But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:23-24)
In the sixth century B.C. the nation of Judah went through what was one of the biggest events in the Old Testament. In 586, the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the invading Babylonians. While the city was being besieged God told the prophet Jeremiah to do something that was very strange, perhaps even foolish. The oddity of this directive will become clear as I give an outline of the historical context. The nation of Judah was the last fragment of the once prosperous nation of Israel under the monarchy of David and Solomon. With the advent of the Babylonian Empire, Judah was faced with a political and military situation that was far beyond its powers to affect. The Babylonians were at their apex and were subduing all the small nations in the Ancient Near East, even putting in check the Egyptians. The prophet Jeremiah ministered at this time in Jerusalem, Judah’s capitol. He voiced the unpopular message that Judah was not just the victim of a geo-political accident, but that the Babylonian’s power over Judah was a manifestation of the judgment of God for their unfaithfulness. Needless to say, not many wanted to hear or heed Jeremiah’s message of repentance to God and submission to Babylon, and so as a result, he faced a great deal of derision and persecution.
In about the year 590 Judah’s king attempted to rebel against the unwanted yoke of Babylon. He solicited help from Egypt and confederated with surrounding nations. These allies however were of little help when the Babylonians brought the full force of their military might against Jerusalem and the few other walled cities left in Judah. For thirty months the Babylonian army surrounded the city, while the helpless Judeans were left trapped inside. To make matters worse, rural Judeans who lived outside the city fled into Jerusalem at the oncoming Babylonian army. Makeshift dwellings popped up in streets and alleys to accommodate the swollen population. As the siege continued difficulties multiplied. Food and water became scarce and eventually gave out. Fuel to cook food and heat homes had to be carefully rationed. Household and human waste collected within the city; then there was the problem of how to bury the corpses of the dead. When the Babylonians finally broke through the city walls in 586, they administered swift justice to the king by killing his sons and then blinding him. The Judeans who survived the famine, disease and warfare largely went into exile in faraway Babylon. Finally the Babylonians destroyed the city and the temple. It was not until decades later that the city or the temple would be rebuilt in any recognizable fashion.
Just before the Babylonian army penetrated the walls of Jerusalem, a small, seemingly insignificant transaction occurred. As I said Jeremiah was in the city during the siege, telling the people that the Babylonians were going to be successful and that they would be going into exile. In the midst of this, a cousin approached the prophet and wanted to sell him a piece of land in their rural hometown north of Jerusalem. Now with the land of Judah overrun with the conquering Babylonian army and Jerusalem being one of three remaining cities, how could it possibly make any sense to buy a piece of land? With food and fuel prices at a premium within the besieged city, what type of person would buy land that he knows he will likely never be able to use or enjoy? One cannot eat a deed. But to buy this land is precisely what God tells Jeremiah to do, and so while the city is falling, the witnesses are gathered, the deed is signed, the money exchanged. God tells Jeremiah that this purchase of land is a sign to the people that there is hope, even in the present darkness, for a return to the land. Land again will be bought and sold in Israel, the Lord tells Jeremiah. But from a worldly perspective it is folly and foolishness to make such a purchase. What would be your reaction to an offer to buy interest in a failing company or to purchase stock in a bankrupt organization? Folly indeed. But with God it is not so. It is the wisdom of God to hold unflappable hope even in darkness and calamity.
This apparent folly in God’s ways is evident in another Old Testament narrative. The eighth century prophet Hosea ministered in the northern kingdom of Israel. Although the details of his ministry are different from Jeremiah, many of the attending circumstances were the same. The people were continually going after others gods and being unfaithful to God. Hosea like Jeremiah was commissioned to call the people to repentance and fidelity to God. Also like Jeremiah, Hosea was called to do something that would appear to be folly from the world’s eyes. At the beginning of his ministry, God tells Hosea to marry a woman who will be unfaithful to him. Hosea and this wife have several children together, but of course, as the Lord foretold Hosea, his wife commits adultery. The purpose of all this is to act out before the people the complaint that God has: God’s people, his spouse, have been unfaithful to him. God led the Hebrews out of slavery and bondage, and gave them the promised land. In prophetic language, he took this people as his wife. But the people from the beginning have been unfaithful to him. They have not been filled with joy and thanksgiving in being free and serving the true and living God. Rather, they grumble and complain; they follow the religious trends of their neighbors in worshipping images and offering sacrifices to sun and rain gods; they oppress one another, each one seeking his own personal gain. According to the conventions of the world, marital infidelity is the termination of a marriage. How can a relationship survive after such a violation of love and trust? Perhaps there can be forgiveness after a separation but never again can there be love. But God tells Hosea to do just the opposite. By being faithful to his unfaithful wife, it will be a sign to all the people that though they have been unfaithful, God’s love abides and persists. With these devastating words God tells Hosea to be faithful to his spouse: ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods’ (Hosea 3:1). This is either the height of folly or the wisdom and love of God.
The story we proclaim today contains, in the same way, either great folly or great love. It is for this reason that St. Paul tells the Corinthians that the message of Christ crucified is foolishness to the Greeks. If the passion and execution were merely the story of an ordinary man, it would no doubt be a tragic, even moving story. The Greeks were experts at writing and performing tragedies. But this is not the Christian Gospel: our Lord is both God and man. He is God not in a secondary sense, but co-equal with the Father in honor, dignity and worship. In the account of the crucifixion, we are confronted with either the folly of God in handing himself over to sinful men or a love so profound that it will take all eternity to unfold. The very limbs which he freed from the bonds of slavery in Egypt, arrest and bind him in chains. The very hands which he formed beat him and nail him to a cross. The very lips and tongue which he taught to speak demand his crucifixion. The very hearts to which he called in the Word of the prophets, mock and scorn him in his suffering. The one who by his righteousness, holiness and love is shown to be the only one qualified to judge is judged by broken, feckless and hypocritical men. The Judge is judged.
We like to tell ourselves that we believe in unconditional love. Our society likes to say that it affirms unconditional love. But almost always there is an exception. If you hurt me or break me or humiliate me, then I cannot love you, I cannot abide you. But if you refrain from these things, then I will love. This is, of course, hardly unconditional love, yet so many of our relationships are conditioned in this way. The love of God by contrast is a love that knows no bounds, and its definitive manifestation is in the cross of our Lord Jesus. We have hurt him, we have broken him, we have humiliated him, and yet his arms are still spread open wide. This is a love that keeps on loving even when wounded. It is a generosity that keeps on giving even when rejected. It is a hope that keeps on hoping even when the situation seems hopeless. It now becomes apparent that if we are to be Christians we will never be issued a license to write people off or to decide that someone is a hopeless case.
At weddings we often read St. Paul’s hymn to charity. Charity, of course, being an old word for love. Those present at such a wedding probably imagine that the love between those two is true, at least to a degree, to Paul’s description. It is however on the cross that we see a love above and beyond what the world calls love. Jesus is the one who actually lives into the love Paul describes. It is a love that is truly unconditional in the absolute sense of that word. In closing I want now to read that hymn, and I want to you to hear in these words the love of Jesus poured out on Calvary. These words are about him. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; [Charity] beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
It is to this word of love and grace that I commend you this day, both for this and the life to come.