wisdom in foolishness; power in weakness

1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NRSV)

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,
29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification,
31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

God uses those who are considered weak and powerless in the world for God’s purpose. It is amazing how God uses the people who we might talk about and say: “There’s no way that God would choose to use that person! Nothing good could ever come from that person!” Society might look at people in prison, people who might not seem that bright, people who might have messed up in their life, people who might be going through addictions, and say the same thing: “Those people are foolish and weak. There’s no way anything good could come from them.” People don’t want to associate with those considered foolish and weak. People don’t want the foolish and weak hanging around. People don’t want the foolish and weak in their lives. The foolish and weak won’t help them advance in their jobs. The foolish and weak won’t help someone become more popular or make more money. Society has already made their decision on the foolish and weak, and it’s not good.

But when Paul writes his first letter to the church in Corinth, he tells us something different: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are….”

The idea that God would use the low and despised, the things that are not, the foolish, the weak, and the least expected, is not a new theme. In fact, it’s a theme that is found all over scripture! We see it in the story of David, who became the standard-bearer of kingship for Israel in the Old Testament; David was the king who everyone else measured up against.

What were the beginnings of the story of David? In 1 Samuel 16, Samuel, the chosen prophet of the Lord, chooses and anoints the young David as God’s choice for king. Yet David was not the oldest of the family; he was not the first-born child. David was the youngest. In fact, when Samuel shows up to find the new king, the father Jesse brings out all of his sons to ask which one will be anointed. Samuel says none of them; he asks the father Jesse if he has any more sons. Jesse replies, “There remains the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” The youngest, David, finally came, and Samuel knew that he was the one to be anointed as God’s choice for king. Jesse least expected it.

As we progress further in David’s life, the young shepherd encounters Goliath, the Philistine, feared by all of Israel’s army. There was not a single soldier in the entire army who was brave to face Goliath. But who could blame them? Goliath is described in 1 Samuel 17 as being “six cubits and a span” (I have no idea what that equates to today, but the bottom line is, Goliath was a big man!) The Philistine Goliath, according to 1 Samuel, wore “a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield bearer went before him.” There is no doubt that Goliath was an intimidating warrior! Who could blame the soldiers in Saul’s army? Not a single person wanted to face him. They were all terrified!

And then David comes along: the youngest son, the shepherd, the one who Jesse did not even expect to be anointed. David accepts the challenge to face this intimidating Philistine warrior. Refusing to wear Saul’s armor, David walks out onto the battlefield with only a sheep herding staff, five stones in his pouch that he picked up out of the dried and empty river bed, and his sling. He walks out there against this giant who struck fear into even the most hardened soldier of Israel, and Goliath laughs in his face.

To Goliath, David was foolish. David was powerless and weak. To Goliath, David was nothing. But David said to Goliath, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, who you have defied.” What happened next? David strikes Goliath with the stone and Goliath falls over dead.

Paul writes to the Corinthians: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are….”

God takes the low and despised and turns the person or the situation around for God’s purpose. Even when David sinned against God by having an affair with Bathsheba and subsequently having Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed, God still brought something good out of David’s sinfulness. God did not desire for David to sin and it was in no way God’s purpose for David to sin. God did not want David to disobey his law by committing adultery and murder; but even through the horror of the situation, God brought something good out of it. Even today, God still brings good out of bad situations. The eventual good that I am speaking of from David’s situation is the goodness and love of God manifested in humanity, incarnated in Jesus Christ. This is the genealogy of Matthew.

This theme of God using the foolish, the weak, the powerless, the low and despised, the things that are not, resurfaces yet again. Christ was not born out of nobility. He was born of a woman whose community thought she had been unfaithful to Joseph, her soon to be husband. In actuality, she was not unfaithful, but a humble young woman who was simply being faithful and obedient to God. And Jesus did not arrive as a powerful king; he was not wearing the shielding that the intimidating Goliath wore or the armor that Saul tried to give to David. Jesus was born as a helpless, little, weak, crying, human baby. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were even forced to flee to Egypt from the powers that were. By the world’s definition this was not strength, but weakness, foolishness, lowly, and despised.

