Monday, March 19, 2007

The Programme to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma and 1 Corinthians 1:18 - 2:5

The military regime in Burma is intent on wiping out Christianity in the country, according to claims in a secret document believed to have been leaked from a government ministry. Entitled "Programme to destroy the Christian religion in Burma", the incendiary memo contains point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state.

The text, which opens with the line "There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practised", calls for anyone caught evangelising to be imprisoned. It advises: "The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilise its weakness."

Its discovery follows widespread reports of religious persecution, with churches burnt to the ground, Christians forced to convert to the state religion, Buddhism, and their children barred from school. (Sunday Telegraph, 21 January 2007)
Ah, Mr. Faceless Military Junta Man. You are taking good old Sun Tzu's Art of War to heart. However, do not be unduly pessimistic in thinking that the Christian religion has only one weakness. Why, the Christian religion is chockful of weaknesses. Let's save your Faceless Military Junta Committee on the Eradication of the Christian Religion some research time and point you straight to 1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:5 which very neatly encapsulates the main foolishness and weaknesses of Christianity:
  • the foolishness of the Christian God
  • the foolishness of the Christian message: the Cross
  • the foolishness of meeting present foolishness with even more foolishness
  • the foolishness of the Christian followers
  • the foolishness of the Christian messengers
Foolishness of God
Let us start at the source of all this foolishness: the Christian God himself. Picture this, the last days of his incarnation here on earth: the apparently Almighty God, the credulous Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, etc etc in his great wisdom determined from all eternity to save mankind from our sins. Think mightiness, think great power, think frentic mega-chorus of strings and pounding drums. And what do we get? A crummy human, naked and helpless, dying on the cross, crying out that his Father has forsaken him. Silence because everyone has deserted him except maybe a few silly gullible women weeping quietly nearby.

Behold my God? You must be joking. What a loser. What a fool.

Foolishness of the Message of God: the Cross
So it is no surprise that the main Christian message, that of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, has been nothing but foolishness to the whole world, really, right from its inception.

Dick Lucas describes this nicely:
To the Greeks in Paul's time, the cross came straight from the chamber of horrors - it was the hangman's noose; worse than that, it was the cruelty of the Chinese labour camp; worse than that, it was like a Nazi gas chamber. In fact it was worse than that, for the terrible brutality of Roman crucifixion was unspeakable; we probably could not have looked at it. So, if Paul - Paul, apparently a highly educated man, a brilliant intellect, a great thinker, came claiming to preach a message about the true God of heaven and earth and God's plan for the world, and said the symbol of that plan - the central and crucial part of it - was this appalling scene, this terrible instrument of torture and punishment and humiliation, well...no wonder the Greeks would have shouted like Festus in Acts 24:26: Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning has driven you out of your mind! A nonsense. Complete absurdity. Utter foolishness.

Fast forward a thousand years +++, to C.S. Lewis in the Common Room at Maudlin College, Oxford, in the early 1940s. That Common Room had some of the biggest brains going, and apparently almost to a man they were unbelievers. When the young Professor C.S. Lewis became a Christian and started to defend the Christian faith on the radio, and by writing books, they found it extremely embarrassing and shunned him. The cross was utter foolishness to these men of great expertise, knowledge, brain power and intelligence.

And very much like we do now, Paul's contemporaries demanded a more credible message than Paul actually had - something more impressive, that would persuade them to believe in God and Christ.

Jews demanded miraculous signs; they were doing exactly what they did with Jesus (as has been recorded in the Gospel narratives). If God wanted to prove himself, why didn't he write a sign in the sky? That kind of thing has been going on down the centuries, and the Jews said Jesus should do some stupendous miracle that could not be explained any other way, and that would persuade them that he was the kind of God who ought to exist and that they wanted.

The Greeks were not so crude; they simply asked for intellectual proof. They wanted God to show them solid reasons for putting their trust in a God who seemed to have made a mess of the world. Man sees himself as a kindly judge, and God in the dock. If God can give a reasonable defence for allowing war, poverty and disease, modern man will listen, and may even acquit him! We have always required God to meet our standards, to be the kind of God we can believe in, and to do the things we think he should do - curing children with cancer, solving this particular national problem, and so on. And does he give us satisfactory answers? Niet. The loser!

To the ancient world, as it is to the modern world, the cross is simply foolishness and God, a fool.

Meeting Foolishness with More Foolishness
And when told of the foolishness of his God and his message, Paul paid no heed to such good advice. Instead, he persisted in his foolishness.

This is totally against anything you learn in business school or, really, just common sense. You do not go on supplying something for which there is no demand. If no one wants it, stop producing it.

