DATE 29 January 2017
TOPIC: Choosing Foolishness over the Way of the World
TEXT: I Corinthians 1:18-31 (Psalm 15)
TITLE A Wise Choice?
PROPOSITION What’s wise in God’s eyes isn’t necessarily common sense in ours.
“In this ever-changing world in which we’re living…”when two authorities stand giving us opposite views of how things are. Which are we to believe? In the past 10 days we’ve heard what claim to be “authoritative views” which oppose each other on things like the size of the crowd at the recent US presidential inauguration and on the threat to security posed by people who hold onto their Muslim faith. OK, these are politicians, on BOTH sides. Maybe we discount them all. Or maybe we follow what in many cultures and language is called, “common sense” (which, of course, each side in these kinds of arguments insists it is using.)
But what are we to do when the opposite advice is about something spiritual, and both sides are direct quotations of the Bible?
Dr. Jonathan Seitz teaches ecumenical theology at Taiwan Theological Seminary in Taipei. He’s got a PhD and lots of experience considering things like scripture and Christian belief. His father is a retired minister. There’s a real difference in their viewpoints when it comes to things in the Bible that don’t exactly match up with one another. Where Jonathan sees it as a chance to dig in and study, his father would rather find a way to “harmonize” things, even if that requires “don’t think about that.”
I: PSALM 15: THE WISDOM OF THE WORLD
The psalm we read this afternoon represents the wisdom of the world and the instruction of the religious tradition in which Jesus was born and raised. Looked at straight up, verse 1 asks the Lord to set forth the specifications for those who aspire to get into“the Lord’s tent” or to be allowed to climb up the Lord’s “holy hill”. A few weeks ago we sang a hymn #452, “Here I Am, Lord”. We did it as a dialog between God and people. If we look at Psalm 15 like this, verse 1 is a person asking, and verses 2-5 are God’s answer.
Now, though we may agree on the degree of Holy Inspiration of the Bible texts, very few, if any among us, would put forth the idea that God wrote the Bible. What we have here is one inspired writer’s idea of a conversation with God, in which the writer himself (not likely herself) set down both parts. It all looks like Good. Common. Sense.
If you want to get near to God, into God’s tent or onto God’s hill, you’ve just got to do the 10 things that are listed in verses 2-5….After all, this is God speaking! So:
1) walk blamelessly (don’t sin)
2) do what is right (avoid error, too)
3) Speak the truth from your heart
4) do not slander with your tongue (be careful what you say about other people)
5) do no evil to your friends
6) defend your neighbors
7) despise the wicked
8) keep your promises
9) if you loan money to anyone, don’t accept interest
10) don’t take bribes against the innocent
These are not only common sense, they’re exactly the same number of requirements we find in the advice to “keep the 10 commandments.” Maybe it’s not an easy list, but it doesn’t look that hard, either. The conclusion of the Psalm assures us that those who do these things shall never be moved. NEVER BE MOVED? That sounds like eternal life in heaven, doesn’t it?
And that’s part of the religious tradition in which Jesus grew up. It might sound a lot like the tradition in which a lot of people in a lot of places in a lot of different religious traditions grow up. And if we stop there, why bother to choose any specific religion. We can go over to Chin Nien Road to the Temple of Heaven and sort of mix everything together and pick the parts we like, and be assured that we have been accepted by “the animating spirit of the universe” that runs through all religious traditions.
II: A SECOND OPINION
But we didn’t just read the Psalm today. We got a second opinion from St. Paul (he wrote a LOT of second opinions, and a lot of first opinions, too.) He was not arguing with the Psalm, and seems not to have had it in mind as he spoke the words we find in I Corinthians to his secretary (one of the traditions about St. Paul besides that he was bald was that he was nearsighted, so didn’t write). His argument was with his religious and philosophical rivals, whom he identifies here as the “Jews and the Greeks”. The former, he said, demanded signs, that is, miraculous proof from heaven about anything they could not find written in their Bibles (that’s why the scribe is mentioned). It was as if they were saying, “If you can’t quote a chapter and verse for what you’re saying, then do a miracle to prove you have the right to make the claim.” Miracle performers are to be believed. It’s only common sense!
