Sermon delivered on Lent 3B, Sunday, March 4, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During this season of Lent it is appropriate for those of us who call ourselves Christians to use this time for self-examination, repentance, self-denial, study, and preparation for Easter. But why do all that fun stuff that none of us really likes or wants to do? The short answer is that these Lenten disciplines are means of grace given us by God to help us learn God’s wisdom so that we can become real wise-guys (guys being used here in the generic sense of the word). On one hand this is breathtakingly simple. On the other, it is maddeningly impossible to learn on our own. This is what I want us to look at this morning.
We start by affirming that there is fundamentally something wrong with the world in which we live and with ourselves. Only those who live with their head buried in the sand or who are utterly delusional would deny this. The overarching story contained in Scripture is very clear about this. Our first human ancestors decided they weren’t content with being God’s image-bearing creatures who were given the task of running God’s world wisely and reflecting God’s goodness out into the world. No, they wanted to usurp the role of God so that they could run God’s world in the manner they saw fit, and things haven’t changed very much from then to now. We’ve just gotten more sophisticated in our role as usurpers. The result of our first ancestors’ rebellion against God was our expulsion from paradise, God’s curse on his good creation and creatures, and the unleashing of an alien and hostile power better known as Sin that has enslaved the human race and kept us alienated and hostile toward God our Creator. And as long as we are alienated from our very Source of life, we are dead people walking. It is a grim picture indeed.
Not only that, our slavery to the power of Sin leads to all kinds of havoc, injustices, and chaos (the very essence of sin) in God’s world. We don’t have to look very far to see this. There is chaos in our families. Look at the high divorce rate or the push by some to impose gender identity as the basis for doing family. We see chaos in our society that gives every impression of becoming increasingly unhinged: mass murders, sexual abuse, public shaming of those with whom we disagree, alarmingly high rates of drug and pornography addiction, increasing isolation and alienation that results from the breakdown of our families and communities. The list goes on but you get the point.
All is not bad, of course. We have made great advances in medicine, science, and technology that have enabled many in the West to enjoy an unprecedented standard of living. But even in the midst of our wealth and prosperity there is still plenty of chaos to be found, both in our life together and in our individual lives: poverty, racism, homelessness, mental illness, loneliness, et al. Again, much of this chaos is fundamentally the result of our desire to be our own boss and our refusal to submit to God’s good and wise rule over us. We are broken to the core and do not have the means to free ourselves from our slavery to Sin and Evil. And a logical result of our rebellion is that we have created our own wisdom that is often not consistent with the wisdom of God. When that happens, we become people whom the Scriptures call “fools.” We rely on human wisdom rather than the wisdom of God, and of course for Scripture, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all true wisdom and knowledge (Proverbs 1.7, 9.10). The extent that human wisdom aligns with the wisdom of God is the extent that human wisdom is truly wise.
Of course the chaos caused by our enslavement to Sin is intolerable to God and so God in his great love and mercy set out to put things back to rights with his good creation gone bad. That’s what the story of the OT and NT is all about. God in God’s wisdom chose to rescue us and God’s creation through Abraham and his ultimate descendant, Jesus, and God has given us signposts along the way to help us to live wisely instead of foolishly. Consider, for example, the 10 Words or Commandments in our OT lesson today. As the psalmist tells us in our psalm lesson, God’s law is perfect, reviving the soul. God’s statutes are right and rejoice the heart. We are to desire them more than the greatest earthly riches. Why? Because God’s law helps us to live wisely (and therefore happily) as God’s image-bearing creatures. If God is our Creator, who knows better what is good (and bad) for the creature than the One who made them? That is why the first commandment affirms God is the only God and prohibits the worship of idols. Why is that first? Among other things, God prohibits that we worship false gods because God knows that we become what we worship. When we worship the one true and living God made known supremely in Jesus Christ, we reflect God’s goodness and light in our lives, however imperfectly that reflection might be. We understand that God gives us laws to help us live wisely and happily in the manner God created us to live. But consider what happens to those who worship false gods like money, sex, or power. Look at the attendant misery that comes when we make these things our idols. Note carefully I am not saying that money, sex, and power are bad things in themselves. I am talking about what happens when we make them gods and worship them. When that happens we do all kinds of dehumanizing and unjust things to get them. We commit adultery, we get addicted to porn, we steal, we cheat, we lie, we are willing to destroy lives in all kinds of ways as we pursue these idols. In other words, chaos reigns and lives get corrupted or destroyed because we are pursuing false gods and the wisdom that accompanies them. By contrast, when we see God’s wisdom reflected in God’s laws we learn to develop meekness, i.e., when through our obedience to God’s laws we learn to develop an attitude of humble, submissive, and expectant trust in God, accompanied by a loving, patient, and gentle attitude toward others, we learn to become truly wise and happy. Notice carefully that the emphasis here is on obedience. God gives us God’s laws and expects us to obey them for our own good.
