Imagine for a moment a bunch of kids playing in an empty field. They are running around playing tag, laughing and giggling as kids do. All of a sudden, one of the boys trips on a rock, falls and gets hurts. He was not hurt bad, but the game stops anyway, and everyone begins to gather around the boy to see if he’ll be ok. When the game resumes something changes; instead of running without a care in the world the kids start to look down, slow down, and genuinely act more careful. The block the boy tripped on changed the dynamic of the group; they saw their world differently and reacted to it as such.
The question many would ask in this scenario is whether or not the stumbling block was good or bad. On first sight, a parent would probably make the argument that the stumbling block was bad in that it got someone hurt but ultimately good because it taught the children about safety. But the children would probably come back and say that it was bad all around because not only did someone get hurt but, the game was just not as fun. Who would be right?
Paul talks a lot about stumbling blocks; my guess is that this is because he had a lot of them. We know from his writing that he had a “Thorn in his side,” though, we can only speculate what that was. We also know from his writings, he was probably a very poor speaker. This is interesting because he was so crucial for the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, you would think that he spoke like Billy Graham, but apparently that was not the case.
You would think that poor speech would change the way he did his ministry, even maybe stop him from doing it, but it seems to not get in the way. Fundamentally, while stumbling blocks might bring awareness, they cannot hold you back from doing what you are really supposed to be doing. Sometimes it does not really matter, as in the case of the kids playing, but often we find that stumbling blocks keep us from doing what we are called to do.
I know this is something that I have had to work on. Like many professional speakers I grew up with speech issues, spending a lot of time with speech therapists to get my speech to be understandable. It was hard work, but looking back I realize that what I was doing in the speech classes was reprograming my brain around the stumbling blocks built in, creating new paths of understanding.
In the passage this week, Paul highlights some stumbling blocks. But unlike the rock, or issues speaking, the stumbling block that both the Jews and the Gentiles have is the very nature of who they are. For the Jews it is the constant search for signs, the desire to have a checklist that all which has been prophesized had been completed. For the Gentile it is the knowledge, education and all that comes with that. In both cases their nature makes them overly cautious and skeptical of the other’s understanding, and causes them to discount or discredit that which is foreign. By doing so, they make the choice to follow their ways over God.
This is like the kids that are now far more concerned about the rock than their play. What Paul says is that we are set free from our stumbling blocks and must relearn our ways so that we can grow in faithfulness to God. He does recognize that this is foolish, but he also says boldly “For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.”
As you prepare for worship this week, think about what your stumbling blocks are in life and ask yourself how you maneuver around them. Do you look foolish to others as you do this? Do you care?
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Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen