Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom…
Are you a right-brain or left-brain thinker? This question comes from a theory in psychology that each side of the brain controls certain types of thinking. The right-brained thinker is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful and subjective. The left-brained thinker is said to be more logical, analytical and objective. Right-brained people tend to be more creative and emotional while left-brained people tend to be more methodical. It has been proven that this theory is a myth; people do not have a dominant side of their brain which controls their personality. Sadly, many people use this theory as an excuse for not using more of their brain capacity. “I can’t do anything creative because I’m left-brained.” Or, “I am not good with following directions because I am right-brained.”
The reality is that neither side of the brain is dominant in anyone; as a matter of fact, the two sides are not so divided. There are parts of the brain that are specifically designed to enhance communication between the two hemispheres, and the person experiences problems if that connection is severed. I’m certainly not a brain surgeon, and most of the sites I read about the subject today, though written in simple language, were difficult for me to understand and relate to you.
It doesn’t really matter; I started thinking about this right-brain/left-brain theory when I was reading through today’s scripture. The verse from 1 Corinthians struck me, “Jews ask for signs and Greeks seek after wisdom.” Perhaps the Jews are right-brained and the Greeks are left-brained! Really, it is interesting that Paul has divided the two nations in this way. The Jews, whose lives and history are built upon their faith, are more spiritual in the way the deal with wisdom. The Greeks, however, who are more academic in their focus, want to have intellectual answers to those questions. In this text about the foolishness of the cross, Paul has shown us the mistake we so often make.
A scientist once thought he’d discovered something remarkable about the brain, dividing people by certain types that have been debunked by other scientists. Creative people have the brain capacity to be logical and methodical people have the capacity to be creative. This same mistake manifests in the idea that we should approach the questions of life from either a spiritual or an intellectual perspective. One person will say, “I’ve studied and researched and I’ve found this to be true,” while another will say, “I have faith and I believe it to be true.” The one with faith thinks that their answer is greater because it comes from trusting in God, while the intellectual one sees his answer as greater because it is founded on facts.
On the face of it, Christianity is foolishness. Paul’s right when he says so in today’s epistle lesson. After all, what good is it to believe in a God who can die on a cross? Why have faith in a system that allows an innocent man to take the consequences of the whole world’s sin upon His shoulders? Is God so weak that He can’t protect His people from suffering? Is He so incompetent that He can’t save us in some other, more civilized way? The Jews want to answer these questions with wisdom that comes from the tradition of their faith, and the Greeks want answers that can be studied philosophically.
Perhaps we are still divided in the ways we take on these difficult theological questions of life. However, there is not good answer to the question, especially if we are trying to do it with human wisdom. After all, as Paul wrote, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”
The Christian message is viewed as foolishness in today’s world. We are called to submit to God, and yet the world claims there is no God. We are called to love our neighbor, and yet the world says that we should love our selves. The Gospel tells us that God in flesh died so that we might have life. What foolishness! Yet, God is wiser and more powerful than anything we can imagine, and we know that He loved His children so much that He did everything necessary to reconcile us to Him.
The world reads today’s Gospel lesson and laughs at the foolishness. The beatitudes are eight beautiful attitudes that are lived by those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel is organized to establish Jesus as the foundation, as the First, accomplish the will and purpose of God in this world. His life lies parallel to the people of Israel, but where Israel fails to keep the faith, Jesus does so and in doing so, Jesus makes it possible for the rest of us to do so, too.
In the opening lines of the Old Testament passage from Micah, God asks Israel to plead her case before Him. She turned away from her God, walked away from the covenant and was unfaithful. God gave her a chance to defend herself. He called the mountains and the foundations of the earth to be witnesses in this judgment, because they were there when the covenant was made. Then God turned it to Himself and asks His beloved what He has done wrong, defending His own actions by recounting his redemption of Israel out of bondage in Egypt.
Israel responded by trying to find some way to make up for the sin against God, but looked for some act that would earn God’s mercy. They thought that bowing before God or giving some sort of offering would be enough to cover their sins. They even offered to sacrifice their first born sons, an offering God would never accept.
God answers that He has already shown His people what is right and good to do in this world. A right relationship with God means right relationships with other people. He says, “Do justice, be merciful and walk humbly with God.” Humility does not mean bowing or giving with a hard heart. It means recognizing our own sinfulness and submitting ourselves to that which God has already done. Instead of demanding that the people of Israel give their sons on the altar of sacrifice, God sent His own son to take the wrath they deserve. The One who lived out what is right and good also laid down His own life so that we to might be just, merciful and humble before God.
