A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
February 2, 2014.
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Several years back, columnist Dave Barry listed “Sixteen Things That It Took Me over Fifty Years to Learn.” Let me give you the “Top Ten” of his list:
10. Take out the fortune before you eat the cookie.
9. There is a very fine line between “hobby” and “mental illness.”
8. Never lick a steak knife.
7. If there really is a God who created the entire universe with all of its glories, and He decides to deliver a message to humanity, He WILL NOT use, as His messenger, a person on cable TV with a bad hairstyle.
6. You should never say anything to a woman that even remotely suggests that you think she’s pregnant unless you can see an actual baby emerging from her at that moment.
5. A person, who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.
4. Never be afraid to try something new. Remember that a lone amateur built the Ark. A large group of professionals built the Titanic.
3. Your friends love you anyway.
2. You should not confuse your career with your life.
1. Never, under any circumstances, take a sleeping pill and a laxative on the same night.
Words of wisdom from Dave Barry. While Barry was able to see the humor in our everyday life, the situation that the apostle Paul was facing in the church of Corinth was definitely not a laughing matter. In today’s New Testament Lesson, Paul was writing a letter to a church that he founded in Corinth, a major cosmopolitan city located in southern Greece. This church had followers of Jesus who were Jewish, but the church also had those who were of Greek and Roman descent. For the Jewish believers, they looked for salvation through a Messiah who could perform miraculous signs and wonders, a powerful liberator who could free God’s people from the Roman empire. That was the conventional wisdom of the Jews. For the Greeks, they looked for salvation through knowledge. Socrates said, “The secret to a successful society is education. If we can just give everybody a good education, then it must follow that the world will get better and better.” That was the convention wisdom of the Greeks. This difference in perspectives was a cause of major dissension and in-fighting in the Corinthian church.
In his first letter to this church, Paul was quick to point out that Jesus was a challenge to the conventional wisdom of both Jews and Greeks. Paul wrote: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” As you know, the cross was a brutal instrument of execution sponsored by the Roman empire. It was intended not only to get rid of troublemakers and insurgents, but to publicly humiliate and shame them. The cross was a stumbling block to the Jews because no Messiah should undergo the humiliation, shame and defeat of the cross. The cross was foolishness to the Greeks because no sane person would endure such a death as the way to know the divine.
No one wants to be publicly humiliated and shamed. I remember when I was in the first grade back in Hong Kong, my school scheduled a general assembly at the end of every week. In the assembly, the principal would recite the names of students who didn’t do their homework, and those elementary grade students would walk up the stage, hold out their hand to be slapped with a ruler by the principal. One week, I accidentally forgot to turn in my homework, and all rest of the week I lived in dread, and I didn’t tell my parents. At that general assembly, when it finally came to the reading of names, I held my breath and braced for the inevitable. But somehow, my name wasn’t called, and I was spared the public humiliation. When I got back home, I quickly wrote an entry in my journal that my Mom had just given me. In neat Chinese characters, I wrote: “I promise I will never forget to turn in my homework again.”
Even though I had a miraculous escape in that school assembly, I carried that traumatic experience with me ever since, and I kept my promise. With practice, I became pretty adept at being the “perfect” student, always responsible, always working hard, yet always being careful to blend in and not embarrass or make a fool out of myself. Now I must say, those characteristics greatly benefitted me and they were a big part of my academic success. But they also came at a price, since being a “perfectionist” is a perfect way to live in constant fear of being exposed as a failure and a fool. To this day, I feel the pressure to be perfect almost every Sunday as I try to preach, and sometimes I’m afraid that I’m not good enough or wise enough to address this congregation.
New Testament scholar Robert Jewett argues that by enduring a shameful death, Jesus “overcomes our shame by letting us experience the boundless love of God…. Christ takes the ultimate weight of shame to lift our heaviest and most secret burden, the feeling that no one loves and respects us.” That’s precisely the good news that I need to hear today. Jesus was God’s own fool whose shameful death on the cross overcomes our fear and shame with the boundless and foolish love of God. Jesus had to be a fool to love us sinful and faithless creatures enough to die on a cross. And yet, that’s exactly what Jesus did, and in His resurrection, Jesus also demonstrated that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
For those of you who follow football, all this week, we’ve heard people jockeying and posturing over who is the best and who is the greatest. After the Super Bowl, there will be a “winner” and a “loser.” Our society is one that often categorizes people into winners and losers, the strong and the weak, wise men and fools, the studs and the duds; and it’s shameful to be stuck in the latter category. But what if Paul was right? What if God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise? What if God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong? How might that revelation lead us to live a life that is shaped by the cross of Christ?
I began the sermon with a list of ten things that Dave Berry learned. Allow me to end with five things that are taking me over forty years to learn. Now, I’m still learning these things, and I ask for your patience and forgiveness if you can’t always see these lessons lived out in my life.
1. I’m learning that the path to perfection includes the imperfections of myself and others.
2. I’m learning that admitting my own weaknesses and asking for help is a sign of strength.
3. I’m learning that it is smarter to admit “I don’t know,” than it is to make up an answer.
4. I’m learning that being a fool for Christ is less foolish than needing everyone to like me.
5. I’m learning that when I embrace the cross of Christ, others lose their power to shame me.
As we continue our journey through Epiphany, what lessons are you learning about the way of the foolish Christ? Christian songwriter/singer Michael Card wrote a song called “God’s Own Fool” that may help us to consider this question:
It seems I’ve imagined Him all of my life,
As the wisest of all of mankind.
But if God’s Holy wisdom is foolish to men,
He must have seemed out of His mind.
For even His family said He was mad,
And the priest said a demon’s to blame.
But God in the form of this angry young man,
Could not have seemed perfectly sane.
When we in our foolishness thought we were wise,
He played the fool and He opened our eyes.
When we in our weakness believed we were strong,
He became helpless to show we were wrong.
So we follow God’s own Fool,
For only the foolish can tell.
Believe the unbelievable
Come be a fool as well.
Come lose your life for a carpenter’s son,
For a madman who died for a dream.
Then you’ll have the faith His first followers had,
And you’ll feel the weight of the beam.
So surrender the hunger to say you must know,
Have the courage to say, “I believe.”
For the power of paradox opens your eyes,
And blinds those who say they can see.
During this season of Epiphany, May we follow Jesus Christ, God’s own fool who has become for us the wisdom from God. Amen.