We often judge ourselves against the standards of this world. And when we do, we often find that we don’t measure up. In today’s scripture, Paul talks about a different standard: the “foolishness of the cross.” How would our lives be better if we lived according to that standard?
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:26-2:5
[To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3 of this sermon.] Have you heard the news? According to no less an authority than the Wall Street Journal, God is not dead after all. Some of you were around back in 1966, when Time magazine had its infamous cover story asking, “Is God Dead?” By the way, I liked what Billy Graham said to a reporter when asked if God, indeed, was dead: “Of course not!” he said. “I was talking with him just this morning!” The point is, fifty years ago the conventional wisdom of well-respected “experts” assured us that science would soon prove that God doesn’t exist, or at least as we learned more and more about our universe, we would outgrow our need for God to explain things, and belief in God would soon disappear. And now, as I just learned a few weeks ago, a Wall Street Journal opinion piece published late last year, entitled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God,” has become the most popular, the most widely forwarded article in the history of the paper. Among other things, the author, Eric Metaxas, convincingly argues that, far from showing that God doesn’t exist, astrophysics increasingly shows how incredibly unlikely it is that a universe such as ours, with a planet like ours that supports life the way it does, should exist at all. When I say “unlikely,” I mean this: astrophysics shows that in order for our universe to exist, it would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row—that’s a million million times in a row. In response to this staggering improbability, atheists can only respond, “We must have just gotten that lucky.” At some point, isn’t it easier just to believe in God? My point is, that Time magazine article reflected the wisdom of its age. And now it seems quaint, silly, foolish… And this sort of thing happens all the time—in all fields of human endeavor. All that to say, you may build your life on the shifting sands of the wisdom of this age, or on the bedrock of God’s Word, and what it reveals about Jesus Christ and him crucified, and what it reveals about true wisdom from God. This is the point Paul makes in today’s scripture. These Corinthian believers, you see, were enamored of popular philosophers who would come to their city—they were the “rock stars” of their day—they were called “sophists,” and they tickled people’s ears with beautiful oratory that reflected the best of worldly wisdom. In comparison Paul, in both the things that he said and the manner in which he said them, seemed weak and unimpressive. His spoken words were plain. His message about the cross, far from being “beautiful,” was downright ugly. And Paul himself didn’t cut an impressive or imposing figure. Paul, in contrast to the “wise” people of his age, just didn’t measure up. What about you? Do you “measure up”? Do you place your value and your sense of self-worth in the extent to which you measure up to worldly standards? I confess I’ve struggled with this problem all my life. I’ll never forget my first job out of college, with AT&T. It was a sales job. One year, the branch manager decided he would “motivate” us salespeople by posting a big chart on the wall that listed each person’s name and the amount of their annual sales quota they had retired so far that year. As one friend told me, they may as well post your W-2 on the wall, because everyone can guess how much money you’re making. It just so happened that for most of the year, I was down near the bottom of the heap, and it made me feel miserable about myself. I called it my “wall of shame.” Everybody could see how badly I was doing. I wanted to avoid that hallway altogether. But the next year, I blew out my quota. I was at or near the top in sales all year. Only… the branch manager didn’t post the chart that year. Other people couldn’t see how well I was doing, and I didn’t like that one bit! My point is, I struggle with pride—then as now. It’s getting better. But there’s still a part of me that’s always looking over my shoulder, comparing myself to others. Seeing how or whether I measure up. It can make me deeply insecure. If I don’t measure up to some external standard, then I don’t feel like I’m a person of worth. I suspect I’m not alone. I suspect many of us have our own personal “wall of shame,” whatever it may be. I’m generalizing, but women get more of their self-esteem from relationships with others, whereas men get more of their self-esteem from accomplishments, money, recognition. Either way, this is a problem, because if you look to other people or other things—things outside of yourself—to fill up your emotional or spiritual tank, to make you feel good about yourself, chances are you’ll be