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Worship and Sermons
February 2, 2020

“God’s Foolish Wisdom: the Cross” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, February 2, 2020, Year A / Epiphany 4 – Micah 6:1-8  •  Psalm 15  •  1 Corinthians 1:18-31  •  Matthew 5:1-12

THEME:  Jesus’ humble obedience to God in sacrificing himself on the cross is the greatest wisdom the world has ever known.

Have any of you ever lived or worked around Lancaster?  If so, then you’re probably more familiar than most with the presence of the large Amish community there.  By most accounts, they’re thriving.

But that was not always the case.  As recently as the 1950s, there were only 4,000 Amish in Lancaster County.  Sociologists predicted modern trends in technology and the movement of younger generations to cities would lead the Amish to die out before the end of the 20th century.

   But, in fact, the exact opposite happened.  By the year 2000 there were over 21,000 Amish in Lancaster county.  The Amish population in other areas grew as well.  The experts were confounded.  They wanted to know why.

What they found was startling.  90% of Amish children choose to remain Amish.  It seemed that the focus on living a simple, Christ-like life of obedience to God and self-giving service to others created an exceptional unity.

At the heart of that social and religious unity was the core value of Christ-like humility, exemplified by the cross.  That’s what Paul is trying to teach the Corinthian Christians.

Crucifixion was the most extreme form of capital punishment in the Roman empire.  It was reserved for the lower class.  It’s how Rome executed slaves and political dissidents. 

When a conquered people rebelled and disrupted the Pax Romana, Rome would send in a legion or two and crucify hundreds, even thousands. Crosses would line the roadways -  a public deterrent designed to keep the peace.

Crucifixion was the ultimate source of shame. To actually organize a religious movement around a crucified political criminal was folly.

Jews looked for God’s power and presence in miraculous signs.  Greeks looked for the divine presence in the eloquence of wisdom teachers.  And so both Jews and Greeks were reluctant to accept God’s foolish wisdom in a crucified Christ.

The secular world then and now sees the cross as just another futile death of a failed revolutionary.  But we Christians see it very differently. 

So what exactly happened on the cross?  That’s the question.  Over the last 2,000 years, theologians have proposed several answers.  We call these theories of atonement.

Some have argued Jesus lived and died to create positive moral change in humanity.  The moral influence of his words and actions generated social reform.

Then came those who believed Christ’s death on the cross was a ransom payment to the Devil.  Adam and Eve’s original sin, which all have inherited, created a debt that had to be paid before Satan would free us. Christ’s death on the cross was that payment.

But for many others in the church, the crucifixion was not so much a ransom payment to the Devil as it was his decisive defeat.  In dying and rising, Jesus defeated not only evil, sin and death, but the father of lies himself.  And that sets us free. 

Then there were those in Medieval times who saw the cross as the correction to an imbalance of honor. The injustice of our sin created a debt not to Satan, but to God. Jesus’ death repays that debt by restoring God’s justice.

Some took that notion a step further. In their minds, our sin not only dishonored God, but made him angry, so angry that we merited the death penalty.  According to these folks, what Jesus did on our behalf on the cross satisfied God’s wrath.

As more than one scholar has observed, none of these theories are satisfactory.  Did God require some sort of transaction before he could love us?

Why would a loving God, who wants nothing more than to draw us closer to him, need to use such a violent and distant means of accomplishing that?  In other words, if God is love, then where’s that love in what happened on the cross?

The key to this mystery of atonement is in the very word itself: at-one-ment.  The crucifixion is about unity. 

You and I are good Trinitarians.  The God we know, love and worship is a God who is everywhere and forever Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  What one does, the others also do.

So, when we gaze up at Jesus on the cross, what we are seeing is God.  God’s love and the Spirit’s power are right there with Jesus, working in him and through him.

That work is truly a work of love. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love.  And, as the Gospel of John puts it, there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for others.

That was God’s plan from the beginning.  Our sin separates us from God, and God will not let that stand. So, he drew close to us in Jesus.