All well and good, you say. But what about our old enemy of Sin, that alien, hostile, and wicked power that has enslaved us and made us rebellious and disobedient by nature? How’s that working out for us in terms of our ability to keep the commandments? God, we have a problem. Enter our epistle lesson where St. Paul talks about the ultimate manifestation of the wisdom and power of God: the cross of Jesus Christ. The apostle does not really lay out a theology of the cross for us here, but rather sets up a series of contrasts between the wisdom of the world, i.e., people and institutions who remain hostile toward God, and the wisdom of God found supremely in the cross, the vehicle by which those who believe in its power are saved from destruction. Before we say anything else about this, observe carefully the dramatic shift in dynamics. The emphasis is on what God does for us, and only on what God does for us, not on our ability to obey God’s commands.
The world, says St. Paul, sees the cross as foolishness because we have an innate pride, selfishness, and will to power that drives our “wisdom,” which is foolishness in God’s eyes because it is contrary to God’s ways. We pride ourselves in self-help, self-achievement, status-building, and acquiring power, among others. Might makes right and helps us achieve our goals. So, for example, outside the Church we hear Vladimir Putin announce a new generation of nuclear weapons that he described as invincible. “Russia still has the greatest nuclear potential in the world, but nobody listened to us,” Putin said. They will “listen now.” The U.S. will undoubtedly respond by accelerating our weapons programs because having an enemy stronger than us makes us afraid and we all know that might makes right. And let’s be honest, most of us prefer our God to operate in this manner. That’s why most of us prefer the Exodus over the crucifixion. The former was a lot more straightforward and unambiguous than the latter.
Or consider what happens when folks encounter people or opinions with which they disagree. They don’t engage the opinion or idea. They set out to destroy the person’s character and credibility. For example, one of the lines of attacks on Christians today is to describe us as mentally ill or as haters. This is how the world’s wisdom advocates achieving goals and it leaves us feeling abused and angry. Do what it takes, baby, because truth is in the eyes of the beholder and our truth is better than yours. So worldly wisdom dictates that we shame our opponents into silence because it almost always works.
The Church is not immune to this wisdom of self-help and self-sufficiency. We read the Bible more than others, we pray more than others, we miss worship less than others, we strive to get on church leadership councils, usually to correct the things we see that are wrong and need to be fixed because everyone knows what a fool that rector is (I resemble that statement). Will to power, anyone? We do all the “right” things to gain the approval of God and our fellow humans and to show our superior ability to obey all the rules. We don’t really want to take any chances with that cross thing. Now I am not suggesting that those who do these things always do them for the wrong reason. Only God knows our hearts. Neither am I suggesting that we not engage in prayer, worship, Bible study and the like. What I am suggesting is that the human heart has the tendency to distort and pervert even the good and God-given means of grace for our own benefit. We do this either consciously or subconsciously, but we do it nevertheless. This is the foolishness of human wisdom St. Paul is talking about and like any human wisdom that is not aligned to God’s wisdom, things will not turn out well in the end, either for us or for others.
Enter the wisdom of God, the cross of Jesus Christ. Those who are opposed to God see it as foolishness because of its very godforsaken nature. Elsewhere, St. Paul talks about what happened on the cross. He tells us in Romans that on the cross, God condemned sin in the flesh to spare us from having to suffer God’s perfect and just condemnation for our rebellion, a condemnation that would result in our eternal destruction. But no. God loves us too much to want that for us, and God also knows we are unable to break the power of Sin over us. So God sent his Son to bear God’s own just punishment for our sins and to break the power of Sin over us. There is a profound mystery in all this that is frankly above our pay grade. We know Evil is still prevalent, both inside and outside us. St. Paul wrote about Evil being defeated on the cross while he languished in prison for Christ’s sake so he knew first-hand that its power had not been vanquished fully! But from the very beginning this has been the message of the NT and the Church: On the cross, God broke the power of evil over us and instead of debating us, God points us to the transformative power of the gospel in the lives of hundreds of millions of people over time and across cultures. Not perfectly, of course. Nothing is perfect this side of the grave. But lives are being changed, including your lives and mine, an inch at a time, however imperfectly and messy it looks. The wisdom of God, then, tells us that we change God’s world by imitating the suffering love of our Savior because this is how God chose to rescue us from the twin powers of Sin and Death. This isn’t the will to power, might makes right wisdom of the world. It is the godforsaken and suffering love of the Son of God, Jesus our Lord, the very embodiment of God, that saves us. We are not saved by anything or anyone else. Only God has the power to break our slavery to Sin and Evil. Only God in Christ has the power to rescue us from death, and God chose to do this in a terrible display of humiliation and weakness according to the world’s standards.
