I Corinthians 2:1-10
There’s something out there that can be bought, that is something of a bit of a cure for we preachers who tend to be dull and boring week after week. It is something that is called the miracle of sound enhancement, and sound enhancement is, apparently, a miracle that we had better soon buy into, otherwise we risk the dangerous reality that church members will abandon us, and go, instead, to churches, that already have this amazing miracle at work in their weekly worship services. Well, you may ask, what is this wondrous miracle of sound enhancement that will so gloriously transform my dull and boring sermons? I will tell you. Suppose that I am preaching about the time that Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is out there in a boat with his disciples, and they’re doing whatever it is that disciples do when they get into a boat. But Jesus has decided to take the opportunity to catch some Z’s, and so he’s snoozing away in the stern on a cushion. But with the miracle of sound enhancement, in the background, on the P.A. system, you can hear the whispering sounds of a gathering storm. And as I’m preaching away, the sound of the storm is getting louder and louder, and you can hear the wind and the waves slapping against the boat, and then you can hear the indistinct but panicked cries of the disciples (in Aramaic) as they are wailing and bailing away. And finally, they wake Jesus, and he stands up in the boat, and he shouts “Peace! Be still!” And the guy in the sound booth flicks a switch, and there’s silence! Isn’t that cool? Doesn’t it make you tremble all over?
Now why do I mention all of this very exciting stuff? I mention it because the Christian church has become irrelevant in our culture. Declining attendance, church closures, and slashed budgets and programs have become the norm. And so we are trying to do anything that will attract more people, and then keep them sufficiently entertained so that they stick around for a while. In times of panic, bodies and bucks become more important than ministry and mission. And so we are prone to experiment with gimmicks like sound enhancement, which by the way, is a very real thing.
When the Apostle Paul came to Corinth, he also had a few gimmicks available to him, and he was smack dab in the midst of a culture that believed that the followers of Jesus were not just a bit daft, but really,
full-fledged fools. Now of course the gimmicks that were available to the Apostle Paul did not include power point presentations, video clips, sound enhancements and the like, but he might have been tempted to avail himself of some lofty speech and some fancy rhetoric. The pagan crowd of the first century was enamored with a good oration. Public speaking was highly regarded, and speakers were usually evaluated more on their ability to turn a phrase, than on what they actually had to say. Content was important, but sound and delivery made all of the difference to first century listeners.
But Paul chose not to go the route of lofty speech and fancy rhetoric. He chose, instead, to proclaim the simple, but offensive message of Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
Our pew Bibles don’t translate verse two as well as they might have. The verb “decided” doesn’t have enough force to it. When I think of the word decided, I think of a bunch of teenagers who can’t figure out what they want to do. “Well, we couldn’t decide whether to go shopping or go to a movie, so we went to a movie at the mall.” Our pew Bibles really ought to say “resolved”, as in, “for I resolved to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” When we resolve to do something, we’ve weighed the issues, we’ve considered the possibilities, and we’ve determined a course of action.
Paul knew that he was coming into an environment that expected fancy oration and clever turns of phrases, but he resolved to go completely against that wisdom. He determined to present the gospel message by intentionally focusing on it’s most offensive element, that of the crucifixion. That’s radical. That’s as counter cultural as it gets, and it just might work in our own world. It just might be that people will respond to something that is totally different from everything else in their world, rather than to something that is trying really hard to be just like everything else in their world. Copying the culture around us might very well be the biggest mistake that we have ever made. If the culture has failed, and the church looks just like the culture, with what do we have to commend ourselves?
The Apostle’s radical approach seems to have worked in Corinth. Some people responded to the foolishness of a crucified messiah and became followers of Jesus. But why did it work? It worked in part, because the Apostle got himself out of the way, and instead of showing them Paul, he showed them Jesus. And that gave the Holy Spirit the opportunity to do the work. If Paul had gone in there with lofty words and fancy orations, the people there would have become enamored with Paul. Paul might have developed an ego, and Jesus might have taken a back seat. As it was, not everybody in Corinth was able to distinguish the man from his message, and the church ended up being divided into four, separate personality cults. Paul despised the cult that formed around him, because it drew attention to him and not to God. That’s what Paul is driving at in verse five. He doesn’t want anyone’s faith resting in him or in any other human wisdom. He wants faith to rest solidly in the power of God.
Now comes the tough part. We’ve all been behind those trucks that have a sticker on them that reads, “how’s my driving? Call 1-800 such and such.” (I know, we’ve also seen those “other” stickers, too). But the question this morning, though, isn’t how’s my driving, but rather, how’s my preaching? Is it fancy, does it make good use of rhetoric, is it good oration, does it employ judicious use of helpful gimmicks; is it entertaining? Is my preaching worthy of a Wayne Sawyer personality cult, or can we see Jesus in the words that I speak?
There are times when I am sorely tempted to deliver up some gimmicks. There are times when, if I thought it would work, I think that I should try to be more entertaining. And the idea of a Wayne Sawyer personality cult intrigues me. It appeals to the tattered remnants of my ego. But deep within my heart, I know that I have one calling and one calling only, and that is to know Jesus, and him crucified. Is my heart getting through? And if my heart is getting through, is Jesus getting through?
If Jesus is getting through, then the power of God is here. If the Power of God is here, then amazing things can happen. We’ve been studying the parable of the mustard seed in the Early Bird Bible Study, and in that parable we have discovered that there is no limit to what God can do. And that’s exactly what Paul is driving at here. The power of God is limitless because it surpasses all forms of human wisdom.
One closing bit. In verse three Paul says, “And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” Could that be a veiled reference to that mysterious thorn in the flesh that Paul speaks of elsewhere? Or could it be that Paul is admitting that he was afraid to speak and preach to the folks at Corinth, and that the idea of it gave him the willies? Was he nervous that people would reject his message, and so therefore he was filled with much fear and trembling?
I don’t think it was any of that stuff at all. I am convinced that Paul went to Corinth cradled in the awesome power and presence of God Almighty. Fear and trembling is almost always used in the Scriptures to describe the state of someone who has suddenly found themselves to be much too close to God for comfort. To find oneself in the terrifying presence of God is no small thing. It can be horrendously unpleasant. When Isaiah, the prophet, first found himself in this desperate condition, he blurted out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”
That is exactly what Paul was feeling. That is the source of his weakness and of his fear and trembling.
When we are in the presence of God, we have no choice but to reduce ourselves down to the truthful, raw basics of who we really are. We get an awesome sense of how weak and puny and insignificant, and how utterly human we are. In God’s presence, we understand completely how little there is left of us. All pretensions about ourselves instantly vanish. Vanity and ego and pride, and self sufficiency will run out of us like maggots from a broken trash bag.
But something else, quite wonderful, happens when we find ourselves in the awesome presence of God: when we’ve been emptied of all of our pretenses, when there’s nothing left of us but an open heart, then God can begin to work the transformation of our lives. We discover that mission and ministry isn’t in our hands at all! It is in God’s hands, and God is the one who is doing the empowering, not us. That’s what Paul is talking about when he says, “My speech and proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.
That’s also where our faith needs to rest.