Here is the sermon I delivered for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany:
There is a saying that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. A novelist may write a story about a whole series of unexpected events occurring in the life of the main character. The story may contain exotic travel and danger and certainly a healthy sprinkling of romance. But a story always has limitations in how realistic and real of a character a writer can create.
A biography of a real person creates a much more vivid picture of someone. From the information presented in the biography the reader can ponder whether the times make the person or the person makes the times. Think of well known and influential figures in history, inventors, and pioneers. George Washington, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln – the true stories of their lives are more amazing than anything someone could make up.
The same can be said about the history of our salvation. God’s very intervention in history is more amazing, more unlikely than any human imagination could make up. The role of the cross is entirely more amazing and unexpected than any fiction the mind of man has ever written.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” The Word of the cross is unlike anything else the world teaches. To the world the cross is folly because it is a message that is based on weakness and suffering, vulnerability and helplessness. Unbelievers scoff at how a person could trust in something with no power, wealth or prestige attached to it.
Islam views the word of the cross foolish to the point where they believe it is offensive to say that Jesus, a prophet of God would suffer and die on the cross. They instead teach a contrived alternate reality where someone else took the place of Jesus on the cross.
The word of the cross has the greatest power in the world, the power of life victorious over death. It is not always glamorous and pretty talking about the cross. It does not provide the type of teaching and encouragement that best selling inspirational books thrive off of.
Embracing the word of the cross requires that we are honest with the reality that life lived under the cross is not always perfect and problem free. We are honest with ourselves to know that the most well practiced positive mindset and trust in God cannot take away all difficulties in life. To embrace the wisdom of the cross is to acknowledge that life is accompanied by suffering and eventually death. This wisdom of the cross is not about escaping death, but instead a story of our mortality and finitude and God’s eternal deliverance to us.
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.” The wisdom of the cross is not about signs that prove when God will deliver us as the Jews sought, or illusions that there is a wisdom that will lead to perfection of life as the Greeks thought. Instead St. Paul teaches the truth of God’s suffering for our sake. God suffering so that we will one day be risen to eternal life. What the world sees as folly shows to believers the very glory of God.
Along with the preaching of Christ crucified is the truth that the world does not center around us, but centers around Jesus and his love for us. It comes very natural for us to think of ourselves as the center, after all we do see and experience the world from our own perspective. But the wisdom of the cross helps us realize that God did not create the world for our selfish enjoyment and consumption, but for our worship, and service to God and service to others.
The wisdom of God is that it pleased God to save us through a way that generally turns off those who put their faith in the wisdom and power of man. “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
The wisdom of the world means that life is about earning our place in life, even if it needs to come at the expense of others. Works righteousness is the wisdom of the world. The harder you work, the better life will be for you- especially in regards to your eternal destiny. In this way it is scandalous to the world that our salvation is an unearned gift, that Jesus died on the cross while we were yet sinners.
In many ways in our culture it is seen as scandalous to believe that God provides for us in life to the extent that we can make decisions in how to live our lives different from what is seen as the thing to do in our culture.
A few weeks ago movie star Ryan Gosling thanked his wife upon reception of a golden globe award. He acknowledged that he could not have won the award for his film role without his wife supporting him by taking time away from her career to care of their daughter, their unborn expected child, and her brother with cancer. This once common public recognition, was met on various public forums with anger and accusations that Gosling is a sexist for having his wife stay at home with kids.
Those following the extreme positions of the modern day feminist movement considered it a threatening example to other women for an actress like Eva Menendez to willingly put her career on the backburner.
This is exactly what 1Corinthians is describing about how the cross is a great folly to the world- to put the interests of others above yourself as Eva Menendez did is threatening to the values of our world. To live under the cross means making sacrifices for others, a spouse, children, a brother- even as they are not perfect and may not be perfectly appreciative.
The scripture describes how Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. This is undeserved love. All service in Christ to our neighbor is done to people who may be imperfectly deserving of our love.
In Matthew chapter 16 we hear from Jesus the amazing command: “If anyone would come after me, he must take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus described following him as relating a choice of self denial. This taking up our cross is a choice we willingly make for the good of others in love. To take up our cross means sacrificing our own desires and wishes for the good of others.
To follow Jesus is to de-emphasize carrying for ourselves because we know and believe by faith that God will take care of us both now and in eternity far better than we can take care of ourselves.
Veith and Moerbe in their book Family vocation observe: “When some Christians find themselves arguing with their spouses they become disillusioned and want to leave and start over- seeking another chance for the dreamed of perfect Christian marriage.”
Staying married, even though your marriage is not the perfect Christian ideal you thought it would be, is to take up the cross in love for your spouse and other family members. To take up the cross in family life is to make compromises and concessions to the needs of others. It is to put the interests of others above yourself. As we make sacrifices we put ourselves in position to be as Christ to our spouse. This is the beauty of the wisdom of the cross, it leads to a more loving way of life than we could ever design on our own.
In our gospel lesson we also hear about the beauty of life lived in the kingdom of God. The teachings that we call the beatitudes are standards of living that apart from Christ we could not meet.
Instead of being poor in spirit, our sinful nature leads us to pride. Instead of mourning for our sin and the sins of the world, our human nature is to celebrate our accomplishments and convince ourselves that we will never need to mourn- that bad things only happen to other people out there.
Instead of being meek our human nature desires for us to have as much power and control as we can get a hold of. Instead of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, living by the wisdom of this world we will seek to have our way at the expense of others.
But in Christ we live according to an entirely different way, the wisdom of the cross, the wisdom of God’s reign and rule in our lives. In Christ we are able to live as those pure in heart. Through our faith we have pure hearts that look past all of the manifold temptations of this world, from wealth to power to greed to hate. With pure hearts we instead see God at work in the world through Christ crucified.
With pure hearts we can approach the task of being a church here at St. Peter’s, making decisions for our future from the starting point of seeing how God is at work in our relationships with one another and our relationships in the world. We approach the task of developing an identity and ministry plan for the future through the wisdom of the cross. We do not boast in ourselves and our own wisdom, but instead we boast in our great God.
Through Christ we live our faith to the point where those who do not believe may desire to persecute us. And through Christ even this persecution will not shake us, as the very suffering we experience for our faith ties us ever more closely to God’s kingdom.
The world may see our faith as folly. The world may scoff at a belief that the power of God comes through the weakness of the cross. But rejoice and be glad, for yours is the kingdom of God. Yours is the power of God, leading unto salvation forevermore. Amen.