Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The decades of the 1960s and 70s were times of upheaval and great change in America. Institutions that had been the bedrock of our society were being called into question and even actively rejected by many. Some of the changes were undoubtedly good and necessary, such as the breaking down of the barriers of racial discrimination. Other changes were more intent on the tearing down of authority and moral boundaries, which seems to continue to this day.
Growing up in those years was an experience that made me shake my head a lot. Raised in a patriotic and Christian home, I just couldn’t understand how anybody living in America could be so antagonistic toward our government, our culture, our economic system, or the values that had shaped our society.
When I would voice my opinion about how crazy it all seemed, my parents would patiently let me ramble on for a while. I knew that they shared many of my thoughts and concerns, and, of course, had actually shaped my attitudes. They just did a much better job applying the 8th commandment.
“Just remember,” they would say, “even the worst person can at least serve as a bad example.”
In the text for today, Paul calls many examples to the attention of the believers in Corinth. The Corinthian church was struggling in its own day to remain faithful to the gospel of Christ which Paul had preached to them.
They were not only in danger of being swallowed up in the temptations of the pagan world around them. They were also becoming fragmented and split into factions by internal divisions and disagreements. This battle on two fronts—against the world and against one another—had the potential of corrupting or even destroying this congregation. It was pulling them in directions that would keep them from living and growing according to God’s will and God’s word.
When people are struggling in their life of faith like the Corinthians, when they are facing temptations and conflicts, sometimes the most effective means for them to understand God’s judgment and God’s grace is learning by example.
Paul’s first set of examples are those which reminded the Corinthians of God’s good and gracious care toward the people of Israel after they had left Egypt. Paul points first to the unity in which all of the Israelites experienced God’s gifts: Together, all of them were guided by the cloud; all of them were saved from the pursuing Egyptians by passing through the sea, all of them were provided the manna and quail and water to nourish and sustain them in a harsh environment. The same gifts, for all.
In being baptized into Moses, the Israelites were to be united as one people, under a common leadership, with a single purpose. Paul’s use of these examples should have struck a note with the Corinthian church, and with us as well. Each of us has experienced similar examples of God’s grace.
In a sense, all Christians are led and guided to faith through a cloud. Not a physical cloud like the Israelites followed in the desert, but that great cloud of witnesses who are written about in the book of Hebrews. This cloud does not consist of vapor that can not be grasped or held. This cloud of witnesses are the many believers through the ages who heard, accepted, and passed along the Word of God with solid, reliable testimony for those of us who would follow.
The Corinthians knew they had not been baptized into Moses. He was, after all, a mere man despite his great leadership and faithfulness. Moses’ task was to lead the Israelites into a place of worldly safety, comfort, and plenty. Instead, like you, the Corinthians had been baptized into Jesus Christ, the Son of God. You have the promise of eternal safety, comfort, and plenty by faith in His death and resurrection.
Paul had reminded the Corinthians a short time earlier in the letter that, despite whatever wickedness they had done in their past lives, they had been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. So it is for you as well.
Paul’s further example of God’s gracious care to the Israelites was that of the spiritual food and drink, flowing from the rock of Christ. The implications of this would not have escaped the Corinthians’ understanding. Although it had not yet been mentioned in the letter by Paul, he had been informed that the Lord’s Supper was being abused at Corinth.
To some, the meal had simply become a time to eat and drink, without reverence for the body and blood of Christ. They were not sharing the meal in proper fellowship with one another. They were not participating with the understanding of it being a holy sacrament, conducted in the presence of God and given by God for the forgiveness of sins, salvation, and strengthening of souls. How are you viewing and receiving it?
Paul’s second set of examples serve as a warning against rejecting the word of the Lord and being tempted to direct our cravings and desires toward improper things. He calls upon the Corinthians to reject the sinful examples which caused the Israelites to not only lose many of the benefits they enjoyed while following God faithfully, but to actually perish.
The Israelites had taken on false gods, both in the golden calf and in the gods of other nations they encountered. In righteous jealousy over the devotion He alone deserved, the true God allowed many to die. They had been sexually immoral with a pagan people, and thousands succumbed to disease. They grumbled about their situation, and thousands fell from serpent bites. They rebelled against God and their leaders; the earth swallowed up many, and far more died in the subsequent plague.
Each of these evil desires was also being carried out, in its own way, by members of the church in Corinth. And they are desires and actions that we still know and too often follow today. You might not bow to actual graven images in the pagan temples, or share in food sacrificed to idols, but you still create your own false gods. You sometimes put your dependence, loyalty, and devotion toward your job, your relationships, your possessions, your entertainment, or your finances. Like the Israelites and the Corinthians, you sometimes trust in our own knowledge and judgment, rather than in God’s love shown to you in Christ. Repent; be forgiven and renewed.