What does it meant to be blessed? According to the world, blessedness is visible to others; it is seen in our happiness, our wealth and our health. Even Christians talk about their good lives by saying, “I have been so blessed.” But we do not see the blessings when we are suffering from a terminal disease or we are unemployed and can’t pay our bills? Blessedness is often thought synonymous with happiness, but the sort of happiness that comes with faith is not necessarily giddy pleasure, but rather a deeper inner joy from God.
The word “bless” means “may God speak well of you.” What is it that God seeks from those He loves? What about our life might He speak well of? It would be easy for us to use the psalm for today to establish the criteria for blessedness. The psalmist writes, “Jehovah, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?” He answers that those who are blameless, righteous and honest, that those who do good works and who fear the Lord are the ones who will be blessed. Yet, the expectation in this psalm is too hard for any human to uphold. Who is blameless? Who is righteous? There is no one who would ever be so blessed.
Jesus was the first. God spoke well of Jesus because in the midst of His very human life, He remained faithful to His Father. Thanks to the work of Christ, we can remain faithful to God in the midst of our own very human life. The blessed are not those who deserve to be rewarded, but rather are those who see that which God has done and is doing in the world. The poor in spirit seem to have no hope, but they are blessed because God has given them the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn have no joy, but they are blessed because God comforts them. Those who are humiliated are raised and those who are hungry and thirsty are fed.
Jesus does not call us in this text to overcome our troubles or wallow in them, but rather He encourages us to live in an attitude of trust and confidence that God is faithful to His promises. The beatitudes are the attitudes of God’s people living in faith. The students for today’s lesson were not the great crowds of people; Jesus was speaking to the disciples. This lesson is not give for those who are trying to earn their way to heaven, but is given to those who believe in the work of God. The lesson is given for us, the Christians who have been saved by the cross of Christ.
It doesn’t seem like a wise lesson, does it? After all, it makes more sense to be strong in spirit, to celebrate life, to be assertive, and to satisfy our own needs. We would much rather life comfortable and happy. We would much prefer a life of wealth, health and popularity. However, Jesus never promised us a rose garden. He promised Himself. We can find blessedness in poverty and in mourning, not because there is anything good about these things but because we turn to grace in our suffering. Physical blessedness is found in pain because the pain makes us look to the one who can heal our problem. Spiritual blessedness is found in suffering because it makes us look to God.
See, that’s what Paul is talking about: God takes our lives and He shines through them. It is easy for God to get lost in the midst of a bright shining star, but He shines brightly in the valley of the shadow of death. In other words, it is hard to see how God’s work when the world sees our successful and happy lives. Even if we answer their questions with “I am so blessed,” they see it not as a gift from God but as a reward for our hard work and perseverance. However, if we can say we are blessed in the midst of pain and loss, then the world will truly see that it is God’s grace that makes us happy. God uses our weakness to show His strength and raises us out of our pits into His Kingdom. Blessedness is seeing ourselves as we truly are and turning to the One who can give us all we need. Blessed are those who humble themselves at the altar of the Lord and give their lives into His hand so that through their weakness He is glorified.
The psalm tells us that those who are welcome in the Temple of God are an exclusive group. Who can live there? It is a place where only those who walk rightly and do good works, where those who speak truth and do no evil are welcomed. Those who hate evil and love those who love the Lord are those who are invited into the presence of God. We have to honor our oaths even when they are painful, lending our resources to others without expectation and never accepting anything that might hurt another.
I would like to think that I can be welcome in the house of the Lord, but quite frankly the words of my mouth are not always right and my actions are not always just. I take advantage of my neighbor and I do not always do what I should do for their sake. Those who would be welcome is an incredibly exclusive group. As a matter of fact, only one was truly righteous: Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the only one who will never be shaken, the only one who can dwell in the house of the Lord. We simply can’t get an invite to that party on our own. Those who are blessed are the ones that stand firmly on Him.
I’ve always thought myself as right-brained, and yet I can understand why the scientists have rejected the theory. I am creative, but I am also logical. I am emotional, but I am also rational. Our brains do not work like separate organs, but work as a whole to accomplish its work. I suppose that’s why we should not try to be like either the Jews or the Greeks, focusing on simply the spiritual or the intellectual. It is good to study the scriptures, to learn and understand what God is saying in and through His creation and His Church, but we also have to live in faith. It is good to be faithful, to trust in God without proof, but we also have to be ready with an answer when the world asks us the hard questions of life.
The Christian faith is foolishness, because it makes no sense in a world that honors the powerful, promotes the strong, encourages the self and puts the great onto pedestals. However, God has chosen to bless those who humble themselves before Him, beginning first with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As we follow His path, and live as He lived, we might seem to have a life that is far from blessed. But God will shine through our weakness; through our poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, thirst, mercy, suffering, humility and rejection He will be glorified.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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