Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18

For the message about Christ's death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being saved it is God's power.

Nonsense or Good News?

What do you think of when you see a cross? The cross, after all, is the central symbol of the Christian faith. The cross is a fashion statement in jewellery - with necklaces being a popular item on both men and women. We give crosses to our children at their confirmation. We see crosses worn by people who know little of its significance - it just looks nice. Part of the appeal, surely, is that the design is so simple. It contains just two lines, one horizontal and one vertical. It looks neat and tidy and clean!

But back in the days of the early Christians the cross was not something to be worn around your neck. It was a horrible symbol. It was a symbol that made people shudder. To think of a cross was to imagine the worst possible way to die.

We would get much closer to what people in the first century thought if we substituted a symbol of a hangman's noose for the cross. Suppose we had a hangman's noose mounted on our wall here, looped in such a way that it gave an atmosphere of death and of shame? Wouldn't it be strange driving through towns and seeing church steeples topped with nooses? Or maybe we could have an electric chair with its straps, or a syringe with its deadly poison on the wall behind the altar. Do you find these images of nooses, electric chairs or syringes offensive? If so then you can imagine the offence the cross must have caused in Paul's time. If these symbols of execution, death and shame adorned our churches we would closer to the meaning that the cross had in the minds of 1st century people.

The cross was wood and nails, an instrument of torture and execution invented by the Persians and developed to cruel excess by the Romans. It was the meanest way to die - reserved for anarchists, insurrectionists, and slaves. The Romans flogged them nearly to death, then nailed their hands and feet to wood. Crucifixion was particularly effective in subduing restless colonies and Judea was one of those restless colonies. The Roman writer, Cicero, called it the supreme capital penalty, the most painful, dreadful, and ugly. The Jews said that anyone who was hung on a tree was cursed. And yet in the hands of God, the cross is the instrument of the world's freedom, forgiveness, life, and salvation - the wisdom of God and the power of God.

In many churches you will only find an empty cross. The reason behind this is that they like to emphasise the resurrection of Jesus. Some feel that a cross with a figure of Jesus on it suggests that Jesus is dead or that Jesus is sacrificed again and again. In Lutheran Churches you usually find a crucifix - the cross with the dying Christ. As we gaze on it we are reminded of the pain and the agony and tragedy of that cruel execution. We are reminded that the cross is more than the sanitised decoration that we wear. It represents cruelty, death, Jesus innocent suffering, pain and humiliation.

The cross is the most unlikely religious symbol. Back in the Roman days no one would have ever imagined wearing it around their neck as a piece of jewellery! To picture the feelings the cross conjured up in ancient times, there are two things to consider. First, is the pain. Nothing else was quite so awful, so agonising, as being hung on a cross. It was designed both to create intense suffering and to prolong the dying process as long as possible. The pain was excruciating. But that wasn't the only thing.

Second, there was the humiliation of it. Hanging naked on a cross the victim was exposed to taunting and ridicule. Your family never got over the shame of it. For all intents and purposes, you, and your name, and your family were scorned and sneered at forever.

It's no wonder Paul calls the cross "foolishness". An instrument of torture and death has become a sacred symbol of the Christians. And what is more we see this instrument of death as a sign of God's love. It was God's love that caused the death of the most innocent and pure man that has ever walked this earth. He did nothing to deserve such a cruel death but the Bible says that he died because of God's love. That sounds mighty silly. What is more it sounds even more silly to believe that a man dying on the Roman gallows can bring freedom from the effects of sin and salvation from eternal death. Paul says, "We proclaim the crucified Christ, a message that is offensive to the Jews and nonsense to the Gentiles… For what seems to be God's foolishness is wiser then human wisdom, and what seems to be God's weakness is stronger than human strength (! Cor 1:23,25)

