Do You Think That's Wise?

Sunday, 2 February 2020 12:00

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:22)

One of the great pleasures of watching Dad’s Army was the combination of the characters of Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson. One all pompous and full of his own importance as leader of the Home Guard platoon and the other all mild politeness, never uttering a harsh word. When Mainwaring had decided to do something risky - possibly dangerous, Wilson would raise his eyebrows and saw, “Really Sir, do you think that’s wise?”

Most of us, especially as we advance in years, would like to think that we are wise. We would like to think that our years  on this planet had granted us enough experience to know which way is up in most circumstances. We would like to think that the years bring wisdom along with receding hairlines and lengthening distances we need to hold letters at to read them. Over the centuries wisdom has been prized by most cultures. In the Old Testament writings, especially in the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified and addressed as ‘she’. In the Byzantine Empire the biggest church ever built was the Church of Holy Wisdom - the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul.

So it’s perhaps odd to hear Paul - an inheritor of that great tradition of Jewish scholarship who had studied under Gamaliel, one of the great Rabbis of history - dismissing wisdom as he seems to do in this passage from Corinthians. Dismissing it to the point of describing what he was proclaiming - the Gospel of Jesus Christ - as foolishness. That seems a rather odd thing for an evangelist to do. Really, do you think that’s wise?

I suspect we may forget just how bonkers the Gospel Paul was preaching must have seemed to those who heard it for the first time in the middle decades of the First Century. Maybe we forget how crazy the idea of a crucified Christ must have seemed to both Jews and gentiles when it was first proclaimed all those centuries ago. We live in a culture, a country, that has been shaped in the shadow of the Cross to the degree that it seems perfectly ordinary to us. So let’s put ourselves into the minds of those Jews who demanded signs and the Greeks that demanded wisdom and think about how they might have received the proclamation of Christ crucified.

For the Jews it must have turned on its head everything they had thought about the coming of the Messiah - the anointed one of God. For most of them the Messiah would be a new David who would restore the Kingdom of Israel to its glory. He would surely be a mighty king destined for long life  - a sure sign of God’s approval - and wealth and power. He would surely drive the Romans from the country and liberate the nation. The idea that this poor, young man, executed by the Romans was the Messiah must have seemed preposterous. No wonder it was a stumbling block to Jews.

Then there were the Gentiles. Again, for both Greeks and Romans, wealth and success were marks of the favour of the Gods. Nobody, surely, of any significance or any importance could wind up crucified. It was a punishment designed by the Romans as the ultimate deterrent. To be stripped and nailed to a cross was to have all your dignity stripped away. It was to hang as a warning to all who might seek to upset the applecart; to be turned from a human being into a powerless symbol of Roman power; to become a non-person. The idea that a victim of crucifixion could be the chosen one of God must have seemed preposterous. No wonder it was foolishness to the Gentiles.

Sometimes it seemed crazy to the apostles themselves when Jesus was alive and they were following him. On one occasion as they were heading toward Jerusalem and they are all keen to know what the plan would be, Jesus tells them that he’s going to be crucified and Peter took him aside and rebuked him, “Really sir. Do you think that’s wise?”

As Paul says, though, this is God’s wisdom and it’s not like human wisdom - especially not the kind that the Romans and Greeks taught. It’s not the wisdom that says that what’s important in this world is to acquire wealth and power and fame. It’s not the wisdom of, for example, of Aristotle - no intellectual slouch - who justified slavery on the oh-so-logical grounds that if a people allowed themselves to be conquered then they were clearly inferior and deserved to be enslaved.

The Cross of Jesus Christ turns all that on its head. If a poor carpenter’s son from the backwoods of Galilee nailed to a cross at the age of only thirty can be the Messiah - can be the chosen one of God - then the whole idea that wealth, power, status, long life, whatever are marks of God’s favour and indications that you are well in with God goes right out of the window. Back in the day both Greeks and Gentiles held that if some dreadful calamity overcame you then you had offended God or you were cursed - that was the issue that the Book of Job wrestled with. Again, in the light of Christ crucified, all that goes out of the window.

“Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus when he preached the Beatitudes that we heard this morning. Even today that can pull us up sharp and make us think, “Wait! What?” When we remember that it was spoken at a time when, for some, those who mourned were, quite literally, cursed by God we can see just how much our sense of what is wise has been shaped by the Cross of Jesus Christ.

If the Messiah - the anointed one of God - can die a humiliating, agonising death at such a young age in poverty, then maybe all those that get dealt a duff hand in life are touched by that anointing. Maybe that’s why, from the earliest days of the Church, we recognised that folk in need, far from being cursed by God, were his beloved children just as much as the wealthiest, most powerful, most successful plutocrat, king or general. It’s why alms-giving became such a big thing in the Church - we practically invented charity. We invented hospitals too because diseases such as leprosy were no longer the curse of God. Its sufferers were, instead, God’s beloved children.

“Do you think that’s wise?” It can be the smug question of someone who think’s he’s got the world sussed. In our passage this morning Paul dismisses the wisdom of the ancient world and turns it on its head. The Cross of Christ, he declares, displays the wisdom of God; displays the love of God for all his children. When the wisdom of the world is that the wealthy deserve their wealth and the poor deserve their poverty, we still have a role to play in proclaiming Christ crucified; in proclaiming the wisdom of God. When the wisdom of the world is that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and that we should look after number one we still have a role to play in proclaiming Christ crucified; in proclaimingthe wisdom of God. When the wisdom of the world is that charity begins at home and that we should cut foreign aid or stop sheltering child refugees we still have a role to play in proclaiming Christ crucified; in proclaiming the wisdom of God

In proclaiming Christ crucified for all humanity. For rich and for poor, for weak and for strong, for the famous and the forgotten. For the poor and the mourning, for the meek and the hungry, for the victims of mercilessness and war and persecution. For all God’s children blessed by the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ because, ultimately that love is the wisdom of God.

Lord, may we never be seduced my a sense of our own wisdom into thinking that others are undeserving of your love and mercy. May we proclaim your Son’s Cross as salvation for all humanity and may we serve our brothers and sisters in love.

Preached at Gretna Old parish church