On the cross, he draws us closer to him, to be united with him – to be at one with our Creator, and with one another.

The resurrection is proof that not even death can separate us from God.  God himself died on that cross to make sure we could be united with him for all time.  That’s the definition of eternal life.  That’s how much he loves us.

As Paul writes to those competitive, ego-centric, boastful Corinthians, God “is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” 

The only boasting they should be doing is boasting in God!  God’s life-giving love in Jesus is the wisdom of the Cross, and it’s superior to anything the world calls wise.

But the secular world has always had trouble with that.  They see what happened on the cross differently.  They look on Jesus’ willing self-sacrifice as sheer lunacy, the height of foolishness.

They don’t want to give their lives for others – they want to impress others!  They want to elevate themselves above others.  That was as true 2000 years ago is it is today.

For those status-obsessed Corinthian Christians, like the society around them, the cross was the exact opposite of their desires.

But they’re missing the power and wisdom of the cross.  They have not yet understood that the path to true greatness is the one Jesus took:  the way of humility.  It’s the road to blessedness Jesus laid out for his disciples in the Beatitudes.

The first step on that path is humility:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

So long as they are consumed with placing themselves above others, they’re incapable of serving them.  That’s what was so disturbing to Paul about the Corinthian congregation.

Their lack of humility was preventing them from being united with Christ and with one another.  So, of course there are divisions among them.  No humility, no love.  No love, no unity.

Each was trying to lead a group of their own disciples just like Jesus did, but where Jesus succeeded, they were failing. They were failing because their motivation was not to serve God or their neighbor – they only wanted to serve themselves.

That’s a lesson every leader has to learn.  The only truly effective leadership is servant leadership.  No one has understood that better than our former Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

Colin Powell spent 35 years in the army and rose to the rank of 4-star general.  He fought in Korea and Vietnam and then served every President from Ronald Reagan to Barak Obama.  Today, he’s widely regarded as an expert on leadership.

A few years ago, a young White House intern asked him what makes an effective leader.  Without hesitating he said “Trust… Good leaders are trusted by followers.”  And then he told a story of his days at the Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia.

He was learning about leadership there. One day, a crusty old sergeant took him aside.  He said to Colin, “Lieutenant, you'll know you're a good leader when people follow you - if only out of curiosity.” 

The lesson was clear.  People look to their leaders and trust them because they're serving selflessly - not self-serving, but serving selflessly.  That requires humility.

This applies to civilian life as well.  When it comes to personal relationships, for example, research shows humble people are more attractive to others and more likely to get dates.  They’re also more likely to admit their faults and to stay faithful.  As a result, their relationships are stronger and last longer.

Humility is also the key to leadership at work. Management consultants agree that humble, self-giving leaders build the strongest, most capable teams, and they get the best out of those teams.  They’re quicker to accept new information and they adapt better to changing environments.

And it turns out humility in leaders is contagious among their employees.  Compared to ego-driven managers, humble leaders attract and nurture more humble employees who behave more ethically and are more united in their commitment to the organization’s vision and goals.

This is all because humble leaders build trust by caring and sacrificing for others.  Nobody has ever done that better than Jesus Christ. Nowhere was that ever more apparent than on the cross.

Friends, where in our lives can we put this foolish wisdom of the cross to work?  Where could more humility and self-sacrifice lead to greater love and stronger relationships?

Let’s try something:  this week, let’s all identify someone with whom we have been at odds.  Maybe someone in our personal life or in our public life –  at work or wherever we are when we’re not at home. 

Then let’s take a page from Paul and our Amish friends and let’s follow Christ’s example.  In our interactions with them, let’s focus less on pursuing what we want and more on what they need.

What might happen?  What if that became contagious?

Can you imagine a world where everyone treated others that way?  

I can.  In fact, it has a name.  It’s called the Kingdom of God.  And it’s not as far away as we might think.

May it be so.


Last Published: February 3, 2020 9:24 AM
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