"Which Wisdom Is Wise?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 15, 2009
Psalm 19:7-14; I Corinthians 1:18-25
That young man did not realize how remarkable his questions were. They were ones that have been asked for centuries in response to the theology that the church has recited during its lengthy history. Mark Eigenbrode realized that it is far easier to repeat such theology because people believe it is God’s truth than it is to understand what it means.
This morning we are going to explore the difference between the wisdom of spirit and wisdom developed by humankind. Paul created this division in our lesson this morning when he wrote:
The message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who do not understand the nature of God. For those of us who are on our way to revealing what true discipleship means, Jesus’ death on the cross makes perfect sense. For those who do not understand, they will never be clear on how God works. God said, “I will destroy the wisdom of those who consider themselves wise and I will expose the understanding of the scholars for its lack of substance.” God will continue to demonstrate that the world’s wisdom is foolishness.
Let us reflect for a moment on how human understanding or wisdom is created. Many of us have noticed that when an inexplicable event occurs in the world there are those who readily supply the reasons for its happening. For example, last week we experienced three individuals who expressed their insanity violently. Two events took place in the United States and a third in Germany.
These episodes were almost identical in nature and featured an armed man who killed countless individuals and then turned the gun on himself. Instantly, people want to know the motive, i.e., what provoked them to engage in such atrocities? Our need to understand is what causes people to speculate about the possible reasons why something happened.
People want to know why individuals started the fires in California and Australia recently that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. People want to know what motivated Bernie Madoff to do what he did and how his embezzlement of 52 billion dollars went undetected for over twenty years. People want to know why Jesus chose to take his message to Jerusalem and confront the religious leaders with his strong objections of how they were characterizing faithfulness to God.This morning I invite you to set aside briefly all the theology you have been taught regarding the cross and its meaning. During our process of reflection, we are going to examine human wisdom that creates explanations, and contrast it with thoughts that come from the wisdom of spirit, a spirit that is deeply rooted in loving energy patterns.
There are numerous illustrations of the wisdom of spirit that have taken place during the lifetime of many of us. For example, we recall the image of the Chinese student who confronted the communist government’s policies by vulnerably standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. We remember when Mahatma Gandhi went on a hunger strike until England granted India her independence. Some of us remember that just prior to the Viet-Nam War pacifist Buddhist monks surrendered their lives for the sake of their faith tradition. After dousing themselves with gasoline, they ignited their bodies in protest.
Jesus was immensely popular in Galilee. Had he kept his healing and preaching ministry confined to that area, he may not have been crucified. That was not his plan. Jesus felt compelled to take his prophetic voice to the seat of Judaism and confront the wisdom of those in authority.
Matthew captured the drama of Palm Sunday in chapter 21 in his gospel. That placed Jesus in Jerusalem before the contents of chapter 23 unfolded. In that chapter is chronicled the time when Jesus engaged in a blistering offensive against the religious authorities inside the Temple itself.
Among the many adjectives Jesus used to describe the Jewish authorities were these: blind guides, blind fools, hypocrites, snakes and children of snakes. A summary of his message can be found in verse 27, “You are like white-washed tombs, which look magnificent on the outside but inside you are full of bones and decaying corpses.” Jesus was not making friends here; he was attacking those who were leading his faith tradition down a blind alley.
When we examine only the Gospels, we get insights from Jesus himself about what motivated him to confront those in authority. At the end of chapter 23 we see the contrast between human wisdom and divine wisdom. Jesus’ loving energy pattern revealed itself when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You killed the prophets and stone the messengers God has sent to you! How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing, but you would not let me!”
The religious authorities of Judaism had assumed the attitude that the appearance of righteousness was the way to honor God. There can be little doubt that the religious authorities were impressive looking in their society. They knew the important Scriptures by heart, tithed, and were model citizens of what right living looked like. What was missing was the quality of their spirits that was nearly void of love. THIS is what Jesus wanted to address and hopefully correct. Faith is a matter of spirit and not of appearance while people are engaged in saintly activities.
Clearly Jesus was a trouble maker in the eyes of the authorities and it was a very simple process to create false charges against him and to convince Roman authorities to have him killed. What Jesus did was fairly close to what the Chinese college student did by standing in front of a tank.
Jesus’ loving energy patterns were confronting the wisdom of the authorities who were convinced that they had to preserve and guard what the Jews believe came from God. For us today, it is equally difficult to change the almost impenetrable system of beliefs that the church has created over centuries of repetition.
Up to this point in Jesus’ ministry there has been no interpretation about the circumstances leading up to his death. Quite honestly, what was Jesus to do but submit to the inevitable? Should he have run out of the garden in order to flee into Galilee? Should he have fought them when they came to arrest him, perhaps something the disciples were prepared to do. Should he have voiced words that could have erased everything he taught about loving, forgiving and praying for his enemies? One completely savage act by Jesus would have negated everything for which he stood.
