Foolishness to the Lost

(Zechariah 9:9-17; Mark 11:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

April Fool’s Day isn’t usually seen as a Christian holiday, but it probably ought to be. We think of this as a day when people make fools of each other, but it’s also a good day to think about the ways we make fools of ourselves, and how foolish our conventional “wisdom” often is. Take the case of Fred Smith, the founder of Federal Express. We take overnight delivery for granted, but when he proposed the idea in a paper for a class at Yale, the professor gave him a C, telling him it was interesting but couldn’t be done. Fortunately, Smith proved him wrong. Or consider David Sarnoff; when he first suggested to his bosses at RCA that radio could be a moneymaker, he was told, “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” When he arranged the first commercial radio broadcast in 1921, of the heavyweight championship match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier, they found out; by 1924 RCA was selling over $80 million a year worth of radios.

The world is not as wise as it thinks it is, and sometimes you have to be willing to be a fool in order to get anywhere; and doubly willing if you would seek to follow Jesus. Paul makes this point forcefully to the Corinthians, who were trying to conform the message of the gospel to the conventional wisdom of their day; and he makes this point to us as well, because it’s a lesson we keep having to relearn. God will not defer to our judgment, and he will not submit to our expectations. The gospel is not wisdom on human terms: it is a contradiction to human wisdom.

This is the point where Palm Sunday and April Fool’s Day meet. Why did the crowds rejoice to see Jesus coming? Look at Zechariah 9: “Rejoice greatly . . . Shout aloud . . . Look, your king is coming, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” And so he comes, and they respond from Psalm 118, which was used during the celebration of the Passover; it’s a victory psalm, and the last half describes the king’s triumphal procession through the gates of the city to the altar in the temple. The procession was to be marked with branches, and palm branches in particular were a symbol of victory. The crowds were praising Jesus as a conquering hero, as the heir of David come to take his throne and restore Israel to its rightful place among the nations.

They wanted a military and political messiah, a great liberator and conqueror, because they were still thinking of Israel’s destiny in political terms. They had read Zechariah, but missed his point: they got the king part, but failed to see the rest. There is nothing in this passage that speaks of Israel being established among the nations. The king arrives, not on a war horse, but on a donkey—a beast of burden, a working animal—and there is an immediate end to any sort of warfare, as he commands peace to the nations. Israel’s deliverance will be the work of God alone, accomplished by his power alone. This is not a political victory in view here, it’s something altogether different.

Jesus is indeed the conquering hero, the coming king of Israel, but not the way they expect. The crowds see Rome as their enemy and their salvation as political independence. Jesus came to give us a far greater salvation, from the power of sin and death—but while that made him the king they needed, he wasn’t the king they wanted. They wanted worldly success, political and military power, and Jesus refused. That’s why, just a few days after hailing him as king, the crowds would mock him as a fool: by their standards, he was. In the judgment of the world, God is a fool.

God’s foolishness begins with a crucified Messiah. We get used to this, as Easter goes by every year, but if you really stop to think about it, it’s crazy. As the New Testament scholar Gordon Fee put it, “No mere human, in his or her right mind or otherwise, would ever have dreamed up God’s scheme for redemption—through a crucified Messiah. It is too preposterous, too humiliating, for a God.” No self-respecting God would put himself through something like that—becoming human, sharing all the nasty parts of life, and then submitting to be tortured to death—and for what? For us? Surely it’s beneath his dignity. But God doesn’t let his dignity get in the way of his love for us.

If a crucified Messiah is God’s foolishness, then surely Jesus was God’s designated fool. We see him as a great wise man and a great teacher, but a lot of those around him thought he was at least a fool, if not worse. He just didn’t act like a normal person, and his teaching didn’t make sense. For Jews and Greeks alike, the idea that the God who created the universe would become human was impossible and scandalous; the idea that instead of establishing his power on Earth, that God would allow the authorities to execute him . . . well, that would have been utterly inconceivable. For all their disagreements, the Jewish and Greek worlds agreed on one thing: this Christian story was crazy.

And yet, it was through this crazy story that God saved the world. It wasn’t through any of our own work or our own wisdom, not even the best we could offer, that God saved us; in his own wisdom, God saw to that. Though this all looks foolish to the unaided eye, God’s foolishness outsmarts our wisdom. Christ’s crucifixion, the ultimate act of powerlessness, is the ultimate act of God’s power; his crucifixion, which is complete foolishness to those who are lost, is the ultimate act of his wisdom. We don’t have the choice to look for some wiser way, because there isn’t one; we can only trust God and be saved by his wise foolishness, or cling to our own wisdom and be lost.

We aren’t called to a Palm Sunday faith, that celebrates Jesus when he’s popular and we’re riding high and everything’s going well, then turns on him when he starts making people mad and the road starts to look rough. We’re called to the faith of Easter: a faith that understands that it was precisely by his defeat that Jesus conquered, that a shameful and scandalous execution was the moment of God’s greatest glory, and that it’s only by going through that death and coming out the other side that Jesus brought about our salvation. To the world, the idea that a triumphal procession would lead not to a throne, but to that, is pure foolishness; but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God for us, in which we glory.

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