When Christ began his ministry, he ministered to the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the demon-possessed. These were the people who society, who the Pharisees and religious leadership, who the nobility, thought were foolish, weak, low, and despised. The disenfranchised – these were the people who Jesus, the incarnation of God, ministered to. These were the people who Christ offered healing and redemption to; they were the ones who the Messiah performed miracles for. And when we look at the disciples of Christ throughout history who lived out God’s message of love and peace, these were the ones who God used to “reduce to nothing things that are.”

In Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5, Christ says, “Blessed are poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn…. Blessed are the meek…. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…. Blessed are the merciful…. Blessed are the pure in heart…. Blessed are the peacemakers…. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…. And blessed are you when people insult you because of me.” People that seem lowly and despised in the world and who the world may look at as powerless, people who show mercy, people who search after God and are insulted because of God – Christ says, “Blessed are those….”

And then Christ died in the way that a common criminal of the Roman empire died. It wasn’t anything special; there was no ceremony. He was crucified just like any other criminal. He died; as the world saw it, his life was finished, powerless, helpless, and foolish.

Remember Paul’s words: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” Through this foolish and powerless death of Christ, God allowed for the atonement of the sins of all humanity so that through Christ we may once again be restored in right relationship with God. And God shamed the so-called wise and the so-called strong, and reduced to nothing the things that are. God raised Christ from the dead, conquering death and sin and bringing life. The same is true today for us: through God’s “foolish” and “weak” message of Christ and the cross, God conquers death and sin within us, redeems us, and brings us to a life that is only found in God.

In considering this passage in 1 Corinthians and the message of Christ, we must critically examine our definitions of the words “wisdom” and “power.” We must ask ourselves how the wisdom and power of this world are different from the wisdom and the power found only in Christ’s message; we must ask ourselves what the purpose is.

Paul’s words apply to us today just as much as they applied to the Corinthians. Paul writes that by worldly standards, not many were wise, not many were powerful, and not many were of noble birth. Wisdom, power, and nobility – these are very real things that the people of our world, society, and culture are searching for. But our world, society, and culture are searching for these things on its own without God; without God, it is a pointless and vain search. We have already begun to understand what these words truly represent; their definitions can only be found in the message of Christ and the cross.

The “wisdom” and “power” that the world searches for are not the same wisdom and power that God represents. If we look around at the world today, it is not hard to observe that the “wisdom” and “power” that the world and society are searching for is born out of greed, selfishness, and pride. We can see where that has gotten us; rather, we can see where that has not gotten us: violent wars, economic hardship and depravity, epidemics, sickness, disease, addictions, hate and jealousy, murder and rape, etc. We can see what happens when our motivations are born out of selfishness, pride, and a desire for personal gain.

On the other hand, the wisdom and power that God represents and the wisdom and power that is found in the message of Christ and the cross is born out of love. As Paul states, Christ’s act of love becomes for us wisdom, power, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.

We cannot seek God’s wisdom and power out of selfish reasons or even out of an attempt to somehow manipulate Christ’s act of love for our personal gain. God did not bless David with a defeat of Goliath so that David could manipulate and exploit it for his own use and gain. David defeated Goliath so that God’s wisdom, power, and purpose may be made known. David tells Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:47: “…so that all the earth may know that that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

It is not about us; it is about God. Paul says to the Corinthians, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Wisdom and power are found in the message of Christ and the cross; God uses us as vessels so that God’s wisdom and power may be made known. God uses us for God’s message, the proclamation of God’s story, God’s love, and the sharing of the good news, redemption, sanctification, and righteousness that is found in Christ.

Wisdom and power found in Christ cannot be manipulated for our own gain; it is only to demonstrate God’s message of love found in Christ through which we are ultimately restored to God. Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 4, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” We are the fragile vessels that hold this treasure of power and wisdom found in Christ!

God uses the weak, the foolish, the low and despised, and reduces to nothing the things that are. God uses these so that the amazing wisdom and power of God may be made known! Ultimately, this wisdom and power is manifested in the message of Christ and the cross. Ultimately, it is so that God may restore us back into a right relationship with God. Ultimately, it is so that God’s love for all of humanity will be known.

I would ask each one of us reading: will you allow God to use you for the purpose of God’s love? Will you be the humble servant of God so that his wisdom and power, found in the message of Christ and the cross, will be known? We are not wise, powerful, or of noble birth by the world’s standards, but through God there is wisdom in foolishness and power in weakness.

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