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Author:Pastor Dirk Boersma
  Free Reformed Churches of South Africa
Preached At:Emmanuel American Reformed Church
 Denver, Colorado
Title:The Cross Is An Uncompromising Sign In The World
Text:1 Corinthians 1:17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Spiritual Warfare

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Call to worship Ps 68, 34-35
Song of praise Ps 69, 12
Reading of the law / Confession of sin
Declaration of mercy Hebrews 4:14-16

Song of response Ps 119: 37.39
Reading(s) from Scripture 1Cor1: 1-2,5
Song before the sermon Hymn 29
Sermon text 1 Corinthians 1: 17
Song after the sermon Hymn 19: 3-6
Song after the offering Ps 147: 1.2
Suggestions for prayer to be faithful servants of God in this world
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Dirk Boersma, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ,

February is the time of the Oscars. The media are buzzing about it for weeks before the event takes place. The red carpet is rolled out and the icons of the entertainment industry will be parading in front of the cameras, dressed in the latest and most beautiful gowns and other outfits.

It is a source of endless speculation: not only ‘who will win?’ but also ‘what will they wear?’.
The evaluation can continue for weeks after the event: ‘Who was the best dressed? Who was the worst dressed?’ As if this makes a difference to our world…

How does this concern us here in the church?
Movie stardom is a good illustration of what drives people. It so aptly shows what many people are after: glory and recognition. It embodies the idea that you can make something of your life with a lot of hard work and a little luck at the right moment. And… if you conform to today’s beauty standards, of course.

The stars gather to receive their rewards, which will confirm their status or push it even higher.

The whole ceremony does not change anything to our world. And the entertainment value of the event is highly overrated. It’s not so funny after all.
Why, then, do people want to watch this?

Because it appeals to their imagination. The stars come a little closer. This time you don’t see them acting, but you think they show who they truly are. You can identify with them and dream that you can become like them. The girl from the trailer park can get an Oscar! If she can do it, you stand a chance, too. Go for it, believe in yourself, and work hard to realize your dreams.
Then you would receive the same glory and recognition. You’ve made it.

Does this have anything to do with your spiritual life? What connection is there with the letter to the Corinthians?

What do you think? Are these totally separate areas: the country and culture you live in, and your faith? Church and society? Or are they connected and do they influence each other?

Have you never wished you belonged to a church that was well-respected in the community? That when you tell them the name of the church, people would say: ‘Oh, that one. Isn’t it well-known for its worship services or community projects?’ Have you never felt out of touch with the rest of the city?

This is the function the church has for many of our fellow-Americans: it is part of the culture, it contributes to a good life, and it wants to be popular and fashionable, so that it will draw huge numbers.

Paul addresses how the church can be influenced by the world in this first chapter of his epistle to the Corinthians.

The Cross Is An Uncompromising Sign In The World

1. Culture Pulls At You

2. The Cross Shows Its Power

1. Culture pulls at you
When we begin to read a book, we expect to find out pretty quickly what it is all about. Well, that is not too easy. Paul addresses many different issues in these 16 chapters.

Can the first issue Paul addresses be the main thing? He loses no time and addresses the divisions in the church, right off the bat. Surely this must be an important topic?

If it is, he does not seem to solve it. Pretty soon he changes subjects and begins talking about the number of people he baptized.
Then, the chapter takes another turn: I came not to baptize, but to preach. Then follows the somewhat cryptic sentence about the cross.

These verses do not seem to make much sense at first glance. If there are divisions in the church and Paul wants them to stop, how will this be a solution?

The divisions in the church are a problem, but not the main one. There is something behind it that Paul addresses in chapters 1-4.
What was the mistake of the people in Corinth? They were divided, but they all made the same mistake: they sided with one of the preachers because they found him impressive.

The NIV makes them say ‘I follow Paul’ or Apollos or Cephas (= Peter). However, Paul wrote it even stronger: 'I am of Paul; I belong to Paul.'

In the rest of the letter you don’t get the impression that too many people sided with Paul. But some may have said: ‘I belong to Paul, because he started this church! He is our founder. The others came later, they are secondary’.
Then someone else stood up and said: ‘Wait a minute. Apollos came later, but he is a much better speaker. He is the man we need. He is smart. He fits right in with our culture. He will be able to draw the people of Corinth to our church!’

