Monday, July 15, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Excellence

Preached on Sunday, July 14, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 55:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5

Photos from Vacation, June 2013
Driving from Klamath Falls OR to Live Oak CA
Every now and then some people are able to kick back and say, “Ah, this is the life!” When people of faith do this, they can say two things about it: “life is good” and “God is good!” It’s about the good life.

Paul was interested in the good life (how to live well and how to think well). He paid close attention to this, and his letters to the churches show us how true this was. He wanted to see this good life at work in the people of Jesus.

For example, in his letter to the Philippians Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned, or received, or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

This is the good life. Certainly it’s the life of peace. Surely it’s the life of excellence. If anything is excellent think it, say it, and do it.

Paul had an ongoing problem when he tried to lead people to this good life because (based on his experience and based on everything he knew about Jesus) he had such a strong idea about where this good life came from. Paul believed that the good life came from a cross. But he shared this message with a world that saw nothing excellent about the cross.

The message of this cross was the message of Jesus, and Jesus was such a wonderful guy. But it was God who came in Jesus and died a terrible, tortured, and bloody death on a cross outside Jerusalem.

The purpose of this death was to set a whole world of people free. It was to save humanity from a life that surely can’t keep on going the way it has. (How many times do we look at this world and say that things can’t keep on going this way?) The purpose of the cross was to save humanity from a way of life that ought to be completely unsustainable to a life that is so good that it will never end.

The kingdom of God is the kingdom of this new way of life; this future that God promises to those who believe. The problem has always been that the key ingredient of this kingdom was (and still is) the terrible death of the king of this kingdom on a cross.

As Paul found, the problem was that the heart of this message was ugly, painful, and about human evil. We have never seen a real death on a cross, no matter how well it may be portrayed in the movies. Nevertheless, we still know that the cross was ugly, and painful, and (somehow) about human evil: our own evil.

The serpent in our own heart is slithering all around that cross. Who wants to think about this? Is any normal person really attracted to this?

Paul knew this was a problem. He ran across the conflict over and over again. Over and over again, when the subject of the cross came up, it was never surprising to find that the cross provoked a riot or the imprisonment of Paul and his friends.

Paul wrote this: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) “We preach Christ crucified…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24)

The cross is the power of God. It is how God gets his best and most important work done.

The cross is the wisdom of God. It is how God thinks. It is what God loves and values.

The cross is the power and wisdom of God who is passionately devoted to loving us and creating a kingdom that will contain and nurture our new life, our good life; the best of all lives. The power and wisdom of God have designed a life for us where we are assured of living well and thinking well forever. It is a kingdom that will give us the excellence we were created for.

But, because the power and wisdom of God are cross-shaped, the hitch is that our living well and thinking well will have to be cross-shaped as well. It means that our life as a family and our life in the church will have to be cross-shaped.

If it isn’t, then whatever we choose to do and however we choose to think will not get us very far. Without the weakness and foolishness of the cross we will not give a very strong or wise showing in the end.

God’s cross-shaped thinking required a real cross for God to save us: to give us a sacrifice that was so extreme that there is no other way to receive it except by dying to ourselves. In order to have faith in the cross, and to really trust what God, in Christ, has done on the cross, we have to realize that our own need is just as extreme as the cross.

The cross tells us that God’s wisdom has taken a good look at our lives. God’s wisdom has taken a good look at the way our hearts and minds work, and God has seen that we are dying because of our distance and isolation from him. His thoughts are not our thoughts and our ways are not his ways. (Isaiah 55:8)

There is no life outside of him. The wisdom of God tells him that the only way for him to reach us, and the only solution for what is keeping us away from him, is for God (in all his power and wisdom) to die in our place.

Whatever is wise, or smart, or clever, or strong, or talented, or excellent in us is not enough to compete with the love of a cross-shaped God. “For since (in the wisdom of God) the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased, through the foolishness of what was preached, to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21)

In Jesus, God came as a servant. Jesus said, “But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27) This is what it means to know this God: to know the Jesus of the cross.

The church of Jesus in the Greek city of Corinth was a great church that was forgetting how to live as the children of a cross-shaped God. The church is the body of Christ and Christ is the head of the church; but the body of Christ in Corinth was acting like my body does. My body doesn’t always do what its head tells it to do.

The church in Corinth forgot who they were when the message of the cross first took hold of them. “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27) There is something gallant about this; something excellent.

In Christ, the cross-shaped God hung on a real cross as if he were really weak and foolish, and this is how he served us and saved us. This same God called the Corinthian Christians and us to identify with his strange excellence.

We are called to be weak and foolish for the sake of the kingdom of God; or at least to be willing to feel that way. It is what we feel when we are facing our greatest challenges. It is what we feel when are seeking to live out our most important purposes in life.

I bet the best parents often feel weak and foolish in the face of their children. It must happen whether they are getting up in the middle of the night with their babies, or calming a child in the middle of a tantrum, or motivating their teenagers, or praying for their adult children. Surely such parents (in the middle of feeling weak and foolish) pray to say and do the strongest and wisest things.

Weakness and foolishness apply to friendship because (whether you are a child or an adult) friendship can call you to be more than a friend. It can call you to be a servant. How can you help your friend?

A community can make you feel weak and foolish. How do you get people to work together? How do you get people to drop their emotional responses for the sake of what needs to be done? To maintain a community requires people to serve even when (and especially when) their calling makes them feel weak and foolish.

The family of the church requires its members and its servants to feel weak and foolish with each other in order to go on acting like real Christians together. The calling of the church makes us feel weak and foolish when we think about how to share and live the message of the cross for the sake of those outside the church.

Family, friendship, community, church and so many other relationships: these are just a few of our special callings. The truth is that all of these callings are part of the good life. In every calling, the cross-shaped life is essential for excellence. The cross-shaped life is how we go the distance when we are tempted to take the easy way instead of the purpose of God.

Paul wrote about going to Corinth “in weakness, and fear, and with much trembling.” (1 Corinthians 2:3) This is because he knew that whatever he said or did among the people there (whether they believed or not) was (in the light of eternity) a matter of life and death. It was a matter of showing the way to life. Paul was no coward, but he took his serving seriously.

Our message is “Christ crucified”. It is about a cross-shaped God. The cross can represent so many of the challenges we don’t want to deal with and, yet, the cross is about love.

It is the love that is extreme enough to make a difference and nurture life. The cross is a message about gratitude and thanks for what love is willing to do. If we are weak and foolish, then we have a God who knows us just as well as he knows himself.

We have a God who will take responsibility for us. We have a God of patience. We have a God whose power and wisdom are perfectly matched to our every need. We have a God of grace revealed on the cross.

The cross is the power and wisdom of God. It is the way that God’s best work gets done in us and through us. This is the key ingredient for the good life. The cross is the real meaning and measure of excellence from God’s point of view.

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