Third Sunday in Lent

1 Corinthians 1:22-25

We Proclaim Christ Crucified!

Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified:  a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.(NIV1984)

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

What is the purpose of the church?  While I personally believe that is an extremely easy question to answer, I have learned that if you ask five different people that question you could easily get more than five different answers!  Some people look at the church in the same way that they look at a social agency.  For them the purpose of the church centers on helping the less fortunate by providing them with the basic necessities of life— food, clothing, and shelter.  For others the purpose of the church is to help foster change in society by supporting certain political candidates and by promoting certain social causes.  For still others the purpose of the church is to serve as a place where you can go to interact with other people and maybe even do some networking for your job.

What is the purpose of the church?  That is one of the underlying questions that the apostle Paul was asking the Christian congregation in Corinth.  This congregation was one of if not the most richly blessed congregations we read about in the New Testament Scriptures.  Paul says that they had been “enriched in every way” and that they did not “lack any spiritual gift.”  (See 1 Corinthians 1:4-7)  And yet, the Christian congregation in Corinth was one of if not the most troubled congregations that we read about in the entire New Testament Scriptures!  They were troubled by factions and cliques (See 1:10ff), they were weak when it came to exercising church discipline (See chapter five), they were confused when it came to the estate of Christian marriage (See chapter seven), and they were mishandling the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  (See chapter eleven)

In preparation for addressing the difficulties that were plaguing this congregation God the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write the words that serve as our sermon text for today.  These words focus our attention on the correct answer to the question:  What is the purpose of the church?  That answer is summarized in the statement:  We Proclaim Christ Crucified!  As we look at this answer we will focus on two things.  First, let’s see how that proclamation applied to God’s people in the days of Paul.  Then, let’s see how that proclamation applies to us, God’s people today.

The city of Corinth was a very important and a very cosmopolitan city.  Situated on a piece of land that connects the lower peninsula with the mainland, Corinth was a hub for shipping and trading.  Estimates say that in Paul’s day, Corinth had a population of about 250,000 free people and almost double that number of slaves.  Included in that number were Greeks and Romans, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor.  The diversity of people in the city of Corinth helps us to understand why Paul says in the opening words of our text, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom.”

Throughout Jesus’ public ministry here on this earth the Jews demanded over and over again that Jesus perform some kind of miraculous “sign.”  Only then would they believe His message.  Only then would they even consider His claim to be “the Christ,” the long-awaited Promised Messiah.  For example, after Jesus had healed a man who was blind and mute and possessed by a demon, Matthew tells us, “Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you’” (Matthew 12:22ff).  After Jesus had fed over 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two small fish, John tell us, “So they asked him, ‘What miraculous sign then will you give us that we may see it and believe you?  What will you do?’” (John 6:30)  Even as Jesus hung suffering and dying on the cross, Mark tells us, “In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves.  ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself!  Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe’” (Mark 15:31).

This demand for “miraculous signs” continues right down to this very day, doesn’t it— although it does take a slightly different form.  Instead of staying focused on God’s message as it is recorded for us in the Scriptures, people today often demand “signs” and “miracles” from God.  Miraculous healings, speaking in tongues, a personal spiritual “experience” or an inner religious “feeling” seem to be put on a higher pedestal than God’s holy Word and Sacraments.  The “prosperity gospel” with its promise that success and wealth, health and happiness are  “signs” that God is pleased with you, is swallowed hook-line-and sinker by way too many people today.

The flip side of “Jews demand miraculous signs” is “Greeks look for wisdom.”  The ancient Greek culture was saturated with the quest for “wisdom.”  The great philosophers like Plato and Aristotle were the “influencers” of Greek society.  There were a variety of philosophical schools that included Platonists, Stoics and Epicureans— each of which claimed to possess the ethical “wisdom” that was the “key” to life.  In our day and age the ancient philosophers have been replaced by things such as science and humanism.  Many people today maintain that mankind is the measure of all things and science will solve all of our problems.

