Lent 3B Exodus 20:1-17 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 John 2:13-22
As I worked on my sermon for this week I remembered a somewhat heated conversation from a few years ago about this Gospel text. It started as a friendly debate amongst friends about how to preach on Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, but in the end, it got a little out of hand! It started with a simple question of: Does this mean that bookstores inside churches are a bad idea? Many of the jumbo and mega churches, including some Lutheran churches, have bookstores inside the buildings and this was worth thinking about in light of Jesus’ injunction against making the church a market place. We then went on to bingo, bake sales, yard sales, coffee sales, Christian paraphernalia and fanware (like bumper stickers t-shirts and key chains) and finally we ended up radically off the track with someone saying that Christians shouldn’t buy or sell anything and we should live in something akin to a Communist colony.
Hmmmm. Talk about Zeal! All this from a text where we hear of Jesus’ filled with zeal and apparently quite angry with people who had turned the faith into a commodity.
It is amazing how quickly we can get off the path, and often with good intentions. Sometimes I wonder if God isn’t looking at us saying, ‘Huh? Where did you get THAT out of what my son said?’
The same kind of thing can happen for any text in scripture. We start with the right intentions but our passions can sometimes lead us far off the point. One of my pet peeves is the way we have sometimes twisted the text in our Epistle reading for today. Some Christians have said that our faith is unreasonable and does not need to be logical or rational. We do not need to think logically and seek to understand our faith because it is suppose to be foolish! It isn’t supposed to make sense! It’s all about how we feel and we don’t need to waste our time with too much reasoning. And they point to this text—“the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” Honestly, I do not think this is the point of the text.
One of the most profound and meaningful things to me that I have read about the foolishness of the cross was written by an Anglican Theologian, Rev. John Stott:
“In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time, after a while I have had to look away. And in imagination I have turned instead to the lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside His immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. …There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering.”
Maybe to Nietzche that sounds like foolishness. By the world’s standards of what is wise it is indeed foolish. But it does not sound like foolishness to me. It sounds mysterious and profound.
So, if being intentionally thoughtless and silly isn’t what Paul meant, then what did he mean by this text?
First, Paul is using a kind of expression we have all heard or possibly even used before ourselves. Here’s an example. If I said “she is so talkative, she makes me look shy!” or perhaps something like “if he is not smart enough to do the job, we are all incapable.” Am I saying that I am quiet and shy? Am I saying that we are inept or not intelligent? Not at all! I am making a comparison to show how much greater something else is. So, when Paul writes that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, he is making a comparison, not declaring God foolish! He is saying that even at God’s weakest possible point, on the cross where he willing released his immunity to pain and suffering and gave up his life, God is stronger than any human strength even dreamed of being. In fact, Gods strength may lie in that very weakness.
Second, Paul talks about the things the Jews and Greeks are looking for. The Jews, he says, demand signs and proclamation. In other words, many of the Jews of the time sought to find God and win his love and salvation by following all of the laws. In the Old Testament lesson we heard first, we heard the 10 commandments which are but the “biggest” of innumerable laws. It was expected that God would save them; perhaps would be obligated to save them because of their obedience to these laws. You can’t keep us out because we followed all the rules! I think, if we’re honest with ourselves, this view isn’t limited to only some of the Jews of that time because we sometimes thing this way, too. If I’m really good and do good things, God will certainly accept me. The Greeks, who were the other people in the community to which Paul was writing, believed their wisdom was their salvation. It was more, actually, than thinking that their knowledge and wisdom would gain them favor in God’s eyes, it was closer to their believing that wisdom was itself a kind of god. As though human wisdom was actually something divine.
But, Paul says, we need neither of these. Instead, we need the ONE in whom these things are made perfect.
Three athletes go to the Olympics to compete in swimming. The first athlete focuses his whole mind on winning the gold medal. This is all he wants, all he sees. He is single mindedly aiming himself at attaining that prize to the point that nothing else in the whole world matters. Everything else is a pale shadow of that golden award. The second athlete has a slightly different focus, but pursues it with the same single minded devotion. With all his her heart, she wants the fame, the product endorsements, the fanfare and singing the National Anthem while all the world watches her. She wants the parties and all the perks that come with being an Olympic athlete. The third athlete is focused on swimming. He has come to the Olympics to swim. He swims because he loves it with his whole heart. Because it is what he came to do. Because it is what he was made to do. Because swimming is who he is. Swimming itself contains within it all the rewards, fulfillment and joy the others sought so desperately to attain outside of the actual sport in which they were to compete. Regardless of what happened in the Olympic pool that year, the third athlete won.
God wants us to swim. Not seek to win the gold medal of his love and salvation by actions or promises or to seek divine love somewhere else altogether. We don’t need to focus on these other things because we’ve already been give God’s love as a gift! By the grace of God he wants us to BE it. To Swim, so to speak, because it is who we are.
The Ten Commandments were, at one time, believed to be a list of the laws we needed to obey SO THAT God would love us. But, because of Jesus complete fulfillment of the law in a way that we could never accomplish on our own, they are no longer our laws. Instead, they ARE US.
In describing his volunteering for the church, a friend of mine has said to me several times in several ways, “in my family we give our time freely to the church, as much as we can. It is just what we do” Although my friend may have seen this as a family ‘rule’ or ‘law’ at some point in his life, it is now simply a matter of who he is. Who his family is. It is a piece of their identity.
The same is true of the 10 commandments. The people of God are those who love God above all else, and love their neighbors. They are those who promote life and do not kill, who give and do not steal, who seek truth and do not lie, who follow a life described by rather than bound by the commandments. They are the people who, when they fall short of this, look to God for forgiveness and help to become more like this. It is just who the people of God are. It is just who we are.
We are able to do this, to be the people of God, because of the cross. Jesus died on that cross SO THAT we become this people.
The world may indeed think it is foolish to live this way. But the world’s idea of reasonable is like the swimmers striving for gold medals or other accolades rather than doing what they were made to do. But for us, there is nothing less foolish, less reasonable than doing what we are made to do—love God and be the people of God who have been made so by the Cross. It is who we are.