1 Corinthians 1.18-25
How many of you watched the Super Bowl a couple of weeks ago? More importantly, how many of you all watched the commercials?
I want you to think about your favorite Super Bowl commercial. Think about what happened in the ad and what words and images there were. If you didn’t watch, don’t worry…just think about another commercial that you have seen in the last few weeks that sticks out in your head.
Now, what message were they trying to get you to believe? What argument were they making? Don’t just let the images rush past you, but ask yourself “what do they want me to believe?”
I was struck watching the ads a couple of weeks ago that there were two messages I heard loud and clear, over and over again:
One, you are not innately lovable. Only if you buy our product are you really worthwhile and lovable. You need to look better. You need to smell better. You need to be seen drinking the correct beverage. Then and only then will you be lovable. Until then, you are worthless.
The second message was also heard loud and clear: you are not safe. There are bad people out there, bad natural disasters, bad situations, and unless you buy this protection, this security device, this really big powerful truck that apparently Martin Luther King drove…you are not safe.
And I wish we only heard those messages during that 5 hour block of the Super Bowl. But they are everywhere. These messages fill a lot of space in our world.
Think about how often you hear the message that you are not innately lovable enough…that you need to wear the right deodorant or wash your clothes in the right detergent or dye your hair the right color before you are going to be worthwhile. I think that this is a particularly American disease: we seem unnaturally caught up in our appearance and are willing to go to great lengths to look younger or cooler or skinnier or beefier. Between the start of baseball season and Jayhawk basketball, I have been listening to more sports radio the last couple of months. But I cannot stand the commercials. They are all the same: you are not worthwhile enough unless you buy this motorcycle, or get your loved one this diamond, or visit this men’s clinic. And deep down, the message is the same, you are not lovable.
But if we aren’t hearing that message, we are hearing the second: you are not safe. It is not okay to trust yourself or be exposed to the dangers of this world. If you haven’t heard this message, watch cable news for a few minutes. Not only the commercials, but the “news” itself is a 24-hour repetition of that message. Watch out for all of the dangerous things out there that threaten your very existence. The Russians or the North Koreans or the Muslims or the Mexicans. Of course, there are scary things in our world, but I think that a lot of people out there overblowing the danger and trading on our fears. “Things that are new or different or unexpected are things to be feared. You are not safe.“
Two thousand years before anyone even thought of the Super Bowl, these were the same questions that the Apostle Paul wrestled with in the city of Corinth. The context in which he wrote was a divided church, in which people had a very different ideas about what Church should be like. Paul was fighting two very different messages throughout his tenure there.
In one ear, he was hearing from the “not safe” people. There were those who wanted to keep the status quo. The traditional. The “we’ve always done it this way” people. Religious inertia kept a lot of people from embracing the message of Christ because it seemed too radical, too unsafe. Paul’s message threatened the old way that the Hebrew scribes and the experts had revered for generations. “Why mess with a good thing?” they asked. Their inertia was the safety and the security of the old ways. When Paul talks about the “Jews,” he is obviously not referring to all Jews – he was a Jew! But he was referring to those people of his generation, maybe of any generation, who are afraid to see what new things God is up to because they yearn for the safety and the security of the old ways. The message of the Gospel, Paul says, is a “stumbling block” to these people. It gets in the way of their insistence on the old ways. They yearn for safety, and this message doesn’t seem to fit the bill.
But in the other ear, Paul was hearing a very different message: “you are not lovable.” Corinth was about as trendy and stylish as you could get in the world at that time: they sat at the cool kids’ table at lunch! The city sat on an isthmus in between two ports, so there were always new people and new ideas and new trends and new spiritual styles pouring into Corinth. The Corinthian games rivaled the neighboring Olympic games. The temple of Aphrodite was one of the biggest religious centers of the world, with a thousand temple slaves. There were lavish banquets where only the richest and most popular were invited. There was a clear sense of social strata – you were either in the right crowd or you were not. They adored glamour and beauty and strength. Unless you had the right reputation, money, possessions, and lifestyle, you were not acceptable. You were not worthy. You were not lovable. When Paul talks in this passage about the “Greeks,” this is who he means: the upper echelon of Corinthian society. They heard Paul’s preaching and laughed out loud. The cross was sheer “foolishness,” says Paul, to those who believed that love was bought and sold and earned in the lavish banquet halls of Corinth. “Why would we worship a relatively unknown political prisoner who was rejected by the crowds, killed in the most humiliating way possible on a cross, and in the end even his ragtag group of fishermen denied him. What a loser!” They yearn for popularity – to be loved – and this message doesn’t seem to fit the bill.
