You can hear it in the opening hymn this morning: the anticipation of everything that worship will bring; that there’s room for singing a breathless “now, now, now” about all that’s coming; room for anticipation. We’re careful, of course, in Lent – not to celebrate to grandly. We mute it a bit – remove our glorias, take down our alleluias – focus on our Savior’s Passion for our salvation. And yet, in the middle of Lent, focusing on the suffering of Christ, it is good to look ahead toward our goal of the consolation of Easter. And the apostle Paul, this morning broadens it out to say that, in the middle of the trouble of life, focusing on the message of Christ, we ought to know that we have Cause for Rejoicing.
Though, a caveat right from the start – full disclosure – Paul’s reasoning about rejoicing starts like this: You’re a bunch of fools. That was essentially what Paul said to his friends in the city of Corinth. That Christian congregation was having some trouble; they were divided over who was the best leader – some were posting their morning Insta inspos with #IFollowPaul, others sported their “Cephas FTW!” silk-screened tees; meanwhile Paul was crying out, “I don’t even remember who I baptized among you!” But some would call that kind of thinking wise – find the best leader, look at his speaking ability and his charisma, his people skills, etc. Paul’s foolishness is a hopeful thing: hoping that these Christians would be fools and not subscribe to worldly ideas about their leaders and their own religious lives. So Paul said just before our section, “For Christ [sent me] to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (1 Cor 1:17).”
Words of human wisdom empty the cross of its power… Consider why Paul would say such a thing. You can do it by reviewing what Paul means exactly by “the gospel” or the “message of the cross”. If we start from the end, isn’t the message of the cross that we are whole and holy in God’s presence, no longer enemies, but together and at peace, (as one paraphrase puts it) “all because of [Jesus’] death, his blood that poured down from the cross (Colossians 1:18-21).” Doesn’t the cross speak this word: that we have life and peace with God, happiness and joy – but only because Jesus was powerfully perfect yet still submitted to suffering, put away his power, was bloodied and bruised, and was finally, shamefully, hammered to a block of wood and hung out to die for everybody to see? And all that weakness, because the best of our strength was totally impotent, our wise plans like crayon blueprints. That message makes you a bunch of fools, says Paul, in the eyes of the world.
And, of course it does. Just think of it! To Jews of Paul’s day…the Law of Moses said that anybody hung on a tree was cursed – separate from God forever! Paul’s message was victory in the long awaited Messiah, who was hung on a tree and bore the curse of eternal hell for our sins. Unpalatable. Offensive. Foolish. To Greeks, anybody not Jewish? In a very superficial sense, this was a tactless thing: to speak of the worst capital punishment – the cross was a slave’s death and those who died there were unmentionables. And beyond that, who would want to follow such a “Savior” who died so horribly? Unthinkable. Distasteful. Foolish. It is still so now. When science and higher education has enlightened the world to know that everything evolved over time and that our sexuality and our deeds are all learned things – just products of good or bad environments – that we’re all basically good…when these things are present, a message like the cross is unconscionable. Witness it in a current political race – if you’re a Bible-believing Christian, you can’t represent the law and people – you’re obviously flawed and compromised. Incontrovertibly stupid, wrong, and foolish to believe any message that points away from our ability, intelligence, and superiority and freedom as humans. You’re a bunch of fools.
The temptation when you meet the mockery of the world, is to change…isn’t it? It’s hard to have to say a message that is, in every respect, a complete slap in the face to the world. The message that we are saved from sin by the horrible death of the god-man, Jesus Christ on a cross says many horrible things. It says that we’re not what God wants in people. It says that what we are demanded horror uncomfortable to think about. It says that all doing for getting into God’s good graces is so worthless that only in Christ’s undoing could we be saved. It says that people are not “ok” in whatever they believe, but that true happiness and the prospect of freedom from undying perishing comes only, exclusively, alone by faith in Jesus’ death on the cross. How tempting it is to just change a little bit of that! To put a nice glossy worldly-wisdom over top. To quiet down when the world lays out its truthish things. To back off when a friend talks about how we all believe what’s good for us and to believe anything more restrictive is just bad. It’s hard to be fools in the eyes of most and carry this cross message around.
So, what is the cause for rejoicing? I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, there was one thing I just absolutely hated. Mom and Dad would tell me that I wasn’t able to do this or that thing. And of course I would then ask, “Why not?” And they might sometimes say, “Because I said so…” And that’s the rub, isn’t it? I could whine until they explained, but finally, really, truly the reason it boiled down to in the end was simply because that was what they wanted. The despised, ambiguous, parental “because” – a reflection of their authority and my lack of it.
The encouragement we have is something like that: You’re a bunch of fools as you believe the gospel, but that’s exactly what God intended. Here was his intent with this foolish message of the cross: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate…For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” The world’s wisdom ever only leads to worshiping ourselves. So Jesus said: Deny yourself – the desires to not look the fool, take up your cross – bear the discomfort and the shame, and follow me – believe and trust in me and my work alone. Doing anything else, “[A]nyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27).” They will join in with those who, in many different ways, considered the cross-message foolish, and are perishing in hell.
Paul’s intent for himself and us is to rejoice in what God intended – to shout it from the rooftops – to proclaim it: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” He says, “I know the world hates this message, here are a few specific ways they don’t like it…now go and preach it anyway.” Why? Because “to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Through the preaching of such a weak and foolish message that runs contrary to everything the world believes God makes believers; God saves sinners.
“[Because] the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” You know that wisdom and strength. In the very next section, Paul points these believers momentarily to consider it by considering themselves. Think of yourselves; consider how you were called. It wasn’t because somebody laid out for you the wisest possible argumentation – how God refutes every scientific statement; how the gospel soothes every worry about your ego; how it promises an easy life. It’s because you were the gospel picture Pastor Free read this morning. There you see the love of a parent – whose “because” you obey not just because it’s the law and you’ll be punished if you don’t; a parent whose “because” you obey because all their “becauses” have proven to be for your good. Because you were the lost son or daughter and you thought that you might work a relationship out with God, but you found that your working kept leaving you in the muck and desperate, and you found that despite your unworthiness, God worked it all out already in the sacrifice of his Son. All your filth of sin was washed away. You received the robes of the righteous family member. You wear the ring that marks you as his called children. Unthinkable! Unbelievable! Inconceivable! And yet here you are…God’s power at work, among us, and through fools like us, in the world. That is great cause for rejoicing.
And we frame things that way today, because that’s actually the sub-theme for this Sunday of the church year. The 4th Sunday in Lent is called Laetare Sunday – Latin for “Rejoice!” It comes from the entrance song one might use on this day, from Isaiah 66, which reads like this: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together all you who love her. Rejoice, you who have been in sorrow, that you may exult and be filled from the abundance of your consolation.” Indeed, we have great cause for rejoicing, great reasons to exult in Jesus Christ, our focus in Lent. We have an abundance of consolation in him because his death on the cross and his resurrection after provides an entrance into heaven for us. There’s no denying it: in the eyes of the world you’re a bunch of fools for believing this. But rejoice because this is exactly what God intended. “[T]o us who are being saved [this foolish gospel] is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” So, don’t ever change; continue to rejoice because your Father’s shown himself to have your best in mind.