Embarrassed Isa 29:11-19; Ps 17; 1Cor 1:26-2:16; Matt 27:27-54 St Mark’s 25.9.16
This is the second sermon in our series on 1 Corinthians, and as with all Paul’s communications with this divisive, arrogant, immoral and confused church what he says is particularly intense. Because he is not trying to please his audience Paul is not “nice” but speaks in a manner assured to offend his hearers. Since Bassendean is more “real” than the average congregation, especially Anglican ones, you can probably cope with the tone of this message. Paul bluntly strips away all the pretentions of the Christians in Corinth by telling them what they are NOT. Given the honour-shame Greek culture of the day he embarrassed the Corinthians publicly as this letter was read when they gathered together as church. He tells them what they are NOT to point them to how in Christ God become nothing to save them. The intensity of this passage was demanded by the scandalous attitude of Corinthian Christians, the thought of Christ crucified represented the epitome of everything the Corinthians detested; foolishness and weakness in the eyes of the world.
Paul brings up the past of his hearers in a way that they would have found very demeaning.
1:26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
“Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards”. To use a contemporary term the Christians in Corinth wanted to think of themselves as “smart arses”. Paul pulls them down a notch by reminding them they definitely were not intellectuals. The Corinthians wanted to think they were smart because smart people are esteemed. In remember getting a surprise visit from my pastor not long after I had become a follower of Jesus and still at university; he was enthusiastically encouraging me to do a PhD in biology. If I had a little more courage at the time I would have told him to turn away from the idol of intellectual achievement as the Lord had already strongly rebuked me about this sin.
“Not many were powerful” says Paul. The Corinthian Christians like the common culture around them craved influence in society. But Paul embarrasses them with the reminder they never had this status. (There’s actually a family of churches in Australia called “Influencers Church”; some lessons never seem to be learned.) Finally, “not many were of noble birth”. In a socially stratified society where people were honoured because of their family line few of these Christians came from upper class families. We don’t tend to make so much of these things in Australia but lots of other nations do. I remember (Justice) John Gilmour saying publicly that one of the things that he liked about Australia compared to the U.K. was that no one asked, “What did your father do for a living?” Paul is categorical that the believers in Corinth were not drawn from the worlds’ “beautiful people” but were society’s “nobodies”.
Early opponents of the Christian message made much of the Church’s unimpressive nature. The second century anti-Christian philosopher Celsus sneered at Christianity, “the following are the rules laid down by them. Let no one come to us who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent … but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence…(Christians) manifestly show that they…are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children.” Today people like Richard Dawkins still argue that Christians are dumb, delusional and dangerous. But to be disrespected by the world may not a bad thing (John 15:18-19). This is not what the Corinthians wanted to hear, but Paul presses on to humiliate them even more.
v.27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong
“You”, Paul says to the Corinthians, are in the eyes of the world the “foolish” and “weak” people God sovereignly chose to shame the smart and powerful. To be called “foolish” and “weak” is only an insult if you are deceived into thinking that you should be wise in your own wisdom and strong in your own strength. Paul is no way interested in putting his readers down but only in lifting up the grace of God in their lives. Let me make this point from another angle. If you are a Christian and someone else isn’t, like me and my late father, you can try to find the difference in some quality you have and the other person doesn’t have, or solely in the grace of God. I am 100% sure of what is the true answer. As if Paul hadn’t humiliated and disgraced the Corinthians enough now he calls them “nothings”;
v.28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things counted as nothing at all, to bring to nothing things the world considers important
This degradation is all for one purpose.
v.29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God
The Corinthians understood Paul’s line of thought about boasting. The ancient Greek writers correctly observed that people boasted in what gave them most delight, so Odysseus/Ulysses boasts in his cunning and Achilles in his strength. This is Donna’s “Brag Book” which she carries around in her handbag containing photos of the grandkids. I remember saying to Donna that “the twins”, who were born 8 weeks premature, are “delightful”. This is natural, but why do so few Christian grandmothers speak about the delights of knowing Christ. Or, why do so few men talk about Jesus with more passion than they do about their favourite sport (Matt 6:21, 12:34)? If we keep listening to Paul we will find out what is stopping most of us speaking enthusiastically about Jesus.
v.30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption
Everything that is worth anything is a gift of God’s grace. Our relationship with Jesus, our acceptance by God, our holy status and our deliverance from evil forces has come about entirely by divine initiative. All this is for one purpose.
v. 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
“Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”” (Jer 9:23-24). The powerful prophetic truth in this scripture from Jeremiah is that if we turn aside from family, possessions, abilities or achievements as our primary boasts and delight in God’s love, justice and righteousness in Christ we will experience his delights in our lives. Christians are called to boast supremely about Christ but often find this hard to do. I am involved in a meeting called Perth Prayer where each week someone is called to give a testimony to Jesus. Too often people tell us about their ministry, their spirituality, their financial success, their knowledge and so on rather than testifying about Jesus. Praise God however I received online this week a recorded testimony from a young man I mentor. At twenty years of age he was leading a church youth group but had a total mental melt down and became so psychotic that he forcibly hospitalised. In the darkness of a holding room experiencing extreme loneliness he had an encounter with the power of God that communicated to him the terrible isolation that Jesus experienced on the cross. In that moment he knew he was not alone; and could never be. Christ was being gloried in everything he was NOT. Paul presses on to remind the Corinthians about how his preaching imaged the message of God’s choice of the weak and lowly by boasting of what he was NOT.
