January 29th 2017: Bryan Niebank provided the Sunday sermon. Bryan is a student at Siena College in Loundonville and has been worshiping with us for some time. At the end of the current semester, Bryan will be leaving us to attend seminary and continue his spiritual journey.
What is Wisdom?
Written by Bryan Niebanck
Three weeks ago, I preached on Epiphany Sunday and told the story of the wise men visiting Jesus in Bethlehem. Today, the apostle Paul writes about destroying “the wisdom of the wise” (1 Cor 1:19). No, Paul is not condemning the wise men. He is merely condemning those who get wrapped up in their own wisdom and think they know everything, so they have no need to seek. They have closed their minds to anything other than knowledge, that which is not certain.
Let us revisit those who considered themselves wise, including the scribes, at the time of Jesus’ birth, since Paul asks us, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” (1 Cor 1:20). The wise men came to Jerusalem and to King Herod asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Matthew 2:2). In response to the question the wise men posed, Herod called the chief priests and religious scholars, who knew right away that, according to the prophet Micah, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. The prophet wrote, “ But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). Herod then called the wise men, old them this news, and sent them out on a quest to find the Christ child and bring back word so that he could end the threat to his rule as he ended all threats.
Where are the scribes? They are in Jerusalem, ready at a moment’s notice to proclaim to King Herod what the prophets said about he coming Messiah. They were well educated on the words of the prophets, and it is because of their wisdom that King Herod called to them for information. They were the wise. They were the debaters of the age. But they were distracted by their knowledge, missing the point of the scriptures that they were studying. They missed the point that God had been born into flesh to be with God’s people, us, in all times of suffering and joy, to bring a light to a fading hope, and to exist as the Savior of humanity through all eternity, as embodied in the Resurrection.
According to Paul, “God made foolish the wisdom of the world [because] the world did not know God through wisdom” (1 Cor 1:20-1). The chief priests and scribes did not seek God, and therefore did not know God, who is made flesh through Jesus, because they did not see the short journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as worthwhile. How could they know everything, enough to pass it along to those who cared, but not care enough to follow up on it and see the new king? The wise were made to look like fools.
On the other side of the spectrum, the wise men did not know anything other than that they were following a star which would lead them to the Christ child, in whom they had faith. They were
journeying to Jerusalem, where they thought the child would be born. Isaiah 60, which guided the kings, was directed to Jerusalem as a sign of hope after the Israelites were returning from
reads, in part, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darknessthe peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:1-3, 6b). They were not aware about Bethlehem until the prophets told them about what Micah had said. They may have looked like fools, traveling months based solely on a prophecy, but they wererewarded, ironically with the help of Herod and the scribes. They believed that the journey would be worthwhile, and that the destination really was worth the trouble to get to and from the place where the child lay. When something as great as God lies at the end of our journey, we do not care if we look like fools to others. We know, in our hearts, that the others are the fools. From my perspective, the wise
men were probably given the trait of wisdom after the story had unfolded, when Christians saw the importance of their journey and the strength of their faith. They were wise because of their actions. The wise men were wise in their faith, because their knowledge did not matter. We hear Jesus tell Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Perhaps we can also say, blessed are those who are not certain, but believe anyway.
Faith is “believing in something when common sense tells you not to,” as the movie Miracle on 34 th Sreet defines it. It is believing in the Packers when common sense tells you that the Cowboys have everything they need to win the game at home. It is believing in the Chicago Cubs for over a century until “next year” finally came, when people simply said that they could not win because they are the Cubs. Is it foolish to believe in the underdog? Faith is believing in God when everything else that goes on in the world tells us not to. Sometimes the common sense can distract us, causing us to inadvertently stop seeking God, and we lose the connection that we value so much. We know we want to believe, but the challenges of life make it difficult. We tell ourselves that it is foolish to believe in an all-powerful good because common sense tells us not to. But the hopes of Chicago Cubs fans was finally realized after all the years of suffering through errors, fan interference, and bad calls that ended a good year without a World Series title. The stretched hopes of Israelites in the dark times of King Herod’s rule, when it did not seem like anything could get any worse in a world of poverty and a fight for survival while the powerhungry kings did what they wanted without compassion, was finally realized when Jesus was born, promising that God had been born into flesh to endure the suffering with us and for us, for all eternity. The foolish hope of a few loyal groups of people turned out not to be foolish at all, and it made the awaited victory that much more joyful. Corinthians calls each of us to consider our own call. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that we should build our house on a rock. He says, “Everyone hen who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the loods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:24-27). Fools are ones who hear the words and do not act, like the scribes who knew the scripture but did not seek Jesus. Wise are those who hear the prophecy and are moved enough to seek God with an absence of proof. The wise men may not have known as much as the scribes, but the wise men were the wisest in spirit.
