Quick: what was the most ridiculous sermon you ever heard?
The greatest lesson I learned from my homiletics professor (homiletics is the art of writing and delivering sermons) was one he never put in the syllabus: humility. (I’m not saying I learned the lesson well. Of course, if I did say that, you’d have ample reason to doubt it.) Here was a stellar preacher, patiently trying to teach the craft to a green group of seminarians. Some of our first efforts were truly cringeworthy; it’s as if we were working too hard at sounding like preachers to actually be preachers.
But there he would sit, listening respectfully as we mangled Scripture and tried to project the appropriate intelligence and gravitas. And at the end of each sermon, he would almost invariably give a hearty and encouraging “Amen! Amen!” before giving his gentle guidance. Somehow, some way, he always found a reason to be blessed by the preaching of God’s word.
I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter what we do in the pulpit. But what matters more is whether God speaks, sometimes even through the most foolish of messages.
At the end of an earlier post, I asked what we mean when we say we heard a “powerful” sermon. Whose power was it? Truth be told, as an academic by trade and temperament, I understand the Corinthians’ admiration for clever speech and a well-turned argument. In fact, for all Paul’s protestations that he doesn’t intend to “preach the good news with clever words” (1 Cor 1:17, CEB), he puts together some pretty eloquent arguments himself.
The point, however, is that the gospel keeps coming back to the message of a crucified Savior. And from a worldly standpoint, a more ridiculous idea could scarcely be imagined. Paul writes:
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. It is written in scripture: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent.” Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? (1 Cor 1:18-20, CEB)
In the gospel of the cross, Paul seems to see the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy of judgment:
The Lord says: Since these people turn toward me with their mouths, and honor me with lip service while their heart is distant from me, and their fear of me is just a human command that has been memorized, I will go on doing amazing things to these people, shocking and startling things. The wisdom of their wise will perish, and the discernment of their discerning will be hidden. (Isa 29:13-14, CEB)
Jesus himself cited the same text as he criticized the Pharisees and the teachers of the law for their rule-bound hypocrisy (Mark 7:6-8). Here, Paul uses it against Jews and Greeks alike. The Greeks admire and trust the wisdom of their philosophers. The Jews look to their rabbis and experts in the law. And when Paul asks, “Where are today’s debaters?”, he may be poking fun at the Corinthians’ fondness for the clever rhetoric of their favorite sophists.
“All right then,” Paul seems to say, “which of them would have predicted the whole crazy story of a God who would humble himself to become human, and then let himself be shamed and killed, only to be raised back to life again?”
A crazy story indeed. We’ll consider how crazy in the next post.