Sermon for Lent III, Year B

Based on I Cor. 1:18-25

By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

"The Cross"

The cross….The most important and often the most prominent symbol of Christianity. There are, literally, hundreds of kinds of crosses ~ made out of a variety of materials, in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The cross is, indeed, a common symbol. But, I wonder, do we as Christians really appreciate the power of the cross? Moreover, do we really grasp how scandalous and offensive the cross is?

In today's second lesson, the apostle Paul spells out just how scandalous and offensive the message of Christ crucified is. He tells us that it's foolishness to those who are perishing, but the power of God for those who are being saved. Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

For many ~ perhaps most ~ Jews, Christ crucified proves that he was not the Messiah. Most Jews, according to Paul, didn't believe in a suffering, dying Messiah. Their Messiah would be a great warrior-king, and a strong political leader, who could use his power to unite his citizens and rule the nation with justice and peace. Even more scandalous for most Jews, was the notion that their Messiah would be executed like one of society's worst criminals on a cross. As Deuteronomy 21:23 puts it: "for anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse." For the devout Jew then, it must have been out of the question that God would curse God's own chosen Messiah by allowing him to die on a cross.

For the pagan Gentiles, Christ crucified made no sense, it was foolishness. They were interested in a religion that made sense from an intellectual standpoint. They loved the wisdom of the world. The mind, the intellect, was the true measure of all reality. One needed to spend a lifetime questing intellectually after the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. What utter foolishness that God would be made flesh in a humble carpenter and voluntarily die on a cross. This is too offensive for worldly, logical wisdom to accept.

As Robert Beringer observed: "An agnostic poet once said: "Let us forget once and for all the Christ of Calvary; his anguish ceased long ago. Let us remember only Jesus of Nazareth and seek to follow his sublime teaching and example." Such is the scandal of the cross to the unbelieving mind. There is nothing new about this sense of revulsion against the spectacle of Calvary. In every age, people have questioned the necessity of a cross. Lutheran theologian and philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard said it well for his age. He suggested that in a culture that is predominantly Christian, we tend to make pabulum of Christianity. We reduce it to the most easily digested form possible."

Unfortunately, a lot of North American Christians are attracted to a shallow, sanitized gospel of health, wealth and feeling good. They would rather forget and abandon the true gospel of Christ crucified. Crystal cathedrals, Cadillacs, multi-million dollar leisure centres, and televangelist gimmicks promoting a gospel that will cater to every selfish fancy; stands in total contradiction to authentic Christianity, which preaches the true gospel of suffering-love, revealed through the wisdom and foolishness of Christ crucified.

In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner explores his some of his theological reflections and emotions, as he struggles with the cold reality that his son shall die prior to reaching adulthood. When the rabbi received this tragic news that his son would die, he reacted like many of us likely would ~ with disbelief.

Why should a good, faithful, ethical, generous, honest person be afflicted with such tragedy? If God is truly just, loving, caring, fair, protecting and prospering all who are good and faithful people, then how could God allow such a bad thing to happen?

Rabbi Kushner was not the first, and certainly won't be the last, to ask such questions. Most, if not all of us likely at one time or another have believed ~ or maybe still continue to believe ~ that God is: almighty, powerful, strong, loving, kind, merciful, protecting, all-knowing, and so on. When God fails to live up to our beliefs, how do we respond? Do we give up on God? Do we feel that God has abandoned us? Do we question where God is or if God even exists?

Paul seems to be telling his audience in ancient Corinth and us today that our tidy, preconceived beliefs of God may very well be wrong and misleading. He seems to be instructing them and us to give up such beliefs.

Martin Luther once put it this way: "This is clear: Whoever does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore they prefer works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly. These are people whom the apostle calls "enemies of the cross of Christ" for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works."

Looks, as we learn, can be deceiving, and are often only skin-deep. So it is, according to Paul and Luther that God often operates contrary to what we may think or believe. God has a way of hiding God's saving activity under its opposite. God gives life by allowing death; justifies by making us guilty; showers mercy upon us by allowing us to undergo the pain of experiencing rejection.

According to Robert Beringer: "There had to be a cross, because it was the logical outcome of our Lord's ministry. Someone once said of Jesus: "The principles he adopted for his life led inevitably to his death, and his death revealed and summed up the purpose of his life." The scandal of the cross is that Christ and his cross are indissolubly bound together, and each one can only be explained in terms of the other."

"There also had to be a cross, because the cross has always been God's way of dealing with sinners. What God did on Golgotha, God has been doing since the beginning of time. God has always been breaking into our human lives, following us wherever we stray, standing beside us in our shame, loving us when we did not deserve to be loved, and delivering us from our sin when we were powerless to change. Without a cross, there would be no gospel."

God's greatest love is revealed to us in the foolishness and weakness of Christ crucified. May that love grasp us so deeply that it influences all of our thoughts, words, and actions.

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