February 22, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Someday I’d like it explained to me why the Lectionary would assign the final verses of a chapter for the week prior to looking at its first 9 verses. Nobody reads the Bible backwards like that so it’s not the least bit clear to me why preaching it this way makes any sense, either. In any event, last week many of us preached on Luke 13:31-35 and now this week we find ourselves faced with jumping back to the beginning of this same chapter to pick up the initial section.
Since we are unlikely to get an explanation of why the Lectionary does it this way, let’s plunge ahead and take a look at what we have here. And what we have here fits Lent pretty well for some of the same reasons we detailed in last week’s set of sermon starter ideas; namely, a text that gets at the urgency of repentance and of getting on board with God’s kingdom. As such, what we have here are both words that sound an urgent note and words that give a little hope that God can be patient, too. On the one hand, you never know when the end might come for you so get with the program sooner rather than later and come to Jesus in repentance. On the other hand, even the unproductive fig tree that might otherwise be chopped down might just get another shot at becoming fertile after all.
So don’t delay forever but on the other hand, there is a little hope for some level of reprieve, too. Still, the bottom line message is clear enough: you cannot wait forever to get matters of eternal importance right in your life.
Ah, but this Jesus in Luke 13 . . . he’s not the one we want in the modern world. Let Jesus be all softness and light, kindness and grace and he can nestle into the marketplace of religions and religious figures pretty easily. Let him spool out charming parables and memorable phrases and gather to himself little children and everyone is fine with him. But that’s not the Jesus we get here.
The Luke 13 Jesus has some sharp edges, some seriousness of purpose even as he exudes a pretty intense set of warnings. It’s easy in reading the gospels to want to divide up everyone into the camp of either the Good Guys or the Bad Guys but the sheer fact of Jesus’ presence on this earth as the incarnate Lord tells us that we’re all finally in the same boat: we all need what Jesus alone can give: grace unto forgiveness for all those who recognize their utter need to repent of everything that is wrong with this world (and of our multiple complicities in that wrongness).
In a memorable scene from the disturbing film Unforgiven, a young gun slinger is literally shaking in his boots in shock and remorse after having shot a man dead for the first time. In a weak attempt to justify himself, the young man says, “Well, I reckon he had it coming.” To this the grizzled old gun slinger played by Clint Eastwood replies, “We all got it coming, kid.”
And that’s Jesus’ point in Luke 13: finger pointing and spending our days coming up with graduated systems by which to rate evil and sinfulness in other people just won’t do. Over against the shining holiness of Almighty God, we all of us need to repent (and repentance is not apparently graded on the curve). One person does not need to present a mouse-size portion of repentance whereas another needs to generate an elephant-size portion: repentance is repentance is repentance. It’s all the same, as is the divine solution and response.
Apparently about the only mistake a person can make—aside from believing he or she is beyond the pale of needing repentance in the first place—is to seek ways to ratchet your own spiritual status higher by downwardly comparing yourself to people you deem worse off than yourself. The gospel encourages us to compare ourselves to just one other person: Jesus, the pioneer of our faith, our elder brother in the family of God. We compare ourselves upwardly to Jesus and that action has the tendency of cutting the very nerve of any temptation subsequently to compare ourselves downwardly to anybody else.
Yes, we all have a tendency to pay more attention to the sins of others than we do to our own sins. Yes, sometimes we use our time to zero in on another person’s problems (real or imagined) precisely as a way to prevent ourselves from having to look in the mirror. But insofar as there is gospel in Luke 13:1-9 (and despite this passage’s grimness, there is gospel here) it is this: there is still time. We can still repent. We can still let the Holy Spirit turn our lives around and cultivate in us the fruit of that same Spirit in ways that will let us display the glory of our God. This is a wholly appropriate message for Lent, of course, but really for any time.
