"God's Delight in Choosing Losers"
Jan.23, 2011 1Cor.1:18-31
THE STRONG, THE SMART, AND THE SOCIALLY AWKWARD
When did it dawn upon you that you would not be the world's next superstar (assuming, of course, this realization has actually occurred to you)? For me, it was about Grade 3. Our class of 5 students was having a footrace along the sideroad in front of SS#2 Hibbert under the watchful eye of our teacher, Mr McDonald. 3 of my classmates pulled away in front over the course of the 100-yard dash, leaving a smaller boy 'Reg' (not his real name) and myself vying for last place (in retrospect, I'd like to think I opted to keep Reg company, but the facts probably wouldn't actually square with that). It was at that moment I realized I was probably not destined to be a 'jock' like some of the rest of the boys.
However all hope was not lost as I discovered I had an aptitude for spelling bees and mental arithmetic. Consequently I strove for status in class by being an 'A' student; of course, there were some fringe benefits, as this meant you got to help the pretty girls with their homework occasionally. This approach fostered subtle pride up through high school and college, where I succeeded in making the Dean's Honour List and graduated 'with distinction'.
In the elementary pecking order, you had to be either smart or strong (if you were a boy) or smart or pretty (if you were a girl) or else you really didn't rank. Those who were neither smart nor strong nor pretty got overlooked or, worse, picked on. One classmate, 'Willie' (not his real name), always seemed socially awkward, a bit 'different'; sometimes the others played tricks on him. I remember one time at lunch sitting outside, other boys caught a fly and put it in Willie's sandwich when he wasn't looking. Then we all inwardly chortled as he proceeded to unknowingly eat the sandwich.
I think of that whenever I drive by Willie's farm. He's served well for several years as reeve of the township. Meanwhile a lot of the 'stars' of the class have moved away and faded into obscurity. This humbles me, and has caused me to reflect on the superficiality of our childish approach to classifying people prematurely.
Unfortunately this prejudicial classifying based on 'smarts' or other factors continues into adulthood. People are wowed by performers on 'American Idol' or movie stars, yet the next day see the tabloids headlines scorning the crumbling marriages or behavioural excesses of these same stars.
In today's reading from 1Corinthians 1, we find God is not impressed by what wows humans, the strength or smarts people are prone to boast of. In fact, He aims to nullify (or show the emptiness of) our usual standards of measuring intelligence or strength. God has inverted the system: in Christ He makes it possible for what's despised and lowly and overlooked in the world to be redeemed, raised up - to the praise of His glory, not human egos.
WHAT THE WORLD VAUNTS, GOD SHAMES
William Barclay observed, "Pride is the ground in which all the other sins grow, and the parent from which all the other sins come." So you'd suspect pride might be something on God's radar to fight. The Bible reveals God is set against what the world is proud of. 1:19, "For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."" This is quoting Isaiah 29:14; there, the historical context may be pointing at those who try to outsmart enemy invasions by making back-room alliances with Assyria or Egypt, or those who use their influence in the courts to have people unfairly declared guilty, and deprive the innocent of justice. This week the radio reported victims of a Ponzi scheme in Quebec since 2005 may finally be able to get their money back. Fraudsters may be very intelligent, smart enough to con, but swindling retirees out of their lifetime savings is particularly despicable!
V20 says, "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" and mentions a few categories of 'wise guys'. "Where is the wise man?" and "Where is the philosopher [lit.disputer, debater] of this age?" These most likely refer to the Greek schools of philosophy and rhetoric. "Where is the scholar?" [lit.scribe] may refer to the Jewish scribes or teachers of the law, whom Jesus criticized for laying heavy legalistic burdens on people yet not lifting a finger to help them (Mt 23:4). They must have carried impressive status: imagine a policeman, lawyer, and clergyman all rolled into one!
What impressed the ancient peoples? V22, "Jews demand miraculous signs..." Like the Pharisees and Sadducees for whom healings and deliverances were not enough: they wanted to see a sign from heaven (Mt 16:1). Even at the cross they mocked Jesus because He wouldn't perform the miracle of delivering himself: hear the derision in Mt 27:42, "He saved others...but he can't save himself! He's the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him."
