Lectionary Year B
March 23, 2003
I Corinthians 1:18-25

Step VI: Contemporary Address


      Paul obviously knows nothing about seminary. Or at least his experience in training for the ministry must have not been anything like ours? Paul how could you say wisdom is folly? We've gotten a lot out of seminary. Sure we stress over trying to cram Hebrew into our brains in four short weeks, but the excitement of finding out that Adam actually means human and not man, is well worth the stress. Sure, we complain about having to wade through Stacy Johnson's or Cindy Rigby's lengthy reading assignments, but we readily struggle, finding many questions and great discussions. Sure, we over-achieve in each step of the Bi216 the exegetical process, but all those ah-has are amazing. Paul, how can you speak of wisdom being foolish?

      Paul's seemingly odd view of wisdom would have interested those to whom Paul was wiriting, the Corinthians. Sophia, wisdom in the Greek, was the word of the day in Ancient Corinth. The Corinthians, as you know, were a mixed bag of folks, and not all Christians. There were gnostics, sophists, and pythagorians. And everyone was talking wisdom; everyone had a different idea. So, no doubt the Corinthians Christians wanted to know about wisdom and what is the right wisdom, the true wisdom. After all Paul writes that they were even fighting among themselves over who they followed, and whose wisdom was God's wisdom. Was it Paul's? Or Apollos'? Cephas'? Or Christ's? They were searching for answers in their very diverse world and wanted to know whose wisdom is the right one. But where is Paul headed with this wisdom talk? He writes, God has made foolish the wisdom of the world. So,what is God's wisdom?

      Perhaps Paul means wisdom as knowledge, data stored in our brains. Knowledge which calls us to be teachers? You have to have knowledge in order to teach. We, as modern Christians, value knowledge. As Presbyterians we certainly value knowledge. Many universities in this country were started by Presbyterians-Princeton, Davidson, Austin College and others. We want our ministers to be learned and require, as we well know, years of seminary training. We hold Sunday School and Bible Studies. We value Christian knowledge and look to the knowledge-ful of our communities to lead us. As parents, we want our children to be intelligent and to get a college education. We want them to know the faith stories and to be able to recite from the data in their brains the 10 commandments, the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. Knowledge is important.

      But knowledge is not God's wisdom. Paul quotes from Isaiah, reminding us that God will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the intelligence of the intelligent. God's wisdom is not about knowledge or data. God's wisdom was to send Jesus into this world, not a the stereotypical genius with all the knowledge and data. Jesus was not the John Travolta phenomena. He didn't learn Portuguese or any other language in a matter of minutes, so that he could communicate with those around him. Jesus spoke often in parables.

      God's wisdom sent Jesus to save the world, but not as people expected. He was not full of numbers, dates, and information. God's wisdom was to send God's own Son into this world to save the world through him and God sent him not as a man of sheer book knowledge. God's wisdom and the good news of that wisdom is more than knowledge.

      So, if Paul is not talking about knowledge as God's wisdom, perhaps what Paul is talking about is reason. Wisdom as reason and rationality. Wisdom as the ability to create a logical, coherent argument. Wisdom as what is orderly and good. Wisdom as what makes sense. The wisdom of the evangelist, who preaches to the unbelieving, who makes a coherent argument, who is persuasive with the gospel. Maybe this is Paul's message, God's wisdom is reason and rationality. We value reasoning and rationality. The Scholastic Aptitude exam for entrance into college requires logic and problem solving.

      We teach reasoning in our schools. I will never forget sitting in my eighth grade science class. It was a great class with a challenging teacher. A former miliary man who had stark white sprig of hair that stood straight up and a deep voice. One day in class he asked us to test the slip-face angle of sand, the angle at which sand can no longer be added to a pile because it slides down. We all nodded, waiting for his instructions. But there were no instructions. All he said was you have all the tools you need, now get started. My partner and I stared at each other, and then stared at the supplies. We were clueless. We just started trying things. But by the end of the class period, we not exactly successful. Our teacher stopped the class. His deep booming voice explained that this was more an experiment in reasoning than an experiment about sand. His point was there would be lots of problems we would run into in life and often we already had all the tools we needed, but merely lacked the directions. He urged us to be creative, but more than that, to reason and think it out. "Reasoning is what makes us human and reasoning is vital. Don't leave school until you know how to reason." he boomed as the bell rang.

      I didn't quite get it then, but I do see his point today. Reasoning allows us to use what we have negotiate for what we need and want and figure out the world. Reasoning after all, allows us make coherent theological arguments of faith. There is wisdom in reasoning.

