It was accidental.
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.
Two of the most infamous psalms in Scripture are 88 and 137, so it seemed like an especially brilliant idea to tackle them both in one go during the 35 minutes alloted for Sunday School (usually it’s more like 45 minutes, but the preacher went long…). Here are a few notes from our class’ wonderings and wanderings:
Though these two prayers have no particular relation to each other, put together, they have something specific to teach; Psalms 88 & 137 take God seriously in a way that we are often unwilling to consider. When a child is clearly upset but says, “No, nothing’s wrong!!” she’s distancing herself from you. She won’t allow herself to be made well or to be changed. Prayer, real talking to God in despair and in anger requires that you be ready for God to act, to transform you and the situation. To share your sadness and anger with God, you must admit that you are sad and angry, and to admit that you aren’t in control and aren’t able to help yourself means you are humbling yourself. It’s significant that in this depression and anger, these composers turn to God; they’re hurt and broken by the world, but they cling to God by continuing to offer prayers.
One woman said, “Whenever I want to pray about something that makes me angry or hurt or sad, I say to myself, ‘well, I should trust more. I should not let this get me down–then I can pray about it.’ But the truth is that these psalms show us that we should approach God just where we are.”
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Well, there’s no country called Babylon anymore, so maybe the psalmist got his wish. I think there’s more to be mined here than that: looking at the psalm again and thinking about it from a perspective of “good guys” and “bad guys” or perhaps even “God’s people” and “the Evil one,” what is the Scripture saying to us? We live now in the midst of evil, strangers in a strange land; this place is not our home. We endure violence and struggle against our sin. But someday, we will struggle no more, and we will endure no more evil; happy shall be the one who roots out the progeny of evil, killing off all hints of evil, burning away all darkness–rooting out its very babies, that it has no future.
A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites. To the leader: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
1 O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
2 let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5 like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
8 You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.
A pscyhologist was in the class and she observed, “This sounds like clinical depression. The words that are used, the way it’s described–it’s practically textbook.” She is exactly right; the psalmist wants to have hope, but can’t muster it. There is nothing but darkness. We have friends and loved ones who suffer depression, some of us have lost people to the illness. Here in Scripture is preserved one experience of depression, perhaps to let us know that this may be a part of life on earth. This sort of brokenness may not be solved on this side of Heaven. We must admit that not all will be made well in advance of the end. The psalmist reminds us of something very important in verses 10-12: “Do you work wonders for the dead?” he asks; “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?” he challenges. In Jesus Christ, and in the salvation God offers us through him, yes–God does work wonders for the dead; indeed, his steadfast love is declared exactly in the grave. This does not provide a cure for depression, but we are given hope of healing, whether in this life, or the life to come.
Jesus gave his life. God gave his Son.
The Christian, Triune God does not take lives, or take away loved ones. Death is not God taking someone, death is a problem we humans, in our sin, have made for ourselves.
God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is in the resurrection business, not the death business. God makes life out of death.