Monday, January 28, 2008

Preaching the Cross

(A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

We preachers preach about all kinds of things. We preach about sin (we’re against it.) We preach about relationships (we’d like them to be more loving and fulfilling than they often are). We preach about all the things that the church needs to be doing that we’re not doing (we may dwell on that one too much). We preach about eternal life (we want everybody to have it). We preach about what the Bible says (we sometimes have the courage to mention the parts that we know you won’t like).

We preachers are at our best, though, when we preach Jesus. Indeed, Jesus should be both implicit and explicit in every sermon that we preach. And we may are at our absolute best when we preach Jesus Christ crucified.

The church is at its best when it preaches, teaches, and lives Jesus Christ crucified. Christians are at their best when they talk and live Jesus Christ crucified. The church and the Christians who make it up are considerably less than our best when we talk and live something less than Jesus Christ crucified.

We err in the church when we let anything other than the main thing become the main thing. And the main thing always has been, is now, and always will be Jesus Christ crucified.

Sometimes we, like the folks in the church at Corinth, let other things become the main thing. For example, sometimes we let who we know become the main thing for us. The Corinthians were all busted up over who they knew; they had divided themselves up into cliques that were based on certain personalities. Some claimed loyalty to Paul, some to the Alexandrian preacher Apollos, some to Simon Peter, and some to Christ.

Sometimes people develop an unhealthy loyalty to an individual leader. I once had someone say to me about her pastor, “I just can’t imagine going to a church where he was not the pastor.” Always remember: we go to church to worship God for what he has done for us in Jesus Christ. Now, it is well and good to have mentors and people whose insights give us good guidance. I am going to drive several hours today to hear and hopefully meet a man whose books I have been reading for many years and whose insights are always helpful to me. But he is helpful to me precisely because he points me to Jesus.

For most of us the larger temptation is to develop an unhealthy loyalty to a certain group. Now, having a small group or small groups within the fellowship of the church with whom we find camaraderie and support is a good thing. What we have to be careful about is coming to think that everybody in the church and in the world either does think or should think like our group thinks. We need to keep our eyes and minds open to the wider church and the wider world. Mainly, though, we need to keep our eyes and minds on the crucified Christ.

Or, sometimes we let what we know become the main thing for us. Some of the Christians at Corinth claimed to belong to Apollos, who was renowned for his wisdom and eloquence. Did those who claimed allegiance to Apollos think they knew more than everyone else? Some of the Corinthians claimed to belong to Christ. Now, all Christians would ultimately have to say they belong to Christ. Could it be that these particular people claimed to have a deeper relationship with Christ than everybody else? Could they have been claiming some special knowledge of Christ that belonged to them alone?

Now, we need to grow in our knowledge of the Lord. We need to study and to pray and to listen to good teachers so that we will come to know more and more. But we have to remember that the main thing is not what we know. The main thing is Christ crucified.

Or, sometimes we let what we are able to do become the main thing. The Corinthian Christians were a very gifted congregation. Giftedness can create pride and pride can lead to arrogance and to jealousy. Sometimes we become enamored of our gifts and abilities and forget from where such attributes come.

What we can do for the Lord with the help of the Lord is important. But it is not the main thing. The main thing is Christ crucified.

Division results when we get away from the main thing. We get divided in our own being when the cross is not at the center of our lives. The cross holds our lives together because the cross is the essence of the way of God. If we do not hold the cross at the center of our being, we get pulled apart by competing loyalties, which may be people, agendas, self, or any number of things. We get divided in the church when the cross is not at the center of the church’s life. If we do not hold the cross at the center of our church’s life, we get pulled in all kinds competing directions. That’s what happened at Corinth and that’s what often happens in these days. We forget the main thing. The main thing is Christ crucified.

And so Paul told the Corinthians, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (v. 17). He said that about baptism not because he thought baptism was unimportant—he himself had been baptized—but because he was glad that not many people could use their baptism by him as a point of loyalty. He said that about wisdom not because he was opposed to wisdom—especially the wisdom that comes from God (see 2:6ff)—but because he wanted it to be clear that the power of the cross was not in human rhetoric.

So what is this preaching of the cross? What is its message?

The message part one is: the cross is foolish. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…” (v. 18a). That’s the way it was for us when we were perishing. That’s the way it is for those who are still perishing. And that’s a little bit of the way that it is for those of us who aren’t perishing but who are grasping so little of what life in Christ is really all about that we feel a good bit of the time like we’re choking, like we’re not coming up for air often enough. It’s foolish on the face of it: the powerful don’t intentionally become weak; those who have it all don’t on purpose give it all up for people who don’t even deserve it; gods don’t die; Messiahs aren’t crucified. It’s foolish.

But, you see, this foolishness is God’s foolishness, a foolishness that is intentionally chosen. When we’re foolish we are that way because we can’t help it or because we slipped up or because we weren’t paying attention. God intentionally chose the foolishness of the cross because he knew it was the only way to make salvation possible. It’s hard to get the truth that strength is seen in weakness and that wisdom is seen in foolishness, but that’s the way it is and God knows it. To receive it, we have to become fool enough to believe the cross and then fool enough to live the cross.

The message part two: the cross is powerful. “The message about the cross,” Paul said, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is the power of God because it embodies the grace of God. It is the power of God because it embodies the way of God. Jesus shows us fully who God is and the cross of Jesus shows us that God is a God who dies for us and who dies with us. In that is grace and in that grace is power.

And so, you see, in the cross all the reasons for our divisions are swept away. God has done everything for our salvation. He has done in it ways that require downright foolishness, the kind that is seen in simple, child-like faith, to accept it. He has made it clear that no personal quality, whether ours or someone else’s, can save us. Thus, we lose all ground for selfishness, for pride, for boasting, and for division. It is the cross of Christ that saves us, that unites us, that binds us, and that will carry us through.

Paul said that he did not preach “with eloquent wisdom so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” Its power is seen in its simplicity, in its foolishness, and in its grace. So, here it is for all of us:

Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Jesus Christ embodied the grace and love of God.
Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins.
Jesus Christ will save you if you will just be foolish enough to believe.

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