The Greeks wanted something else. They wanted “wisdom”, as is found when someone is skillful at debating. They wanted the kind of “wisdom” that is expected of people who have spent long years in consideration of texts and accumulation of diplomas from famous universities. Diploma bearers are to be believed. It’s common sense.
In the face of those first opinions, St Paul presents a second one: God’s foolishness. It’s seen not in a demand for good behavior (Psalm 15) or some wondrous sign from heaven (as was demanded by the Jews) or some great reasoned argument (as was demanded by the Greeks), but in the proclamation of Christ CRUCIFIED..
It would be easy enough to see this NOT as God’s foolishness, but as St. Paul’s foolishness. To those who wanted a sign, he might have better proclaimed Christ RISEN. That’s a pretty powerful miracle, isn’t it? And to those who wanted wisdom, he might have appealed to Jesus’ teaching, which was so eloquent while being so simply presented. It is exactly his teaching that has drawn so many people to fall in love with Jesus.
As the chapter is finished out, St Paul acts like a gambler. He doubles and redoubles his bet. God is not only foolish in offering access to his tent and holy hill through what looks like the failure of Jesus’ mission (because, after all, being crucified was not a sign of victory at that time, or even now). God “chose what is foolish in the world, God chose what is weak in the world, God chose what is low and despised in the world, God chose to work through Christ Jesus, who became for us 1) the wisdom from God, and 2) righteousness, and 3) sanctification, and 3)redemption.
Whether St. Paul had the 10 biblical instructions of Psalm 15 in mind when he dictated those paragraphs to his secretary or not, they certainly give us a different opinion of what anyone must do to “abide in the Lord’s tent” or “climb the Lord’s holy hill” and they’re labeled here, by their author, as “God’s foolishness.”
III: THE CHOICE IS OURS
Probably nobody here would like to be called a fool. We don’t even like to look into the mirror and call ourselves a fool (even if nobody else is around to hear us do so). We want to be thought of as people who live by the principles of common sense and wisdom. We want to operate by principles that can be either scientifically proven or religiously guaranteed to work the same way every time. We like things laid out as clearly as in computer code, “IF this, THEN that” so that the program will do what it has promised.
We like Psalm 15. It’s common sense, it’s biblical, and it doesn’t look too hard. Since we experience forgiveness of sin in Jesus, we 1) walk blamelessly and 2) do what is right, and 3 speak the truth from our hearts. Since we’re educated, we don’t 4) slander, or 5) do evil to our friends. Since nobody is attacking, we’ll never be called on to 6) defend our neighbors. We naturally 7) despise the wicked and 8) keep our promises. We don’t 9) accept interest from people to whom we loan money and we’d never 10) take a bribe against the innocent. At the end of Psalm 15 we learn that folks like ourselves will live secure and never be moved.
If you only want a first opinion, an opinion with which Jesus grew up, then you can stop here. It depends on you and your actions alone. You don’t need God to get near to God. You’ll be as wise as the owls pictured on the front of today’s bulletin.
But there’s St. Paul’s second opinion, represented by the picture of the fool on the bulletin. It’s the way of the foolishness of God, who chooses what is foolish in the world, what is weak in the world, what is low and despised in the world, and who works through Christ Jesus CRUCIFIED who became for us a) wisdom; and b) righteousness, and c) sanctification, and d)redemption. But THAT’S NOT COMMON SENSE, is it?
How can anyone make a choice? Both “ways” are biblical. If it were a matter of having a miraculous sign to prove either side, nobody can do one for us. If it were a matter of debate or the wisdom of the world, someone who was “against” the bible, and against Christianity, and against faith in God, could take these two pieces of scripture to argue us OUT of the beliefs we have held. If it were a matter of “blending them together in some way and not asking too many questions”, then Dr. Seitz in Taipei can introduce you to his father, who is good at that.
We believe that God inspired the people who wrote the things that we find in the Bible. But we still have choices to make. Some of those choices are between which parts of the Bible we will use for guidance in how to live. We pray that God will guide us to make wise choices, even when they are to opt for “foolishness”, and even when they are not according to “common sense”. We pray that the Holy Spirit may dwell in us to guide us as we read and learn from the things we read in the Bible, and the things that the Holy Spirit reveals to us in the course of our lives of faith. And we pray it all, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN
Let us Pray
Lord Jesus Christ, send out your light and your truth, let them lead us to your holy hill, to the place of our eternal habitation. AMEN