K. Dean Myers, interim pastor
Fairmount Presbyterian Church Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Sunday, March 11, 2012 Third Sunday in Lent

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 & John 2:13-22

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

19For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

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.27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,29so that no one might boast in the presence of God.30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,31in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’

John 2:13-22

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables .16He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ 17His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’

18The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ 19Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

I

“Lord, give us a sign!”

“Send us a clear, definitive message to guide our way through the thick darkness of our lives!”

How often have you and I – and Fairmount church – prayed something like that. Perhaps, more often than not, our prayer has come out of our despair: “If only we knew what to do! If only someone would show us the way!” We feel lost and alone and divided within and against ourselves – wide open to the slightest hint of God’s Spirit, but also vulnerable to any Spirit – for good for for ill – whose voice we might happen to hear. We want some sign, any sign, to point our way.

The two texts I just read sound very different, and in many ways they are different. But the word “sign” appears in them both, and that points us to their congruence.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1, contrast two opposing ways of dealing with life. On one hand we can count on the wisdom and strength of this world. On the other we can turn to the wisdom and strength of God. The world discounts God’s wisdom by treating it as foolishness; the world regards God’s strength as weakness. And no wonder: God is most fully known in the proclamation of cross of Jesus Christ, in the word of, the news about, an apparent pretender to divinity whose life ended in humiliation, not wisdom; in suffering, not strength.

Directly challenging the strangely-dubbed “good” news of Jesus Christ are “Jews [who] demand signs and Greeks [who] seek wisdom.” The “signs” Jews look for are signs of strength, of determination, and of clarity – signs from the sovereign God that motivate and empower those who receive such signs to move forward in confidence. Greeks (in that world, everyone who is not Jewish is “Greek”) seek wisdom, wanting to reason things through to life; but Jews want signs – clear, visible, audible commands and revelations from God they can see, hear, and follow.

Keep the word “signs” in mind as I take you back to Jesus’ cleansing the temple, as John records it. Jesus upsets animal carts and the cash carts, and whips the dealers and their wares out of there. The Jewish leaders ask Jesus for a “sign” to show that he has the right to act so destructively. They want to check his creds. Jesus replies that were the whole temple completely destroyed, he could rebuild it in three days. They laugh, because they think he is talking about the massive stone building where they worship. After all, it took 46 years to build it the first time, and he sure as heck couldn’t rebuild it in three days! Then, John clues in his readers on what Jesus really talking about, which is the temple that his is body, a temple that will be “rebuilt” three days after his crucifixion.

Though we can hardly blame the Jewish leaders misunderstanding Jesus here (he has not been all that clear in his response), we also can learn from the fact that the way they regarded the things of God hardly prepared them to understand him. Their wrong-headed thinking didn’t come out of nowhere.

You see, these religious leaders are practical, hard-headed, and hard-hearted realists. They know what it takes to run a church, because they know how things work in the “real” world. And Jesus knows very well what they know and how they know it, which is why he accuses them of using the temple as a “market-place.”

Be alert here: in the other three gospels, Jesus accuses those leaders of being “robbers” who had turned the temple into “a den of thieves.” But John says their crime was turning it into a market-place…dare I suggest he might have called them a “den of capitalists?” They were profiting from the sale of religion!

Well, what’s wrong, we ask, with a bit of profit, with making a shekel or two wherever and however we can?

Just this: you cannot sell, buy, deal in the things of God as if they were penny stocks and mere commodities, with price tags attached to grace and forgiveness, to comfort and commandments. You cannot conduct a “religion business” for what you can “make” out of it for yourself, even if what you make is intangible power and prestige.

Taken together, these texts clear the path to apprehend the true source of wisdom and strength: the gracious and sacrificial and free offering of God to those who trust in Christ. The only “profit” is to those who believe, with no middle-men or women taking a cut in the exchange.

In both texts that free offer is being put on the table in the death of Jesus of Nazareth, which death’s efficacy is confirmed in his resurrection three days later. Indeed, he is himself the “sign” the religious leaders are asking for, but they cannot see him, he so offends their expectations of God’s strength and smarts. That closes down their ability to “make” something for themselves out of it. That is why the news of “Christ crucified” is a “stumbling-block” to them. The sign Jesus offers is “scandalous” to them – a word that in Greek refers to the trigger of a trap. They can only take it at risk to their lives and livelihoods.

All human wisdom, power and prestige are measured against and by divine foolishness, weakness, and shame seen bodily on the cross. All other words are judged by this Word.

II

The 1 Corinthians passage holds a particular memory for me. I want to tell it to you briefly before coming to my main point this morning. Perhaps it will help prepare us all for that point.

I entered college knowing for sure I was called to ministry. Seminary and ordination were clearly in my future. Majoring in philosophy seemed to me and others a good way to get ready for that.

During my sophomore year – and yes, the word is from the Greek “wise moron” – I decided that Christianity could not possibly be worth anything if it didn’t make logical – and linguistic – sense to me. So I set myself on a path of what I considered to be a rigorous rethinking of the faith in which I’d been raised. If that faith could hold its own against my measured analysis of its words, I’d be a Christian. If not, I’d abandon the faith and my career plans would have to change. There would be no call.

Unlike most students who take on this monumental sophomoric task, I continued to attend Sunday worship services at various churches. I know I thereby prejudiced my case, but I justified it to myself in terms of seeking some preacher whose proclamation could stand up to my high standards of logic. Here’s where something I didn’t anticipate happened to me; it is also where my memory may play tricks on me.

