I Corinthians 1:18-31
September 6, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
The last four weeks, I have been preaching on the Wisdom literature in the Bible asking, “What does it mean to be wise?” A teacher once asked her students to write down “words of wisdom” that they would pass on to other kids, and these are some of the things they came up with:
- When your dad is mad and asks you, “Do I look stupid?”, don’t answer him.
- If you want a kitten, start out by asking for a horse.
- Don’t pick on your sister when she’s holding a baseball bat.
- Never try to baptize a cat.
For these children, wisdom consists of some very practical advice that, if followed, will prevent hurt feelings, wounded egos, and physical injury. They know that being wise in all things will mean that they will have a safe place to grow up healthy and whole.
The biblical writers in their preaching on wisdom had a similar outlook, albeit on a slightly deeper scale. The wise person, they said, is the person who is able to live a life of meaning and purpose without regret or reproach. Wisdom creates a space where we can grow in spirit and know the peace of being whole.
And so over the past four weeks, we have heard what the Bible has taught us about wisdom. [And this is your last review before the exam.]
Proverbs 3 told us that wisdom begins in humility. We need to recognize that we are limited mortal human beings and not God, but also believe that with God, we can find the strength and courage to accomplish work we could not do on our own.
We learned from Proverbs 8 that everything changes, and so the wise person accepts the inevitability of change and tries to find within those new circumstances an opportunity for growth.
We heard Ecclesiastes warn that sometimes in spite of our best efforts, change and the limitations of our mortal life leave us unable to make sense of events but the wise person should feel no shame in admitting their sorrow and confusion. Wisdom means knowing when to cry, and it means trying to focus on the simple value of daily tasks and the small goodnesses of ordinary life.
And finally, we heard from Song of Solomon that the wise person remembers always that we are loved with the steadfast and passionate love of our eternal God who promises to remain by our side no matter what comes. Embraced by the love of God, we can find the space we need to grow whole in heart and soul.
This is wisdom as described in the Hebrew scriptures and when the apostle Paul sat down to write his letter to the church at Corinth, he had all of this in mind. He said to the Corinthians, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Paul believed that everything I just described finds its ultimate expression in Jesus Christ, specifically in Jesus Christ, the crucified. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament was written to help us cope with the difficulties of being human and Paul understood that the hardship of our human condition is embodied in that horrible moment of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Do we struggle with the injustice of society? What greater injustice was there than the execution of an innocent man?
Do we shake our heads at the capacity for cruelty that we see around us? What greater cruelty was there than the crucifixion, a brutal and agonizing death instituted and legitimatized by the state?
Are we crushed when our dreams fail and when our hope turns to ashes? Look at the disciples scattered after their Messiah’s death, facing a bleak tomorrow where nothing was what they had imagined it would be.
Do our hearts break at the grief of our mortality, at the reality of loss and separation from those we most love? Look at the women crying their hearts out at the foot of the cross, women who have lost a dear friend, Mary who has to bear the unbearable: the death of her son.
Everything that is hard about being human finds its expression in the crucifixion where Jesus who was supposed to save us is instead taken from us in the most brutal, unjust, and horrible way possible. On the cross, God said to the world, “This is your absolute worst, but I will show you my beloved people, my absolute best.”
And from the darkness of the tomb God brought forth a shining light. Dawn broke and the impossible happened: life returned. But here is the most important lesson of the cross, what Paul calls the wisdom of God: life did return but it wasn’t life the way it had been before. God didn’t undo everything that had happened. Jesus’s hands bore the imprints of the nails; he carried in his flesh the scars of the spear. God didn’t erase the cruelty and suffering of the cross but God showed the broken-hearted people a way forward out of the tomb to a place where they could find purpose and love and healing again.
God is not a magical God who steps in and erases the difficulties of our lives but God offers you the possibility of living a life that is full of meaning and love and even moments of joy in the midst of your brokenness.
There is a fable called, “The Donkey and the Pit,” in which a donkey falls into a deep pit and cannot climb out. He cries for hours until finally the farmer hears him and comes to see what has happened. The farmer sees the donkey in the bottom of the pit and he thinks, “This donkey is old and not of much use to me anymore. It will take too much effort and expense to get it out of this hole. On the other hand, if I leave it in there, it will save me the trouble of digging a grave when it dies,” and so the farmer decides to hurry things along and begins to shovel dirt into the pit to bury the donkey.
The donkey thought things couldn’t get worse and now when he realizes what is happening, he falls into the deepest of despair. This is truly the end. Soon, the farmer realizes the donkey’s tears have stopped and assuming the donkey is dead and gone, he continues to shovel. A little while later, however, the farmer is surprised when he hears a happy bray from the pit. The farmer looks into the hole to see what is happening and discovers the donkey standing almost at the edge. Every time a shovel of dirt fell upon him, the donkey bowed his head until the dirt slid off to his feet, and then he took a step up. Slowly, he has been able to climb out of the pit.
In the end, wisdom means accepting that sometimes we will suffer. In spite of our most heart felt prayers, we will not be able to pray away everyone’s cancer. There will still be war and poverty. We will face financial difficulties; our parents will age; our children will struggle; and we will know heartache because we are human. We can pray as hard as we want but not everyone and everything will be physically cured. And the world would have us believe that if you aren’t sound in body, if you aren’t rich and successful and able to run a mile in under five minutes, you might as well hang it up because there’s nothing much out there for you. It’s all downhill until the grave.
And just think of all of the people you know who buy into that false assumption. They spend their lives working so hard at avoiding suffering that they don’t have much of a life to speak of: they numb their hearts with drugs or alcohol, or they rush to the doctor every other day trying to ward off the inevitability of aging, or they shop until they drop hoping that the next shiny toy will fill their emptiness; but instead of being happier, they become entombed in their own fear and diseased in spirit. Russ Harris, the author of The Happiness Trap says, “The more we try to avoid the basic reality that all human life involves pain, the more we are likely to struggle with that pain when it arises, thereby creating even more suffering.”
As Christians following a resurrected Christ, however, we are called to believe that physical wholeness is not a requirement for living a good life; spiritual wholeness is. To come to the end our lives without reproach and regret, we need only to have lived lives that were full of meaning — that were given to love — and God promises that meaning and love can be found even when our hearts are torn apart, our eyes are full of tears, and our palms bear the imprint of nails.
This is the wisdom that has power to save you, Paul says, “It is here, in Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God.”