      But Paul couldn't have meant reasoning when we wrote about God's wisdom. The gospel is not reasonable. And God's wisdom isn't either. God's wisdom sent the Messiah to be born in a manger to an unwed mother and a skittish father. This child was not born safe and warm. He was born in a barn, a smelly, dirty, probably cold, germy barn. His crib mates were animals and not the stuffed kind. This child was born in the midst of a journey, after a long hard day of travel. It didn't end there, the babe and family packed up and moved on to Egypt, for safety. Can you imagine travelling on pack animal, through a barren land, with an infant. Pediatricians today don't even want you to bring your baby to the church nursery until they are six weeks old.

      And contrary to the hymn, I doubt "the little Lord Jesus no crying he made." He was a human infant, newborns cry. God's wisdom sent a human, frail, infant into the world to save the world. God's wisdom is not rational. So, where does that leave us and our conversation with Paul? Wisdom surely is not mere knowledge nor is it rationality. What are you talking about Paul?

      Could God's wisdom be about the wisdom gained from the living out of the fullness of life through smells, tastes, sounds, images, and tactile information? Could Paul mean empirical, verifiable knowledge? Maybe Paul is referring "the eye," that which can been seen, the concrete. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. This is the wisdom of the prophets who use the concrete to convey God's word. Like Jeremiah who throws down a pot, showing how God is going to destroy the peoples. Or the concrete image Hosea gives when he names his children sows, not pitied, and not my people to show how God will react to the Israelites. Perhaps God's wisdom has to do with the empirical, concrete.

      Tom Long, a professor of preaching at Princeton Seminary, tells the story of the eye and the ear. You see, during the Reagan administration a few years back, a cbs white house staff reporter, Leslie Stall, was writing a piece critical of then-president Reagan. But she ran out of time. So, instead of getting a film crew to come in and do the visuals, she borrowed stock footage from the white house office of communications. As she narrated this somewhat scathing critique of the president's administration, we saw on our television screens Reagan chopping wood, Reagan exercising, and Reagan standing in front of an American flag.

      The next morning Michael Deevers, the head of the communications office, from whom she borrowed the footage, called Leslie Stall, and thanked her profusely for her report. Leslie was a little stunned. "I appreciate the praise," she said, "but I was being critical. Why are you praising me?" "Oh your words were critical," Michael Deevers said "but the pictures were mine. And in the battle between the eye and the ear, the eye wins every time."

      Perhaps Paul is speaking of wisdom that is of the eye. But it is God's wisdom that we as Christians don't live by sight, but by faith. We haven't seen Jesus with our eyes. We haven't sat at this feet like Mary, nor touch his hands and side like Thomas. But we believe. It is God's wisdom that God's people do not see with our eyes the resurrected Lord, but we know the Lord is risen indeed. God's wisdom is not concrete or empirical. And our faith is the faith of God's wisdom, not mere knowledge, not rationality, not empirical, concrete facts.

      God's wisdom is foolish by the world's standards, standards which uphold knowledge, reasoning, and empiricism as wisdom. But you see that it is the wisdom of our God to turn the wisdom of the world upside down. God's wisdom is the folly of the proclamation of the cross. God's wisdom is to allow Jesus Christ to die a criminal's death on the cross and then to bring us new life in the resurrection. God's wisdom is to send the Messiah as an infant.

      And it is God's radical wisdom which meets us every day in the gospel whether that we are on a seminary campus, in an office building, or at a retirement home. It is wisdom radically reshaped and poured into our lives. We as Christians are constantly bombarded with the world's view of what is wise, but rejoice that we are people of the gospel, living in the upside down world of God's wisdom.

      To our wise God, whose wisdom is not the wisdom of the world, be all glory and honor forever. Amen.

A response:

(GG) I just got the feeling that this sermon on I Cor 1:18-25 missed the point! The sermon got bogged down in wisdom and folly (hardly even mentioning folly). For me, the real point of the sermon is the CROSS!! The Cross is mentioned only briefly in the penultimate paragraph. It is Lent ... remember the cross ... not, remember wisdom and folly!

A response:

(WCM) You sermon on wisdom/know from 1 Corinthians got bogged down in the wisdom talk. I think we need to hear that wisdom of this day falls short but there is hope in Jesus Christ.

I like the way it finally ended. If I was sitting in the pew this sermon would lose me in the middle. Some of the references would not be known to the general congregation. We are beginning to reteach the bible stories due to necessity. People just don't know them especially the younger Christians.

It is true that our wisdom is not God's wisdom. It would be nice to expand a little more on this and reduce the wisdom talk.

A response:

(NW) Thanks for your insights into the concepts of wisdom and foolishness. There is a great chasm in each of us as human beings between our thinking and feeling selves. The plan of salvation is about believing rather than getting lost in the intellectual process of believing. Mainline deep-thinkers are struggling while independent Christian churches flourish with theology that is a mile wide and inch deep. Jesus Christ and Paul both "felt" their religion. Knowing clearly the reason for the cross and expressing our faith where "the eye wins every time" is key to continuing the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world.

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