So here is Paul, standing in the middle of both of these messages. And he offers a new message, the message of the Gospel, the message of the cross. And this message is scorned by both sides. One side looks at it with fear – Christ is not safe – as it disrupts the status quo. The other side looks at it with contempt – Christ is not lovable – as it fails to project the right image of strength and charisma.
In short, the message of the Gospel is the worst of both worlds.
But here is where Paul begins to shine.
He starts with Bible study, and it is a little sneaky. He quotes from Isaiah 29. In this passage, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to the Israelites under threat of invasion, and most of them are pretty freaked out. A bunch of them are basically delivering a familiar message: you are not safe. The Assyrians are coming, and they will mean the total and eternal destruction of the people of God. Meanwhile, you have other voices who are delivering this other familiar message: you are not loved. Basically, they point to the Egyptians, the cultural and military leaders of the world. They suggest that the best option would be to align themselves with the “cool kids,” the Egyptians. Alone, they suggested, the Israelites were unworthy and unlovable. Aligned with Egypt, they would be protected and connected to the cultural power of the known world. Isaiah, though, is taking issue with both voices. He basically hears from the “you are not safe” voices on the right and the “you are not lovable” voices on the left, and he rejects them both: “God will thwart the wisdom of the wise!” Both of these are failed messages, in light of God’s eternal power and love!
And so, Paul does a little exegesis. He takes the scroll of Isaiah and lays it on the table in front of them and says:
“There is another story. There is another message. Don’t listen to the voices that tell you that you are unlovable. Don’t listen to the voices that tell you that you are unsafe. Listen instead to the Gospel of Christ. Listen instead to the story of God’s work and God’s love from the beginning of time, now found in the life and death of Christ. This is the story worth listening to! This is the message worth hearing! Sure, Jesus doesn’t fit the hero you are looking for…if you are looking for the wrong hero. Of course, the Gospel doesn’t makes sense to ‘those who are perishing,’ those who have bought into lies about the way that the world works. For those who live their lives cowering in fear, or for those trying to impress others with their fluffed up image, the Gospel of the cross isn’t going to make any sense at all. If you are looking for the wrong things, than the right thing isn’t going to do it for you!”
And if Paul were to walk into our church this morning, would he not say the same thing? Would he not lay the Bible down in front of us and say, “there is a better way. There is a better message!”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer echoes this message 1,900 years later. His book, Life Together, is our guide throughout this season of Lent, as we explore ways that we practice our faith together. He says the same thing in a different way:
“(When we read the Bible), we become a part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass though the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience against God’s help and faithfulness. All this is not mere reverie but holy, godly, reality. We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth.”
When we read the Scriptures together – when we wrestle with them in Sunday school, or Wednesday night programming, or small groups in our homes. When we open up these pages together in prayerful and expectant reading. When we read the Bible in a way that allows it to teach and mold us, we are “torn out of our own existence,” like Bonhoeffer suggests. We are torn out of the lies, out of the illusions that we are not safe, that we are not lovable. We are instead “set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth.” We hear a new message, loud and clear:
You are lovable.
You are safe.
This is the message that Bonhoeffer internalized in his own life. He escaped Nazi Germany as a pastor, but made the choice to go back into Germany and care for those who still suffered. And when he was caught standing up to the Nazis, he was sentenced to death. And it was the message of hope, the message of Christ that he took to the gallows. In the midst of voices that told him he was not safe, told him he was not lovable, he told a different story. It was the story of Isaiah, of Paul, of Jesus, the story that we hold in our hands this day…
This is the message that impacted Chad Johnston, whom I have invited to share a word today. He has had an experience with the Scriptures over the last couple of years that I would like him to talk about…
(Chad Johnston, preaching:)
There are passages in the Bible that deter us from reading the Bible in the first place. Because we don’t know what to make of them. Because they scare us. Or anger us. Or leave us with more questions than answers.