The word of the cross is folly - foolishness to those who are perishing. The word "folly" here literally means "silly." It is silliness, absurdity, nonsense, to those who are perishing. If you have ever tried to witness to somebody who has a sense of self-sufficiency, who feels that he/she is a self-made person - and worships the creator of this self-made person - you have discovered the folly of the cross. To tell such a person that all his efforts and all his impressive record of achievement is worth nothing in God's sight, that it does not make him one degree more acceptable. It is nothing but wasted effort as far as getting rid of sin and making him worthy to enter heaven, you will immediately run into the offence of the cross. He will call that doctrine silly, absurd, "You mean to tell me that all this impressive array of human knowledge and wisdom that has been accumulated for centuries, with all the great achievements of mankind in the realm of relief of human misery and the technological advances of our day, that all that is absolutely worthless? Nonsense!" That is what they said in the 1st century and that is what they say today.

But Paul is quite adamant. The nonsense of God's salvation is only nonsense to those who do not really know God. The cross is God's way of dealing with the seriousness of sin - of our sin. Many people today don't take sin seriously. They pass it off as of no consequence. And what is even more frightening, many don't take God's attitude toward sin seriously. It's as if the good we do will make up for our slip-ups.

It doesn't matter how highly we may think of ourselves, or how good we have lived our lives. It doesn't matter how highly other people think of us, in God's eyes we are all marked with the same sentence - guilty! As Paul says, "No one can boast in God's presence" (1 Cor 1:29). He goes on to say, "God has brought you into union with Christ Jesus … By him we are put right with God; we become God's holy people and are set free." (1 Cor 30). Notice God has brought us into union with Jesus. Through Jesus we are made right with God. Our salvation is all God's doing.

If you want to get good marks at school or university you have to work hard. If you want a promotion at work you have to demonstrate diligence and enthusiasm. If you want to be accepted by others you have to work on your social graces and manners. If you want to win at sports you have to train hard and work on your skills. But if you want to be forgiven and to receive eternal life - God does it for you. That is the offence of the cross. That is what flies in the face of all other avenues of getting ahead in this world. The cross, the symbol of barbaric torture and pain, that suffering of an innocent man so long ago at the hand of the Romans, that death of a condemned criminal is our way of salvation. "Whoever wants to boast must boast of what the Lord has done."

The crucified, suffering Christ is our Saviour. That might seem silly to some but "for us who are being saved it is God's power" (1 Cor 1:18). At our baptism these words were said to us as the pastor made the sign of the cross over us. "Receive the mark of the holy cross as a sign that Christ the crucified has redeemed you." We have been nailed to the cross of Jesus in the water of Baptism, pinned to the crimson wood by the nails of faith. We are marked men and women. The cross is not nonsense for us, it the mark that reminds us that as foolish as the cross may seem, it means salvation for us. People think that we are crazy and silly for trusting in a dead Jew who died so disgracefully. People will ignore us and tell us we are wasting our time coming here to church every Sunday. That can be expected. We are wearing the mark of the cross - the cross of seeming foolishness.

There have been many people who have been regarded as foolish. Everyone thought the Wright Brothers were foolish when they built the first aircraft with the view of flying above the earth. When Alexander Graham Bell said that he could get a voice to go along a wire over a long distance everyone thought he was crazy. Look what has happened because those men stood firm regardless of the mocking. We have air travel and telephones as a part of everyday life.

St. Paul recognised that a powerless and dead Messiah hanging on a cross was a scandal, a stumbling block to his fellow Jews. He knew that talk of a crucified God was tasteless, unsophisticated folly to the wisdom-loving Greeks. The philosophers of Athens openly mocked him. Festus thought the apostle had lost his mind. As foolish as Paul must have seemed look what an important impact Paul had on the church and on the world.

Without that foolishness, we would be lost. In actual fact, this foolishness is the best and wisest thing I know. And today as we worship we rejoice in this good news about a God who loves us and through his Son, Jesus, has saved us from our sin and given us eternal life. We remember the cost of our salvation. We rejoice in our forgiveness. And we experience new life once again.

It may seem foolish to use an instrument of death to celebrate life, but that's the irony - "the foolishness of the cross is the power of God."

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
30th January, 2005

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