Like the Israelites, the Corinthians were divided and grumbling. They were rebellious against God and against their leaders. Complaints were being voiced about Paul and his colleagues, calling their legitimacy and authority into question. Feelings of anger and dissatisfaction, like those which had earlier been targeted on Moses and Aaron, were now being directed toward Paul. Disputes were being carried to the point of lawsuits in the public courts, one church member against another. Groups within the congregation were aligning themselves with various leaders and doctrines, not remaining united as one in truth under Christ Jesus.
When you find yourself falling into the trap of criticizing others, particularly within the church, remember the example of what Israel suffered for its grumbling, as well as the admonitions given by Paul to the church at Corinth.
Paul’s third set of examples for the Corinthians’ guidance, and ours, centers on how the Lord provides grace for the Christian who faces temptation. Note that Paul first warns that we must always face temptation with humility, and not with self-assurance. Paul writes, “Let him who thinks he stands be careful that he does not fall.”
It’s impossible to resist temptation on your own. Inheriting your vile and corrupt nature from the sinners who begat and bore you, you can’t avoid that plunge into sin, over and over. But you do have hope against temptation. Paul tells us three key things that exemplify God’s love and faithfulness in keeping you from a constant downward spiral of temptation and sin.
First, he indicates that the temptations you face are those which all have faced throughout history. There really are no new temptations, just new ways for the same old temptations to come to you. The Ten Commandments anticipate and address all the sins you could possibly imagine. The first commandment alone is sufficient to describe how all the others arise. Having those commandments written in your heart and always at your disposal—“at your command”, if you will—helps you recognize the temptations that come your way are just another twist on the same old theme from your adversary, Satan.
Second, God’s faithfulness will not allow any temptation to become greater than you could bear. “How can that be?” you ask. “I’m tempted all the time, and all too often I give in to it and commit the sin. It sure seems like I can’t resist it.”
The blunt truth is: There’s a big difference between “can’t” and “won’t”. You can, with God’s help, resist any temptation, if you let Him. It’s just that some sins are so enjoyable in the short term, you give in. You don’t allow your New Man—given in Christ—to wrestle the Old Adam to the ground. To win that battle, you need the added power of the Holy Spirit—as it came to you in baptism and continually strengthens you in the Word. Call upon that power by praying to your Father in heaven when you need it, and He will hear you. Will you hear Him back?
Paul’s third example of God’s grace in the face of temptation is that He will always provide you an escape route. Unfortunately, like a stubborn driver who won’t ask for directions, you’ll sometimes miss this escape, or drive right past it with your nose in the air, seeking your own solution. If you can’t stand up to temptation, and don’t want to fall, don’t stand and fight on your own. Run from it as fast as you can, praying, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Speaking of examples, you always have the opportunity, when confronted by the temptation to sin, to follow the lead of your Savior. I’m not talking about some cheap-fix, do-it-yourself “What Would Jesus Do?” approach to resisting temptation. It must not rest on your own subjective sense of how Christ might view right and wrong, or on your own reasoned decisions. No, when He was confronted by temptation, even by the person of Satan himself, Jesus used the ultimate weapon against the tempter’s deceit: He used the truth of the Word of God, and properly applied it against the devil’s lies and misquotations.
The people of Israel had been delivered from death twice in short order: Once in the blood of the unblemished lamb in the Passover, and again in the passage through the waters of the sea as they made their escape. They were sustained with holy food and drink while they wandered in a barren world and awaited their arrival in a wondrous new home.
It would be difficult to find another section of scripture so rich in images that look ahead to the sacrificial, substitutionary death of Christ, and to the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Supper. These events all point to delivery from death by the power of God.
Israel had been chosen by God especially for His purposes. They were not only chosen to be His favored people, and to receive His blessings. They were also chosen to pass along to all other peoples and nations the greatest blessing of all, the salvation from sins and death through Christ Jesus, a man to be born of their bloodline.
Another key aspect of Israel’s status as the “chosen people” is often overlooked or forgotten, however. They were also expected to serve as an example to other nations. Israel was to both communicate and demonstrate God’s nature, and His ways, and His blessings, to all others, as they had been taught.
As a child of the new Israel, you in the church of Christ are to do likewise. From your blessed status as His chosen ones, His elect, you are to share His gospel with those who have not yet heard it. You have experienced the great Passover, as the Lamb is bloodied to mark you protected from the wrath of God. You’ve been through the drowning of the evil pursuer, crossing over from slavery to freedom on your journey toward your promised home. You, too, share in divinely-provided food and drink which sustains you as you travel the wilderness of this life.
Israel had plenty of tangible, obvious signs of God’s power and yet they still turned aside from the Lord. Their example to us is therefore flawed in many ways. Even so, these examples are still useful in pointing you to dependence upon God in Christ alone.
As you continue on your 40-day Lenten journey, may you keep your focus not on what you’ve left behind in your spiritual Egypt, not on the idolatry and immorality with which the world entices you, nor on whatever comforts and luxuries you think you are lacking.
Instead, follow the cloud that leads us all, and drink from that rock which accompanies us: The crucified and risen Jesus. He is your only source and hope for protection, forgiveness, life, and salvation.
In His holy (X) name, Amen.