Take Exodus 4:24-25, for example.
It reads, “At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses[b] and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah (that’s his wife, folks) took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it.[c] ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,’ she said.”
And God’s people said, “Amen,” right? No?
How many of you have never heard of this passage before? Don’t be afraid to raise your hands. I’d never come across it until a few years ago myself.
I had no excuse either. I’m a pastor’s son, so I was in church at least three times a week as a child, if not more. I thought I knew the Bible well enough. That’d I’d somehow absorbed the majority of it simply by showing up and hearing countless sermons, attending Sunday school and church, participating in children’s, youth, college, and young adult programming. Attend church long enough, my reasoning went, and became familiar with the entire Bible in piecemeal.
A few years ago, however, I realized I’d never sat down and actually read the Bible through from beginning to end, and as a parent I wanted to be able to field any questions my daughter might have about it as she grew up. On New Year’s Day in 2015, a friend of mine told me she was going to read the Bible all the way through that year, and I decided then and there to do the same.
15 months later, I finished.
I was surprised by much of what I found. By passages I’d never read before. By passages I’d read before that said things I’d never noticed. By passages I’d read before that didn’t seem to mean what I thought they meant when I was younger, and by others that meant so much more than I ever knew when I read them in the larger context of scripture.
I pitched a series of essays to Charles Stanley’s In Touch magazine about my first trip through scripture, and they commissioned me to proceed with it. You can read all twelve parts of it on In Touch’s website if you search for the series title, “Wholly Scripture.”
But I discovered something strange when I finished the Bible, and finished writing the series: I wanted to read the Bible again.
And this year I am.
This time, with my wife, Becki. We’re reading through it together on a two-year plan. Most nights after we put Evie to bed, we make tea, sit down at our kitchen table, and read and discuss scripture together. I never in my wildest dreams imagined we’d be doing this. Tea and scripture before bedtime. Living the dream, aren’t we? Carpe-ing the diem? But we’re learning a lot, and I’m finding that it brings us closer together as we discover things together. We also learn from one another’s perspectives.
A few weeks ago, for example, Becki pointed out that Isaac carried the wood when Abraham intended to sacrifice him, just as Jesus carried His own cross before He was sacrificed in the New Testament. I had never noticed this before.
All this being said, I want you to think about something: If you’re anything like us, you’re busy, but you still make time to read too much news on your phones—and news that makes you feel angry or crazy or just exasperated. You also still make time to binge watch The Crown on Netflix, or in my case, Stranger Things. More than once. And you probably still make time to surf Facebook.
Why not carve out some time to read through the Bible? Either by yourselves or with your loved ones? Why not give it a go? You can make time for it if you try, and I would argue that you will end up trimming the fat when it comes to the other stuff you consume: You’ll cut back on the stuff you don’t need and keep the stuff you love—you know, like Stranger Things. And you won’t miss the stuff you cut out because it was only filler and you didn’t even realize it, and you were just tired and trying to fill your life with something that wasn’t work related, or parenthood-related.
Even better, you’ll find that the Bible has a way of trickling down into your life and finding its way into your everyday interactions with others, into the way you deal with your spouse and your children, into the way you think about the news you read, into your thoughts about the things that matter in life. You’ll find that the Bible infuses your life with challenge, with meaning, with purpose, and with questions that lead you to God, and to read even more.
Mark my words: You will end up with just as many questions as answers—maybe even more—but that’s part of the fun. The questions spur you on to read more, to read deeper, and to scratch those places in scripture that make you itch. You’ll find that the Bible is a rich, challenging, confusing, fascinating, infuriating, insanely good read, and you might even want to read it again when you’re done. And you should!
As for that passage in Exodus I read to you, I’m not going to explain it. Consider it an incentive to go and read and look up Exodus Chapter 4 commentary on Google or in a library with some good theological resources. Because a passage where God decides to kill Moses, but changes His mind is likely to bother you if you let it, and it’s likely to teach you some things, too, if you let it. Regardless of whether you read the Bible or not though, that passage is in there, and it’s begging you to wrangle with it. So are many others.
So go forth today after church and read.