In the Greek text of Luke 13:8 when the servant tells the vineyard owner to “leave it alone,” the Greek is the word aphes, which is, of course, also the root word from which we get “forgiveness” and is identical to Luke 11:4’s presentation of the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive (aphes) our sins.” So it may not be wrong to see the servant’s words in Luke 13 as meaning not just “leave it alone” in the sense of doing nothing to the fruitless tree but as meaning also “forgive it” for its fruitlessness. In this case, the forgiveness seems to do no more than buy the tree a little more time. But suppose that same servant made the same request even a year later. Would the master forgive it again? The gospel seems to say that the answer may be yes. In any event, even those of us who do try to repent of our prior fruitlessness know that we are, even so, never perfect. There is always the need for God to forgive us. Thanks be to God, in Christ, forgiveness is always available, too.
In her startling story “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor introduces us to Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a fussy woman of a certain age who spends her life nurturing gratitude in her heart that she is not like most of the other people she meets. Without knowing it, Mrs. Turpin has narrowed the confines of her world steadily downward to the point that she gives off waves of disapproval to the people around her. One day while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, Mrs. Turpin engages in just enough conversation with another woman in the room as to tip off a college girl named Mary Grace regarding Mrs. Turpin’s true attitudes toward others. (Indeed, in her heart, Mrs. Turpin had already written Mary Grace off as a fat and ugly girl.) Mary Grace finally becomes so incensed at Mrs. Turpin that she hurls her “Elementary Psychology” textbook at her face, blurting out as she does so, “Go back to hell where you belong you old wart hog!”
This shakes Ruby to the core. She’s just sure she’s not an old wart hog.
True, she has spent her days being grateful not to have been born “a nigger” or “white trash,” but still, there is nothing really wrong with her. But the words of Mary Grace don’t go away until one evening Mrs. Turpin gets a revelation. In her mind’s eye, she looks off toward the horizon of the setting sun and sees a giant staircase to heaven. On these stairs the whole mass of humanity is trekking toward God’s heavenly kingdom. But to her shock, the black folks and the white trash folks and the Mary Graces of this world were all leading the way to God’s kingdom with Mrs. Turpin and her ilk taking up the rear.
In Luke 13 Jesus told us to be less concerned with the sins or shortcomings of others and more concerned with our own character and our own godliness. Those who have ears to hear . . .
Author: Doug Bratt
“Come and get it!” is a phrase that traditionally resonated with hungry North Americans. After all, we generally link it with an invitation to eat what someone has prepared. So when we hear “Come and get it!” we may think of Mom, standing on the front steps, hollering for us to come home for supper. Or we may think of the crusty cook on the wagon trail, summoning hungry cowboys to eat the grub he rustled up.
Sophisticated folks may have more refined ways of saying, “Come and get it!” We may think of the butler standing in the foyer and announcing, “Dinner is served!” Or we may think of June Cleaver telling Wally and the Beaver to “Wash up and get dressed for dinner.” It was little more than her polite way of saying, “Come and get it!”
While there’s much to be said for a kind of Christian asceticism that vigorously tries to keep food and drink in its proper place, asceticism has not traditionally marked most expressions of the Christian faith. Many Christians see food and drink as among God’s greatest gifts. In fact, some of us suspect that not celebrating such wonderful gifts may be a sign of profound ingratitude to God.
Isaiah 55 is one of those passages that imagery of food and drink fill. “Come and get it,” the prophet invites, in fact, urges us there. “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen to me, and eat what is good . . .”
This invitation may not sound especially appealing to well-fed Christians. Many of us, after all, have all the wine, milk and bread we need. Some of us would probably much rather have a good salad or juicy hamburger, thank you very much. That’s why Isaiah 55’s preachers and teachers must remember the context in which Isaiah speaks these words. The prophet’s Israelite audience is not well fed. Her enemies and exile have exhausted and decimated her. Desolation and death have wreaked havoc on Israel. God has punished her double for all her sins, turning God’s face away from her.
God, however, refuses to give up on Israel. God does not break God’s covenantal promises to her. Even though Israel turns her back on God, God refuses to abandon her or break the promises God made to David. God is determined to graciously turn his face back toward Israel. So, God urges Israel, “Come and get it!” Come, you who are hungry and thirsty. Come, you who are poor and miserable. Come, share, and delight in the richest of fare, the best food and drink.
Of course, Isaiah 55’s summons to “Come!” suggests the initiative lies entirely with the Lord of heaven and earth. It suggests Israel is hardly lined up at the table, eager to partake of what God graciously offers her. No, God feels the need to urge Israel to come eat and drink what the Lord offers her.
