The Foolishness of God (Printable Version)
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC March 4, 2012, Lent 2.
Texts: Genesis 17:1-7,15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
Our God is a fool. Let me show you what I mean.
If God were smart, then God would make promises that were easy to keep, promises that are in line with the ways things work in the world. But God foolishly makes promises that are ridiculous, like the promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child together when he’s “as good as dead” and she’s clearly unable to have children.
If God were smart, then God would choose to use only those people who have achieved high levels of holiness or strength or power—and who are at the top of their game—the “A Team.”
But God foolishly has a compulsion to choose the less than perfect, the young, the stutterers, the insecure, the sinners, the proud, the elderly, the simple, the infirm as leaders and teachers and prophets and life-bearers.
If God were smart, then God would have understood that people would be much more open to the divine plan if it unfolded through rational, sensible, expected means. But God foolishly incorporates weakness and humility and suffering and a cross into the way of salvation and new life.
Let’s be real. Making something out of nothing and somebodies out of nobodies? Claiming weakness as a strength and imperfections as possibilities? New life through suffering and salvation only through a cross? Nobody’s buying it; nobody’s believing it; nobody is gonna jump on this crazy train…
Nobody is right. “Nobodies” throughout the ages have believed; nobodies like Noah and Sarah and Abraham and Moses and Paul; nobodies like fishermen and lepers and disgraced women; these are the ones who have flocked to the promise like the thirsty to running water. These are the ones who know their own weakness, their own brokenness, who are humble enough to recognize their vulnerability and their need. The nobodies of the world aren’t too proud to claim their faith in the foolish, extravagant, irrational promises and ways of God.
You see, the “Somebodies” of the world believe they are independent, and their strength and competitiveness leads them to be winners according to the world’s standards. They have little need for God, except as a rationalization of their personal power and accomplishments or as a socially acceptable badge to wear when it serves their purposes. This is life according to the law, according to the rules and legalistic, competitive ways of the world. This way of life leaves little room for grace, for true forgiveness, for God. This way of life is based on might-makes-right ethics and “may the best one win”—the best meaning strongest, fastest, (and often) least concerned with where others may end up.
In Romans 4 verse 13 we are told that “the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” In other words, the fulfillment of God’s promise does not depend on Abraham’s might or whether he’s the best; it depends completely on Abraham’s faith that God will do what God has promised. If the promise had depended upon Abram’s power in the world, then the promise would be in trouble. He had left his home because of a perceived promise of God and wandered in the wilderness, living as a resident alien in foreign lands, unable to produce a legitimate heir, and therefore not so much in the way of a world power. This had been going on for at least 25 years when God has the crazy audacity to remind Abram of the divine promise that we hear in today’s reading from Genesis. Abram was not strong according to the rules of the world, Sarai was considered cursed because she had not borne a child, and both of their bodies, as Paul so aptly states, “were as good as dead.” In other words, Abram was a “nobody” in the world.
Eugene Peterson in his Contemporary Language translation of this passage puts it this way: “We call Abraham ‘father’ not because he got God’s attention by living like a saint, but because God made something out of Abraham when he was a nobody. . . Abraham was first named ‘father’ and then became a father because he dared to trust God to do what only God could do: raise the dead to life, with a word make something out of nothing. When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway, deciding to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do but on what God said he would do.”
This is really what it is all about for you and for me: to decide to live not on the basis of what we see we can’t do but on what God says we will do. It’s to believe God’s promise even when everything is hopeless. To make such a choice seems ridiculous to many in the world; to decide to trust God’s irrational promises is to make ourselves look like fools. It’s called having faith. And in order to walk by faith we, like Abram and Sarai, must acknowledge that God is ultimately in control, not us. We have to humble ourselves, to become “nobodies” who know how completely dependent we are upon God. And we have to believe God’s promise to make us “somebodies” and then live according to that promise.
This is what Jesus is teaching his disciples in today’s Gospel story when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (8.34-5) To deny ourselves does not mean abstaining from things we consider luxuries or pleasures. It means something much deeper. The denial of self—to ‘lose our life for the sake of the gospel’ is to recognize that the holy trinity is not “me, myself, and I.” That is to say, we are not the center of the universe. Our lives have meaning only insofar as we give ourselves to the larger work of God’s saving love in the world. To “lose our life for the sake of the gospel” means making ourselves “nobodies” according to the world so that God can make us “somebodies” in the work of bringing God’s Kingdom to earth. So that our religious activity becomes something that we do–not exclusively for the salvation of our own souls, though that is assuredly a part of the promise, but rather our faithful lives are offered freely to God, so that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will may be done through us.
Jesus freely offered his life for the salvation of the world. Jesus chose to do the work of the Kingdom which meant taking up a cross. And so if we would follow Jesus, it means to do the same—to choose to do God’s Kingdom work no matter what burden it may place on our lives. It means putting ourselves without reservation at the service of Christ, of putting ourselves in the struggle against evil, whatever the cost. It means having faith in what doesn’t make sense—in what God has said we will do (not what we know we can’t do). To the world this way of life is foolishness and weakness. To God this is the way to the only Life that matters.