“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe” (1 Cor 1:21).
It is an outright scandal that God, in all the power thereof, has flat out turned the divine nose up at power. At least as the world defines it. As shocking as that is, it is an even greater shock that God has also refused to give the church authority to exercise any of that power, either.
Yes, God’s ways may not be our own. But one could reason that God might, at least, give the church a little worldly power. After all, the church is God’s chosen instrument here on earth. And as anyone living on this side of eternity knows, a little power goes a long way. A show of grandeur could do the church a bunch of good.
Such logic, while reasonable, is unfounded. God’s eschewal of all that the world considers powerful runs deep. In fact, this upside-down operation is confessed each week in the Apostles’ Creed. It is none other than Jesus Christ who sits at God’s right hand. In other words, God gets things done by the Son who flexes his muscles on the cross. It is in weakness and death that God’s power shows most clearly. And this is no less true on earth as it is in heaven.
I will grant you, theoretically, we can wrap our minds around this notion. The truth, though, is that none of us will ever stake our lives on it. At least, not of our own volition.
Nowhere is this demonstrated more plainly than the knots church leaders tie themselves up in. While the crucified savior may be the only power God has given the church, all too often, the church’s stewards think they can do better with a show of worldly power. The secular shrug these antics tend to evoke ought to disabuse clerical CEOs out of such nonsense. But the temptation to prove one's merits by the world’s standards doesn’t go away easily. Not even in the church.
Unfortunately, though, worldly indifference is not the worst seed to be sown by such aggrandizing. While it may be easy to understand why someone would be tempted to gin up the church’s operation, the impact of these escapades is a bit more ambiguous. An ecclesial spectacle may dazzle for the moment. In the end, though, doubt is all that’s left in their wake.
The old maxim holds up; anything added to the gospel only distracts from it. And detracts from it.
Making a show of worship only serves to show the hand of the person making the show. And the only thing demonstrated is doubt in the power of the cross. Making a show of worship only shows worshippers that the gospel isn’t enough. Adding anything to the church only sends the message that the gospel needs something more to be effective. Adding a little something to the church only increases its doubt. The old maxim holds up; anything added to the gospel only distracts from it. And detracts from it.
Luckily, or more accurately, blessedly, the antidote to such folderol requires no pyrotechnics. In fact, a conspicuous lack of them will do just fine. Speaking for myself, I recently had the opportunity to experience a little of this divine foolishness at work. And let me tell you, it was a million times better than any stab at power that only ends up demonstrating how feeble we really are.
My wife and I have been holding onto three sets of concert tickets: two purchased before Covid, and one purchased last winter when it looked like we’d be further along. All three concerts have been delayed many times. Finally, it came to pass that one concert got the go-ahead.
Originally the concert was scheduled to be held in a barn, surrounded by acres and acres of rolling forests. However, out of an abundance of caution for the volunteers who make these concerts possible, the venue was moved to a vacant lot on the other side of the river. Suddenly the natural beauty of the original setting was replaced with a gash of urban decay. Knowing the venue would be in the open air, with plenty of room to mill about, gave my wife and me enough assurance to feel we could responsibly attend. Apparently, not everyone shared this view. The concert was about one-third smaller than usual.
The musician, Waxahatchee, soldiered on, though. And I have to admit, it was a welcome reprieve. It was a balm to finally hear some live music with other people. And it didn’t hurt that the music was played during a lovely midwest evening, either.
But this is not to say the night was ideal. The hoots and hollers that usually come after a song were decidedly restrained. And the reticence of the crowd seemed to cow the band a little, too.
That ambiguity played out throughout the night. Overall, though, the good outweighed the bad. At the end of the concert, though, the band boldly leaned into this tension. They ended their set with a cover of Dolly Parton’s 1977 single, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.” And let me tell you, it worked like the best preaching.
Light of a Clear Blue Morning sings of another day. A day that’s clear and bright. A day that, for the moment, is still on the other side of the horizon. As those lyrics filled the air, they were only words. But they held out a promise. They offered entry into the light of a clear blue morning.
A morning that, frankly, was roundly contradicted by the diminished circumstances of that night. However, by the time the band bowed to leave the stage, I could not bring myself to cheer. And not because I was too anxious to, either. No, the promise those words offered, and the chance to witness a handful of people audaciously singing of them, left my heart in my throat.
Before the song was over, the promise of those words was more real than any of my other circumstances.
For a brief moment, my reality had changed. Even though nothing had. And it made all the difference. Those words, and the conviction of the musicians to sing of them, opened up an eternity for me. They took me miles beyond where my two feet were planted. The experience transported me to a place where “everything’s gonna be alright. It’s gonna be okay.” Before the song was over, the promise of those words was more real than any of my other circumstances.
The truth is, on any given Sunday, we’re all stepping through the church doors with our own fair share of setbacks, disappointments, and failures. In other words, we all come to church with enough to undermine the promise that Jesus has opened his kingdom for us by his cross. And in those circumstances, we do not need any religious functionary making it harder for us to believe.
No, what we need is someone willing to stake it all on that promise. We need someone willing to step out on that promise. And even though their conviction can’t give us any of our own, the words behind it can. This is what Paul meant when he said faith comes by hearing. In the end, what we need is someone willing to let our shabby circumstances be the welcome mat for the power of God’s promises. We need someone willing to let every last promise God unleashed on the cross get loose in our circumstances. And the best way to do this is to get out of the way.
All we need is someone willing to let God’s promises soar. That is all it takes for God’s promises to get free rein. And when that happens, even the humblest of those promises can land in our ears, make their home in our hearts, and change absolutely everything for us. Then, at long last, by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us. And we, too, will lift our voice to join the song.