On Wisdom, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

This sermon was delivered on March 4, 2018, the third week of Lent. A special word of thanks to Dr. John Holbert for his inspiration on this particular sermon. I love talking about Lady Wisdom, so I hope you enjoy.

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

18 The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. 19 It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent.[a] 20 Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. 22 Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.24 But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. 25 This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

 

The_Thinker,_Rodin.jpg“God works in hilarious ways, His blunders to perform.”

My old preaching professor, Dr. John Holbert, once reworked the famous phrase into that on the day of my graduation from seminary. It intrigued me at the time, and often I will dwell on this statement.

The original phrase–” God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform”–is often one that we rest on when we can’t explain something. When something works for good, or for ill, we put that on God’s plan. But quite frankly, I find the reworking from my professor to be more apt. God works in hilarious ways, his blunders to perform. In hindsight, we often can see that God takes us in a roundabout way to get us where we need to go, like someone who goes 50 miles out of the way just to take “the scenic route.” Of course, once you do that, you see on the news that there was a massive pile-up on the shortest route on which you could have wound up injured or worse. Seemingly a blunder, but actually a wonder.

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, displays a dizzying intellect and writing skill. It’s a shame then that he says that even the wisest piece of wisdom we have is foolishness to God.

Thus he sets up the crucial question that confront us today: What is true wisdom? We can have all sorts of theories, but according to Paul, true wisdom was revealed in nothing but the Cross of Christ. I want to unpack that, in hopes that we can come to a better understanding of God’s wisdom, and that we might appreciate the hilarious ways of God.

The Wisdom of the World

To truly appraise how hilarious God’s ways are, though, we need to look at the ways in which the world thinks it is wise.

Now, of course, it’s easy for a preacher to say “The World.” Paul says it all the time. But to be frank and honest, WE are the world. Our lives are in the world. We cannot separate from the world, not completely, nor should we. But we can counter the narratives that the world present to us. We can offer an alternative. But to do that we must see the world’s narratives for what they are.

600px-David_-_The_Death_of_SocratesSo what does the world think about wisdom? That’s a complicated question, with a lot of history. The Greek philosopher Socrates believed that true wisdom was understanding how much you didn’t actually know–which is actually a good starting place for us. Appreciating ignorance is a good step towards humility, a Christ-like attribute, and a significant part of the wisdom of the cross. It’s a shame philosophy and what we think about wisdom didn’t take him at his word.

Conventional wisdom, however, tends to overshadow the great thinkers.

Conventional wisdom dictates a lot of things. It dictates business, personal relationships, government, and a whole host of things. Because of this, we must be critical, and always ask “Why?”

George_Carlin_a_l.jpgIt can be said that “Our is a world of intelligence, wisdom, guts, and courage.  Might makes right and nice guys finish last.  It’s like some of the rapid-fire lines from George Carlin’s classic “Modern Man” routine:

“I wear power ties, I tell power lies, I take power naps and run victory laps. I’m a totally ongoing big-foot, slam-dunk, rainmaker with a pro-active outreach. A raging workaholic. A working rageaholic. Out of rehab and in denial! I’ve got a personal trainer, a personal shopper, a personal assistant and a personal agenda. You can’t shut me up. You can’t dumb me down because I’m tireless and I’m wireless, I’m an alpha male on beta-blockers.

Or as even some popular preachers tell us, “Nobody plans to fail but some fail to plan.  Tough times never last but tough people do.  High achievers spot rich opportunities swiftly, make big decisions quickly and move into action immediately.  Follow these principles and you can make your dreams come true.” (http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-3b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle)”

Well… again, that’s conventional wisdom. That’s what the world has agreed upon as the correct method of living, right? But the truth is, when it comes to plans, there’s a general pattern to it all: Make the plan, execute the plan, the plan goes off the rails, come up with a new plan. If you don’t snooze occasionally, you’ll run out of gas. You can’t live on power naps. Your car will explode if you keep the pedal to the metal. Acting swiftly can also lead you into more trouble than you are prepared for it you don’t count the costs.

The hard living life pays off for a lucky few, those George Carlin “Modern Men,” but not for everybody.

For instance, let’s talk about hard work. Hard work pays off, right? Nose the grindstone, honest elbow grease, keeps the world running, or so they say. But do harder workers truly earn everything they are owed? Does a farm owner actually work harder than the farm hand? Does a CEO actually deserve more for their hard work than a janitor does? Because I can guarantee you, a good janitor will come home sweaty and tired, nose to the grindstone, full of elbow grease, but for their earnings, it’s not nearly as much as a man who may sign a few papers, lead some meetings, and direct the flow of investment. I’m not saying a CEO doesn’t work hard, because Lord knows not everyone is cut out for it, but is what they do worth billions more than an honest, hard worker? I’m not so sure. But that certainly seems to be the wisdom of the world.