Yet it’s a bit hard to know what exactly God offers here. Is God literally inviting Israel to partake of wine, milk and bread? Or do those material goods point to a deeper, more spiritual reality? As my colleague Scott Hoezee, has noted, it’s sometimes hard, not just here but throughout the Scriptures, to know just where God’s offer of material goods ends and where God’s offer of things like salvation begins.
Clearly the spiritual food that is God’s Word is a vital aspect of God’s invitation in our text. After all, the Lord calls to us listen to God and eat what is good. What God offers to us is a kind of “soul food” that nourishes us as fully as any real piece of bread. What’s more, God says rain and the production of wheat is an analogy for the effectiveness of God’s Word. As surely as the rain falls and the crops grow, Isaiah says, God’s Word affects God’s children in the way that God desires.
Further, the Bible often uses to banquet imagery as a symbol of salvation. God, after all, says, “Come and get it!” to all whom our sins burden. To all who are hungry for eternal life, God says, “Come and get it!” To all who thirst for Christ, the Living Water, God says, “Come and get it!”
Yet while it cost God in Christ virtually everything, this meal costs you and me nothing. When it comes to our salvation, even the most materially wealthy people are like the materially poor people who line up outside soup kitchens and food pantries. In fact, the meal God offers in Isaiah 55 isn’t even available for money. Someone Else, the God of heaven and earth, has picked up the tab because we could never have paid for it anyway.
And so in Christ God announces that the great meal of God’s people’s salvation is ready. He brings God’s children the tasty food of forgiveness and the water of eternal life. Christ invites worshipers to extend to him our open hands of faith by which we simply receive God’s great grace. Even Jesus’ modern disciples’ celebration of the Lord’s Supper in some ways reminds us that the food and drink God offers us is both spiritual and material. For in the bread that we eat, chew and swallow, God is somehow present, by God’s Spirit. In the wine and juice that we drink and swallow, God is somehow present by God’s Spirit.
The bread of the Lord’s Supper in many ways, however, remains what God makes it to be. It’s the stuff of soil and sunshine, of wheat, flour and oil, of yeast and salt. This wine and juice is the stuff of rain, warmth and grapes. So in Jesus’ followers effort to be spiritual about the Lord’s Supper, we don’t ignore the wonderful flavor of this bread or the way it makes us salivate. We savor this wine’s taste on our tongue and the sensation of it sliding down our throats.
In fact, my colleague Scott Hoezee suggests, Jesus gave us real bread and real wine precisely to help us understand that salvation is as real and true as food we eat and liquid we drink. Yet the material reality of the banquet the Lord invites us to share also has implications for our daily lives. It invites us to give thanks to God, not only for communion’s bread and wine, but also for things like pizza and hamburgers, soda and milk, mashed potatoes and pasta. After all, that to which God invites us in Christ to come and get isn’t just the spiritual food of salvation, forgiveness and eternal life. It’s also the very food and drink of our daily lives.
Some strains of Christian theology almost turn up their noses at the invitations offered in Isaiah. Mark Salzman’s novel, Lying Awake describes a Carmelite monastery just outside of Los Angeles where the nuns spend their lives praying and contemplating. They try to so bend all of their thoughts to the Lord that they ignore anything that might distract them.
The nuns assume that food and drink threatens their worship of God. So when they gather for meals, they don’t speak even one word to each other. The only who speaks is the nun who reads from the Bible and classical Christian devotions while the others silently eat and drink. The goal of this convent’s nuns is to do anything but pay attention to the food. A human skull sits near the head of their table, reminding the nuns that since everyone will die anyway, food and drink are only minimally important.
The nuns in Lying Awake obsess about experiencing God’s real presence. So when one of them seems to bear some of Christ’s marks on her body, they’re, at turns, fascinated and horrified. The nuns so focus on feeling God’s presence that they see eating as a distraction from God.
While eating and drinking may distract us, it shouldn’t. It can be for God’s adopted sons and daughters a means of grace, a gift by which God strengthens our faith. After all, not just our salvation, but also the food and drink which God invites you and me to come and get is indeed a gift from God’s generous and gracious hand.