In sharp night and day contrast to “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom,” Paul sets before us the central purpose of the church as well as the guiding principle of the life of a Christian.  He says, “But we preach Christ crucified:  a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”  Very literally this reads, “But we are proclaiming Christ crucified, to Jews a scandal, to Gentiles foolishness.”  “We are proclaiming Christ crucified.”  Not only is this the ongoing purpose of the church, but this is also the ongoing purpose of each and every Christian!  In reality “proclaiming Christ crucified” is simply proclaiming the message that God Himself has revealed to us.  “Proclaiming Christ crucified” is to “proclaim” the message that works, the message that saves, the message that answers the “big questions” of life!  We don’t need to spend/waste our time searching through the writings of the “great philosophers” of this world.  We simply “proclaim” to others what they need to hear:  Christ was crucified for you!  (Pointing to the cross)

As we are “proclaiming Christ crucified,” however, we need to understand, and we need to be prepared for the fact that this proclamation will not always be well-received by others.  Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that the proclamation of “Christ crucified” is a “scandal” to many Jews.  Why?  Because tragically, many of the Jews in Jesus’ day were looking for a “savior,” a “messiah” who would provide them with both political freedom and religious freedom.  As far as they were  concerned Jesus of Nazareth failed on both  of those fronts.  And when Jesus of Nazareth ended up nailed to a cross, they considered that a “scandal”!  They considered that a “sign” that He had been “cursed” by God.  (See Deuteronomy 21:22, 23)  What they refused to see, what they refused to accept was Isaiah’s prophesy that the Messiah would suffer and die in our place so that He could endure God’s “curse” for us!

Paul also reminds the Christians in Corinth that the proclamation of “Christ crucified” was “foolishness” to the Gentiles.  Why?  Because according to the “wisdom” of the Greek philosophers it was utter “foolishness” to even think of a “god” taking on a true human body and becoming one of us.  It was utter “foolishness” to even think of putting your faith— much less your eternity— in the hands of someone who had been crucified.  The Greeks and the Romans reserved crucifixion as a method of capital punishment for the most heinous of crimes committed by the most despicable of criminals.  In their eyes the cross depicted the utmost disgrace.

Then why does Paul emphasize that, “We are proclaiming Christ crucified”?  The glorious answer to that question is found in verse 24 of our text.  Paul writes, “But to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  Through the power of God the Holy Spirit we have been “called” out of the darkness of sin and unbelief and into the wonderful light of faith!  (See 1 Peter 2:9, 10)  With the eyes of faith we are able to see and to understand that the proclamation of “Christ crucified” is the proclamation of God’s “power”— God’s “power” to forgive us, God’s “power” to justify us, God’s ”power” to redeem us from sin, death and the devil, God’s “power” to save us for all of eternity!  Every time we lift up our eyes to the cross, every time we see “Christ crucified,” every time we “proclaim Christ crucified” to others, we see and we proclaim the ”power” of the Almighty God Himself!

At the very same time, with hearts that are filled with the gift of saving faith we are able to see and to understand that the proclamation of “Christ crucified” is the proclamation of God’s “wisdom.”  Through the “foolishness” of the cross we have the “wisdom” of knowing that through faith in Jesus we have been given true “righteousness, holiness and redemption.” (See 1 Corinthians 1:30)  This kind of “wisdom” cannot be acquired through human reason or strenuous intellectual exercises.  This kind of “wisdom” is hidden from those who are “wise” by the standards of this world but revealed to “little children” — purely by the grace and power of God.  (See Matthew 11:25, 26)

With the eyes of faith and with the gift of saving faith filling our hearts we say “Amen!” to Paul’s proclamation found in the closing verse of our text, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”  From a purely human perspective the cross on Calvary’s hill embodies “foolishness” and “weakness.”  To this very day the world considers it untenable and inconceivable that God would willingly become a man, that God’s plan for our salvation would require this perfect, innocent God-Man to be crucified to pay for our sins, that simple, humble, child-like faith in “Christ crucified” guarantees eternal life in heaven.  From the perspective of this world the “foolishness” and the “weakness” of the cross makes absolutely no logical sense whatsoever!

Praise God for that, my friends!  It reminds us that even with the collective “wisdom” and the collective “strength” of all of mankind we could never and we would never have come up with this (Pointing to the cross) as the Solution to all of our problems— both in this life as well as the next!

So let me ask you once again:  What is the purpose of the church?  What is your purpose in life?  By the grace and power of God we know that the only correct answer to both of those questions.  The answer is found in Paul’s inspired words:  “We are proclaiming Christ crucified.”

To God be the glory!