Again, someone else put the spotlight on Peter, who may also have visited the city while he travelled around, and that person said: ‘I belong to Peter! He knew Christ personally, he was with him for 3 years. And he is so expressive, intense, enthusiastic about the gospel! Paul’s presentation is sooo boring.’

And there were others. They thought: ‘All those groups, we are not like them, rallying around one of the preachers. We have a much deeper understanding than them. They are dumb. We are too mature to identify with any preacher. We belong to Christ!’

Paul wants nothing to do with this whole thing. He rejects this partisanship with his whole heart.
With a bit of rhetoric he shows how ridiculous it is. He does not defend himself against the other preachers or tear down their reputation. He only uses himself as an example. ‘Was I crucified for you? Were you baptized in my name?’

His last expression functions as a bridge to make his real point.
One way people could say they belonged to Paul was because he had baptized them. But, says Paul, I am glad I did not baptize many of you, so that you could not use that as a reason to suggest that I came to Corinth to gather a following for myself.
He is happy he baptized only a few, so nobody could make false claims.

Don’t they understand baptism?
Baptism always involves being baptized in or into the name of somebody, and all Corinthians were baptized in the name of Christ.

How could they say ‘I belong to Paul or Apollos or Peter’ if they were baptized in the name of Christ only? After they had believed in Christ, they had been baptized as a sign of belonging to Christ, and on their part it was a promise of allegiance to the name they were baptized in. They belonged to Christ and they had given themselves to him.

Baptism was not the main thing anyway, Paul says. This was not the purpose of his being there. Preaching Christ was.

And what is that preaching all about?
When Paul writes not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power., we have finally found the main thing he wants to address.

Paul’s preaching did not mean that he brought another new philosophy like so many philosophers in Greece did - ; he did not impress people with human wisdom, but preached something completely different: the cross of Jesus Christ.

The groups are a symptom of a deeper seated attitude: they identified with preachers because they were looking for a popular person to identify with. They wanted a triumphant faith, corresponding with their culture. Their culture was all about finding a new philosophy to live by. Current, impressive, the latest philosophy brought with flair and gusto.

Corinth was a Greek city where, like in Athens, men were at the market square to hear the newest philosophies and discuss them. The city was an important seaport that connected Rome and with Greece and the Middle East. This was the place where things happened. Kind of the New York of the ancient world.

In this upbeat city that always had the latest developments available and had a metropolitan atmosphere, the Christians expected the apostles to offer the same. They liked a triumphant faith. Later in the letter you will find other symptoms of this: they paraded with their spiritual gifts, and looked down on the body as if it was some lower thing. It had no place in the future era of the Spirit they thought had already begun.

Their triumphant bent explains why Paul was not high on their list. Elsewhere he describes his presentation as not impressive, with fear and trembling. Probably, the man who wrote these magnificent letters was not much of a speaker. He might have received the Pulitzer prize for his writings, but he sure did not walk away with the prize for orator of the year and he would not get the Oscar for best comic or entertainer.

Not only was his verbal presentation out of touch with Greek culture, he did not match the lifestyle of the celebrities of his day either. Magicians in those days were richly rewarded for their tricks and miracles. Philosophers were in high regard and enjoyed a high social status. They must have lived accordingly.

But look at Paul: he does not accept any of that. Instead, the makes money by working with his hands: he is a tentmaker. Sounds like Tom Cruise working at a car wash instead of driving one of his Porches.
Paul’s refusal to lead the lifestyle of a celebrity hurt they image of the church, they may have thought.

No, Paul did not fit the profile. And the Corinthians were not impressed with him. They began to look for other icons: which one of the preachers they heard was more impressive? That was the one they would identify with! They could sport him as their leader and get some recognition in the city.

You may have begun thinking about the culture we live in today. Doesn’t it sound similar?
It is not a big step from Corinth to Los Angeles, New York City, or Denver.
Corinth may seem so different, an ancient city in Greece , a seaport with all its sins, and a culture centered around philosophy.

