Earlier this week, everybody’s favorite scientist from the 1990s, Bill Nye, went head-to-head with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum. It was the sort of showdown that you hoped both sides knew better than to engage, and yet there they were on network television on Tuesday night. They were there to try to settle once and for all whether the world was created by God or came to be through evolution.
The problem that neither one seemed to notice, however, is that effectively, one of them came with a goalie stick, full hockey pads, and a helmet, while the other one came dressed ready to play catcher in a game of baseball. They were both well-prepared, they had worked through all the proper arguments, each one was well-versed in the game that he was ready to play.
The problem is that they were ready to play different games, and even worse, they’d both showed up on a soccer field. Let me explain:
Bill and Ken have gotten caught up in “lofty words” as Paul puts it in today’s Epistle lesson; they’re trying to use “plausible words of wisdom” to explain the “mystery of God.” In 1 Corinthians, Paul cautions us against this kind of attempt, knowing that few, if any, converts have ever been made through intellectual persuasion or clever reasoning. Paul explains to his friends in Corinth that when he came to witness to them as a missionary, “[he] decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2).
If you’ll excuse the crassness of the analogy, the mystery of God is the soccer field. So if we’re not playing hockey, and we’re not playing baseball, how can we find and put on our soccer cleats instead?
We live in a world where knowledge is power. Paul’s world wasn’t much different in this way; the educated people were the ones who held powerful offices in the government and in the community, and as Paul is quick to remind the Christians in Corinth, these powerful people were exactly the ones who sentenced Jesus to death (1 Cor. 2:8). In the first century, as today, we learn from a very young age that there is a price to pay for doing something wrong. We’re located just across the street from the Supreme Court of South Carolina; we know well that there are consequences for our wrong actions.
But what happens when Jesus comes on the scene? There are plenty of questionable women, shifty businessmen, and mentally-ill people who have been shoved to the edges of the community, paying the price for their wrong actions. Jesus walks straight toward them, embraces the ladies of the night, goes to dinner at the crooked shopkeeper’s house, and opens his arms to those who are made helpless by problems with their minds. We don’t see consequences, we see love.
What does Paul mean when he says he knew only Jesus Christ and him crucified? This is the Gospel. This is why we come to church on Sundays, why we pray, why we do hard, good things like asking each other’s forgiveness, like forgiving someone who doesn’t ask, like getting married, like continuing to keep your word by showing up even if there’s no one to notice you’re there.
The mystery of God is contained in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We believe that God walked among us in a person, Jesus. We believe that God’s way of living is so unreasonable in the middle of a consequence-ridden world that through our fellow human beings back in the first century, and through our own sinfulness today, Jesus was killed (1 Cor. 2:8). We believe that even when evil did its worst—when the wise and powerful of first-century Judea murdered God incarnate, God brought Jesus back to life. Jesus submitted himself to consequences even though he spent his whole life forgiving everyone else’s.
This mystery doesn’t change. We see echoes of it in the Old Testament, when God tells Abraham that somehow, a child, a son, will be born of two very old shriveled up bodies–the unreasonable, the impossible—our living God makes it happen. The birth of Isaac, along with other Old Testament stories, point toward Jesus’ resurrection–these are not the sort of “plausible words of wisdom” that Paul speaks about as the stumbling block in Corinthians; they are, as Paul puts it “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).
We’re not supposed to be able to explain everything in our world, how it came to be, how it all adds up. We are supposed to witness to how it is that God builds a relationship with each one of us. Our hope is not in words like “evidence” or “proof,” words that have come to bear a lot of weight in our society.
The living God, who we have all come to worship and encounter here today, sets for us the example of forgiving every person who hurts us, of not holding a grudge against anyone. This God loves us just as much, whether we choose to pray and to study his Word, or to profess that he does not exist. None of this, none of the Gospel, makes sense to us in a world where there’s always a price to pay if we’ve done something wrong.
This grace—the mystery of God’s love for us—cannot be explained away in a primetime debate, nor can it be put into words very well at all, despite our great literary efforts over the last many centuries. God’s grace is best known by its being shown to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
God shows us that there is no power, no evil, stronger than himself. Though we may feel helpless to our sins, unable to control our reactions, unable to forgive or let go, as if we can’t escape the way this world teaches us about consequences—despite all this–we prayed at the very beginning of our time together this morning that God would set us free. We asked God to loose the bonds of sin that tie us up, the ways that we hurt each other and hang on to hate. We asked God to then fill us up with his grace, with the abundant life that he first revealed fully in Jesus Christ.
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12). Amen.
I thought about you when I read it in the paper this morning.
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