I know that on one Sunday; I am pretty sure it was on two Sundays; and my memory likes to tell me it was on three Sundays that I heard sermons on 1 Corinthians 1:22-24: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” And I heard in those sermons a direct, Spirit-initiated rebuttal to my supposed strength in my supposed wisdom. Something – someone – besides myself was the measure of truth. Some message was more compelling than my talking to myself.

During my junior year we all had to endure that I think were called “Junior Orals.” A small group of professors from our own department and from other departments sat down with each junior and asked any questions they wanted of us in a test of interdisciplinary education. At the end of my interview, a young English prof whom I’d only known by name until that hour asked about my plans after college. I was back to the path to seminary and ordination now, and when I told him that he said, and I know this to be true, “You are too smart to be a minister.”

I can say today in confidence, some 45-years later and at the end of my final interim pastorate, that he was absolutely wrong. Lots of much smarter colleagues are much better ministers than I have been. Besides, being smart in this calling is not nearly as important to it being productive as is being wise. Of wisdom, both mine and God’s, I could often have had a whole lot more than I did. But I am grateful for whatever God has turned to good through my efforts, and sometimes in spite of them. God’s foolishness is wiser than my wisdom; God’s weakness is stronger than my strength. I am saved.

III

But enough of me – what of you, Fairmount Presbyterian Church?

Think back to the conclusion of the 1 Corinthians passage. After the “Christ crucified” part and “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” – after that, Paul turns to the church. That’s you.

“Consider your call,” he commands. “Think about what the God you have heard is calling you to be and to do. Look at the truth that you are not answerable to yourselves, but that you are in the service of One greater than yourselves who has called you.”

“Consider your call” from God – from the crucified God in Christ – to you who are not wise, not powerful, not of noble birth…

…but wait a minute, wait just a darned minute! Maybe those Corinthian Christians were the lower class of their society, but Paul’s words can’t possibly apply to Fairmount Christians, can they? We are wise; we are powerful; we are heirs of lines of wealth and influence. Maybe not most of us, but a good many of us, even today, and certainly in the past. Do Paul’s words apply to us?

I believe they do, and I know they must. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Paul’s words can and do and must always must fit this place and this people. In submitting our wisdom, our strength, and our social position to the proclamation of Christ crucified Fairmount knows that the source of its life is Christ Jesus, wise, strong and socially placed as we are. As Fairmount acknowledges Christ as source of all, Fairmount receives the resources needed to proclaim boldly him and his liberating love to the world. There is no other way to serve Christ but to hear his good news as for us, no matter who we are or what gifts we have.

I pray you continue to seek Christ’s wisdom and strength in the exciting and challenging times ahead. That you look to Christ, and him crucified, as the sign by which you measure all you hope and all you dream and all you plan. That you realize you are all in this together, heirarchies of smarts, strength, and position flattened into one singular and seemless community that struggles and searches, seeks and celebrates together – boasting, if boast you must, in your Lord.

IV

Because I will no longer be traveling this journey with you, I will conclude by inviting you to pray with me for you:

Calling God, who in Jesus Christ creates a new human community for the salvation of humankind and of the world: hear our prayer for Fairmount Presbyterian Church:

• For the session and Clerk Liz; for each elder, each committee and council, and their oversight of our spiritual vitality – hear our prayer.

• For the deacons and Co-moderators Eric and Corky; for each deacon, and their works of compassion and caring – hear our prayer.

• For the trustees and Moderator Kevin; for each trustee, each committee, and their responsibility for our corporate well-being – hear our prayer.

• For the Self-study committee (Chairman Peter), and the Pastor Nominating Committee (Co-chairs Hedy and Amy); for each member on them, and for their work of preparing Fairmount for the coming years – hear our prayer.

• For the Guild and moderator Barbara; for each member, and for their service to us and this community – hear our prayer.

• For our outreach to North Church, to Heights Youth Center, to Greater Cleveland Congregations, to our Presbyterian Church (USA), and to those other ministries and missions that we know and value – hear our prayer.

• For our staff: Pastors Eric and Missy; Educators Betsy and Anthony; Musicians Bob and Jarrad and Amy and Maribeth; administrators and office workers Nancy and Christine and Shawn and Susanne; custodians Mike and LeeRon and Anthonio and Sharon; for infant and child care givers Elisha and Magella; for Parish Associate Hank; candidates Terra and Alex; Pastor Emeritus Hank and all who’ve served Fairmount through the years – hear our prayer.

• For each member and friend of this congregation, young, middle-aged, and senior; who serve cooperatively on committees, usher and greet, count offerings, teach and lead children, youth, and adults, sing and play in choirs, participate in the Co-op, volunteer in the office, clean up messes, record minutes, solve problems, pray for us, smile just when we need it, keep faith – hear our prayer.

• For all who worship with us, each Sunday, or once or twice a year – hear our prayer.

• For all who give out of their abundance, whether it be great or small by human accounting – Lord, hear our prayer.

• For the persons and ministries we should have prayed for but I overlooked – Lord, hear our prayer.

• For us as we part, us collectively, us individually – hear our prayer.

• For all of us and for your Holy Church, now and forever – Lord, hear all of our prayers, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Please stand and respond to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism with the first answer:

One: What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

All: That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself but to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him. Amen.

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