Third Sunday in the Midst of Lent
TEXT: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” And so, in the opening sentence of today’s epistle reading, the apostle Paul presents his thesis.
“We proclaim Christ crucified,” he says, “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
When Paul wrote, “the message about the cross is foolishness,” he understood exactly how it felt to believe in something that he later realized was foolish. As a young man, he was known as Saul of Tarsus. A zealous persecutor of Christians, Saul was convinced that he knew what was right—and he was more than prepared to act upon his convictions. Saul viewed the followers of Jesus as being worse than fools. He saw them as dangerous heretics, and he helped to kill as many of them as he could. But then he had a profound experience that forever changed his way of thinking.
We know his story, don’t we? As Luke tells it in the Book of Acts, Saul was on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus on a mission to arrest a group of Christ-followers, when—in a flash of utterly brilliant light—the risen Christ appeared to him, asking: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4)
Knocked to the ground and struck blind, Saul had to be led by the hand into the city. After three days, however, his sight was restored by a disciple called Ananias—and Saul the Persecutor became Paul the Apostle, proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as God’s Messiah and Son.
After the Lord spoke to him, what once seemed wise was exposed as foolish—and what once seemed foolish was revealed to be supremely wise.
Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner has described Paul’s conversion like this: “Everything he ever said or wrote or did from that day forward was an attempt to bowl over the human race as he’d been bowled over himself while he lay there with dust in his mouth.” 1
Even so, it was a tough sell—especially to those who had not witnessed what Paul had witnessed. As the apostle himself admitted, his proclamation of “Christ crucified”—which was actually a proclamation of death and resurrection—was perceived by Jews as a “stumbling block” and by Gentiles as “foolishness.” No one had difficulty believing that Jesus had been executed. Or that he had been buried. But as for the rest of the story …
Well, let me throw another quote into the mix. This one’s from a most excellent book called Miracles by Eric Metaxas. Here’s what he has to say about the kind of skepticism that Paul encountered:
We again and again must remember that resurrection from the dead was as implausible then as it is today, and we must remember that it was as staggering to those who came to believe it as to those who did not believe it. This and only this can account for the sudden boldness with which those who did believe it spoke of it. It is only because they had witnessed an outrageous miracle that they had the courage to talk of it incessantly, despite being threatened with death if they did not stop. For them, the reality of the resurrection was how the authority of God manifestly trumped all earthly authorities. It wasn’t merely a theological idea but a reality to which they were eyewitnesses. They had themselves witnessed the power of God—and the person of God—in the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. After that, nothing in this world could dissuade them from believing it, and no authority in this world could frighten them from proclaiming it. They had no fear of death because they had seen Death itself triumphed over by the one who claimed to be “the resurrection and the life.” They might have claimed to believe it before, but after the crucifixion and resurrection, they had no doubt. 2
“Destroy this temple,” Jesus said—referring to the temple of his body—“and in three days I will raise it up.” But his words made no sense to anybody listening. Even his disciples understood only afterward—when his risen body explained his empty tomb.
Can you discern a theme here? I do. And it’s this: Faith is born of experience. Or perhaps it would be better to say that assurance is born from direct personal experience. Because, certainly, “faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10:17)—and probably most of us tend to believe what trusted sources tell us. But personally experiencing a truth … Well, that kind of seals the deal, doesn’t it?
You may tend to believe that your parachute has been correctly packed … but you cannot know for sure—one way or the other—until you hit the ground.
Saul of Tarsus hit the ground. He bottomed out. Face down in the dirt, his retinas scorched as if he’d been staring into the sun, he heard a voice: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting … get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:5-6).
The season of Lent is a good time for listening and for remembering. Listening for the Lord’s voice—but also remembering those times and places where we may have heard it before. And for remembering those times when we’ve been face down in the dirt. Hurting. Blinded. Bewildered. Terrified.
