By Paul Koch –
I have had the privilege throughout my life to stand inside some beautiful and historic churches. I’ve been in the Castle Church in Wittenberg where Luther is buried and I’ve stood in the great Cathedral in Strasburg, France. I’ve been inside the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. But to be honest, they all paled in comparison to entering into the great Hagia Sophia in modern Istanbul, Turkey. I don’t think my wife and I will ever forget wandering the massive halls of that structure. Adding to its impressive size and beauty is the fact that it was completed in 537 AD. It was rumored that when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I entered it for the first time he muttered, “Solomon, I have surpassed you.” In other words, this building was more glorious than Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. A structure like that helps us to lift our eyes heavenward, to behold the majesty of a God that would invite us into His presence. It was nothing short of glorious.
Now in our day, of course, to build such a structure would be virtually impossible. The amount of money and time it would take to complete something like that is beyond the means of today’s church. But that does not mean the church of today has given up trying to do what it can to display the glory and majesty of our God. If it is too expensive to build a structure of brick and mortar, why then, we turn to other means. Perhaps the most accessible is to create an experience in worship that will mimic the same sense of awe that you feel standing in a grand cathedral. And so, I am told, today you can go to a worship service that is almost identical to a rock concert. The only difference is the words in the song, perhaps an invocation, and a few prayers. For if AC/DC taught us anything, it’s that rock and roll ain’t noise pollution. In fact, it can inspire and motivate; perhaps it can even help us to experience the glory of God.
But when we strip away the bands and lights shows, when we get outside of the cathedrals and the awe-inspiring architecture, when we do away with the vestments and incense, when we turn off the screens and the powerful images displayed there, what are we left with? When we strip away all the externals, what is at the core of it all? All we have is a Word: a Word that is foolish to a dying world, a Word that is rejected and despised, a Word that is brutally captured and twisted and perverted. But it is this Word alone that has the ability to save. It is this Word of the cross that is the power of God. Not the music, not the images, not the architecture: just the Word.
As St. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he makes some pretty daring and shocking claims. He 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.” Salvation comes through preaching! How insane is that? Talk about stripping away all the pomp and circumstance! Paul says that God does His saving work through the task of one who preaches. Through a sinful man who is sent to speak a Word, this is how He’s going to do His great work. I remember being at the seminary, taking courses on homiletics which is the art and craft of preaching. But I remember being scared out of my mind. How could it be that God would work through me? If anything is foolish, surely this is foolish.
Paul, of course, knows that the world will reject this. The world will demand more than a preacher and more than a Word. The world will expect the grand gesture, the big production, the art and architecture to lift up the message, to make it enticing and beautiful to the eye. But Paul doesn’t pull back from his assertion and he doesn’t change direction. No, he goes straight forward and declares, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” The heart of the Christian faith is not an inspiring testimony but a stumbling block. It isn’t a mountaintop experience of ecstatic joy, but it is foolishness – at least to those on the outside looking in.
The coming of God in human flesh, the arrival of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is the turning over of everything we thought was good and true and beautiful. It strips us of our pride and our so-called wisdom. The coming of Christ reveals that we are the ones who are foolish. We are the ones who are weak. Again, we hear the proclamation of Paul as he declares, “To those who are being 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.” What we consider weak and what we see as unimpressive and frail is far stronger than all the great deeds of man. What we see as foolish, as an unreasonable and easily dismissed gift, is in fact a deeper and more profound wisdom than the world of men has ever uncovered.
But it is our nature to cover up the foolishness of our God. Some of those great churches I’ve been in are clear attempts to do just that. You take a cave in Bethlehem, where it is said that Mary gave birth to our Lord, and you build a massive church over the top of it. You fill that church with icons and lamps and gold. When you enter in, the smell of incense is overpowering and the hushed tones of those who gather in that place add to the reverence of it all. Then you walk down this narrow and steep stone staircase, and below the floor you find the original ground. You will see the hard rock worn smooth by millions of pilgrims. But when you’re down there, beneath the floor of the Church of the Nativity, you discover the immovable stumbling block. For the place where God was born is just that, a place. It is a rock floor where, many years ago, a baby cried and a mother nursed him and kept him warm. No matter how high you build the church above, it still looks foolish and weak.
God comes as a baby. He comes humble and lowly. He comes as a servant to do the will of the Father: to live the perfect life, to suffer for sins not His own and to die for each and every one of you. The foolishness of God is that He didn’t just wipe us all out and start over. The foolishness of God is that He loved you enough to redeem you, to make you righteous, to deliver you from sin, death and the power of the Devil. We might say that His foolishness is not only in how He did His great work of salvation, but for whom He came to save. While it may appear foolish to the world that God would enter into human history to bear the sins of His creatures, isn’t it equally as foolish that He would do such a thing for you? I mean, what did you do to make yourself worthy of such an action? What have you accomplished that would cause any of this to make sense?
Yet this is His work. This is the desire of God to not abandon you to the grave, nor to give you up to eternal condemnation. No, He has taken ahold of you in the death of his only begotten Son. In fact, He has united you to himself in the waters of Holy Baptism so that you might live for all eternity. When we strip away all the exterior things, all the trappings of our worship and life together, what we are left with is this Word of hope and life. A Word that proclaims salvation in Christ alone! We cannot make it better than this. We cannot dress it up. We cannot make it more powerful or wiser or stronger.
What, then, do we do in the face of a world that demands signs and wisdom and entertainment? What do we do when all that is left is the foolishness of God: a Word to be proclaimed about a cross and an empty tomb? Oh, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll boast. We’ll boast in the cross. We’ll boast in the great gifts of our God. We’ll boast that we did not save ourselves, and that we could not do it ourselves. We’ll boast in Christ alone, the author and perfector of our faith.
When you strip it all away, you are left with a Word of God for you and for your neighbor. When you strip it all away, why then, you find the joy to boldly go and boast in the Lord.