February 2, 2020
The Light: Foolish Wisdom 4th Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:18-31 February 2, 2020 Matthew 5:1-12
Who is your favorite fool? If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, it might be Falstaff. If you watch a lot of re-runs, it could well be Gilligan. Attending a “Riders in the Sky” concert at Cowboy Poetry gatherings introduced me to Sourdough Slim! Your favorite fool might be someone as famous as Red Skelton, or as little-known as the person you live with or the person you see in the mirror!
MY favorite fool is Peregrine Took, a character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Known as “Pippin” or “Pip”, he and Meriadoc Brandybuck are first seen (in the film version) sneaking fireworks out of Gandalf’s cart and setting them off—nearly incinerating themselves in the process! Pip and Merry are Hobbits, and you need to know that Hobbits are famous for the amount of food they eat, and the number of meals they enjoy each day. They accompany Frodo Baggins on his quest to destroy the evil Ring, and Pippin asks their leader, “What about breakfast?” When reminded that they’ve already had breakfast, he asks, “What about second breakfast? Elevensies? Luncheon? Dinner? Afternoon tea? Supper? (It’s important to have some comic relief in this intense story!) Pip’s role as fool becomes even more clear as part of their journey takes them through the vast Mines of Moria, a place loaded with deadly orcs. In this place fraught with danger, Pippin accidentally knocks some stuff down a deep well and makes a horrific noise, which of course attracts the orcs. Gandalf says, “Fool of a Took! Next time, why don’t you throw yourself down the well?!”
We all know that, out of the mouths of babes and fools comes a surprising wisdom. In trying to convince Treebeard the Ent to take them closer to the enemy’s tower, Pip says, “The closer we are to danger, the further we are from harm!” Sounds like nonsense, but somehow Pippin makes it plausible!
In a much-later conversation with Gandalf, a more serious Pippin asks him, “Is there any hope for Frodo?” And Gandalf answers, “There never was much hope—only a fool’s hope.” And yet it was on that hope that they based their courage to take action and face apparently insurmountable odds.
Just as writers put fools into literature, God puts fools into the picture to help convey truths that more serious-minded folks would never get across!
The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “We are fools for Christ.” You know, Paul didn’t get to be a fool overnight. Oh, no, he started out taking himself very seriously. It took a long time for him to learn that the world’s wisdom is truly foolishness, and that things that seem foolish often turn out to be true wisdom.
Our Gospel reading today has The Beatitudes, a series of teachings from Jesus that all begin, “Blessed are…” You have probably heard these for years, and never questioned them. But, if you look closely, many of them seem like absolute nonsense.
Our Epistle reading begins by saying, “our message is foolishness, but it is the saving power of God.”
Let’s explore these texts and see how God uses that which seems foolish to shed light on those who are struggling with darkness!
Worldly Wisdom versus God’s Wisdom
Let’s start with The Choosing of the Twelve Disciples. The world would say, “Choose some savvy, well-educated people of power and influence, then train them up and leave the message with them.” Instead, Jesus chose a motley assortment of largely uneducated, humble followers.
(Judas Iscariot was the only one who met the world’s criteria!)
The world would suggest that God send a big, conquering army. But God sent a tiny, helpless baby.
Job heard God say, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise. Where is the one who is truly wise?”
Don’t you see? There is our way, and then there is God’s way.
Paradoxical Preaching (Matthew)
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit—theirs is the kingdom of heaven!” You know how much I love “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevia (the main character) has so much wisdom to share, despite the fact that he is a humble milkman. He says, “It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor, either!” For the people that Jesus was teaching, there was definitely a belief that poor people deserved to be poor, and those who were rich were simply being rewarded for a righteous life. Jesus was trying to reverse this misunderstanding. Paul sums it up best in his first letter to Timothy: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.” Blessed are the poor—theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven!
Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek—they will inherit the earth.” In modern parlance, the word “meek” usually conveys images of folks who are “mousey” or “doormats.” But Jesus here means “humble people—those who are not always demanding their rights.” Blessed are the meek.
The world says, “Hate your enemies, humiliate those who hurt you, get your revenge.” The Gospel says to love our enemies, do good to them, pray for them; win them over to friendship; blessed are the peacemakers.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted—theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” This one is kind of hard to relate to. The first century church certainly knew what it was to be persecuted for being righteous. You and I get a small taste of it when the world demands of us, “Dance to our tune!” But God says we should march to the beat of a different drummer. If we DO suffer for following Christ, Jesus says to rejoice and be glad—that we will have our great reward.
The Foolishness of the Cross (1 Corinthians)
Paul asks the Corinthians, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” He understood that the world develops its own criteria. And he cites examples: “The Jews demand signs, and the Greeks desire wisdom. But [instead] we proclaim Christ crucified, which is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
This is a lesson that Paul had learned the hard way. In Acts 17, we read about the time when he was in Athens (the center of art and culture and “wisdom” in that day), and he was invited to speak to the elite in the Areopagus. This is like playing Madison Square Gardens and Carnegie Hall! He made a very clever presentation, with eloquence and persuasiveness—but he got very few responses. These folks loved to discuss great ideas, but taking action was quite another thing. And, have you noticed that there is no letter from Paul “to the Athenians”? His cleverness, his eloquence—“the world’s wisdom”—had failed. By the time he wrote this first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul had learned that human wisdom judges incorrectly. God’s “foolishness” is wiser than human wisdom!
So Paul says, “Look at yourselves. Not many of you are wise by human standards. Not many are powerful, or of noble birth. But God chose what is “foolish” in the world to shame the “wise”; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong!”
Friends, listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying: The wisdom of the world (into which you and I have been so thoroughly conditioned) will not make much sense in the life of faith. Jesus says, “If you want to save your life, you will lose it…but if you are ready to give your life, it will be saved.” Don’t be surprised when God’s light shines out from something that seems like foolishness!
I’ll finish with this thought from chapter 3 of First Corinthians: “Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he or she is wise by the standards of this age, they should become a “fool” so that they may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight!”
Prayer: God, you gave us a brain, and we need to develop it and use it. But there are times when we have to abandon conventional wisdom and be responsive to your Spirit. Please, help us Lord, to be sensitive to your leading, to be foolish enough step out in faith to follow you. We pray in the name of Christ, Amen.