The Cross: A Foolish Message

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 1:23

But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.

1 Corinthians 1:23 RSV

I’m thinking today of a passage from the Bible which for many years has shaped my outlook and directed my life work. When I was a young seminary graduate, newly installed in my first church, I preached my beginning sermon on this text. About six years later when I came to leave that congregation, it was the theme for my last message also.

At the next church I served, in another part of the country, I felt led to follow the same practice. My first sermon and my final one were both based on this same passage of Scripture. Years later, when some dear friends had a party for me to celebrate 25 years of Christian ministry, they had these verses beautifully embroidered on a cloth background and framed. That treasured memento is prominently displayed today in our house.

As you can see, I’ve been talking about a text from God’s Word that has been unusually meaningful and important to me. Here it is:

We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

I think you could justly call that the apostle Paul’s life-theme. I would like to call it mine also. This is what we ministers of the gospel are about. This is our great work. We preach Christ crucified.

To preach, of course, means to announce, to herald, to proclaim. It calls up the ancient image of a town crier, lifting his voice to tell everyone about great events. It’s like someone shouting good news across the street. The preacher’s theme is always Jesus Christ. He tells of the Word of the Father, the Son of the living God. He sings of God’s mighty acts and marvelous love in the gift of a Savior. But especially, according to Paul, he lifts up Jesus as “the crucified One.” The story is about a cradle and about a crown. But in the midst of that, at the heart of it, is a cross.

Now that, as you know, is an old story. To some of you it may be very familiar. Because you’ve heard about it many times, it’s strangeness – you might say its shocking character – may escape you. Paul proclaims as Savior of mankind and Lord of the universe a young man who lost His life on a Roman gibbet!

FOOLISHNESS TO SOME

To some, as we might expect, this message seemed laughable, ludicrous. Some roared with laughter when they heard it. Others smiled in smug contempt. “What foolishness is this?” they asked.

That must have been the prevailing mood in the worldly wise city of Corinth. Paul notes that the Greeks were those who “seek after wisdom.” They prized ideas. They saw themselves as lovers of truth. When any new philosophy was presented to them, they demanded some intellectual proof. They would accept nothing as true that they couldn’t understand, or at least see rational grounds for believing. “Give us your arguments,” they challenged. “Spin us a system. If you have wisdom to offer, you’ll find us reasonable people, but we need to be convinced. Set forth your case.”

And what did the Christian missionaries say? “We preach Christ crucified.” “What was that?” came the response. “You say your God is a Jew who lived in Palestine and you say He died by crucifixion? How picturesque! You claim that He somehow did this to save us all? And that our destiny depends on believing that? And we’re to understand that now He is a greater king than all the Caesars put together? Do you really expect us to take that seriously?” they ask with a patronizing air. “What foolishness!”

The Greeks wanted an answer to all their questions, something satisfying to the intellect and appealing to the taste. But a crucified Jew! That was shocking to their sensibilities. It seemed beyond belief. To hear that this is the answer to man’s quest, the revelation he needs to receive – that sounded to them like nonsense. Remember Paul’s experience in Athens, the center of Greek culture? When he preached the gospel on Mars Hill, he had an audience of philosophers. Some of them jeered, “What would this babbler say?” Others responded, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities.” When he had finished telling them the good news, some, we read, laughed him to scorn.

There is a mindset in our time also to which the gospel seems foolishness. A rationalist can see no reason why the death of Christ should remove sin, promote virtue or secure salvation. “How?” he demands, “can the preaching of this doctrine possibly transform the world?” Those who require that everything be backed by empirical evidence, tested by our five senses, how can they be convinced that the death of Jesus was a significant, saving event? Perhaps it has never made sense to you. You’re inclined to agree with these ancient Greeks that the Christian message sounds a bit strange.

When I begin to ponder it, I have to confess that the Christian message is strange. How strange that a young man in a tiny subject country, dying in His early thirties, should be the central figure for all western culture for almost twenty centuries! How strange that His death on a Roman cross, flanked on either side by criminals, jeered at by a hostile mob, should be proclaimed as the central event in the history of the world! How strange that this death of ignominy and agony should be set forth as the source of the greatest blessing that has ever come to mankind! How strange that such a terrible spectacle of human cruelty should be the very happening in which the love of God should shine forth most brilliantly! It is strange. I can see why many people have a hard time believing it. It flies in the face of all conventional wisdom.