In considering our own call, therefore, we must seek to center our lives on the things that do not change to be wise in our faith. In addressing the Corinthians, Paul says, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many of you were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor 1:26). Although it is okay to be wise by human standards, Paul makes clear that it is certainly not required to be wise in this way in order to be a good Christian, and that it actually could make things a bit easier. Those who are wise in human fashion are easily able to get wrapped up in their own knowledge, think of themselves as self-sufficient, and forget about the need to thank and pursue God, allowing the opportunity to travel the six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to slip away. They boast in their own knowledge, as Paul notes. Anything that distracts one from finding security in God alone, whether that be money, knowledge, or status, is undesirable. Riches that are found in the temporal world are nothing compared to the riches that are found in the eternal world. It is our responsibility as Christians to place our focus on the latter, not boasting in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:29) but realizing that “ [God] is the source of [our] life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, …in order that, as it is written (in Jer 9:24), ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor 1:30-31). Let the one who boasts boast in the goodness and power of God who has made all things possible.
People ask, “How could you persist in a constant hope for the future, that everything can be made right in the middle of all this wrong? How could you feel this impenetrable joy most of your
life,seemingly unable to suffer? How can you believe in a faith that can move mountains? How can you think that you could walk over the edge of a boat onto water and not sink if you believe?” Jesus
said to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt? (Matthew 14:31)” Christians who believe in something they cannot see or a task that should be impossible look like fools who are not strong
enough to not see and yet still believe. How can we persist? We suffer. We fail. But we find joy in the suffering and failing because we know that God is with us through all of it. Christ, who was
born as God into flesh at Christmas, is forever with us. That will never change, and the least we can do to give bac is to try to believe. It can be hard, but as the inspirational song “What
Faith Can Do” tells us, “You think it's more than you can take But you are stronger, stronger than you know Don't you give up now The sun will soon be shining You gotta face the clouds To find the
silver lining.” Frederick Buechner affirms that “there are two kinds of fools in the world: damned fools and what
St. Paul calls ‘fools for Christ’s sake’ (1 Cor 4:10)” (Wishful Thinking, 28). We can be the fools who build our houses – our beliefs, our morals, and our passion – on transient and malleable sand. We can be the fools whose primary goal is to make as much money as we can. We can be the fools who boast in the power of our own strength, fully unaware that God’s is so much more worthy of boasting, that with God we can be stronger than we know. We could be the fools who stay in Albany when there is a baby king being born in Waterford.
I admit that I felt like a fool when I was trying to convince my roommate, an accounting major, that hope and love open more doors than a large salary,that thirst for God should be quenched before thirst for money. He was completely unconvinced, and I could not think of a way to better explain it. Today, I could cite our Corinthians reading: “God chose what is foolish to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27). The wise – by human standards – think they know how to live a successful life, but their problem is that God is not at the center. The wise – by divine standards – are the ones who act by faith, not by sight. They are the ones who will start on a long journey to God, and never give up.
The purpose of the letter of Corinthians is to solve problems that exist in the community. Divisions had been forming between those who affirm Paul’s authority and those who fight for control of the church, for example. People had created new ways of communicating to God, which came to be viewed as the highest form of spiritual connection and an excuse to elevate the status of those who practiced in this way. The Corinthians were acting by sight, aiming toward lofty material goals. Paul’s attempt was to focus them toward a wiser journey with God, a singular faith which they had all been baptized into by Jesus Christ. He called them fools because they boasted of themselves, not of the Lord. The wise were the hopeful. The wise did not care for themselves. You are not called to believe anything you hear without proof, for that would be foolish. You are entirely in your right, and even encouraged, to ask questions about your faith and critically analyze it, learning and adapting as you proceed on your faith journey. The core of the Christian faith, however, will focus on God being with us and enabling us if only we continue to hope in God’s goodness.
If we take some time to be with God and listen to God, we might feel a gradual call to a vocation or hobby, or simply to act as a “fool for Christ’s sake.” We know we will meet challenges along the way, but we also know that God remains with us, and that once we start, we can boast that we have God to take care of the rest for us, if we allow God to, because it gives us an opportunity to sit back, relax, and enjoy the beautiful gift of life that has been given to us. We may not be wise by human standards, but by God’s standards, we can be. Whether we are kingson a journey, servants on a mission, or admirers of God’s foolishness, we proudly boast of the Lord, for “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor 1:25). Wisdom is the hope of faith, complete with the knowledge that God will take care of the rest. Let us build our efforts toward our foolish message of the cross, because God has made the fools into the wise. Where is the one who is wise? We are all right here, amazed at “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18)