Author: Stan Mast
I have always been moved and challenged by Luke’s description of Christ’s decisive turn to the cross in Luke 9:51. “At the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” An older translation put it more graphically; “Jesus set his face to go up to Jerusalem.” I imagine a face set like flint, his jaw jutting forward, his lips compressed with determination, his eyes blazing with laser like intensity. Nothing would deter his march to the cross.
I wish I had that kind of intensity in my Lenten journey. Instead, I waver and wander, sometimes focusing on Christ and his passion, but more often gazing at the passing scenery or glancing at a rabbit hopping across the desert trail in this “dry and weary land where there is no water.” (verse 1) My lack of resolution is the reason I’ve always found Psalms like Psalm 63 so foreign to my experience and thus so intimidating. But rather than avoid Psalm 63 in this Lenten season, we ought to focus on it more carefully because it shows us the way to a more Christ-like pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world on the way to heaven.
I never really appreciated Psalm 63 and others like it until my wife and I were driving down to Louisville a few years ago for a grand daughter’s birthday. We were searching for something on the radio to take our minds off the long trip, when we got much more than we ever expected. It was a conversation on public radio with Winifred Gallagher, who had just written a book entitled, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. The title of the first chapter says it all–“Pay Attention: Your Life Depends on It.”
The opening lines of that chapter explain what Gallagher means. “Far more than you may realize, your experience, your world, even yourself are the creations of what you focus on. From distressing sights to soothing sounds, protean thoughts to rolling emotions, the targets of your attention are the building blocks of your life.” It was such a fascinating interview that before we knew it we were in Louisville, celebrating the birthday. But that whole business of paying attention has stayed with me ever since. Because of it, I finally know why I have often been so uneasy with Psalm 63 and similar Psalms.
The Psalmist gushes forth these magnificent expressions of his desire for God. “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.” (In patristic times, these words were associated with martyrs who valued God more than life and gave up their lives rather than deny their testimony.) “I will praise you as long as I live….” “My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods….” I love that kind of language, but it’s not my language. I mean, I believe in God with all my mind. I trust God with all my heart. I try to obey God in my whole life. I want to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength. But do I desire God? Do I hunger and thirst for God? Do I enjoy the sort of relationship with God that fills me with love and praise and satisfaction? Do you? Honestly? I read Psalm 63 and I feel guilty, inferior, spiritually weak, because I don’t desire God as David did, at least not all the time, and certainly not with the same kind of intensity.
I wonder what’s wrong with me. I’ve wondered if it’s because I’m not wandering in a desert, as the heading of this Psalm says David was. As he fled from Saul, or more probably from Absalom (note how the writer refers to David as the king in verse 11), David found himself surrounded by enemies in a place where there was no food and water. He was absolutely desperate. While I do have troubles in my life as every Christian does, I would not describe my life as a desert. Maybe that’s why I don’t have David’s passion for God. Maybe I’m not desperate enough.
Maybe, but now I think it is something else. I think it has something to do with verse 6. “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.” No, I don’t think this means I have to stay awake all night. Sleep is a gift from God that should be enjoyed, says Psalm 127:2. “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves.” No, the secret of desiring God is not sleepless nights; it is paying the kind of rapt attention to God that David did, even out there in the desert. Instead of worrying away his nights, anxiously counting the hours of each watch, he thought of God. And because he paid such rapt attention to God, he was filled with desire for God.
As Gallagher writes, what you pay attention to will shape your world—your thoughts, your emotions, your experience, your desires. If you pay attention to financial matters, for example, you will think about money all the time, your emotions will ride the ups and downs of the stock market, and you will desire financial success and stability more than anything. If you pay attention to your family, your emotions will be tied to their joys and sorrows and your greatest desire will be for their happiness. If you pay attention to what’s wrong with your life, you will always be on the lookout for more bad news, sensitive to every insult, passionate about getting even or running away, living with anxiety and depression all the time. What we pay attention to shapes our desires.
The problem is that so much of paying attention is involuntary. Gallagher calls it “bottom up attention,” because it is more like the attention of an animal, an involuntary response to the immediate stimuli of our environment. We automatically zero in on the most obvious, compelling thing at that moment: a cell phone vibrating in the middle of an important conversation, a bee buzzing around in your car as you are hurtling down the highway at 70 miles per hour, a screaming child, a pain in your toe. So much of our attention is captured by the most pressing sensation of the moment.
