Text: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Growing up, my brother and I were very close. We were less than two years apart, shared a room until we were teenagers, and often had overlapping circles of friends. But when it came to keeping out of trouble, we could be very different. I was more conflict-adverse, a people pleaser, and only overtly broke the rules when I was pretty certain I could get away with it. My brother, on the other hand, loved to test the boundaries. He always had to find out if our parents or teachers were really willing to back up their threats. If someone said “or else,” he’d usually choose the “else.” In short, though he was a pretty good kid, my brother liked to learn the “hard way.”
In our Epistle reading for today, St. Paul is warning the Corinthians about learning the “hard way.” He points to the Old Testament as the source for examples, and urges his reader to learn from the Israelites, so that we might not fall into the same troubles as they did.
Please open your bibles to 1 Corinthians 10. You can also find this in your bulletin hand-out or in your Prayer Book on page 201. The chapter begins:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
St. Paul begins by reminding us who our spiritual forefathers were: in the Exodus story, they were united as God’s people, baptized into Moses and supernaturally sustained. The cloud refers to the symbolic presence of God that led them as a cloud by day and fire by night. They all went through the Red Sea during the Exodus, the event in which God redeemed them from slavery into Egypt. God’s presence and redemption were central to their identity as God’s people. Remember how often God would address them by saying, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.” This is the foundational aspect of the Mosaic Covenant, the Mosaic Law: because God had rescued the Israelites, they were to be his people, and he was to be their God.
But not only did he rescue them, he fed them during their time in the desert. Most every morning, God provided manna for them to eat. In Psalm 78, the manna is called “grain from heaven” and “the bread of angels.” It was both spiritual and physical food. Similarly, the Old Testament tells us that God supernaturally provided water from a Rock. Longstanding Jewish tradition had said that it was the same Rock each time, following the Hebrews throughout their journeys. St. Paul goes a step further, and tells us that the Rock was Christ himself in a pre-Incarnation manifestation. We don’t have time to go into it today, but the Old Testament is full of “theophanies,” times when God appeared to the patriarchs or prophets or others in some sort of physical manner. Many theologians agree that these were probably God the Son, Jesus, as it is the 2nd Person of the Trinity that becomes incarnate.
Two of my favorite historical theologians, the Church Father St. John Chrysostom and the Reformer John Calvin note that this is clearly sacramental language. The Exodus is a type of our baptism. What was the means by which God rescued the Israelites from Pharaoh? Through the waters of the Red Sea. What is the means by which God rescues us from the World, the Flesh, and the Devil? Through the waters of Baptism. The Exodus was the sign of Israel’s redemption, and the people could point back to that event whenever they doubted their identity. Baptism is the sign of our redemption, and Christians can point back to our baptism whenever we doubt our identity in Christ. Similarly, as God sustained and strengthened the Israelites in their desert wanderings with supernatural manna and supernatural water, he spiritually sustains and strengthens us with the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. In the Old Testament, they were fed with the bread of angels. In the New we are fed from the very Table of the Lord.
As rightly encouraging as that is, St. Paul also gives stern warnings. Verse 5:
Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.
In these verses, St Paul refers to several of the worst tragedies of the Exodus story. Verse 7 refers to the incident with the Golden Calf in Exodus 32. Verse 8 refers to the worship of Baal Peor through ritual prostitution in Numbers 25. Verse 9 refers to Numbers 21 when the people’s impatience with God led them to claim that God didn’t properly provide for them and that the manna was “worthless food.” Verse 10 refers to the people’s rebellion, on the cusp of entering the Promised land, when they believed the 10 fearful spies instead of Caleb and Joshua, resulting in 40 years of wandering the desert rather than a few weeks’ journey. Each of these incidents is ultimately about idolatry: having faith in (and therefore worshiping) something other than God. Despite having firsthand experience of God’s miraculous salvation from slavery, they were willing to worship other gods and even consider turning back to Egypt. Despite having firsthand experience with God’s loving care and provision for his people, they constantly doubted him and complained against him, trusting worthless idols instead of the living God. Because of this, that entire generation, the generation that saw the first Passover with their own eyes, perished in the desert. The ones who should have known God the best never made it into the Promised Land.
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
St. Paul wants us to learn from our Spiritual forefathers. Israel’s story is our story, too. The Israelites constantly fell into idolatry; this is a sin that’s always lurking. Calvin famously said that the heart is an idol factory. Every sin is ultimately a violation of the First Commandment: “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods but me.” Or, to put it positively, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” To sin is to fail to love God. To sin is to bow down to other gods. I don’t know about you, but I find this to be very sobering. Despite being baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection 39 years ago, despite partaking of the bread of heaven and cup of salvation every Lord’s Day, I nevertheless have an idolatrous heart. When I see the example of the Israelites, it is terrifying. I can’t help but pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy upon me a sinner.” The beauty of that prayer is that God never says “no” to it. God loves repentance. He loves his prodigal children. Back in Numbers 25, when the Israelite’s grumbling and blasphemy against his gifts led to a plague of fiery serpents, God had Moses fashion a bronze serpent, and all who looked up to it would be saved. In John 3:14, Jesus says “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Even for prodigals like you and me, idol-prone as we are, God provides a solution: his very Son, lifted up on the cross, the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.
When we look at the Old Testament types, remember that the antitype is always superior to its type. Jesus is a greater teacher, leader, prophet than Moses, the greatest teacher, leader, and prophet of the Old Testament. The Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are greater signs of salvation and sustenance than the Exodus and the manna. In the New Testament, we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit in a way that the Israelites could never imagine. As we look to Christ Crucified, as we walk in his ways, as we partake of the Sacraments, and soak in his Word, God does indeed shape us, little-by-little into the likeness of his Son. If you are united to Christ by faith and baptism, then sin, the World, the Flesh, and the Devil are no more your master than Pharaoh was to the Israelites after the Exodus. The Christian life is one of repentance, constantly turning back to the Lord Jesus. Like the Israelites, we may spend more time in the desert than we’d like. But remember Our Lord Jesus did the same. And he is with you in your desert, a better Moses, with a better baptism, better spiritual food, and a better Exodus that leads us, step-by-step, to the true and better Promised Land, where there will be no more sin, sorrow, or death.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.