To some who consider themselves intellectuals, this message of the cross seems absurdly simple. “You mean that all I need to do is believe in this Jesus?” they object. “You mean that nothing I have done can possibly contribute to my being accepted with God but that everything depends on Jesus’ death?” Many treat such a word with scorn. They say in the bitter words of the poet, “I want no Jesus Christ to think He ever died for me.”

WISDOM TO THE CALLED ONES

But there’s another class of people to whom the preaching of Jesus Christ crucified is not foolish at all. For them it is the highest wisdom. Listen to Paul again:

We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Some of these hearers, we read, are Jews, and some are Greeks. They come from every class and station in life. The common factor with all of them to Paul is that they are “called.” They have heard the living God addressing them in the Christian gospel. As His mighty acts in Christ have been proclaimed to them, they have received the good news as true. When the summons came to turn from sin, trust in Christ and surrender to His lordship, they knew that God Himself was speaking to them. They responded with all their hearts.

To most observers on that first Good Friday, Jesus seemed weak and helpless. He was mocked, beaten, spit upon by common soldiers, but He offered no resistance. He was falsely accused, but would not speak in His own defense. Once impaled on the cross He had carried to the hill top, He lasted only a few brief hours. He seemed pathetically powerless.

But to the called ones, both Jews and Greeks, Christ crucified is the power of God. How unexpected are God’s ways! In the cross, weakness becomes the hiding place for power. Divine strength is perfected in the quiet anguish of the crucified One. Here is the matchless might of suffering love.

The power of which Paul speaks is saving power. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he sings elsewhere, “for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.” There it is – God’s power to deliver, to forgive the worst of sins, to break the cruelest bondage, to give us life from the dead, to create us anew, to enable proud, selfish, shallow people like us to love deeply and serve gladly. Paul wasn’t ashamed of the message of Christ crucified because he had experienced what it could do in his own life and had seen it work with amazing results in the lives of others. The gospel to him was not merely a collection of doctrines or of moral precepts. The gospel was God in action, God actually saving people and setting them free. When Christ crucified was proclaimed, miracles happened. To those who believed, Christ was the power of the living God.

And He was also the “wisdom of God.” Just as God’s power makes all human vaunting appear puny, so His wisdom makes ours seem as foolishness. Jesus Himself had affirmed, “I am the truth.” He is not only the true God as over against all idols. He is the creative truth, the One through whom everything becomes what it’s meant to be. Christ is the sun in the solar system of truth. Take away the sun and the planets would fly off in wild confusion. Christ is the keystone in the arch of truth. Remove the keystone and the arch would tumble into ruin. When we know Him, trust Him, love and serve Him, we are truly wise. The fear of this Lord is the beginning, the chief part, of wisdom.

Christ is the clue to the most profound of mysteries. How can the Holy One, a God of purer eyes than to look upon evil, have fellowship with sinful humans? How can a judge who is just still acquit the guilty? How can sin be condemned while sinners are yet forgiven? The answer to all of these is in Jesus Christ crucified. He stands condemned in our place. He bears our load of guilt that we may have pardon. He makes peace between God and men by the blood of His cross. On Good Friday, the love of heaven and the sin of earth collide and the crash is on the heart of God. Out of His agony, forsakenness and death, come joy, reconciliation and eternal life for us. There as nowhere else we learn the truth about ourselves, the truth about God, the truth that sets us free.

Today we find crosses on church steeples, don’t we? I can see two of them now from my office window. People wear gold crosses over their hearts. One of our great institutions of mercy has been called for years “The Red Cross.” There’s a reason for all that. Something has happened in history to transform the cross from ugliness to beauty, from a place of shame to a throne of glory. The simple fact is: Jesus died on a cross once for us. For those who know that, who gratefully believe it, life is filled with a new song. Remember this?

In the cross of Christ I glory,

Towring o’er the wrecks of time;

All the light of sacred story

Gathers `round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o’ertake me,

Hopes deceive and fears annoy,

never shall the cross forsake me;

Lo; it glows with peace and joy

We Christians preach Christ crucified. To some, as Paul says, the perishing ones, that seems utterly foolish. But to those who are called, and to you, if you will repent and believe in Him, Christ crucified is God’s wisdom. Yes, it is God’s saving power. May you find it to be so in your life!

PRAYER: O God, we are awed at the mystery of Your saving love for us. We are moved to think that You have given Christ to be our Savior and that He has borne for us a cross of shame. We bless You that in this seeming weakness and folly, You have brought about a mighty salvation and made it available for all who will believe. May all who share this broadcast find in the Cross of Christ a message of hope and transforming power. In Jesus’ name. Amen.