The Jews claimed to possess the truth; while the Greeks were seekers, speculators (Vincent). V22 continues, "Greeks look for wisdom." We still study Greek philosophers today - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle are world-famous. But that approach makes me the judge of truth: I decide what will fit MY categories. Deism in the 18th century followed suit by requiring religious truth to be explainable on a purely natural basis. Naturalism today is very similar, and popular in the sciences - so what if you have to resort to aliens to explain the origin of the universe, anything but God! Humanism makes man the sole gauge of everything, by definition. But all these philosophies or worldviews are deficient in that they're biased to restricting truth's categories to OUR pre-defined terms. 21A, "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know Him..." In other words, founding your views on strictly worldly sources is NOT how to get to know God!
If you really want to know 'where it's at' in the universe - start not with Confucius or Descartes, but the Cross. Almighty God has sovereignly chosen to make the message of the cross of Jesus Christ the means to real POWER. Vv17-18, "...lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power...The message of the cross...to us who are being saved...is the POWER OF GOD." The Holy One sets the terms, He defines what's true, what's 'really real'. What gets you to heaven? Not your intelligence or your muscle. V21B, "God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached [ie Jesus' cross] to save those who believe." What was preached? What's the content of the message? V23, "We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews..." - because He didn't fit their preconceived conquering-political-Messiah categories. And [the verse continues - Christ crucified is] "foolishness to Gentiles": it was inconceivable to Greek-thinkers that a wise man should be condemned and executed as a vile criminal. There's no 'style' to that!
So, by Messiah's sovereignly-designed means of death for the atonement for sinful humankind, all our petty means of boasting are undone, shown for the vanities they are. Vv27-29, so that none may boast before God: God chose to shame the wise, shame the strong, to NULLIFY (bring to naught) "the things that are" - what's popularly seen as really 'counting', substantial, who's who. God chose to do this - how? By using the unimpressive folks whom He 'called': v26, "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth." You weren't PhDs, or movers and shakers, or upper crust; at best, you were 'average'. As Paul says in Philippians 3, the things he used to be so proud of he now counts as rubbish compared to the greatness of knowing Jesus. But God called you and chose you, and that's what makes you special, dear to Him. God delights in choosing 'cracked pots' to let His glory shine through our human frailties and overcome failings. 2Cor 4:7, "But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us."
Thomas Fuller said, "Pride and grace dwell never in one place." (Repeat) God's grace saving us from our sinful past excludes any pride we might feel legitimate on the basis of our brains or braun or breeding.
WHO CHRIST HAS BECOME FOR US
This passage may seem kind of a write-off for us as far as our natural human merits go, but it is also a positive 'write-in' in terms of who Jesus becomes for us when we yield to Him as Lord and receive Him fully into our lives. V24 (leading in from 23), "We preach Christ crucified...to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the POWER of God and the WISDOM of God."
The word translated 'power' in Greek is dunamis, from which we get 'dynamite'. I used to stand in awe of my bachelor uncle who lived across the road; he once worked up in the mines around Sudbury, and kept sticks of dynamite in his barn for blowing up tree stumps. You'd be working away outside and hear this muffled BOOM, or be inside the house and the windows would rattle like a small earthquake. "Oh, Uncle Nelson must be taking out another tree stump." It felt kind of cool just to have an uncle who could do that sort of thing! How much more we can revere the Lord Jesus who has real dunamis, the source of all created power! Recall His endless string of miracles in the gospels, healing the blind and lame and lepers, casting out demons, raising the dead, walking on water, stilling the storm, feeding the thousands. Then to top it off, the power God exercised in Him rising from the dead! In the future, that same power will roll up the heavens like a scroll, change the earth like an old garment, and bring a new heaven and new earth. Now you're talking real power - not just puny sticks of dynamite!
Some of you have witnessed this power dramatically change your life or another person's life - saving from alcoholism or drugs, winning over depression, overcoming an abusive past, delivering from greed and the insatiable quest for satisfaction in materialism. It's all Jesus' awesome power to save.