Once by God’s grace and the power of the Spirit we understand and believe that we are only saved by the cross and not anything we do, however rudimentary or incomplete our understanding of this truth is, it makes all the difference in the world to us and is a sure sign that we have the presence of the Holy Spirit living in us because that is the only way we come to understand and believe in the power of the cross to save. We realize God has dealt with our sins without condemning us so that when we confess our sins, we are astonished to realize forgiveness has already been granted to us. We see the true nature of God revealed in the cross, a God who loves his creatures so much that he endured unspeakable horror and humiliation to rescue us from ourselves and the powers that hate us. This knowledge takes the heat off us and exposes our own proud and futile attempts to earn God’s favor by what we do. But we realize even then that we are forgiven our folly because of the cross and God’s merciful love and justice poured out for us! In calling God’s wisdom foolishness, St. Paul’s point is that God did all this for us in the most astonishing and unexpected way possible.
So we still read our Bible, pray, worship, partake in the eucharist and all the rest. But we do it for a different reason. We partake in these means of grace because we realize they are God’s gift to help free us from our slavery to self-help and other forms of sin, and to help us better grapple with God’s astonishing love for us. As this happens we will become more content to live within the mystery of the faith. For example, we will look at our baptism and rejoice in it as we grapple with the truth that we are condemned into redemption, i.e., that we share in the death of Christ (his condemnation on our behalf) as well as his risen life (our redemption). We will better understand that Christ died for the ungodly, for you and for me, because as St. Paul reminds us, there is no one who does good; all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and therefore all deserve God’s just condemnation (Romans 3.10, 22-23). But for those who believe in the power and wisdom of God made known in the cross of Christ, there is redemption and life and hope because of the love God has for each of us, undeserving and unlovely as we are. Our proud nature will want to scoff at this, of course, but we know this is just the old man in us dying off and we fall to our knees in humble and grateful thanksgiving for the love of God made known to us in the scandal and foolishness of the cross. And like St. Paul, we will strive in matters of our salvation to forget everything but Christ, the one who was crucified for us, because only in his death and resurrection are we saved. When we start orienting ourselves in this manner we can finally claim that we are becoming real wise-guys because we are starting to grapple with the wisdom of God made known in humiliation, weakness, and self-giving love on the cross.
This knowledge will spill out into our dealings with the world, both collectively and individually. Let me give you two examples to jumpstart your thinking about how this applies to our life together and to our own lives. What should be our response to the Joy Behars of the world who claim that listening to Jesus’ voice in prayer is a mental illness? This is an affront to anyone who has heard Jesus’ voice, and the world’s wisdom, spurred on by our fallen human nature, tells us to lash back at her and those like her. But what does the cruciform (cross-shaped) wisdom of God say? One thing might be to consider that anyone who makes a statement like that about Jesus is to be pitied because (s)he doesn’t know the One who died for him/her (something that would bring us further derision by the world’s wisdom) and is headed for destruction if that doesn’t change. That person is therefore worthy of our compassion and earnest prayer that (s)he does come to know the crucified Son of God because none of us should desire the destruction of another. God certainly doesn’t (cf. Ezekiel 18.23).
Or consider the gun control debate. Surely there needs to be political action, but in the final analysis that is only window dressing and on one level is a manifestation of our desire to be in control of things because we cannot discern God’s movement and presence in all the violence. A cruciform response will also seek to address the much more difficult root causes of the issue: the disintegration of the family and our communities, the failure of parents to instill Judeo-Christian values in their children with all the attendant virtues that go with it (civility, good manners, respect for others, for starters.), the attack from some quarters on fatherhood and males in general, all related in part to this country’s increasing rejection of God made known supremely in Jesus Christ, to name just a few. How do we advocate for and help rebuild families and communities? How do we advocate Christian values and show love for those who hate us? These are massive problems so perhaps we start by engaging them one person at a time. Whatever that looks like, it will surely require self-giving and suffering love from us. But don’t be afraid. This is how God changes God’s world and its people this side of the Second Coming. This is the challenge of denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. But follow him we must because only in him do we find health and life, real happiness and purpose for living. This is why we engage in our Lenten disciplines, both during Lent and throughout the year, because these disciplines are recognized means to help us obey our Lord’s command to be cruciform people. It’s too big a challenge for us if we try to do follow him in our own power. But we are not alone. We have the power of the Spirit who equips us to be imitators of our Lord in the best way possible, despite our profound brokenness and imperfect responses. It is the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised to life, to free us from our slavery to Sin and Death and turn us into God’s true children, thanks be to God. May we all become real wise-guys, my beloved. To him be honor, praise, and glory now and for all eternity!
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.