Look at it from another direction. How hard is it to break through a barrier that this world has put up? How hard is it to get elected to be in governmental office? Well that depends on the office, for one. If you’re running for a local office in east Texas, there better be an R next to your name, for one. But more than that, you need resources! Money for signs, advertising spots, and office space. You need volunteers to help fundraise and campaign for you. Then, you have to factor in your chances of winning against an incumbent–something that gets harder to do the longer they’ve been in power. And that’s just on the local level. If you go higher, to say state house, or governor, or US Congress, or Senate, even the President, it takes exponentially more money, volunteers, and time. Oh, and when you get further than maybe the local level, you have to worry about intra-party politics, as well as your opponent’s politics. The promise of America was always government of the people, by the people, for the people, but in practice, only those with access to time, money, and manpower can actually get to govern directly.

So that’s two aspects of life that the World’s Wisdom dictates. Hard work doesn’t actually always pay off. Governance isn’t actually all that easy to gain access to. Circumstances of place, status, race, gender, and ethnicity all play a role, believe it or not. In the end, the powerful remain powerful, and the weak remain weak. So goes the wisdom of the world. The Weak are Meat, and the Strong Eat.

The Wisdom of the Cross

God’s wisdom, the wisdom of the Cross, is everything conventional turned on its head. In Christ, everything we know is completely contradicted. The culmination of this is the Cross.

crucifixion.jpgThe cross is a piece of wood upon which a criminal is forcibly nailed and hung until they are dead. A cross is a shameful punishment reserved for seditious, treasonous thugs, so that everyone will see and fear what will happen to them if they dare go against the Roman government, or the status quo. Jesus was executed. A criminal. The crime? Threatening the way things are. Threatening the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God.

Oh, but it wasn’t just the government he threatened. No no. He threatened religion. He threatened commerce. He threatened the very way we do things. He threatened everyone. He threatened them by introducing love, mercy, humility, and truth to a world that thrives on hate, ruthlessness, pride, and deception. He threatened the modern mentality 2000 years ago, and continues to threaten it because to be completely honest, we haven’t changed much. We may have a different vocabulary with different toys, but the attitude is the same.

He threatens our wisdom with stories.

He threatens our wisdom by telling a story about a father who forgives a son who has wasted his entire inheritance. He threatens our propriety by telling a story about a man beaten on the side of the road, passed over by the leaders of the community, but cared for by an enemy. He tells the stories of fools, like a man who searches for 1 lost sheep, a woman who searches for 1 lost coin, and an investor who spends all his money to buy an entire field just for the chance of a hidden treasure.

More than stories, though, he threatens our wisdom with his actions.

He touches a leper, an offense that is reviled in religious circles, but so that the man can become clean himself. He forgives sins, and when they got mad at that, to prove the point, he makes a man to walk again. He revealed his full glory, his immanent divinity, to three disciples, only to tell them not to tell anyone! He fed the masses, and then turned around and told them that unless they eat of his flesh, and drink of his blood, they would have no part of him. He told them that unless they took up a cross and followed him, they would be no followers of his. He confused even his closest friends up until the very end.

And then? He died a humiliating death upon a cross.

All to prove that God’s wisdom is wiser than we can ever imagine. Death on a cross, ultimate shame, will wind up shaming those who committed it. And shame us by showing us that our wisdom can’t even overcome death, whereas his wisdom provides everlasting life. He confounds the wisest among us, and when we’ve given up on trying to figure him out, he proves to us the greatest wisdom one can have is to give yourself in living sacrifice. To live a holy life. To love unconditionally.

Jesus became wisdom, so that we might be wise. Jesus  proved that even God’s seeming blunders, God’s hilarious ways, God’s ridiculous schemes, will one day seem as clear as day, and we will wonder why we ever questioned it.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to figure them out. This shouldn’t give us excuse to be ignorant–rather, quite the opposite! It should spur us onto deeper learning, more vigorous study of scriptures, more passionate mission, more zealous giving, more devoted discipleship. Jesus wants us to dig deeper, and be ever the more wiser for searching for him. In this, we will have our wisdom. In Him, we will understand in time what God already knew. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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About grantimusmax

Grant Barnes, aka Grantimus Maximus, aka The Nerdcore Theologian. Currently, he is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. He is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a Masters Degree in Divinity. He graduated from Texas State University Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in English, minor in History. He watches way too many movies, reads too many books, listens to too much music, and plays too many video games to ever join the mundane reality people claim is the "Real World." He rejects your reality, and replaces it with a vision of what could be, a better one, shaped by his love for God.
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