A sermon for Epiphany 4, Year A
TEXTS: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and Matthew 5:1-12
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1:20)
A Bible Study leader asked his group this question: “What would you do if you knew you only had four weeks left before Judgment Day?”
One of those present responded, “For those four weeks, I would go out into my community and proclaim the Gospel.”
“What a great answer!” the group leader said.
Another person declared, “For those four weeks, I would dedicate all of my remaining time to serving God, my family, my church, and my neighbours with a greater conviction.”
“That’s wonderful!” said the group leader.
Finally, a gentleman at the back of the room spoke up, saying: “For those four weeks, I would go and stay at my mother-in-law’s house.”
“Why your mother-in-law’s house?”
“Because that would make it the longest four weeks of my life!”
There’s a school of thought about sermons … one which recommends beginning every message with a joke. Or even a few jokes, to lighten things up. And there are, after all, plenty of jokes that are clean enough to tell in church.
Some are short and satirical: “Politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly—and for the same reason.”
Or: “Television can insult your intelligence, but nothing rubs it in like a computer.”
And then there are riddles … like this one: “What’s faster than a speeding bullet?”
“A Scotsman with a coupon!”
Or … this one: “What’s the difference between God and Donald Trump?”
“God doesn’t think he’s Donald Trump!”
Truth to tell, it’s not all that easy to work jokes into a sermon … because, most often, the theme is anything but humorous. Take our gospel text as an example. Matthew, chapter five. The beginning of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.”
In particular, we’re looking at the “beatitudes.” Ostensibly, these are about blessings … But really, they are somber, and serious, and full of the hard realities of life. When you hear the beatitudes—if you’re really listening to them—they kind of hit you in the gut, don’t they?
They knock the breath out of you—and not because you’re laughing so hard!
No. In the beatitudes, Jesus is speaking honestly and straightforwardly about what the life of a disciple is going to be like.
And here’s something I think is remarkable—especially considering how popular Jesus would become. He is delivering this sermon very early on in his ministry—right at the beginning of his career. To people who had felt distant and alienated from God, he was proclaiming the nearness of heaven’s kingdom.
He was, we assume, trying to convince people to come and follow him. Yet, in one of his first sermons, he tells his would-be followers how hard it’s going to be.
Right up front, he lays it all out, in plain language: being his disciple means accepting some pretty challenging realities.
To be sure, Jesus talks about his disciples being poor in spirit, and being people who mourn … but these are aspects of life that all people experience, disciples or not.
Then he talks about his followers hungering and thirsting after righteousness, being merciful and meek and pure in heart, being peacemakers. Now that stuff is challenging—but it’s also noble. Most would see these as honourable and admirable ideals—even if somewhat counter-cultural.
But then, Jesus gets down to the final beatitudes. And what he says here should cause anyone to think twice. Because what he says is: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).
And, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12).
Nothing about that is funny, or lighthearted. But Jesus says this will be the lot of his disciples.
Yes, you will be blessed … but first, you will be persecuted and reviled. First, people will utter all kinds of evil against you falsely. Now, that’s not very funny. It’s far from comedic. But there is a certain foolishness about it.
It’s foolish (isn’t it?) to think that blessings come to those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, merciful, and pure. It’s foolish to think that those who are persecuted, reviled and lied about, will be blessed.
It’s foolish to link blessings with these things—isn’t it? And it’s foolish to think that anyone would want to follow Jesus, knowing that all these negatives come along as baggage.
Who would want to be Jesus’ disciple, when that means you’re going to be persecuted and reviled? When that means people will utter all kinds of slander against you?
Knowing all that, you’d have to be a fool to follow Jesus … wouldn’t you? And yet, that’s exactly what the apostle Paul commends to us, in our reading from First Corinthians.
Paul tells us that God makes foolish the wisdom of the world. And that the foolishness of God is true wisdom. He says: “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” (1 Cor. 1:18).
And what is at the heart of this divine foolishness?
“… 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. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:23-25).
I think that—in the beatitudes—Jesus is making the same point. In fact, I think Paul is echoing Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. According to Paul, the salvation of the world comes from the foolishness of a man dying on a cross. He says that “Christ crucified” is the power that turns everything upside down.
According to Paul, it is the very wisdom of God that allows Christ to die upon the cross, to give life to the world. This is what confers blessing upon those who are poor in spirit, blessing upon those who are mourning their dead, blessing upon those who are persecuted and reviled for Jesus’ sake.
It does seem bizarre, doesn’t it? It’s no wonder the world labels God’s plan as foolishness.
Many people today laugh at God’s wisdom. They scoff, as if it were some kind of big, cosmic joke. Some even call it a cruel joke!
But, Paul says, to those who have been called—to us who are being saved—the message of the cross is not foolishness. No. It is the very power of God for salvation. And that is the power that God offers to us. That is the blessing that God gives to us.
It is the message of the cross—the proclamation of Christ crucified—that speaks to us, and calls to us, and draws us to the foot of Jesus’ cross, where all the negatives in life die.
On the cross, all of our pain and suffering and persecution and rejection—all of our mourning and grieving—dies!
Our old lives, our old selves—we die along with Christ. But then we are raised along with him, also. And in him, we are resurrected as new people—as “new creatures” in Christ. That’s what we celebrate every Sunday morning.
Every week, we gather to celebrate the utter foolishness of God—to celebrate the fact that, hey, the joke’s on us!
What the world sees as the foolishness of God is actually wisdom beyond human comprehension.
The weakness of God—the Son of God, dying on the cross—is actually the power of God for salvation.
The sacrifice of Christ has created new life—and eternal life—for those who belong to him.
And while that may not seem funny … while that may not leave you in stitches … I hope that this is what you will remember most from this sermon:
- God does not call us to be wise; and, in fact,
- God does not care whether the world regards us as clever.
No. Whoever we are, God calls us. God calls us to become “fools for Christ”—even if that means we will be persecuted, and rejected, and reviled.
We are called to grab hold of God’s foolishness—the cross of Jesus Christ—and never let go!
Why? Because that is his power for salvation. That is the only message we are commissioned to preach and teach and live … “Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
We are called to proclaim this foolishness. Why? Because, through it, we are really and truly blessed.
Remember: you do not need a parachute in order to go skydiving. You only need a parachute to skydive twice!
Jesus is our parachute, my friends. Cling to him tight. Amen.