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from a Journey"
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Wouldn't it be nice if our religion could be simpler? I mean, wouldn't it be just great it answers were easier to come by? If things were just a bit neater?
For example, I think to myself, wouldn't it be easier if I could really believe that all of the scriptures were literally true in the sense that they could admit to only a single unquestioned interpretation? But at least for me, that doesn't work.
I find that I have to dig beyond the so-called truth at the surface. Now, that doesn't mean that I don't believe the scriptures; it just means that for me, interpretation is often difficult.
And I think to myself, wouldn't it be easier if I could point to a specific moment in my life, a specific hour of a specific day, when I experienced conversion? And many people can! But for me, it hasn't worked that way. I can't pin it down.
In our denomination we observe two sacraments: baptism and holy communion. And wouldn't it be nice if these sacraments were automatic tickets to salvation! But does it really work that way?
In the tenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul suggests that our spiritual life is not automatic.
And although Paul frequently does a lot of abstract theoretical theological stuff in his letters, in this case, he has something tangible to grab hold of: the history of the Jewish people. He doesn't have to talk about the wild blue yonder: history proves his point.
And we need to remember that Paul was an extremely well-educated Pharisee.
He begins this chapter by saying, "I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea."
And we hear of the children of Israel on the journey out of Egypt.
From the twenty-first and twenty-second verses of the thirteenth chapter of Exodus we read,
"The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.
"Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people."
And again, in the twenty-first through the twenty-fifth verses of the fourteenth chapter of Exodus we read, "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. "The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.
"At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty.
"The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt."
And Paul would conclude that "all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea."
If the Israelites needed a conversion experience to prove to them that God was working through Moses, this should have done it.
But there is more. Paul goes on to say, "all ate the same spiritual food."
And we know from the fourth verse of the sixteenth chapter of Exodus: "Then the Lord said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.
"In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not."
And Paul continues, "all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ."
And we hear the words of God to Moses in the sixth verse of the seventeenth chapter of Exodus, "I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink."
And again, in the eighth verse of the twentieth chapter of Numbers, "Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, and you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water.
"Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock."
But the spiritual food and the spiritual water was not left in the wilderness with the children of Israel. It continues with us in the consecration of the bread and the wine by Jesus at his last supper with his disciples. And the blessing of that consecration is with us whenever we celebrate that occasion.
But Paul suddenly shifts gears. "Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness."
And again from the book of Numbers, the twenty-sixth through the thirtieth verses of the fourteenth chapter: "And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me? "I have heard the complaints of the Israelites, which they complain against me. "Say to them, "As I live," says the Lord, "I will do to you the very things I heard you say: your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and of all your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upward, who have complained against me, not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb son of Jeppunneh and Joshua son of Nun."
And Paul points out that "these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did."
Desire evil? In the midst of all these marvelous signs from God, how could the children of Israel have possibly gone astray?
God has miraculously led them out of Egypt, has fed them with bread from heaven and water from rocks, and still they have gone astray. At a distance, it is easy for us to naively and self-righteously ask, "How could this have happened?"
And Paul is concerned that the Corinthians may be doing the same thing. Now, it's been a few years since this letter was written, but there still may be some messages here for us. In a sense our lives may often feel like a wilderness: a wilderness in which we overlook the miracles of God.
And Paul begins to catalog the sins of the children of Israel: "Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play." And we're hearing words from the thirty-second chapter of Exodus. The Israelites have lost faith that Moses will come down from the mountain, so they ask Aaron to make them a god. And Aaron makes a golden calf and builds an altar before it.
And the people celebrate their new god.
Well, we may not have golden calves, but I fear that we nevertheless have other idols which we from time to time worship. When, as the Israelites, we lose patience; when our life doesn't seem to be working out quite like we had planned; when God seems to be on vacation--it is then that we begin to look for substitutes. And whenever earthly "things" begin to control our lives, we have created our own golden calves.
And Paul continues, "We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day." Actually, Paul's figures are wrong.
He's referring to the twenty-fifth chapter of Numbers, where in the ninth verse we read, "Those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand." I know. Picky, picky, picky.
But the immorality to which Paul refers was the intermarriage of the Israelites with foreigners. Nowadays we might not think of marriage to a foreigner as an immoral act, but the Israelites feared corruption of their faith; and in this particular passage the foreigners are Moabites, who worshipped the Caananite god Baal.
Immorality is frequently a difficult word to define, but we should find this passage helpful. For in this context, immorality is that which corrupts and destroys our faith.
Paul tells the Corinthians, "We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents."
And here he is referring to the fourth through the sixth verses of the twenty-first chapter of Numbers: "From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.
The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is not food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." The Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died."
Now, I think there are two parts to the message of the Israelites. The first part I suspect we have all, at some time or another, sent to God. We have asked, in one way or another, "Why am I here?" "Where am I going?" "What's going to happen to me?"
But it was the second part, I believe, that brought on the plague of serpents. When the Israelites spoke of the detestable, miserable food, they expressed their ingratitude, they insulted God, and diminished what God was trying to do for them.
"Do not complain," Paul continues, "as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer."
Now, this is somewhat unclear, but reminds us of the sixteenth chapter of Numbers, which deals with revolts against Moses.
In the twelfth through the fourteenth verses we read, "Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab; but they said, "We will not come!
"Is it too little that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us?
"It is clear you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come!"
And what became of the revolts? In the forty-ninth verse we learn that "those who died by the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred."
And Paul draws his conclusion. "These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come."
For Paul truly believed that the end of time was near at hand, and that the Corinthians should take heed from the learnings of their history.
"So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it."
And I hear Paul telling me that, No, maybe it wouldn't be better if my religion were simple. Because if I think I've got all the right answers, I should probably take heed lest I fall. And I suspect that if I ever should think that I have all the right answers, I will have created my own golden calf.
But we can take refuge in the knowledge that our uncertainties, our tests, have been experienced by others, and are common to all. And the record of the Jewish people is filled with such experience.
Yet, through it all, God is with us. God is faithful to us. But we must be patient. We must keep faith with God. For as Paul tells us, with testing God will also provide the way out, so that we may be able to endure it.
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