That’s exactly where I was in January of 1991. Blinded to the possibility that my newborn son—my only son—might survive open-heart surgery, I enquired about donating Samuel’s organs so that another baby might live. Then I prayed for strength—for Iris and for myself—that we might endure this loss, this sorrow, this crippling blow.
Thank God for unanswered prayer! I’ve been doing that a lot lately, as I watch my grown son play with his own three young children. But 30 years ago, I could not imagine such a happy outcome. Instead, I was pondering funeral arrangements—even as it felt like life was over for Iris and me, as well.
And, really, it should have been. I’ll spare you the details, which are dreadful. Suffice it to say that we came very close to losing our boy. Suffice it to say that he and Iris and me were all sealed inside a tomb … in a pediatric ICU in Edmonton. Sealed inside a dark, dark tomb for more days than I could count.
But then that seal was broken, and light poured into that dark place. Easter morning came for us, when—in early February of 1991—we took our baby home, alive and well.
Ever since, I have had no difficulty believing in resurrection. God gave me my only son back from death; of course he could do the same thing for his own Son!
I also realize—even as I’m telling that story—that there is no way I can tell it without sounding maudlin and naïve … and more than a little bit crazy … and even … foolish. Any rational person would hear it that way … unless they’ve gone through something similar. Or otherwise experienced this thing called grace.
“Preacher, what is grace?”
You know something? It’s hard to explain that in words. One definition of grace is “unmerited favour.” But perhaps we would do better to describe it than to try and define it. In another of Paul’s epistles—his letter to the Ephesians—he says, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Grace is a gift. You cannot earn it. Faith, also, is a gift; it is born out of grace. And grace is offered freely—offered, I believe, just when we need it most.
The story is told of a man who came eagerly to a revival meeting. It must have been a morning like next Sunday’s going to be, when Daylight Saving Time begins. He should have moved his alarm clock ahead an hour. But he didn’t. He arrived after everything was over, and the crowds had gone home, and the evangelist was on his way to the next town.
The only ones present now were the workmen who were tearing down the tent in which the meeting had been held. Frantic at the thought of missing his chance for salvation, the man asked one of the carpenters what he could do to be saved. The workman, who was a Christian, replied: “You can’t do anything. It’s too late.”
Horrified, the man screamed, “What do you mean? How can it be too late?”
“The work has already been accomplished,” he was told. “There is nothing you need to do … except believe it.”
To some extent, every person lives by faith. When we open a can of food or drink a glass of water we trust that it is not contaminated. When we go across a bridge we trust it to support us. When we put our money in the bank, we trust it will be secure. Life is a constant series of acts of faith. No human being, no matter how skeptical and self-reliant, could live one day without exercising faith.
But in each of those cases I just mentioned, there is some objective reason for having faith. We trust public health officials to ensure that our food is safe. We pay our utility bills, and so we expect our tap water to be clean. Bridges are built with engineering supervision. Canadian banks very rarely fail—and there’s deposit insurance if they do.
Faith in God, however—especially faith in a living, personal God who loves you and can actually intervene in your life … Well, that’s something else, isn’t it? It is not rational. In fact, it probably appears quite foolish. It is faith of an entirely different order. When we accept the finished work of Christ on our behalf, we act by means of the faith supplied by God’s grace. That is the supreme act of human faith, and—although it is ours—it is primarily an act of God. When a person chokes or drowns and stops breathing, there is nothing he can do. If he ever breathes again it will be because someone else starts him breathing.
As someone has said, faith is simply breathing the breath that God’s grace supplies. Perhaps that does sound foolish; but I think it’s as good a definition as any. So, my friends, on this third Sunday in the midst of Lent, I think the best advice I can give you is … breathe deeply! Open your minds—better yet, open your hearts—to this Godly foolishness; for it is, in very truth, “wiser than human wisdom, and … stronger than human strength.”
1 Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), pp. 129-130.
2 Eric Metaxas, Miracles (New York: Dutton, 2014), p. 110.