of the world.” Apocalyptic in the sense of a revealing or an unveiling of God and who God is and God’s work in the world and God’s plan for the world.
Foolishness and a stumbling block. That God would use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. That God would invite us into this plan. That God would choose what is weak in the world to shame the strong because everything is upside down in the Kingdom of God. Consider our own call brothers and sisters. Not many of us were by wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Some but not many! The wisdom of God. It wasn’t communicated to us by plausible words of wisdom so that we might say “Oh I see that makes total sense!” but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power – the power of God so that not one of us could boast in ourselves.
In Jesus, we find the wisdom of God. In the light of the cross, our vision is transformed. Demonstrations of the Spirit and the power of God surely involve personal transformation. Have you known this in your life? Do you know it now? I pray that we do. How else apart from in the light of the cross could something like the words of Jesus to take up our cross daily and follow him make sense? To die to ourselves, to self-assertion, to what we might want and will make sense? Someone has described Jesus’ words about taking up our cross in Luke 9 like this – “If you want to follow My path, and if you want to be a genuine disciple of mine, you must be willing – every day – to put to death your stubborn will and personal desires. And you must readily accept the Father’s will – as I have – over your own.” And so we pray Your will be done. Let us pray that every day. That we might be known as right way people. People of the Way, people of the one whose way is truth and life. May this be true for all of us.