The foolishness of the cross

This is the text of the sermon I preached this morning, based on 1 Corinthians 1:18 – "The message of the cross is foolishness to the perishing but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.

He was young, free and single.  In the prime of his life.  He’d only recently become famous, but all the reports suggested he had massive potential and that he could become something really special.  Certainly those who knew him best never ceased to be amazed by the things he said and did.  He had real talent.  Could make a huge impact on the world stage.  But then he died.  Just like that.  Came out of the blue.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  Cut off in his prime, or even before his prime.  What a terrible tragedy! What a waste, a pointless loss of life!


You ask people about the death of Jesus of Nazareth, many people might react along those lines.  He was the victim of a miscarriage of justice, cut off before he’d had a chance to make a real impact.  At least Gandhi was killed when he was relatively old – Jesus was killed before his time.  What a tragic waste of life.


And that’s exactly what the disciples thought.  That was the reason Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him, after Jesus first began to teach that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” (Mark 8:31-32).


Why did Peter rebuke Jesus? He had just had this incredible revelation that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ.  There was no doubt in his or any one else’s mind that the job of the Messiah was to overcome the oppressors, not to be killed by them.  The idea of a crucified Messiah was just plain stupid.  What good would that do?  Surely Jesus had got this wrong!


We read in Mark 10:32-34 that they approached Jerusalem “with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. 33 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”


Why were the disciples astonished and the others afraid as they were going to approach Jerusalem? Because they couldn’t believe that Jesus was really going to go through with this.  It was absolutely ridiculous.  He intended to go to Jerusalem and present himself on a plate to those who intended to do him harm?  He might as well wrap a ribbon round himself! What a stupid, pointless idea.  The idea of a crucified Messiah was foolishness.  The idea of him rising on the third day was simply pie in the sky, dreamed up in cloud cuckoo land.  That’s why the disciples were so miserable when he’d died on Good Friday.  They didn’t expect to see Jesus again.


That Friday looked like a defeat for this carpenter turned itinerant preacher who’d opened his big mouth and caused trouble just once too often and ended up dead.  The rulers mocked him because they knew they’d won.  The cross was a symbol of torture, shame, the power of the state, and above all, death.  Once Jesus died, the hopes of his disciples died with him.  That’s why they fled.  His mission had been shown to be foolishness.  A crying shame, such a waste.  He couldn’t have been the Messiah after all.  


“The message of the cross is foolishness to the perishing but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).


Everything changed on that Sunday morning, when the stone was rolled away and the tomb was discovered empty.  Jesus said it would happen that way all along.  Jesus chose to go to the cross.  He willingly gave up his life.  He took the route of shame and death.  Why?


Our Old Testament reading is, of course, the Ten Commandments.  In the old days when the Book of Common Prayer was the only book used for Anglican worship these commands were read out every week.  After each commandment, the congregation would respond, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”


Why does it say that after each command? The point is, that on our own we cannot keep any of the commands.  We’re sinners.  We may seem pretty good to those around us.  We may be known as good Christian people and perhaps are quite proud of that.  But in God’s eyes, quite frankly, that’s not good enough. 


We all know what guilt feels like…we all know that we get things wrong. And, depending on what you get wrong, and what harm you cause, and how often, we construct this scale of how good people are…and where we would place ourselves 

Imagine this music stand is a scale of human goodness, evil at the bottom, good people at the top. I have here some sticky notes….I’ve written some names on them.  Different figures from history. You tell me where I should put them….good or bad…

’Mother Teresa’ … ‘Adolf Hitler’…what about this one: ‘Me (Andy)’

Now … okay, try this: where would we put the perfect human being? The top of the screen? The ceiling? What is the standard, the benchmark of goodness? Is it the top of the lectern?… or the ceiling?!


Romans 3:23 ‘…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…’

The standard is not the top of the lectern…not even the ceiling…it’s the sky….it’s infinity… it’s the full glory of God, as revealed in Jesus, and compared to him we all fall a long way short (and you can bet that Mother Teresa would have been the first to agree with that statement)


The standard is the sky.  Perfection.  And we all fall well short.  And there’s absolutely nothing we can do about that.


