1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Third Sunday in Lent
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. Easter is always fun, and we want to get to it as soon as possible, but as we move in the direction of all of that fun, and the triumphant salvation of that event, 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. 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 a 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 the Exodus! It is super-grand.
So, the people of God who experienced the exodus personally and first-hand, must also have been thrilled with all of the marvelous grandness of it, right? It must have been a thrill a minute! Well, not really; not so much, anyway. They don’t share our excitement. They hated participating in the Exodus. It was awful for them. They were angry and dissatisfied most of the time. They grumbled and complained constantly, and most of them ended up wishing that they had never left Egypt in the first place.
And I think that what happened to them is what sometimes happens to us. The idea of being miraculously rescued from slavery and oppression was exciting. When God’s people 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 up-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. And 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 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 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? 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 all about it and are just 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 it in the desert, stayed with the people of God. It just kept rolling right 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, though, as a “spiritual” rock, 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, and yet, in spite of all of these good and sacred and holy indications, 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 say that when they refused to live by faith, they chose to live by their wits instead, and that did not work out for them at all. They fell into all kinds of grievous 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. One would think that living by faith is essential to life.
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 the miserable failings of God’s people from a long, long time ago. And that’s a good thing. But we’re not likely to learn those lessons unless we realize that these people were real people. And they were real people living under very real and very difficult circumstances. And that’s exactly where every one of us here this morning lives. We, also, are real people. And we also, are always living under some very real and some very difficult circumstances. We fight the same temptations that the people in the desert fought, and we fight the same temptations that the followers of Jesus in Corinth fought. Nothing is new when it comes to temptation. All is old, and all is very unoriginal. And that is why the Apostle Paul is able to say, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” We are all in this together. The road to destruction is marked with very familiar sign-posts; we just think that they look new and exciting.
Like the people in the desert, we live in the space between salvation and the fulfillment of the promise. Our promised land still lies in the unknowable future. And so waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to us can not only be frustrating but also difficult. The Apostle Paul knew this, and so he says that we live in that amazing space where the ends of the ages can clearly be seen. The folks in Corinth lived in that space, and so do we.
Paul’s admonishment to us is that we ought to do a better job of living in this space than did God’s people of old. They, too, had a promise to look forward to, but they squandered the opportunity to live righteously while they waited.
Like God’s people, we too, have a promised land that lies ahead of us. Let’s not squander the opportunity to live righteously while we wait.