To pay attention to the invisible, inaudible, intangible God, we must engage in what Gallagher calls “top down attention.” It is voluntary; we can choose what we want to pay attention to. Gallagher says, “It is very easy to let your attention wander, but it is far more productive to focus on a top down target that you’ve intentionally selected.” As the title of her first chapter says, “Pay attention: Your life depends on it.” That is surely true of our life with God. If we don’t pay attention to God, we won’t desire God, even if we believe in him and trust him and obey him. And if we don’t desire God, we won’t enjoy God.
To pay attention to God, we must decide that we won’t focus on other things. It’s that way with all attention. When Tiger Woods stood over a putt in his heyday, he screened out the noise of the crowd, the flashing of flashbulbs, the falling of the rain. When I prepared this sermon starter, I had to decide that I wouldn’t answer the phone, or listen to the chatter in the office, or think about the stock market. You cannot pay attention to God if you let your bottom up attention take over. It’s a big wide world out there with so much that demands our attention, so if we want to pay attention to God, we have to decide what we won’t pay attention to. As Romans 8:5 says, the mind that is set on the desires of our sinful nature will not desire what the Spirit desires. Col. 3:2 says simply, “Set your minds above, not on earthly things.”
Then once we have made that negative decision, we must positively decide that we will direct our focus to God. I know, that sounds so elementary. But it is essential. And we don’t do it very often. Even sitting in church, how often do we intentionally say to ourselves, “I’m going to focus on God right now? I’m not going to be distracted by that squirming child, or by that new hymn I didn’t like, or by the preacher’s mannerisms, or by the perfume of the lady sitting in front of me. I’m going to pay attention to my God. ” When was the last time you said that, either in church or elsewhere?
So we must intentionally direct our attention to God. But how do we pay attention to someone we can’t see or hear or touch? The Psalmist shows us how. We begin by approaching God in prayer. You say something like the Psalmist said. “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek your face….” Jesus said, “Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened to you.” In the very act of asking, seeking, or knocking, we are paying attention to God.
But even in the act of prayer, our attention can wander. Indeed, that is probably our major problem with prayer. We begin by talking earnestly to God, and then we begin to focus on the things about which we are praying, and suddenly we’re not praying anymore. We’re worrying or solving problems or even sleeping. So we must then do what the Psalmist talks about in verse 6. Think about God as you pray. That’s not easy to do, of course, because in a sense God is unthinkable. Oh, we might have our little pictures of God, our mental graven images, but that’s not really God. God is so magnificent that we literally cannot comprehend him. How do you think about a God so big that our minds can’t take him in?
As I’ve noted in other recent posts, John Calvin always said that we can know the person of God from his works. So you pay attention to God’s works as a way of paying attention to God. As you gaze at the majesty of a mountain, or the awesome power of a storm on the Great Plains, or the tender beauty of a tiny flower, or the face of a child you love, focus on what that work of God reveals about God. Or you remember the works of God in providing for your needs, in protecting you from danger, in pushing you to make an important decision. And you pay attention to what that work reveals about God. Or you remember the great saving works of God in history or in your own life—the Exodus of Israel, the conquest of the Promised Land, the return from Exile, that moment God converted you to faith in Christ, that time God delivered you from a potentially disastrous situation.
Most important, you focus on Jesus. The Bible makes it very clear that we see God most clearly in Jesus. In our text David says that he had seen God in the sanctuary. We’re not told how that happened. Was it a vision, some ineffable epiphany? Did he, against all regulations, peek behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies where the Shekinah cloud hovered over the Ark of the Covenant? Or was it a more ordinary sense of God’s Presence brought on by the God-designed beauty of the tabernacle?
We’re not told. But on the authority of the New Testament, we can say to David, “Brother, you ain’t seen nothing vet, until you have seen God’s own Son in human form.” Jesus is the very image of the invisible God, says Col. 1, the exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3). We see the glory of God in the face of Christ, says II Cor. 4:6. So, to pay attention to God, we have to focus on his works, especially the work of salvation personified in Jesus. When your attention wanders, focus your attention on Jesus, using the Bible.