disappointed. Chances are you’re not going to get enough of these people and enough of these things to be satisfied. In my own case, this sense of feeling insecure and never quite measuring up is probably related to my being adopted—not that most adopted kids have this problem. But I’m exceptional, what can I say? Seriously, I remember as a kid, when I was seven, eight, nine years old, my parents taking me to baseball practice, or football practice. And maybe they’d leave practice to go run an errand—the way I often do with my own kids. And I promise I would feel very anxious while waiting for them to return. I couldn’t even concentrate on or enjoy what I was doing because I would be nervously scanning the sidelines or looking over at the bleachers, waiting… watching… wondering… Wondering what? Whether or not they’d return for me? I never told anyone about these anxious feelings until I was much older. I told my mom probably ten years ago, and she said she knew all about it. She said, “Your dad and I always wondered if it was because you were adopted.” And I’m like, “You think?” So I’ve always carried around this insecurity—this feeling of unworthiness, of not measuring up—and I was sharing it recently with a friend of mine who knows me pretty well. He said, “Brent, you’re not going to find your worth, your value, in accomplishments, achievements, other people’s approval of you… You’ve got to find it right here. [Motioning toward heart.] You’ve got to get in touch with this place inside of you that’s perfect and beautiful, just the way you are.” And I thought to myself when he said that, “That sounds nice, but you can’t fool me. I’ve been to theology school. I know I’m a sinner in this place that you say is so perfect and so beautiful.” I’m a sinner. I know I’m ugly inside. But you see, I was wrong. And all I can figure is that I must have slept during the part of theology class in which we learned about the cross of Jesus Christ. Because the cross means this: God came in the flesh, in Jesus Christ, and he lived and suffered and died on the cross, in order that we would be perfect and beautiful in God’s eyes. “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21. “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” Romans 8:3. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Galatians 3:13. Now, because of this exchange that took place on the cross, God doesn’t see this ugliness inside; he sees these perfect, beautiful people that he created us to be! Because of the cross, we are now God’s beloved children! Think about that! Think about when you’re holding your own baby or grandchild in your arms. I walk by the nursery these days and see Taylor Lewis’s little boy—just so perfect and beautiful and think, “It’s not too late! We can still have one just like that!” And Lisa’s like, “No we can’t!” But think of that love you feel for this perfect, beautiful little baby! There’s nothing that that child could ever do to be anything other than perfect and beautiful. That’s who you and I are—if we’ve accepted this saving grace of God through Christ. Granted, left to our own devices, we’re not beautiful and perfect just as we are—that’s why Jesus had to die. But we’re perfect and beautiful because Jesus gives us his beauty, his perfection, his status, his righteousness. This comes only through the cross. No wonder Paul says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” There’s nothing more important to know than that! From the Corinthians’ point of view, however, this message of the cross began to seem foolish. This message of the cross didn’t seem to measure up to the standards of the world. This message of the cross didn’t correspond to worldly wisdom. And Paul says, in so many words, “If you’re going to measure things by worldly standards, you don’t measure up, either! “For consider your calling, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” “If you want to judge based on worldly standards,” Paul says, “well, it’s back to the ‘wall of shame’ for you. And you’re on the very bottom! I mean, look at all those names in front of your own. You’re nothing by those standards. You’re nobody. If you reject the message of the cross,” Paul suggests, “it’s as if you’re sawing off the very branch on which you’re sitting. On the other hand, if you embrace the message of the cross, Paul says, you possess, through Christ, the wisdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption. You have everything you could possibly need! And Paul says this as someone who, by our worldly standards, often didn’t have what he needed. As he says in 2 Corinthians 11—he often went without food, water, clothing, sleep, and his own freedom. Countless beatings. Imprisonments. Five times he received at the hands of his own people the “forty lashes less one.” Three times beaten with rods. Three times shipwrecked. One time stoned with rocks and left for dead. In constant danger—danger in the cities, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea. Not to mention, he says, all