V24 calls Christ "the power of God and WISDOM of God." Proverbs 8(23,27) personifies wisdom as being present with God when He set the heavens in place; "I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began." In the opening of John's gospel Jesus is God's "Word" or Logos, giving meaning and rationality to all existence. To the Colossians Paul states that Christ "is before all things, and in Him all things hold together"; all things were created by Him and for Him (Col 1:16f). The wisdom of God's plan and purpose are wrapped up in Christ.
Jesus' wisdom became obvious to those who heard Him over the course of His earthly ministry. There's the beauty of His ethical teaching, in such passages as the Sermon on the Mount; the vividness of His parables; His commentary on Old Testament passages and Jewish traditions that confounded the most respected religious teachers of the day; His perception in going to the heart of what's most important; and His depth of insight into the mysteries of the Kingdom of God and eternal realities. After the culmination of His run-ins with the various groups of the religious elite, "No one dared to ask Him any more questions." (Mt 22:46)
V30 here unpacks the concept of wisdom in Christ specifically as it applies to believers: "It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God-- that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption." He has become for us wisdom - when we're in Christ we look 'smart' to God: not in grey-matter 'smarts' but godliness smarts (righteous, holy, redeemed).
What does this outline as the ingredients of 'Spiritual IQ'? First, righteousness: Jesus is the standard of righteousness, and His perfect righteousness is now imputed to us who believe, credited to us in heaven's courtroom as it were. The Holy Spirit brings to our awareness that Jesus is our gauge of righteousness; Jesus said in John 16(8ff), "When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer..." We can't boast of our own righteousness: Jesus is our righteousness.
V30 says Christ has become for us 'holiness'. We are 'set apart' for God's use when we receive Christ (positionally), and we are progressively sanctified or 'cleaned up' (practically) as we begin to walk in obedience and keep confessing our trespasses. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just [or, 'righteous'] and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1Jo 1:9) Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul interprets 'being sanctified' as avoiding sexual immorality, not following passionate lusts like the heathen but controlling our body in a way that's holy and honourable. What about you - do wrong desires crowd your holiness?
And the third aspect of 'wisdom' Paul outlines in v30 is that Christ has become our redemption. By His suffering death He 'bought us back' from consignment to Hell and Satan's possession. Romans 3(24) says sinners "are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." The lexicon defines the Greek word here as "a releasing effected by payment of ransom". Hodge notes, "Christ saves us neither by the mere exercise of power, nor by his doctrine, nor by his example, ...but as a satisfaction to divine justice, as an expiation for sin, and as a ransom from the curse and authority of the law, thus reconciling us to God..." He paid the cost to get us back. "The debt against us is not viewed as simply cancelled, but is fully paid [by] Christ's blood or life, which he surrendered for [us]." (Easton)
In Christ we are made righteous, holy, and redeemed; that's not how we normally think of 'wisdom', but that's how Paul summarizes it here. Grow in God's kind of wisdom!
JUST ALONG FOR THE RIDE
An article in ChristianWeek summarizes the humble, grateful, un-boastful attitude that results when we receive Jesus as our Saviour and start operating from the basis of His love and goodness, no longer boasting in our own personal accomplishments or smarts or strength. A teenager from Stouffville named Jared Henriques has started selling clothes to raise funds for Compassion Canada's unsponsored children's fund. The motto of Compassion Canada is 'releasing children from poverty in Jesus' name'. So far the new company, called Pocket Change Apparel, is not making any profit or wages from it themselves, he says they're 'just a band of volunteers'. Since launching in May 2010, Pocket Change has sold around 1,000 T-shirts, raising about $5,000 for Compassion. In December, they launched a new line of hoodies as well, selling about 130 in the first three weeks.
But the last couple of paragraphs in the article have the tone of someone who's finding in Jesus his power and wisdom. Jared says one of the most amazing parts of the entire process was seeing "the transformation that God has done through me personally."I'm just as average as anyone else...It's unbelievable just to see the stuff that God can do. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. It's nothing that I've done by my own power. For me, it's really been a matter of just being along for the ride." He adds: "I'd like people to pray...for me, and for the other people involved.That I would continue to humble myself and remember what I'm doing this for, who I'm doing this for.Because if I ever lose sight of the vision, I don't want to be doing this anymore." Let's pray.