This is what a true church is like: it is human, fallible and weak and really a bit daft. Even when there is no demand for teaching about the cross of Christ crucified, they continue churning out the gospel ad nauseum. They don't give people what they want. Can such a venture ever be successful? Foolishness indeed.

Foolishness of the Followers
Ah, now the followers of a movement or a teacher are great indicators of how successful that movement or teacher is. The disciples are the trophies.

But observe the first Corinthian disciples. They aren't much to look at. Now if Paul had snared a high networth individual or an eminent scholar, that might be something. But all he got were these no hopers. Stupid scum. Nobodies. You'd never aspire to belong to this group. In fact, you'd pray you'd never belong to this group. On trophy wall, instead of glorious exotic tigers or lions were a few mangy sewer rats. Laughable. Pathetic.

And so it is with many Christians today. Fools, easily deluded by every other hoodwinker.

Foolishness of Messengers/Leaders
Well, you'd think that with such a poor product, the messengers of the gospel and the leaders of the church might have the decency to dress it up a bit: some pretty packaging, some spit and shine.

But Paul, one of the first messengers of the gospel, couldn't be bothered at all:
We know from tradition that Paul was not the sort you'd see strutting his stuff in a gym. He was said to be bow-legged, have round shoulders, and possibly have something wrong with his eyes. Not a great physical specimen. But, hey, maybe we're not so superficial as to expect the great apostle to be a six-packed hunk. Afterall, personality counts. But Paul really didn't have much charisma to his name either: he went to the Corinthians "in weakness and fear and much trembling". A pathetic picture of a blubbering weakling, painfully conscious of his inadequacy.

2 Corinthians 12
also tells us how God further sabotaged and humiliated Paul by "a thorn in the flesh", whatever that was.

Well, if even the messengers and leaders are such pushovers, what is there to fear about the Christian religion?
*************
So Mr. Faceless Military Junta Man, there is weakness galore in Christianity. But before you clap your hands in gleeful anticipation of the success of your Programme to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma, it appears that the programme is, well, a bit ambitious. True, the Christian religion is fraught with apparent weakness. Indeed it looks puny to the world's eyes, like the whimpering pale skinny boy at the edge of the playground, ripe for bullying. But mess with it and you are messing with the very power of God the Almighty. You will not sleep well for nights to come, in fact, for eternity.

If you are Christian, well, no worries, mate. Hey, a pint of your finest Wittenberg beer please, m'lass, for the gentleman over here.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."

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. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are 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. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
Apparent foolishness of God and his message actually wiser than wisdom of men
Does God sound foolish? A complex scientific theory sounds foolish to a conceited ignorant infant. If you actually have a good think about it (LOL), how can human wisdom (described as the wise, the scribe, the debater of this age etc) apart from divine revelation be of any use? If God is really God, eternal infiniteness to our temporal finiteness, Creator of us creatures, how can puny human wisdom ever hope to understand the magnitude of God and his ways? We cannot. God must reveal himself and have his Spirit indwell us and explain to us his ways in simple language, and then, perhaps, we might understand dimly.

The message of God does not do away with human intelligence that is so highly-prized by the world; the message of God is far far above anything the most intelligent person, born or yet to be born, in the whole of human history, can ever hope to understand on the best of days. Do we trust infinite God or finite man? The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.

Wisdom of meeting foolishness with foolishness
Christians persist in propagating this unpopular message, neat, unsullied by ice or a cocktail umbrella, because it is the wisdom of God, and also because it is the power of God, for salvation and for preservation.

The unchanging message, day in day out, year in year out, might seem dry and bland to some. They might think that people will be put off by the message of Christ crucified and are themselves embarrassed by the plain message.

"But we preach Christ crucified", said Paul. "I know it is a stumbling block to the Jews; I know it is nonsense to Gentiles, to the world at large; but to those whom God has called both Jews and Greeks" (all sorts of people) "Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God". In other words, Paul says:"I know that when I preach this message the power of God satisfies men's hearts, and his wisdom satisfies their minds. I know that if people will only come to Christ crucified they will meet God and find all the power and wisdom they need."

The freshest oysters are best eaten plain. Just schuck 'em, maybe squeeze a little lemon juice, and savour the plump lads still cold from the sea. No corruption by breading and heat, please!

Even for those with pious intentions, with goals of gaining more people for Christ, sometimes stumble over the offensiveness of the cross itself. They may try to dress it up in cool clothes for the youth, or draw the crowds with the testimonies of celebrity Christians or successful businesspeople. Or perhaps, all that is needed is great music and songs. But, they are just embarrassed by the plain provocativeness of the cross. Yet, just like in Blackjack, if you have in your hand a perfect score of 21, asking the dealer to hit you any more cards, means you forfeit the lot.