However, their culture and ours may be similar in more than one way:
we live in a city and are part of a society that deeply influences us, too. We are challenged in our morals, in the goals we set for our lives, in what we pursue, what we live for.
In college, you don’t want to believe in religious ideas that can’t stand up against the scrutiny of scientific methods. You are constantly challenged to know the latest ideas and to conform to the cultural elite.
In our competitive culture you want to be winner, the highest goal is to be successful and secure a future for yourself.

To get there, you need to work hard. But that is not the only thing: your presentation counts. In many areas of life it is the way you dress and behave, how smoothly you talk, and how convincingly you can present your ideas that may turn the situation in your favor.

OK, we see that president Bush got reelected although he was not a smooth talker and he does not come across as an intellectual, but his team made sure to impress on us the image of the determined leader who not only sticks to his guns but even more to his principles. Still, image counts.

This is the culture of our country. How do we respond to it?

The Corinthians, recently converted from their ungodly lives, had not completely changed their thinking. They tended to follow their culture, and their preference for wisdom determined their expectations about the church.

How does our culture influence the church?

If we look broader than our congregation and take a look at the religious fabric of America , aren’t many churches aiming at the middle class and give the impression that the church reflects their goals and their position in life? If you start a new church or want to survive as an existing one, you must be upbeat, give a modern impression with a smooth presentation; it must be a place where people can feel successful and happy, a place where they are affirmed that they are on the right track.

This is the temptation for the church today: to fit into the lifestyle of the modern American and be attractive to those who have made something of their lives.

2. The cross shows its power

But now, what’s the problem? Is there a problem?
Why was this attitude of the Corinthians a problem for Paul?

Paul states it very clearly and strongly: they empty the cross of its power. It becomes meaningless, it loses its effect. The very message of the cross is bypassed and made obsolete.

Culture may be exciting and upbeat and you may feel drawn to it, but the church should not be measured by the standards of culture and conform to them.

Why? Because it is the church of the crucified Christ and it preaches the message of the cross.
The church should not be painted in the colors of our culture and become invisible. It should not become a mirror that reflects the values of our culture. You don’t go to church because you want to become successful, or to hang out with the popular crowd. Preaching in the church is not intended to make people feel good and to give them a pat on the back. It is not just another theory or therapeutic message that seamlessly fits in with all the other ideas out there.

Well, why not? Wouldn’t it make the church more attractive, wouldn’t we gain a lot more understanding and attention? One way to prevent growth is to present a message people don’t want to hear, right?

Here is the answer: the cross of Jesus Christ.

What is the message of the church all about? Isn’t it that Jesus died for our sins on the cross, and that there is only life in his name? Isn’t it that he promises eternal life and calls you to turn away from your love for the world and all its visible rewards and glory, to a life of service? Isn’t it about giving up your rebellion against God, and being saved from the misery of your sin, and to return to God and be received by Him in grace?

The cross stands as a non-compromising sign in the world.

It is a sign that defies human wisdom. In fact, it is foolishness to people who don’t believe in Jesus.

When the world looks at the cross, they see a loser. Jesus did not make it, he did not live to see his ideals realized. He followed the wrong path to crate a following. He died alone, he was crucified as a common criminal. The cross is a sign of loss, not of gain. It is a sign of defeat, not of success!
This is the human perspective.

There is more to it: the biblical interpretation of the cross is that it is a sign of the bankruptcy of the human race. The cross of Jesus represents what becomes of sinners who defy God’s will: they can expect only death, defeat, loneliness, and the end of everything we hope for. The cross robs you of all hope, and it confronts you rock-hard with your guilt before God.

This is why unbelievers cannot understand the cross, even find it detestable.
The cross contradicts everything the world stands for, hopes for, and trusts in: the power to do good, the strength to make it, the pride of living without God, the rebellion against his laws. Do it yourself has been the motto of the world for ages, and it still is.

The cross is God’s wisdom against the world’s wisdom. It shows that we cannot climb up to heaven and reach out to God. We need to humbly wait and plead with God that he will come down to us. The cross shows that God has come down to us in his Son, and has brought the solution for our fallen condition. And it tells us that we can offer nothing from ourselves, that we can do nothing to save ourselves, to survive, to improve and make a better world. The cross stops you dead in your tracks.
It tells you that human wisdom can never bring you to God.

So if you want to follow the style of the world and expect the church to conform to that, you are emptying the cross of its value and power. If you cut the church to fit the demands of the world, you have removed the cross.

