1 Corinthians 10:1-13
The escape from Egypt, or the Exodus from Egypt, tends to be a common theme that shows up in the Scripture passages that we focus on during Lent. And that’s because as we move toward Easter and the triumphant salvation event that we celebrate at Easter, it does us some good, usually, to look back at that other great salvation event in the Scriptures. Until Jesus rose triumphantly from the grave and paved the way to eternal life for all who will believe, the Exodus of God’s people from slavery in Egypt was the most wonderful, most amazing and most stunning salvation event in all of human history.
We can look back on that event, and when we see the mighty hand of God at work, the awesome miracles that took place, and the stunning moment of deliverance that God orchestrated with a bit of help from Moses, we’re just enthralled by the whole thing. We love it! The story of how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt is a powerful account not only of God’s love for his people, but also of his compassion for them. God saw the trouble that the people were having, God grieved over the oppression that they were enduring, and God rescued them and gave them an amazing hope and promise for the future. Isn’t that just great? Of course it is. It reminds us that as amazing and wonderful as the escape from slavery in Egypt was, that our own salvation, our own deliverance from sin and death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ is even more amazing and even more wonderful. We love the story of Exodus. It is grand.
But for the people of God who experienced the Exodus personally and first-hand? Well, not so much. It turns out that they don’t quite share our excitement and enthusiasm. For them, it wasn’t all that grand. For them it was a pain in the neck. For them it was not a pleasant experience at all, and most of them ended up wishing that they’d never left Egypt in the first place. And I think what happened to them is what sometimes happens to us. The idea of being miraculously rescued from slavery and oppression was exciting. When they were slaves in Egypt, everyone wanted to leave. Everyone wanted out. But once they got out of Egypt and into the desert, this business of living daily by faith and in complete dependence on God wore a little thin, and they became impatient. It was that space between salvation and the fulfillment of the promise that tripped them up. Now granted, 40 years is a long time to wait. But in God’s mysterious wisdom, it was exactly and precisely how long they needed to wait, because during that time they were learning to trust in God and to live daily by faith.
And God gave them ample opportunity to do that. In a land that supported no life at all, food and water arrived miraculously and always at the right moment. The people of God never went hungry and they never went thirsty. God always provided for them. When the Apostle Paul reminds us of this, he makes a huge leap of interpretation and he describes God’s provision for his people in the desert in the language of Christian baptism and communion.
Paul says that our ancestors were all under the cloud. That means that they were all under constant and divine protection and that they even had a visible symbol of God’s abiding presence the whole time that they were in the desert. Paul says that they were baptized into Moses. That’s really cool, actually. Moses is the great salvation figure of the Old Testament, and so Paul can feel justified in saying that God’s people were baptized into Moses, much in the same way that we, and the people living in the city of Corinth have been baptized into Jesus Christ. And then he says that they all ate the same spiritual food and that they all drank the same spiritual drink. I wonder if the folks living in the desert understood that the manna that they ate and the water that they drank was truly spiritual food and drink? Did they really understand that while the manna and the water nourished them physically, that it also nourished them spiritually? Did they make the connection that their food and drink was sacred and holy because its sole source was the miraculous provision of God? Can we trace the source of the food and drink that we will enjoy today back to the miraculous provision of God? We are reminded of this and much more every time we gather around the communion table to celebrate the great salvation we have in Jesus Christ. All that we have and all that we enjoy is a gift from God, and all is sacred and holy.
And then we have this business of the rolling rock. I’m not sure if the beer makers had this in mind when they named their brew, but they might have if they were big on Hebrew tradition. Paul just tosses this thing in here as if we all know about it and are all fine with it. But the truth is we don’t know anything about it. On this, except for our buddy Paul, the Scriptures are silent. But this we do know. Later on, in Hebrew tradition there developed this idea that the rock that Moses struck in anger to get water out of in the desert, stayed with the people of God. It just kept rolling along behind them and became their constant and dependable source of water until they reached the Promised Land. Now, whether or not Paul actually believed this tradition is something we’ll probably never figure out. He does refer to it as a “spiritual” rock, but that really does not let us off the hook. Oftentimes in the Scriptures, when something is described as being “spiritual”, it is more real than something that we would call “actual”. But then he goes on to describe it as being a symbol of Jesus Christ himself. The whole thing remains a mystery, but fortunately Paul’s point about it does not remain a mystery. The point is that throughout the desert wanderings, God’s people experienced miracle after miracle, they basked in the visible and symbolic presence of God, and perhaps even in the presence of Jesus Christ, and yet, in spite of all of these good and sacred and holy indicators, they still messed up. They failed to live by faith in an environment that was intentionally designed to lead them to live by faith. In fact, that environment demanded that they live by faith.
And so Paul can say, “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.”
And then he goes on to indicate that when they refused to live by faith, they reverted to living by their wits instead. And that did not work out for them at all. They fell into all kinds of grievious sins. They did the idolatry thing, they had fun with sexual immorality, they put God to the test, and they excelled in grumbling and complaining. It turns out that participating in spectacular spiritual experiences does not protect anyone from falling into terrible sin, especially if they do not consider the biblical mandates to live by faith.
Twice in this passage Paul says that these things happened to the people sojourning in the desert to serve as a warning and as an example to us. And that’s partially true. These things do function as a warning and as an example to us, so that we can learn from our ancestor’s miserable failings. But even more so, I believe, these things happened to real people under real circumstances. And that’s exactly where we all are this morning. We are real people and we struggle under some very real circumstances. We fight the same temptations that the people in the desert fought and we fight the same temptations that the Christians in Corinth fought. And that’s why Paul says, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” Nothing is new when it comes to the temptation to live by our wits rather than by constant faith in Jesus Christ. The stuff that the desert wanderers gave in to, and the stuff that the Corinthian Christians gave in to is the very same stuff that threatens to undo us.
Like the people of God in the desert, we live in the space between salvation and the fulfillment of the promise. And waiting for the fulfillment can be difficult. Paul says that we live in that amazing space where the ends of the ages have come. That sounds bold, but it is true. The folks in Corinth lived in that space, and so do we. This is that time, in God’s reckoning, when the end can clearly be seen, because the promise of the end has already been given. And so, in a sense, while we have been rescued and delivered from our sins, we are still waiting to arrive in the Promised Land. We are still in the desert of this world. And yes, we live in an age of wonders and miracles and glory. And maybe that’s why temptation comes to us so oppressively.
And so we must live moment by moment. The Christian life must be lived by faith only. When we live by our wits, things don’t go so well for us. The good news, however, if we live by faith, God is faithful, and he will not let us be tested beyond our strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that we may be able to endure it. I like that. But I also desperately need it.