1 Cor 1:18-25
“It’s the cross!” That cry used to go out from the Surburg vehicle when the kids were younger and we reached Effingham on trips to Danville to visit Amy’s mom. It’s not hard to understand why this cross caught their attention. Standing
198 feet tall and 113 feet wide, the cross in Effingham is the tallest cross in the United States. Forged out of more than 180 tons of steel, it was intentionally built to be larger than the giant cross that already existed in Groom, Texas. Apparently that cross is 196 feet tall. So why did they build the Effingham cross at 198 feet? Why not go even bigger? It is because FAA regulations state that at two hundred feet a standing object must have a flashing light on top of it, and the cross builders did not want that.
A giant cross built in a location where it can be seen by as many people as possible - reportedly twenty million people drive by every year. You could not have suggested something more bizarre to a person living in the first century Mediterranean world. It’s not just that the idea would be bizarre. It would have been crass and offensive – something that violated basic standards of decency.
A number of peoples in the ancient world used crucifixion as a means of execution. It was found among the Persians, the Indians, the Assyrians, the Scythians and the Carthaginians. It has been suggested that the Romans may have picked up the practice from that last group, against whom they fought a series of wars in the third and second century B.C.
To say that the Romans embraced the practice is an understatement. They used it against slaves, non-Romans in the provinces and traitors. In general, Roman crucifixion began with a flogging using a whip studded with pieces of lead or bone. This shredded skin and muscle, and caused profuse bleeding. The victim was then forced to carry the cross beam to the place of execution. There the outstretched arms were nailed to the beam, and the beam was hoisted up onto a vertical post that was already in place. The feet were then also nailed to the post.
While this gives us a general description, we need to be aware that the practice varied greatly. As the scholar Martin Hengel has described, “crucifixion was a punishment in which the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full reign.” Some crucified victims upside down. Some impaled the private parts of those being crucified. At the siege of Jerusalem the Roman soldiers entertained themselves by nailing Jewish prisoners in different postures to the crosses.
Crucifixion was a slow, painful and humiliating death. The people who were crucified – who were subjected to this – were viewed as the lowest; as worthless; as the scum of humanity. Crucifixion was such a horrible thing, that polite people simply didn’t speak about it. It was considered uncouth – improper among good company. And of course, those who died by crucifixion were not worthy of a second thought. Often their bodies were left on the cross until they were eaten by birds – a warning to any who might oppose the Romans.
In the verse just before our text, Paul has told the Corinthians that Christ sent him to preach the Gospel, “and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Rhetoric – the way that you developed, ordered and delivered speech – was the central feature of the ancient education system. People and their message were judged on the basis of rhetorical skill. St. Paul was theologically profound, but when it came to the rhetoric of that message his background didn’t give him the skills to impress people in the Greco-Roman world. And Paul said that was just fine, because that meant that the cross of Christ would not be emptied of its power. The Gospel wasn’t about impressive use of language. It was about the cross of Jesus Christ.
Paul said that he did not want the “cross of Christ to be emptied of its power.” And he goes on to say in our text, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” In two verses in a row, Paul uses the word “power” when speaking about the cross. Now, to most people in Paul’s world, the idea of describing the cross using the word “power” was absurd. The cross was instead everything that was the opposite of power.
The apostle acknowledges this fact when he says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.” To those who didn’t believe in Jesus Christ the word of the cross was folly. It was stupid. It was a joke.
Yet Paul said that people who took such a view were perishing. And then he went on to say, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The cross looked like weakness and foolishness. But the reality was very different, because God was at work in the cross. The apostle went on to quote words from the prophet Isaiah, “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” Rather than being foolishness, the cross was God making foolish the wisdom of this world.
Paul says, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”
We want to be on God’s level. That’s what the Fall was about – trying to be like God. The world thinks that God can be allowed to be God if he makes sense to the world – if the world can “put him in a box” and be in charge of God. And we still act that way too. We think that God should justify his decisions to us - the things that occur in our life and the lives of others. But God is God, and we are not. Not only are we creatures acting like we should be able to understand the Creator – we are in fact fallen, sinful creatures.
So instead, God turned everything upside down by working salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. The apostle says that “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Paul states in our text that the folly preached is Christ crucified.
The apostle says, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” A crucified Messiah was a stumbling block to Jews. A crucified Savior – a man who died the ignominious death of the cross – was folly to Greeks.
It did look like folly. Jesus was nailed to the cross, and like everyone else whom the Romans put there, he died. He died, mocked and humiliated. And he was buried. But then on the third day, God did something that had never happened before. He raised Jesus from the dead with the resurrection life of the Last Day. As Paul wrote later in this letter, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
In the resurrection of Jesus we learn that the cross was not folly. Instead the Son of God was sent to die on the cross – the sinless One who was sent to become sin for us; the One who received God’s judgment against sin in our place. That’s what was happening on Good Friday. And so as Paul says in our text, for those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Or as the apostle says in the next chapter we are those who are in Christ Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
Yet, when Paul speaks about the cross in our text in this way, he is not only talking about how God acted to save us – about what it looked like. He is also describing how God works in his Church and in our lives. Immediately after our text the apostle goes on to say, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were 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; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” The Corinthian Christians themselves were examples of how God worked in the way of the cross – of how he worked in ways that were the exact opposite of what they appeared to the world.
This is true of the ways that Jesus Christ now gives the benefits of his cross. You come to church and hear the words of Scripture read. You hear a pastor proclaim that Word of God to you. You see bread and wine on the altar. There is nothing impressive about these things. God declares that through this Word he gives the forgiveness won by Jesus Christ. He says that in the Sacrament you receive the true body and blood of Jesus Christ for forgiveness and strengthening in faith. To the world this is foolishness. It is stupid. It is something they can blow off and ignore altogether.
Or think about your own life. God says he loves you, and yet you get cancer or diabetes. You experience anxiety and depression. You experience difficulties and hardships in family life and at work. To the world … and even sometimes to us … God’s claim of love sounds like foolishness.
But in the cross of Jesus Christ God has shown us that this is how he works. As Paul says in our text, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It looks like folly. But in the resurrection of Jesus Christ we learn that the cross was in fact the power and the wisdom of God for us and our salvation. And it is in the resurrection of Jesus that we find Christ is the power and wisdom of God for us in the midst all that the world considers to be folly.
The Scriptures and preaching are not mere words. They are the life giving work of the Spirit that brings forgiveness, strength and salvation. The Sacrament of the Altar is no mere bread and wine. It is the miracle of Jesus Christ, the risen and exalted Lord, giving us his true body and blood. It is Jesus present here and now giving us salvation for our whole person – body and soul.
And because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we know that the hardships of life are not the absence of God. Yes, they are life in cross form. But because we have seen in the resurrection of Jesus that the cross was the power of God for our salvation we can believe and trust that God is with us in the midst of these too. We can believe and trust that our God will give us strength and sustain us in faith. We can even believe and trust that God is at work in these circumstances for his own purposes. They are not meaningless, but instead times that God uses for our good as he crucifies the old Adam in us; as he turns us away from ourselves and towards him.
A crucified man as God and Savior? It’s foolishness according to the world. But in the resurrection of Jesus Christ we have learned that appearances could not be more deceiving. Instead, as Paul says in our text this morning, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
It’s not what the world wants. It’s not what the old Adam in us wants. But the Spirit who raised Jesus Christ from the dead has worked faith so that we can see God’s saving wisdom for us. As the apostle says, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”