"Discerning God's Foolish Wisdom"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 30, 2005

Micah 9:1-8; I Corinthians 1:18-31

    We people of faith often try to discern where and how God is molding and shaping our lives. Where should we look to observe this activity -- the areas of our pain, our successes, our service within the church, our relationships or our awkward moments at the office?  This morning I would like for us to explore this idea in light of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the gathered community in Corinth.  

     Throughout history, the faithful have tried to discern where God, or their understanding of God, has been actively engaged in their lives.  The only blueprint they had was examining their own behavior.  Since they acknowledged being created in the image of God, it was natural to understand God by looking at that image.  

     The Hebrew Bible is filled with stories and anecdotes where God’s activity is moody, impulsive, angry and manipulative as though God were an extremely powerful human being.  For example, God killed the innocent children of the Egyptians.  Their only crime was that they happened to be the first-born. The Scriptures say, “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every first born.” (Exodus 12:12)   The observance of Passover is built around this theme.  

     Another example is where God engaged in genocide through the prophet Samuel. God said, “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all the men, women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”  (I Samuel 15:3)  

     Recently there have been numerous editorials in a number of national newspapers that explored the thinking of some religious leaders concerning the Tsunami, a tragedy that resulted in a quarter-million deaths.  Their thinking suggested that God is displeased with the lack of faithfulness.           

     Some people believe that “nothing happens by coincidence,” and yet last week a train hit a Jeep Cherokee that was parked on the railroad tracks by a suicidal driver.  Those of us who viewed the animated sequence of events featured on various newscasts had to be amazed at what we saw.  It was as though the train wreck was a well-choreographed drama on a movie set.  

     The passenger train hit the truck, derailed and veered into a parked Union Pacific locomotive.  Upon impact, the train then jackknifed and struck another train that just happened to be traveling in the opposite direction.  The result was the worst train accident in recent history.  

     For this tragedy to have unfolded as it did, the truck and the three trains had to be perfectly aligned within a time frame of seconds.  Those who believe that nothing happens by accident and that there are no coincidences may find this tragedy reinforcing their understanding of why such events unfold as they do.  Humans were no different thousands of years ago when they wrote about God’s activity among them. 

     In Paul’s first letter to the followers of Jesus who lived in Corinth, he wrote about how flawed human thinking is when it comes to considering the activity of God.  He made it very clear that humanity will never understand how God operates.  He wrote, “For God in his wisdom made it impossible for people to know him by means of their own wisdom.” 

     The issue Paul was addressing in his letter was Jesus’ death on the cross.  Very few people could fathom The Messiah dying the death of a common criminal.  The question Paul was addressing was, “How could the death of Jesus save anyone from anything?” That kind of thinking made absolutely no sense, particularly to the Jews who were followers of Jesus and to the Greek followers who had no tradition of sacrificing lambs to appease their gods.  

     No doubt, had we lived in that day, it would have taken a lot of persuasion and debate for us to be convinced by Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ death.  In fact, if we divided up into small groups this morning and discussed the meaning of Jesus’ death, most of us would communicate exactly what we have been taught from our traditions that span several thousand years.  Those who lived in Paul’s day had no such tradition upon which to rely.  

     How do we understand Jesus’ death?  How did his death save us? Paul wrote, “What seems to be God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and what seems to be God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  What was Paul suggesting? 

     Paul made it very clear that we cannot know how God works.  Interestingly enough, Jesus taught the same thing but used different verbal symbols when he spoke about this to Nicodemus. He said, “Do not be surprised because I tell you that you must all be born again.  The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going.  It is like that with everyone who is born of the spirit.”            

     This is the formula that governs how we people of faith perceive life and how we perceive God’s presence moving among us. God does not communicate through tsunamis, hurricanes and train disasters. The physical world is what it is.  God communicates through spirit as Jesus taught.             

     A number of years ago, a woman had gone to the doctor’s office with her young son.  The room was filled with people waiting to see one of the physicians in the practice.  Most of them were reading the dog-eared magazines from the office literature rack.  Everyone was quite aware, however, that a woman seated there was upset and crying.  

     Perhaps out of a sense of courtesy, they overlooked the upset woman because the cause of her tears was none of their business. The little boy did not understand as we adults.  He put down his golden book and stared intently at the woman.  His mother was so engrossed in her People magazine that she did not see him climb out of his chair.           

     He cautiously walked over to the woman and climbed up into the seat next to her.  He touched her face very gently and said, “It’s all right.  It’s all right.”  Hearing her son’s voice from across the room, she lowered her magazine and was horrified.  There was nothing she could do at that point, but watch the drama unfold. 

     The woman stopped crying and put the young man on her lap. She said, “Are you an angel who has been sent to comfort me?”  And then almost instinctively he put his head on her chest and they held each other until her name was called.  The little boy’s mother sat there with tears in her eyes.  Was this God touching this woman through the innocence of a child?  Apparently she thought so.           

     Carolyn Myss tells a story of a volunteer who was coming down the hallway of a hospital and noticed a mother sobbing uncontrollably in a room that was near the infant nursery.  Her baby had just died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).  The volunteer gave her name and number to the woman and invited her to call.  

     Her supervisor noticed what she had done and privately scolded her, “You had no right to give that woman your name.  You are not qualified as a grief counselor.”  The woman responded, “My first child died of SIDS and that qualifies me to care in a way that book-learning and certifications will not provide.”            