The world wants winners who give them hope, who strengthen them in their idea that the human spirit is still alive and can do good. But the cross puts an end to it. The cross is for losers: people who admit that they can’t live without God, who confess that their lives are going nowhere and there is nothing they can do about it. The cross brings you to your knees, instead of putting you on a pedestal.

The media mogul Ted Turner reportedly has said: ‘Christianity is a religion for losers’, the suggestion being: if you are succesful, you don’t need it. And if you want to become successful, this religion is not going to help you.
In a sense, he was wrong, because Christ does not talk down on you, but gives you back the full life you lost through sin.
And in a sense he was right: the cross stands in the way of everybody who tries to be successful and build a monument for himself. The cross brings you to your knees and tells you to give up your pride.

This is the merciful character of the cross: it gives hope for even the most devastated people, the ones whom the world has given up on. This is why it has usually found more response with the poor than with the rich: the poor who accepted it have discovered that there was hope exactly because they did not have to trust in their own powers. They had seen the limitations, and they had discovered how they had become the prisoners of the rich, because so much prosperity is established over the backs of the poor.

The Corinthians themselves were a living example of this. They may have thought very highly about themselves when Paul wrote this leter, but when they were called, he said, they were not many rich and influential people. They were not the movers and shakers, not the media moguls and the captains of industry. They were just some normal people off the street. And God chose them to show his power in them.

The cross has power in a way the world does not expect. The Corinthians had seen that in their lives: God had chosen them and changed them. They had received real life and they must have received quite some gifts of the Spirit, judging by the way they were impressed by their gifts.

But if they would conform to the world, they would rob the cross of its power. Instead of relying only on Christ and his power, they would turn to human pride and strength. When they thought like the culture, the possible success of the church would not be contributed to God but to the successful preachers in their smart suits and with their smooth presentation. The church in Corinth might become great in the city, well respected, a mega-church perhaps, but the glory would not go to God. It would be their own accomplishment. The other people in the city would look at it like that, and certainly the church members would not shy away from boasting in their great leaders and of course give themselves a pat on the back.

But the cross would have disappeared to the background. It was not necessary, it was actually unwanted. It would not fit in. The cross shows how God can bring life into the devastation of the human race.

Making the gospel and the church fit our culture that is driven by success, good impressions, materialism, and pride will make the cross hollow. The power of the cross will be gone because you appeal to exactly the thing the cross defeats: human pride and self-reliance.

God’s word today reminds us that we need a proper understanding of the cross of Christ. We should be aware of the danger of conforming to the world’s standards. We may seem to gain a lot – more interest in the church, people’s admiration, huge numbers, and so forth – but we would loose the most important thing: the cross of Christ that points us to God’s power to save us from our sin of pride and self-sufficiency. We would fall back into the same quagmire of human pride that so many people are caught in.

What should we do instead?

If the cross is God’s power for salvation, we should do everything we can to understand the work of Christ and to put our trust in him. We do that by listening to God as he teaches us about Christ, and by humbly bowing down at the foot of the cross and looking up to Christ for life and hope.
It means that we must believe in our own inability to do good and to return to God. We need to take our sins seriously and humbly ask God for forgiveness.

Then, if we hold up this cross in the world, two things we will do will stand out.

First, we will participate in society, do our work, get an education, pursue goals, make money, maybe even be successful. But we do it not by trusting in our strength or will or goodness, but only in God who calls us to be faithful stewards and to live as his children in this world. Christians don’t ignore the world or look down on it, but live in it and use it for a different purpose: God’s kingdom and glory.

Second, instead of taking on the color of the society around us, we stand out when we hold on to the cross and proclaim it. We will become what God intended us to be: living proofs of the power of the cross, and messengers of the meaning of the cross. It is God’s will to bring the ones he has chosen but still live as unbelievers, to repentance by this preaching of the crucified Christ. If we blend in with the world, the world will not distinguish our signal any more, it will disappear. However, if it stands out according to God’s will, it becomes a warning light, like those ‘Exit’ signs that are always on: in case of fire, smoke, when there is low visibility or when it is pitch dark, the light of the 'Exit' sign shines brightly. It will be there for all to see if we hold on to the message of the cross.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Dirk Boersma, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2005, Pastor Dirk Boersma

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