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.1 Corinthians 1:22-24
It has been jokingly said, I am sure, that there are two types of people in the world, those who think there are two types of people in the world, and those who don’t. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians suggests that he is of the group who believes that there are two types of people – those who demand signs, and those who desire wisdom. If those are the two types of people, then I think that I might be a little of each, because there are times in my life when I have looked for signs, and times in my life when I have desired wisdom. Many times, in fact.
But clearly there must be dangers to seeking signs and wisdom. Because Paul is warning us in this reading that they can become stumbling blocks. They can lead us away from the cross and the gospel.
So, today, I want to look again at Paul’s message in First Corinthians, on signs, wisdom, and the power of God. But before we look at what can go wrong with seeking signs and wisdom, it’s good to remember that they are not wrong in and of themselves. We heard, for example, just a couple of Sundays ago of the great sign that God gave in the rainbow, a sign of the covenant that God made with Noah and those who would follow, not to destroy the earth by a flood. God gave us a sign, so clearly signs are not always bad. And wisdom? Wisdom is praised often, and throughout scripture. “How much better to get wisdom than gold!” we read in Proverbs, for example.
So, there is nothing wrong with signs and wisdom. But seeking them can go wrong when they replace faith, and when they turn us from the power of God and the wisdom of God. So, let’s look at both signs and wisdom, and see where they can go wrong, before we look at what Paul is saying about what should be in their place.
First, let’s look at signs. Some people demand signs, Paul tells us. And I think that the key word here is not “signs,” but “demand.” Things go wrong when we demand signs from God.
To see this, we don’t have to look any further than today’s gospel reading, John 2:13-22. After Jesus made a whip of cords and drove the money changers out of the Temple, it was the Jewish leaders who demanded a sign. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” they wanted to know. And you can imagine why they would want a sign. Jesus was in the Temple, kicking over the money changers’ tables, driving them out of the Temple with a whip, and shouting at them to stop making his Father’s house a marketplace! What gives Jesus the right to do this, they wanted to know? They want a sign. They want proof that he really is the Son of God. If he’s going to threaten their livelihood and disrupt the status quo, he’d better be able to prove that he is who he is claiming to be.
And right there is when our demanding signs goes wrong. When we are demanding them because of a lack of trust. When we don’t trust someone, we want them to give us a reason to believe. And when we demand a sign from God, it is because we really don’t trust God. God will give us signs, when we need them, and sometimes even when we ask for them. But when we are demanding a sign from God, because we don’t trust God, then a sign isn’t what we need. What we need is a renewed relationship with our Lord.
Jesus, by the way, did offer a sign to the Jews who demanded one; but it wasn’t the sign they expected. He said: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And he was speaking of his body. This was a sign that even his disciples could not figure out until after he was raised from the dead. And it is a sign that still requires faith, doesn’t it? And, more significantly, it is a sign that takes us right back to the foolish message of the cross, as Paul describes it in this reading.
And I’m sure it sounded foolish when Jesus said it. Destroy this temple, and in three days he will raise it up. But that is exactly what happened. They destroyed Jesus on the cross. And three days later, he was alive. A foolish message to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God. And there is no other sign that we need, to understand God’s love for us and for our world, than the sign of Christ on the cross.
Jews demand signs, Paul said, and Greeks desire wisdom. And I have sought both. And perhaps you have, too. We’ve looked at signs, so let’s think about wisdom.
How can anything be wrong with wisdom? God’s word seems to have a lot to say about wisdom, mostly in very positive terms. “How much better to get wisdom than gold!” scripture declares, and “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.” In the New Testament, James writes, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” Wisdom is a good thing, a desirable thing, for all people, including people of faith.
But can seeking wisdom go wrong? Absolutely. Remember Adam and Eve?
“When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”Genesis 3:6
It was the desire for wisdom that took Adam and Eve down that fateful road. So, where did it go wrong? Just as with signs, the desire for wisdom goes wrong when we use it to replace faith, when we seek wisdom because we don’t really trust God.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” writes the psalmist. True wisdom begins there, with the fear of the Lord. True wisdom does not replace God, or our need for God. True wisdom begins with taking God seriously, and seeking God’s wisdom and God’s will in all things.
And so, true wisdom always brings us back to the cross, God’s great act of love. But the cross is foolish to the world. It has always been, and it will always be. It doesn’t seem to do anything to make the world a better place. The world – and, let’s admit it, sometimes you and I – want a better solution. One that makes more sense to us. We want a miracle drug. Not just for COVID-19, or cancer, but for all the world’s ailments. We want a government that solves our problems. We want quick and ready answers to the questions that confront us. We want, at least in our weaker moments, something, anything, other than the Son of God dying on a cross. A shameful death on a cross is foolishness to the world. How does it help to fix our broken world?
Martin Luther wrote in 1518:
It is certain that we must utterly despair of our own ability before we are prepared to receive the grace of Christ.Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation
Eugene Peterson offered a more contemporary version of this same idea, in his first book published in 1980:
A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think that the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquility, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace.Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Once we utterly despair of our own ability, and the ability of our world to save us, then we are ready to acquire an appetite for the world of grace, we are ready to turn to the cross of Christ and see the salvation of our world. Because the world of grace is found only at the cross, the cross that makes foolish the wisdom of the world, the cross that proclaims loudly that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.
The cross alone is our theology, Luther also reminds us. The cross alone shows us the love of God, and shows us God’s plan for our world. The cross is the only sign that we need, the final, ultimate sign of God’s love for our world. And the cross is the beginning of all wisdom, too, the foolish message of the cross, that shows us, in no uncertain terms, that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
And so, today, if you are looking for a sign, I invite you to look to the cross. And if you are seeking wisdom, I invite you to embrace the message of the cross. Because to all who are called, both those who seek signs and those who desire wisdom, Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God. There is no more beautiful sign, and no more perfect wisdom, than the cross of Christ. May we glory in his cross, above all else, now and forever. Amen