     What is so fascinating about God’s activity is when the most unlikely people meet and connect to bring healing, hope and peace.  God is active when the student is ready to learn and suddenly the teacher appear or when people who have been stubborn, aloof and yet unable to help themselves wander into a church service and the sermon appears to be directed squarely at them. Such moments happen all the time.  When they occur, they are not by coincidence.           

     Many years ago, a high school student came to my office and told me that she had planned her suicide.  She had experienced many interventions by concerned parents, friends and teachers.  She had already failed numerous suicidal attempts.  She said, “Dick, you mean a lot to me and I felt that I owed it to you to say ‘good-bye’.  This time I will not fail.  I want out of this life so badly I can taste it.”           

     I said, “Mimi, I cannot stop you. Since you are going to be leaving us, would you do a last favor for me?  The youth group last weekend raked the leaves in 13 yards of our seniors but we missed a lady on Lake Avenue.  Before you leave the earth, could you rake her leaves to the curb?” I gave her a rake and I prayed commending her to God’s care.           

     No news reached me of Mimi’s death.  She came into my office weeks later and yelled at me for playing a trick on her.  I assured her that I had not.  She told me that when she had finished the yard, an elderly woman came out of the house with cookies and a glass of milk.  She said, “I have been praying for someone to help me with my leaves and you showed up.  Did God send you?  Are you an angel?”  

     Mimi went on to tell me that if someone saw an angel within her, maybe there was one whom she needed to get to know.  Mimi lived after the intervention by the elderly woman.  Was that woman operating alone?  Mimi eventually became the Medical Benefits Administrator for the pastors in the Baltimore-Washington Conference.             

     We tend to see the world not as it is but as we are.  What Jesus was teaching Nicodemus about being born again was that he had to learn to perceive differently, not with physical eyes but with the eyes of the spirit.  Only when we perceive through the eyes of the spirit can we understand what others cannot see.            

     The other evening I was watching one of the best documentaries on Islam that I have ever seen.  It was called, “Islam, Empire of Faith.”  I sat riveted for the entire PBS program.  In 1258 CE, the conquering hordes of Mongols came into contact with the far superior culture of the Islamic world.  They entered Baghdad and immediately slaughtered 10,000 people.  They burned libraries, looted and pillaged. They stacked bodies in tall mounds to terrorize other cities into submission.            

     Then the most dramatic and remarkable thing happened.  Within a decade, the Mongols built towers to honor God.  The warring Mongols had been converted to Islam. It took only ten years after the slaughter in Baghdad for the terrorists to realize that there was a much better way to live.  Perhaps such an awakening might occur in today’s Iraq following today’s election. 

     Is this not what Jesus gave his life to show us?  He was willing to die on a cross confessing his love for those who had chosen violence over dialogue.  In time, the world began to discover his infinite message, and slowly violence gave way to cooperation and the development of cultures where human freedom became one of the core values. 

     What Paul was telling his generation is that through Jesus’ death, people were put right with God. This is true – we are put in harmony with God. Humanity had been set free from the illusions and fears of this world. (I Corinth. 1:30)   In spite of how dark life appears (the cross), there will always be a resurrection when we stay faithful to radiating the light of love and compassion.  We learned from Jesus that  people destroy, and God creates through the expression of loving energy. 

     This world has no power over us as Jesus demonstrated through his death and resurrection.  When we have that confidence, there is no mountain we cannot climb and no fear that can blot out our light. However, it takes the eyes of faith to make the journey of faith.   

     We have to remember what Jesus said about this process, “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matt. 7:14) We want to understand God’s activity by our logic, our sense of justice and through our values.  Both Jesus and Paul taught something else. God’s wisdom is much different from our own.  Once we find the pearl of great price this understanding represents, we will discover that God is all around us and remains very interactive with opportunities for growth and even playfulness.  


    Eternal, faithful God, your writers have told us that we were created in your image.  We are your angels in physical form.  Yet as we live through our experiences, we confess that often we allow the material world to define us.  We judge others from our sense of righteousness, forsaking our faithfulness.  We want others to be more like us, instead of accepting them as they are.  Life can be very difficult when we fail to bloom where we find ourselves.  Our needs and desires have made our expression of love far from being unconditional.  Lead us to trust that your presence in our lives is sufficient, that miracles happen as a result of what you do and that healing will come to our world when we let go of our wisdom to embrace yours.  Amen.


    Eternal God, as we close our eyes to pray help us to blot out all thoughts that have hurt us, that distract us and that have caused negative judgments to be formed in our minds.  Enable us to allow other people to be as they are while we polish our own stone while being in their midst.   We thank you for placing us in a created order that teaches and guides our growth.  Once we have learned that the world and our many relationships will not conform to our wishes, we will have conquered the great enemy of fear. 

    Today, our brothers and sisters in Iraq vote for the first time in their history.  They will do so in an environment where others desire to sabotage the effort by every means possible.  If only “right” and “wrong” were clear to all the world’s people.  They are not.  All we can do is pray for the day when the Iraqis will decide their destiny for themselves and our armed forces will come home.   

    Lord God, keep all of us sensitive to the mountains that lie before us, to the wounds that must be healed, to the opportunities that surround us and to our calling to reflect your presence.  The world’s people do understand food, shelter, clothing, compassion, reconstruction, jobs and economic prosperity.  Lead our world’s leaders to communicate with such symbols, so that your will may be done.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .