It’s Sabbath morning, 11:30 am. The pastor approaches the pulpit to speak. He buttons his suit jacket, lays his Bible open, has a solemn prayer, then preaches passionately and winsomely on the evils of rollerskating and the virtues of walking on two un-wheeled feet. He closes with a powerful charge: “Brothers and sisters, say no to skates! Turn away from the foolishness of wheeled shoes and go forth in the glory of upright walking!”
I hope you’d be puzzled by this. Um… what?
I hope you’d even feel indignant. This guy just wasted thirty minutes of my time preaching about foolishness. I hope you’d notice that he left out the message of the gospel.
But the gospel message, the message of the cross, isn’t just about what is said, but also how it’s said.
Paul says: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Cor 2:1-5)
Paul says: I didn’t allure you with my glossy handbills. I didn’t impress you with my physique or designer suit. I didn’t awe you with my light show. I didn’t wow you with my rhetorical superiority. I didn’t woo you with my trendy terminology. I didn’t manipulate you with emotionalism.
The Corinthians might be yawning at this point. They’re living in times when your status was tied to the status and eloquence of your teacher, and they wanted something a little extra from Paul. The message of the cross was good, but it needed more celebrity, more panache, you know? But Paul just wouldn’t compete with the more eloquent, more flashy, more wealthy secular speakers strutting their stuff around town.
Maybe you and I would take the criticism to heart and work a bit harder on our impression management skills. Paul does not.
When the Corinthians complain that Paul is weak in worldly wisdom and not so good at attracting the applause of the affluent, he nods in agreement and then points out that it is in these places of apparent weakness and foolishness that God performs the strength and wisdom of the gospel.
For example, he says, “Whereas Jews asked for signs and Greeks seek wisdom, we proclaim a crucified Christ: to the Jews an affront; to Gentiles, foolishness; but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, a Christ: God’s power and God’s wisdom.” (1 Cor 1:22-24)
A man publicly humiliated and executed on a cross seems an unlikely place for divine power and wisdom, but there it is on display in Christ and Him crucified.
In fact, Paul can say in 1 Cor 1:17, “For Christ [sent me] to proclaim the gospel, and not in wise-sounding rhetoric, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of His power.”
If he had come with dazzling flourish, then the message of the cross would have been emptied of its power.
How could Paul have preached the message of a brutalized Savior in a way that celebrated human achievement and skill? How could Paul have proclaimed the self-sacrificing love of God in a way that attracted followers to himself, in a way that secured status for himself? How could he preach Christ with an air of celebrity?
And how can we? How could we? How can we fuss over our pocket squares and Sabbath socks as we stand to tell the world of Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels….that He might taste death for everyone? (Heb 2) How can we engage in one-up-manship, trying to out-preach, out-baptize, out-grow one another in the name of Christ Jesus, who, “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”? (Phil 2) How can we make our ministry about us, when the message is so very clearly about Him?