There are consequences to sin.  We know that from reading the Old Testament.  I’m trying to go through the Bible in a year.  It’s an incredible challenge, but a wonderful one, if you’re up for it… and at the moment, I’m in the middle of Leviticus, where God lays down for Moses and the people of Israel the conditions they are to adhere to when they enter the promised land.  The thing that becomes most apparent is how seriously God takes sin.  Let’s turn briefly together to Leviticus 16.  Once a year they had to observe the Day of Atonement.  In verse 1 we read that the chief high priest would enter the Most Holy Place to make atonement for his sins and the sins of the people.  From verses 5-20 we see that a bull, a ram, and a goat are sacrificed as sin and burnt offerings and the blood of the bull and the goat are sprinkled on the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar.  And then, something extraordinary happens.  Look at verses 20-22 with me …


When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat.  He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites— all their sins— and put them on the goat's head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.


The live goat carries the burden of all the sins of the Israelite community; it’s then taken away to the desert, to the middle of nowhere and released, presumably to die.


My sin matters.  Your sin matters.  It has consequences.  Someone has to pay.  A blood sacrifice has to be paid.  Jesus walked into Jerusalem to die, to be that sacrificial lamb, to be that scapegoat.  He carried the burden of all our sin.  The sinless one became sin for you and me.  It was always meant to be that way.  It was the only way for God to rescue humanity from the awful mess it had got itself – and still gets itself in.  In being obedient to God in every part of his life in a way that no one has been able to, even submitting to the ultimate suffering on the cross, Jesus didn’t fail, or miss out on his vast potential.  Quite the opposite.


The greatest turnaround in history took place on the cross through the blood of Jesus that was shed for us.  What looked like an utter defeat, God turned around into the greatest victory of all time.  The resurrection, as Bishop Lesslie Newbigin used to say, was ‘not the reversal of a defeat but the manifestation of a victory.’ 


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


Of course, the world thinks this is foolishness.  They think that being good, being a nice, “Christian” person is good enough.  They might even think that going to church regularly is enough.  The problem is that all of that stuff is worthless when it comes to the key issue of life or death.  It won’t save you.  If you haven’t put faith in Jesus and the cross that he bore for your selfishness and sin, you are, as St. Paul writes in Colossians 2:13, “dead in your sins”, destined for hell – an eternity without God, an eternity without love or any of the good things we enjoy in this amazing world.  You’re in quicksand and you’re sinking and you don’t even know it.  Being good is simply not good enough.  You need saving.  People we know and love need Jesus or they’ll spend an eternity without him.  And we’re ashamed to share the Gospel.  Why? Because we might offend people?  So what? What’s offence compared to someone’s eternal soul?  If we don’t tell those we know and love that they need Jesus, then who else will?


The Messiah, the only Son of God, the one who held the power of the universe in the palm of his hand, chose to become powerless, to submit to the humiliation of the cross.  Why? Because that’s the only way he could save us.  He did that for you and me.  It may sound like foolishness, but it’s the power of God working to bring about the salvation of souls. The world needs Jesus.  Will you tell them? 

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


One final thing before I finish.  St. Paul writes, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” – being saved isn’t just a one off process.  Although there is something of cosmic significance that happens when we decide to put our faith in Jesus – we are saved once for all – we are justified before God and made clean – it doesn’t stop there.  God’s ultimate goal is to shape us and mould us and help us to become more like Jesus – it’s a life-long process of sanctification – being saved.  The biggest mistake the church makes is to aim for conversion and to stop there.  In the great commission Jesus called his followers to “make disciples” of all nations – we are all disciples.  We are all called to grow in greater godliness. 


In Phillippians 2:12 and 13, St. Paul writes, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.”


And yet we’re too easily satisfied with where we’re at.  We think that going to church and being Sunday Christians is enough.  It’s not.  We should never be satisfied with where we are spiritually. How do we make sure that we are growing, that we are fully engaged in the process of being saved? Do you want to become more like Jesus?  Do you feel that you’ve been too happy staying where you are?  It’s never too late to respond to God’s call to greater godliness. Prayer and Bible study is key.  If we are open to God’s work in our lives, then it’s amazing how fruitful our lives can become.  God has power to save us and to make us more like Jesus, but he will do nothing without our co-operation.  Are we willing for God to do his work in our lives?

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