2:1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.
The preacher through whom the Corinthians believed in Jesus (i.e. Paul) had not impressed them with smart or clever talk (2 Cor 10:10). A friend of mine sent me a link yesterday connected to a well known American preacher. After I had listened to this highly skilled orator I replied by email to my friend. “you need to watch the next clip… Wait for the time when he centres on Jesus!” The truth is he never once centred on Jesus and he never once mentioned the cross (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqPUXjFYh38).
2: 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Paul was resolved in every situation to speak about Jesus and his death. He never told his audience what they wanted to hear but only what God wanted them to hear. And what he wanted them to hear was Christ crucified. Naturally speaking the message of a crucified God is stupid. The earliest depiction of Jesus is piece of graffiti from Rome (c.200); reading “Alexamenos worships [his] God.” it is a stick drawing of a Christian reverencing a crucified man with the head of a donkey (cf. Acts 17:18). This is an image of total ridicule and mockery.
The Gospel reading I chose today focuses on this aspect of the crucifixion of Jesus. “the soldiers…. kneeling before him…mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!…And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and … led him away to crucify him…. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads…saying, “…save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself….And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.” (Matt 27:27ff.) Jesus intentionally exposed himself to public mockery and open shame in order to save us from our sins.
To be mocked on account of the gospel was the last thing that the Corinthians wanted, and it is the last thing popular Christianity wants today. Several years ago I attended an international Christian conference in Kuala Lumpur, and I was more than surprised when the organisers of that event had the assembly opened by the Prime Minister of Malaysia, a man whose first name was Mohammed. This seeking of self-importance would have impressed the Corinthians but it has nothing to do with the power of the cross. Paul drills this message home in a way that is totally counter-cultural.
2:3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling,
If the Corinthians must boast of their “strengths” Paul boasts of his disabilities (cf. 2Cor 11:16-12:11). His opponents in Corinthian went on to say; ““His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.”” (2 Cor 10:10). But there was a deep spiritual reason for the apostle’s vulnerability. In his manifest weakness Paul revealed Jesus, who in Gethsemane “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death,” (Heb 5:7). Paul’s life was part of the message of the cross that weakness submitted to God is never a source of shame but always a means of glory (Luke 24:26).
4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
The true message of the gospel is so scandalous to ordinary logic that only a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” can shift the conscience to believe it. There is a deep spiritual mystery about Christian ministry here. Just as the crucified Christ needed to lie dead and powerless in a tomb so that all glory would go to his Father by raising him from the dead by the Spirit’s power, so Paul understood he must be empty of all self-confidence if God’s unaided power was to move through him. The weakness, fear and much trembling which marked Paul’s ministry is a share in Christ crucified who depended wholly and solely on the power of God which raises the dead. This is how our passage ends.
5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Paul was a true pastor; he knew that those who follow the cleverness of mere mortals will be manipulated and in the end let down and disappointed. But if you follow the crucified and risen Christ who is the power of God he will never let you down (1 Cor 1:24). However much the Corinthians might have found Paul’s line of thought distasteful deep down they knew his message was true, because when they heard him preach the power of God came on them in a way that no amount of clever human speech could ever have produced.
The true gospel message is that Christ in his death “made himself nothing” so that his Father might be everything in him for us (Phil 2:7). This makes every confused, weak and fearful human being a candidate for a miraculous death and resurrection transformation through God’s power. Against all natural human wisdom whoever gives their nothings to God will never be embarrassed by what they are NOT. If your family or marriage or relationships are not anything special, hand this over to the Lord, if your education or Bible knowledge is not great, give it to Christ, if you have no self-confidence trust in Jesus, if your health is not fantastic look to God for strength. He delights in turning nothings into somethings by his great grace. If you are embarrassed by your inability to speak to others of Jesus there is a way forward. Whoever takes their nothingness to God through Christ will find their heavenly Father is not embarrassed of them and will enjoy the delights of God. Our Father has a “Brag Book” in heaven and you can know your name is in it (Rev 13:8). When this revelation happens you will experience the Spirit and power of God and boast supremely of Jesus Christ and him crucified. Nothing need disqualify us from enjoying God’s riches in Christ. Let us pray.