The foolishness of God is wiser than men's wisdom - have confidence in God's foolishness. And the weakness of God, Christ hanging on a cross, is stronger than man's strength - have faith in his weakness. It is the pure power of God to save us from sin, death and hell. Add or subtract to it, adulterate it, and we invalidate it.

But those who are perishing cannot and will not understand the true wisdom of the cross. In every age God does what he says he will do in 1 Corinthians 1:19:I will destroy the wisdom of the world, I will destroy the wisdom of the philosophers, the scientists, the analysts, the gurus; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate. The world's wisdom comes to nothing and achieves nothing.

Wisdom of foolish followers
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
If people cannot know God unless he reveals himself to them, then knowledge of God, wisdom in knowing God is not by human intelligence but by God's choice in revelation. God has designed it this way so that no human can boast that he came to know God only because of his superior intellect. He can only boast in the Lord. Christ has become for us Christians "wisdom from God" - an extraordinary phrase; Christ has become for us "righteousness, holiness and redemption".

And not only were all Christians, no matter how lowly in the world, privileged to be chosen by God, we are tight like thieves with the Son of God himself. The New Testament has two ways of describing Christians: either Christ is in us - by his Spirit on earth, or we are in him at the right hand of God. Both phrases mean an intimate union with God through Christ. We are now in Christ at the right hand of God; we cannot be nearer God than we are as a Christian today until we die and go to be him in a more direct way.

Man's wisdom has failed to bring us to God, but in foolishness that is God's wisdom, in Christ crucified, at his cross, we can meet God and receive all the treasures of the knowledge of God and a relationship with him. Not only that, but we ourselves are being moulded into the very image of Christ himself.

Ultimate rags to riches story. Totally pauper to prince. But not by our own efforts so nothing we can boast about. And not by the efforts of others so we do not line up behind human leaders and put them on a pedestal as our pathway to knowing God or somehow cosying up to him.

Wisdom of the Weakness of Messengers
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
Churches may be emptying and DG attendance dwindling. People ask what's wrong with the pastors, preachers and DG leaders. Why not have more socials and social action? More common activities? More special programmes for outreach? Why not get a more charming, more charismatic leader who can rouse the people? A few more jokes, some interesting illustrations, turn up the persuasiveness? And how about some matching clothes for a change? Why wallow in weakness and mediocrity? Doesn't God want us to do more? For him?

Paul reminds the Corinthians that he did not use "eloquence or superior wisdom" when he came and proclaimed the testimony about God to them. From Acts, we know that Paul was not an intellectual slob; he did not jettison his brain before he began to speak. Here in the specific context of the Greek civilisation of the first century, public rhetoric was very popular and an important criteria for judging teachers and speakers.

But even though Paul knew that he, as a messenger of God, would be judged by his oratorical skills, he did not chose the marvels of intellectual display; he chose not to employ affected philosophy. There was nothing in his speech that smacked of high pressure salesmanship, or of political spin, or craftiness or cunning to exploit the ignorant or the impressionable. He did not work the crowd. He did not employ any packaging. He did not win friends and influence people.

He didn't need to because he knew that the message of God, the message of the cross, straight up without garnishing, was wise enough and powerful enough to lift people out of the gutter of unbelief, and turn them from their old sinful ways to the things of God.

And in his wisdom, God also kept him in weakness, saying of the thorn in his flesh,"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness". That makes no sense to us, does it? Among people of the world power can only be made perfect by power not weakness. But Paul is able to say,"For Christ's sake I delight in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties"! Then comes this great statement, which all Christians have to come to terms with:"when I am weak, then [then only] I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12).

That our faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Perhaps our own weakness is most apparent as we teach a Sunday School or Bible class. Sometimes we despair:Is anything going in? Is the truth gripping their hearts? Can it possibly change their lives? But there is no call to bemoan our own weakness. The fact is that we will always be weak; God won't have us any other way if we are going to be of any use to him - so that we realise that the glory and the strength are all his.

So let us continue to be unembarrassed by the apparent foolishness of God, his message, fellow believers and the messengers. We will be mocked, sneered, jeered at. We will always be fools to the world. We will not be popular, even within churchy circles. But no worries, mate. Do your work, then chill and sleep soundly. We do not know how God is working through our weakness and foolishness. But we know that success in life in the sight of God will be whether we are found living and passing on, faithfully, this foolish message of a foolish God.

A toast, y'all!

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