the anxiety he suffers on behalf of the churches that he started. All because he left behind his former life and answered God’s call! Was it worth it? Was it worth all the suffering? Was it worth all the trouble and heartache and pain? “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Have you experienced the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus your Lord? Do you count everything else in your life a “loss” compared to knowing him? I participated recently in an online debate in which one of my fellow clergy was arguing that it’s theologically incorrect to say that being a Christian ought to make us happy. It’s wrong to emphasize happiness. I’m sorry. I strongly disagree! Not only that, I’m telling you right now that none of you is going to be truly happy apart from knowing Christ Jesus our Lord! What does it mean, after all, that in the midst of all this suffering that Paul does, he can say, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I will say, rejoice!” It’s simply impossible to rejoice “always” unless you’re also deeply happy, deeply satisfied, deeply content. But if you want to be happy in this way, your starting point and your bottom line and your main theme in life must be the same as Paul’s: “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” We’re coming up on a new presidential election season. I saw in the New York Times last week that Jeb Bush has been dieting like crazy. Because he’s thinking of throwing his hat in the ring and running. As the article put it:
As he prepares to challenge an almost universally younger and svelter field of Republican rivals, Mr. Bush has adopted a weight-loss program that is melting away pounds at a staggering rate even as it inflicts an unhappy toll: regular bouts of dietary crankiness.
The monthslong experiment in deprivation — little to no starch, dairy or refined sugar…may seem extreme. But unlike a mountain-biking brother, and his still-trim nonagenarian father, Mr. Bush has long struggled to keep the pounds away, trying everything from climbing 22 flights of stairs a day to joining the low-carb Atkins craze of the early 2000s.
Why is Jeb Bush doing this? Because he wants to appear young and strong and powerful. I don’t blame him. That’s why I work out! But he wants to look good standing next to his rivals for the nomination. Paul, by contrast, doesn’t seem to care how he comes across: “I came to you in weakness and in fear and much trembling,” he says in chapter 2, verse 3. In the second letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he quotes the critics who are attacking him: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.’” Paul doesn’t sound like a presidential contender! In his letter to the Galatians, he says that it’s because of this “weakness” that he preached the gospel to them, and “though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” There was something about Paul’s physical appearance—likely some disfigurement, some ailment, something possibly related to his eyes—that made him a less than impressive looking person. And, like Moses before him, he’s obviously not an eloquent speaker. And Paul knows all that! Again, Paul would not be an ideal candidate for president! In our extremely image-conscious age, Paul wouldn’t get the votes! Because he appeared weak. He sounded weak. Which is remarkable because—just based on the impact that he had and continues to have on the world—few people in history of the world have been more powerful! But he didn’t measure up to the world’s standards, and he didn’t care one bit because, as he said later, “When I am weak then I am strong!” Why? Because when we’re weak, that’s when the Holy Spirit makes us strong! When we’re weak, we give the Holy Spirit room to work through us. When we’re weak, we know we can’t be successful on our own. When we’re weak, we fall to our knees and trust in the Lord instead of simply depending on ourselves. When we’re weak, we’re reminded of the weakness of Jesus Christ on the cross. When we’re weak, we know that this kind of weakness is stronger than the strongest man! When we’re weak we know that this weakness is nothing less than the power of God to save us and give us eternal life. I want to weak like Paul—and just watch what the Lord can do through me! Don’t you want that too? You can accomplish great things. Asterisk. I should say, you can accomplish “great things” in the sense that you can allow the Holy Spirit to accomplish great things through you! Corey Taylor, before he left for the Marines recently, said that one popular Marine slogan is, “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” I like that, but I would also add that, “Weakness, for the Christian, is just power from the Holy Spirit entering the body.” Embrace the weakness of the cross. Let your focus be on Jesus Christ and him crucified. And let the power of the Holy Spirit flow through you!  2 Corinthians 5:21  Romans 8:3  Galatians 3:13  Philippians 3:8 ESV  Philippians 4:4  Galatians 4:13-14  2 Corinthians 12:10