Third Sunday of Lent Sermon – Gareth Miller
The Third Sunday of Lent 2021
‘The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.’
(1 Cor 1.25)
Have you ever tried standing on your head? Some of us here go to Barry’s exercise class on a Tuesday morning, and it’s as much as I can do to stand on one leg. But my daughter is very athletic and when she was younger she often used to stand on her head.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about turning things upside down. Now, I can make an Upside Down Cake, and if you watched Masterchef on Friday night you’ll have seen one of the contestants make a very nice Upside Down Pear & Sticky Toffee Pudding!
When I was in Salisbury Diocese we had a wonderful bishop called John Austin Baker. He was a considerable theologian and he wrote a book called ‘The Foolishness of God.’ Of course it takes its title from today’s epistle: ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.’ Paul, who had sat at the feet of Gamaliel, who had
spent all his life in the pursuit of wisdom, yet discounted it all for the sake of knowing Christ and him crucified: ‘I count it as so much garbage.’ (Phil 3.8).
What was it Paul was jettisoning? I suggest it was nothing less than religion itself. Religion, a rule of life, can be a profound and enriching thing. But as Paul discovered belatedly, through his encounter with the living Jesus, it can also cramp and inhibit and stultify. It can lead you down dangerous paths. It happens when religion becomes more important than faith, when religion becomes religiosity. Of course that’s what Luther was railing against at the beginning of the 16th century. The Church had become more interested in itself, in its systems, its buildings, its regulations, its prohibitions, than the life of faith. And it’s a danger for every religion, and every new denomination, breaking away from the old corrupt church to form a new purer version. Luther, of course, wasn’t entirely free of sin himself!
In the late C20 there was a very strong movement to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. It was an attempt to cut away the excess, to try and pare Jesus down to who he was and what he said, to simplify the message by trying to separate him from all the interpretations that had been added on, as it were, by the NT and later generations. Lots of books were written on the subject. Of course, it was a vain quest, because we can only see Jesus as mediated to us through the tradition. But the motive was a good one – to return to the simplicity of the man Jesus walking and talking with his disciples in the towns and villages of Galilee. As with the pursuit of religion, so there’s a danger too in the pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.
One of the many many delights of Radio 4 is In Our Time. Last week was the 900th edition. I wonder if you heard Melvyn Bragg on Feedback talking about the making of the programme – how he gathers three of the most illustrious scholars on a given subject, but sometimes has to intervene if they become too prolix. And we all know the kind of person who can be incredibly intellectual and learned, but not necessarily wise in that deep, humble, personal sense, or a good communicator. Nor are academic institutions always the best places for inter-personal relations (I won’t mention a certain college not too far from here!).
‘The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.’
In that extraordinary scene from John 2 Jesus enacts the foolishness of God, literally turning things upside down. He ‘scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.’ These people were going about their lawful business. Thousands of people came on pilgrimage to the temple, many from far away. They needed to change their money and buy pigeons for the sacrifice. So much was fine. But you know how easily these places can get very commercialised. The worst I’ve ever seen was the Marian shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia, the most hideous mix of kitsch and religion I’ve ever seen! Jesus says ‘No. My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ quoting Jeremiah.
Throughout his life Jesus challenged both the secular AND the religious authorities.
In our last hymn today these are represented by tower and temple – in Oxford perhaps by Tom Tower and the Cathedral, on opposite sides of the quad. It’s very difficult to translate poetry (I found out the other day when I tried to translate Richard Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder!). But the poet laureate Robert Bridges did a very good job with Joachim Neander’s ‘Meine Hoffnung stehet feste’. He called it ‘All my hope on God is founded’ and we will sing it, as I said, at the end of this service. It’s a very fine hymn, but it stayed firmly on the shelves until it was married with Herbert Howells’ wonderful tune, Michael, named after his little boy who died aged 9.
The hymn says that it is only in God that we can reliably put our trust. In the second verse he talks about the futility of earthly powers, symbolised by tower and temple.
Pride of man and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power,
hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.
‘It’s taken us forty-six years to build this temple….,’ protest the Jews. Yes, the Jews in the temple precinct had become so proud of the temple that they were in danger of seeing it as an end in itself, and forgetting it was supposed to be a place or worship.
It’s so easy to get these things wrong, but not only the importance we attach tobuildings. The longing for wisdom too can become an attachment, and of course it’s very voguish at the moment. Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, says Paul. And perhaps we do too. Nothing wrong in seeking wisdom of course. Indeed we should pray for it daily. But when the intellectual quest becomes our sole purpose we can easily become blind to the true wisdom that comes with simplicity of life and purity of heart; and that comes, as Paul discovered, by being daily attentive to Jesus Christ. And the greatest challenge to all our preconceptions is the cross itself, in its scandalous subversion of everything we believe to be true. ‘We preach Christ crucified.’
Three weeks ago, on St Valentine’s Day, I spoke about the challenge that the Church is grappling with on matters of human identity and sexuality. I spoke of the challenge to my own thinking, as someone who is inclined to think in fairly traditional ways. The upside-down gospel of Jesus invites us to question ourselves: where do we get our political views, our religious views, our moral views? Do we just imbibe what we glean from our favourite newspaper or news channel?
One of the people who has challenged me most is John Bell of the Iona Community. Perhaps you heard him yesterday on Thought for the Day? He’s someone deeply immersed in the Bible and church tradition, but in his writings and his hymns we hear the radical voice of Jesus turning our assumptions upside down. Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, an area where we still have a long way to go. Jesus always invites us to go back to first principles.
When I was a curate I had a radical vicar. He wanted to bring on dancing girls and loved modern worship songs. Most of them were ghastly, but there was one I really liked. It went like this:
O Lord, all the world belongs to you,
And you are always making all things new;
What is wrong you forgive
And the new life you give
Is what’s turning the world upside down.
Two centuries earlier William Cowper of Olney found rather more eloquent words
to remind is that God is not found first and foremost in the temple, but wherever God’s people meet:
Jesus, where’er thy people meet,
there they behold thy mercy seat;
where’er they seek thee thou art found,
and every place is hallowed ground.
For thou, within no walls confined,
inhabitest humble mind;
such ever bring thee where they come,
and, going, take thee to their home.