Jesus went on loving others even when nails were driven into his hands and feet. Paul is absolutely correct – “The message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who do not understand the nature of God.” The problem with expressing love is that if we do not have it within ourselves, we cannot express it. Likewise, if we do not have loving spirits, we cannot understand what is happening when someone else is expressing it to us.
Paul was no stranger to understanding loving energy in motion when circumstances were threatening. If you recall, he watched as Stephen was stoned to death. He heard Stephen say, “God, forgive them for they know not what they do. God, into your care, I surrender my spirit.” (Acts 7:60)
Even though Paul approved of the murder (Acts 8:1) that image festered in him because he had witnessed Stephen do something that he could never have done – forgive his enemies. Later while on the road to Damascus, the light of that moment shattered the shell of hypocrisy that Jesus criticized so heavily in Matthew 23. Paul’s legalistic heart surrendered to one that created compassion within him.
Paul’s life-ambition was to spread the wisdom of God, a wisdom that Jesus expressed from a cross. When his flowering life was choked to death, before he died, Jesus’ verbal seeds were scattered everywhere, the substance of which has guided thousands of generations. What Jesus displayed from the cross demonstrated the power of loving energy patterns over all the forces of blindness and darkness that tried to destroy it. Such forces only destroyed his body; his spirit, however, would continue to sing forever. He literally overcame the world!
What other theology is necessary? What other interpretations or explanations of what happened on the cross are necessary? There is no greater saving power than that which Jesus demonstrated from the cross. Jesus was not crucified for our sins but by them. Those who wanted Jesus to be crucified possessed no understanding because they were clutching onto human wisdom. (John 18:14) Divine wisdom is very hard for us to grasp. We want justice! God dispenses understanding, compassion and acceptance.
Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, wrote a book entitled, Legacy of a Pack Rat. In it she tells the story of what happened when a young Bedouin struck and killed his best friend during a heated argument. Knowing the rigidity of the laws of his people, the young man fled and sought sanctuary in the chief’s tent. After hearing what the young man had done, the chief assured him that he would be safe until the matter could be settled legally.
Word spread not only of the killing but also where the culprit was hiding. A large crowd gathered outside of the chief’s tent demanding that justice be done according to the traditions of their people. The chief would not surrender the lad and ordered everyone to return to their tents.
A spokesperson said, “You don’t understand! You do not know who it was that he killed. The chief repeated himself, “You must leave, all of you. I have given my word that he will remain safe.” In a spirit of anger, the same man blurted out, “Chief, it was your son that he killed!”
A deep silence fell over the crowd, so much so that nothing could be heard but the sound of the winds as they swept over the dunes. The chief was visibly shaken. With a bowed head, he stood speechless. No one moved. Everyone wanted to know how the chief would respond after hearing such news. Knowing the relationship the young man had with his son and how rage had blinded him, the chief finally raised his head and spoke, “Then the young man I have in my tent will become my son and one day everything that I have will be his.”
Ruth wrote that God’s love is greater than anything we can do to defeat it. Love comes when we are unworthy. Love comes when we are blind and cannot see that love surrounds us. Love comes when human justice demands judgment, punishment and banishment. Herein is the difference between God’s love and our tendencies toward love, the difference between God’s wisdom and our own. If God wants us to embody love’s creative energy patterns, certainly God could not be anything less.
The issue for us should never be about justice. That response belongs to God. The message from Jesus was about who we become when we learn to love as God loves. This was the remarkable message Jesus was delivering to the world’s present and future generations during his crucifixion. This understanding is what saves us from being seduced by human thought patterns that humankind calls wisdom.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, we thank you for encouraging us to stretch so that we might become more than we ever thought possible. There is a comfort quality to our lives that prevents us from taking risks. Some of us do not take the time to begin our day by expressing gratitude to you. Some of us cannot tithe our money for scores of good reasons. Some of us are unaware of what worry communicates about the quality of our faith. Some of us find it difficult to love our friends, and even more challenging to be supportive of those we do not like. Heal us, O God, from our frequent unspoken desire to remain as we are. Cause us to develop the courage to follow your guidance that Your Kingdom awaits our arrival. Amen. THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for these moments during Lent when we continue our reflection on the direction and quality of our lives. There are so many aspects within us that remain unrefined. We can always improve on the quality of how we use our words. We can always work on our responses to life’s numerous challenges. Help us to recognize the emotional drivers in our lives, drivers that accurately pinpoint the areas of our unmet needs, our narrow, uninformed points of view, our tendency to form incorrect conclusions and our ability to base our hope on the aspects of life that are always changing.
Enable us, O God, to learn character strengths from our failures. And as we travel from one experience to another, help us to find the inspiration that allows us to create and produce what will enhance our world community. Help us to discover the joy of giving ourselves away. Help us to understand that our doubts are necessary steps toward a stronger faith. Help us to remember that walls and barriers are opportunities for us to polish our skills at climbing.
Inspire our confidence to reflect your nature everywhere and to everyone. Help us to remember that we are always on someone’s world stage so that we remain vigilant in our standing forth with a spirit that helps others to find that our friendship is authentic, safe and compassionate. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .