Sermon: Foolishness

Williamstown Uniting Church
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
8th of March, 2015

John 2:13-22
1 Corinthians 1:18-25

‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul contrasts human wisdom and divine foolishness. Paul, of course, is not suggesting that there’s no room for our intellect in our faith. After all, Jesus tells us to love God with all our mind, as well as with all our heart, soul and strength. (Mark 12:30) What Paul is writing about is the difference between living a life of human wisdom, a safe, careful and prosperous life; and a life of divine foolishness, a dangerous life ultimately based on a scandalous, degrading and cruel execution.

It’s easy for us to forget just how scandalous, how insane, how bizarre, all our claims about the cross are. We decorate our churches with crosses and we wear them as jewellery, and we seldom remember that the cross is actually an instrument of torture and death. More modern equivalents would be decorating our churches with representations of nooses or guns; or wearing electric chairs around our necks. We proclaim that Jesus’ execution on a cross was not an embarrassing mistake, not even merely a dreadful tragedy, but a great victory of God. We proclaim that the one crucified was not a criminal or a political rebel, but God incarnate. We proclaim that in this scandal we are shown most clearly the nature of God, the love that God has for us all; that crucifixion is not a sign of human weakness but of God’s strength. This is utterly ridiculous.

The ridiculousness of this claim is shown by how many people reject it, while still believing that Jesus was a good bloke with an important message. They have no problem with the idea that we should love our neighbour as ourselves, or feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the sick and those in prison. These are all excellent ideas. But they see only foolishness in the claim that this good bloke Jesus was actually God incarnate, that in Jesus on the cross we see God crucified. That’s just weird. As Paul writes: ‘We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.’ And yet, as Paul also reminds the Corinthians: ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’.

Our foolishness is not limited to our beliefs. We are called to live out those beliefs, to follow Jesus by acting out divine foolishness; the sort of foolishness that Jesus exemplifies in his cleansing of the Temple.

Jesus drives out the merchants - John 2:13-16

The story of the cleansing of the Temple is told in all the gospels, and the version that we heard today comes from John’s Gospel. John’s telling differs markedly from that of the others. It is a much more vivid story: only in John do we have cattle and sheep in the Temple, as well as doves; and only in John does Jesus make a whip of cords and drive the sheep, the cattle and their vendors out of the Temple. This is a much more vigorous and violent tale than the one told by Mark, Matthew and Luke; so it’s no wonder that it’s only in John’s gospel that the disciples are prompted by Jesus’ actions to remember the words of Psalm 69: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’

Jesus’ reason for cleansing the Temple in the Gospel of John also differs from the reason given in the other gospels. In them, Jesus tells the crowd that they are making the Temple, which should be a house of prayer, into a ‘den of robbers’. There seem to be abuses in the Temple that need to be ended. In John, however, Jesus tells the crowd ‘Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace’. Not only does Jesus declare that he has a unique relationship with God, claiming God as his Father, but his problem seems to be not with any abuse of the sacrificial system but with the system itself. People were selling cattle, sheep and doves for sacrifices; they were offering a necessary service to those pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover and hadn’t brought animals with them. The moneychangers were changing Roman money, with human images on it, to money which was acceptable for paying the Temple tithes. There’s no mention of any abuse of the system here; it is the system itself that Jesus protests against.

And in the conversation between Jesus and the surrounding crowd we’re given an insight into why the old order is changing. The Temple was the dwelling place of God; animals were sacrificed there because it was there that the glory of God was revealed to Israel. But when the crowd asks him for a sign, Jesus answers: ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up’ and John tells us, ‘he was speaking of the temple of his body’. The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us, and the glory of God that was revealed in the Temple is now revealed in the very body of Jesus. The presence of God in the Temple is perfected in the revelation of God in Christ Jesus.

There’s no doubt about the incredible foolishness of Jesus’ actions. He disrupts the temple system so that neither sacrifices nor tithes can be offered, and this at Passover. He claims a special relationship with God, referring to him as ‘my Father’. He makes an apparently ludicrous assertion about his ability to rebuild the Temple. In the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke the cleansing of the Temple takes place during Passion Week; in Matthew and Luke Jesus goes to the Temple on the very day that he enters Jerusalem in triumph, in Mark on the day after, and his behaviour there is one reason that the authorities decide that he must die. It may also partly explain the otherwise inexplicable transformation of the crowd; from singing psalms of praise as Jesus enters the city to shouting ‘Crucify him’. No one likes someone who challenges their most treasured religious rituals.

In John’s gospel the cleansing of the Temple occurs at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the final straw for the Pharisees and the chief priests is Jesus’ raising of Lazarus. But even in this gospel, here at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, his cleansing of the Temple is connected to the crucifixion. The disciples, finding a psalmic precedent for Jesus’ actions, make a crucial difference in tense. In psalm 69 the psalmist writes: ‘It is zeal for your house that has consumed me’. As John writes, ‘His disciples remembered that it was written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’.’ They look forward, to the future when Jesus will be consumed. The evangelist points us to the crucifixion, to that ultimate act of divine foolishness and weakness; a foolishness and weakness that to us who are being saved is the power of God.

This is the foolishness and weakness that we’re called to. We are called to proclaim Christ crucified; we are also called to follow him. In a world obsessed with status and success, we’re called to live simply, to risk failure, to topple accepted powers and interrupt accepted ritual. We are not to accept the way things are; we are to challenge and change them. The message of the cross is a scandal to all our sensible values; it turns our ways of seeing the world upside down. The cross shatters all our worldly wisdom, and opens us to the possibility of divine wisdom.

During this Lent, as we prepare for the ultimate foolishness of the cross, may we live lives that are weak and foolish in the eyes of the world, knowing that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Amen.

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