If we pay attention to Jesus properly, we will be reminded that we are not saved by paying attention. We are not saved by being perfect– not in our faith, not in our obedience, not in our love, and not in our efforts to pay attention. We are saved by God’s grace that brings us forgiveness and healing through Jesus. So don’t grade yourself as you try to pay attention to God. You’ll fail more than you succeed. Rather, let your efforts to focus on God lead you again and again to Christ. Then you’ll find yourself awash in grace. And that will make you desire God even more. I love the old hymn, “My God, How Wonderful Thou Art,” that ends like this: “Father of Jesus, love divine, what rapture will it be, prostrate before thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on thee.”
I love to watch my grandchildren play their sports. Recently I watched the 10-year-old play basketball. His great goal in life is to play in the NBA, but he has a ways to go. He has a great coach and a deep desire to succeed. But his attention tends to wander during timeouts. As the coach is giving instructions, my wannabe professional is gazing in rapt adoration at the referees who are killing time by executing all kinds of fancy moves out on the court. (They are all former wannabe’s.) What a picture of the Christian life. We all want to be like Jesus, but our attention wanders from him. And then we keep making the same old mistakes. We all have some spiritual ADD, and only Jesus through the internal power of the Spirit can cure us.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
If in a sermon for seminary any of my students did to the Old Testament what Paul does in 1 Corinthians 10, I would probably tell the student to start over or fail. Paul seems to be playing a bit fast and loose, a bit midrash and allegory where some key stories from Ancient Israel are concerned. He’s got the Israelites getting baptized not just in the Red Sea but in a cloud. He’s got them rebelling not against Yahweh but Christ himself. He’s got them drinking water from a rock and that rock, too, is said to be Christ Jesus himself. Paul takes us on a backwards tumble into history and is tossing in all kinds of spiritualizing interpretations and allusions as he goes along.
Of course, those of us who confess Paul to be a holy Apostle who has the inspiration of the Holy Spirit on his side are pretty much obligated to say that if this is how Paul chooses to interpret biblical history . . . well, then he gets it right! What’s the old line when it comes to Jesus Christ and the Bible: In the Old Testament concealed, in the New Testament revealed. Something like that. But the point is, the whole thing is about Christ. And since we now believe Yahweh is and all along had been the Triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we know that the Person of the Son who became Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, really was present and involved all along. Paul does not need to insert Jesus where he had not been but rather DISCERN the Christ of God who was there to begin with.
Those hermeneutical and theological issues aside, this Lectionary text from 1 Corinthians 10 is, to put it mildly, a curious text. Although Paul is an Apostle of profoundly Good News, of grace unto salvation as the free gift of God, he is fully capable now and then of proffering dire warnings to his Christian friends in places like Galatia, Corinth, Rome, and even Philippi. Here Paul is basically saying, “Look, my squabbling Corinthian sisters and brothers, you who are arguing over everything: the Israelites were as good as a baptized people who were spiritually and literally drenched with the presence of God in Christ. God saved them. He baptized them. He led them in Person. He fed them food and gave them fresh drinking water in a place of pure death. And yet despite the God right in front of them, they kept giving sidelong glances to Baal. Despite a clarion call to holiness so powerful the divine Voice uttering it terrified them, they still took up sexual orgies the moment they got the chance. And despite the loving hand of their loving God all-but handing them bread every morning, they complained like spoiled brats and got what they had coming to them.”
In short, if all that could happen to them . . . it sure can happen to also you who have been baptized into Christ, you who are now walking Temples of the Holy Spirit, you who are also drenched with the permeating presence of Christ. Be well warned!
And, of course, since Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes it clear that they ALREADY were having their fair share of sexual problems, ego problems, complaints, lawsuits, and other forms of spiritual meanness and pettiness, Paul is as good as saying, “Shape up now or it might be the fire next time!”
