Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Foolish Wisdom of God

Exodus 20:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
March 11, 2012
© 2012
I. Andrew Carnegie immigrated to the United States from Scotland with his parents in 1848. He started out as a factory worker in a bobbin factory and went on to build U.S. Steel and what is still considered the second largest fortune in U.S. history. Though the global marketplace has drastically changed U.S Steel, his philanthropic foundation The Carnegie Corporation of New York thrives today as the vehicle that still conveys his power and knowledge.
A. Andrew Carnegie’s legacy was his philanthropy. His vision was to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding” with the goal of doing “real and permanent good.” He wanted his foundation to create “ladders on which the aspiring can rise.”
B. For him, making money was not an end in itself but was a means of helping others. He wrote, “I propose to take an income no greater than $50,000 per annum! Beyond this I never need to earn, make no effort to increase my fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes.” He recommended the way he attempted to organize his own life. “To spend the first third of one’s life getting all the education one can. To spend the next third making all the money one can. To spend the last third giving it all away for worthwhile causes.” He said, “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”
C. Nevertheless, the contrast between his life many of those who worked for him was stark. Biographer Joseph Wall commented, “Maybe with the giving away of his money he would justify what he had done to get that money.” His reputation was permanently damaged by the Homestead Strike of 1892 in which ten were killed.
D. He kept his distance from religion but saw himself as a naturalistic and scientific positivist. Rather than a personal God, he believed in “an Infinite and Eternal Energy from which all things proceed.” He wrote, “My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this to be the noblest possible use of wealth.” He recognized the threat his wealth poses to these spiritual aspirations. He wrote, “Man must have no idol and the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry! No idol is more debasing than the worship of money!”
II. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 offers some perspective on our human pursuit of influence and knowledge: as counter-intuitive as it seems, the path to power and wisdom is the cross of Christ.
A. The great founders of philosophy were from Greece: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and others. So we understand why Paul wrote that Greeks desire wisdom. Though they argued between many different concepts of reality, all of them would consider that God would become human and die as a criminal was foolish if not scandalous.
B. The Jews of the first century were steeped in elaborate traditions surrounding the Law of Moses and the Prophets. Anything that would break through this needed a sign of power. For the Messiah to die as a criminal at the hands of foreign occupiers was a sign of weakness they stumbled over.
C. But in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, the cross of Christ is both wisdom and power of God that overturns the futility of human knowledge and strength. To make his point, Paul quoted Isaiah 29:14 that starts with the prophet condemning those who honor God with the words but whose hearts and lives are far from God. (v. 13) The cross of Christ compels us to let go of our confidence with what we think we know and can do for ourselves. The cross of Christ is total dependence on God.
D. The path to power and wisdom is the cross of Christ.
III. Careful study of the Bible regularly turns up puzzles. For some people, this stirs up doubt and even dismissing the Bible as reliable or relevant. Other people skip over them or are content with simplistic, superficial ways of harmonizing apparent difficulties and label those who raise questions as enemies of the faith. I like to think of my tolerance for ambiguity as a gateway for exploring in unexpected directions and hearing something from God I might have missed.
A. All four Gospels tell a story that is popularly called Christ Cleanses the Temple. Most of you know the story of Jesus throwing the merchants and money changers out of the Temple in Jerusalem. Cleansing the Temple might not be quite the right idea. Something like Jesus Confronts Temple Corruption might come a little closer. Matthew, Mark and Luke all put this story right after Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It seems to be the trigger that gets the Temple leaders to take action to eliminate Jesus. In John 11:45-53 the resurrection of Lazarus is what prompts the plot to kill Jesus. But John 2:13-22 starts the story of Jesus’ public ministry with his confrontation in the Temple.
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 marketplace!” 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.