It’s all very disappointing on one level, of course, and that is perhaps why this sobering and disappointing text is assigned for the sobering Season of Lent. It was bad enough to watch Israel mess up again and again. But at least you could comfort yourself a bit and say “Well, yes, but then again, that was centuries before Jesus was born. It was long before cross and empty tomb and definitely long before Jeremiah’s and Joel’s prophecies had been fulfilled that the very Holy Spirit of God would one day get poured out on God’s children. All that unhappy wilderness stuff Paul refers to from Exodus and Numbers was way before Pentecost, way before stony hearts had become fleshy hearts onto which God inscribed his very Self in a New Covenant in Jesus’ blood.”
All true. Except that the Church has very often proved itself fully capable of wilderness-like shenanigans, and Exhibit A in the New Testament is Corinth itself. We could wish it were not so but at almost any given moment in any given congregation there is enough hurt, enough animosity, enough complaints against the preacher, the praise team, the worship director to tell us we’re never far from being tempted to do it wrong. And if we don’t exactly lay down in sexual revelry in front of literal golden calves, we find other idols that tempt us and other ways to use our bodies in dishonorable ways.
So where is the hope, the Gospel, the Good News in a text like 1 Corinthians 10? True, the Season of Lent calls us to sober penitence and confession but even so, we are still Gospel people and need some hope. Well, surely there is hope even in this pericope that though temptations come, God is still in control and does not let us be overwhelmed. His power is available to us if only we let his Spirit flow into us. We can resist. Or better said, through the Holy Spirit, God enables us to resist.
But perhaps there is some hope to be derived from also the very fact that the New Testament never hides our problems in the church, never tries to prettify the picture of the Church. The Book of Acts never tries to present the earliest days of the Church as some Golden Era that sets the standard for all ages to come. Luke’s narrative is honest: people disagreed, people lied to each other, people parted ways over divisive issues, some of the hardest questions needed to be hashed out, and compromise was sometimes the best way to unity. Sounds familiar. And the subsequent epistles of Paul, John, Peter, and James make clear that the earliest churches had people with egos, hang ups with social status and money, worship services that did not always quite redound to God’s glory as much as some might have hoped.
And yet . . . and yet God was faithful and stuck with these flawed folks. He has never stopped and will never stop calling us to our better selves in Christ, reminding us that we are baptized people who had died to the very nastiness and meanness that too often still worm their way into the Church. Yet grace is real. It is abundant. And the days of people dying from snakebites and being swallowed up by the earth from the wrath of God are also done: all that got laid on Jesus on the cross. All of it. Sin is as serious as ever but we don’t need to look for divine lightning bolts to realize that: a thoughtful glance at Christ’s cross should suffice.
There is no room for excuses in the church. None of this licenses spiritual laziness or some casual approach to morality since God forgives us anyway. No, no. But it is a chance to see ourselves in the Church as we really are, to repent, and then to sing the doxology of God’s grace in Christ once again.
In Lent, the acoustics of that doxology gain in poignancy.
A friend of mine used to be a pastor in Toronto, arguably one of the most diverse cities in the world. The city is chock-full of immigrants from almost every nation, representing a huge panoply of religious faiths and ethnic traditions. (Just walk around Toronto sometime and take note of the ethnic supermarkets and restaurants—you will encounter ingredients, vegetables, and cuisines you’ve never even heard of!)
My friend once preached a sermon on that part of 1 Corinthians in which Paul gives advice—almost certainly in reply to a question the Corinthians had previously sent to Paul on this very idea—on what to do when faced with “food sacrificed to idols.” The sermon expended a good bit of time trying to translate this concept into a modern context, explaining briefly what this had meant way back when 2,000 years ago in Corinth but then spending far more time suggesting current equivalents of this and how we could appropriate and translate Paul’s advice on this now defunct issue to situations we might actually face in the church or in society today.
After the service a young woman from the congregation came up to my friend and said, “Thanks for that sermon but I was just wondering something. See, my boyfriend follows an East Asian faith that is kind of like Hinduism and Buddhism. Friday nights we go to this Temple for a service and a meal but before time they offer the foods to their god who then, I guess, blesses that food before the temple members then eat it at their potluck supper. So I am just wondering for me as a Christian: is it OK if I eat that stuff?”
Sometimes we err when we think old temptations and sins are simply gone now. What goes around comes around. And we in the Church yet today do well to take our lessons from history and see just how and when they may yet quite literally apply to today.