B. John’s Gospel is not organized chronologically but thematically or theologically. The puzzle is the timing of these stories. Did Jesus run the merchants and money changers out of the Temple once after Palm Sunday, or had he done it before at the start of his ministry? If he only did it once, was John mistaken to put it at the beginning instead of the end? Matthew and Luke sound like this happened on Palm Sunday, but Mark specifies it was the next day. But a careful reading of Matthew and Luke wouldn’t preclude a day’s delay, even though they don’t mention it specifically. I read convincing, contradictory arguments for one and two confrontations in the Temple and why John was right or wrong in where he put it in his Gospel. Not only am I not smart enough to tell which argument is right, I have concluded that trying to come to a conclusion actually distracts us from what we’re supposed to hear from God in this story. Instead I think we do better to ask why John puts a story that points so clearly to the cross at the start of his Gospel.
C. If you are reading John’s Gospel continuously and not in little clips and bits, just before this story you will have read that John the Baptizer called Jesus the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. None of the other Gospels report that.
1. Matthew and Mark (but not Luke) do mention the doves, but only John says that Jesus drove the cattle and sheep out of the Temple with a whip. The other Gospels don’t say anything about a whip, and John only says he used it on the animals.
2. Though I can’t prove it, I suspect this happened just once right before Jesus’ crucifixion. John has identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and before he is crucified he drives the animals destined for sacrifice out of the Temple. They won’t be needed any more because he is going to offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice.
D. 1 Corinthians 1:22 says that Jews demand signs. In John 2:18 the Temple leaders demand Jesus show them a sign for what he has done. In effect they are saying, “You just acted like one of the ancient prophets. Now prove it by showing us a sign of God’s power.” Rather than doing a miracle, Jesus gives them a riddle about destroying and raising up “this temple.” Several commentators think he was pointing to himself, but the Temple leaders didn’t get it. John explains he was talking about his body. The disciples don’t get it, however, until after he is raised from the dead. But the readers of John’s Gospel know from the very beginning how this story will end – with Jesus death and resurrection. John is not building the suspense as the other Gospels do. He is clear that this story is all about the cross. Jesus’ death is not an accident.
1. If, as I suspect, the confrontation in the Temple happens on Monday after Palm Sunday, the disciples would have no trouble remembering what Jesus said about raising up in three days only a week later.
2. While Jesus is running the merchants out of the Temple, the disciples remembered that Psalm 69:9 said, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” They recognize that Jesus is not opposed to the Temple, only to the misuse of the Temple. And farther on Psalm 69:21 says, “They have given me vinegar to drink.” Wow! A snapshot of Jesus on the cross!
E. The path to power and wisdom is the cross of Christ.
IV. I would not blame you if you feel tangled here and want to say to me, “Norm, you obviously spent some time and brain cells on John’s account of Jesus confrontation in the Temple. I don’t think I need to know whether Jesus threw the merchants and money changers out of the Temple once or twice, on Sunday or Monday. If this is the wisdom and power of God in 1 Corinthians 1, it does feel kind of foolish and weak to me. And I’m not even close to being an Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. How is the cross of Christ the path to wisdom and power for me?”
A. I certainly wouldn’t suggest Steve Jobs as a Christian theologian or spiritual leader, but in his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005 he said something that I believe points to the cross, though he may not have realized it himself. He said, “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
B. The cross of Christ is both a graphic sign of the reality of death, and the entrance into the freedom of knowing that death does not have the last word. After three days, Jesus was raised up! The cross of Christ opens up the new.
C. Politicians like to speak of Americans as a free people, as though freedom is something we invented and achieved by and for ourselves. The cross of Christ is the sign that we are a freed people. By the very thing that seems weak and foolish, we have been set free by Jesus when we were absolutely helpless to free ourselves.
D. What we read this morning from Exodus 20:1-6 is what Jewish scholars call the First Word of the Ten Words or Commandments. It goes on to explain the First Word, but that First Word is that God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery.” The First Word is about God, not about us. It is about the God whose very nature is to liberate! The Ten Commandments are not arbitrary restrictive rules, but are the terms of God’s covenant with us. They show us how to live as a freed people who are becoming liberators like the God who freed us.
E. Lent is our invitation to God’s power and wisdom in the cross of Christ. As we ramp up our prayer, Bible reading and corporate worship at this season, we see the cross. We let go of our demands for knowledge and signs. Little by little we are freed from what binds us by the power and wisdom of God.

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