Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 24, 2019
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Commentary
It’s likely that nearly all of us have heard Christians say something like, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Because the people who say this generally have a lot to “handle,” I’m reluctant to confront them on it. But I’m always tempted to ask them, “Where exactly does God make that promise?”
Those who anchor that profession in the Scriptures probably point to the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday. More precisely, they likely point to verse 14’s: God “will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.”
And, of course, what we can “handle” sometimes overlaps with temptation. Temptation can be a lot to “handle.” However, many things that are hard to handle, such as infertility, illness and grief, are only tangentially linked to temptation. That is to say, while they may tempt Christians to doubt or reject God, it’s hard to call them “temptations.”
Paul brackets 1 Corinthians 10 with chapter 8 and 10:15ff’s discussion of eating meat that people have already sacrificed to idols. That’s one reason why Stephen Farris (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans, 2001, 197) calls it “a health warning: ‘Idol worship is hazardous to your health’.” In this Sunday’s Epistolary lesson, Paul describes the horrible consequences of the poor spiritual health practice that is idolatry.
The apostle sets the context for Israel’s wilderness idolatry in our text’s first four verses. But in what scholars recognize as at least a “creative” use of Scripture, he spiritualizes much of Israel’s journey from Egyptian slavery to the land of promise’s freedom.
So as Farris (ibid) notes, 1 Corinthians 10 claims that Israel didn’t just walk under the cloud or pass through the sea. She was also “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (3). In Paul’s interpretation of Israelite history, God didn’t just feed Israel food and water in the wilderness. Israel also “ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (3-4). It’s a picture of God’s extraordinary physical and spiritual generosity with Israel’s former Egyptian slaves.
It’s a lovely history and theological lesson that in some ways makes the very next verse exceptionally poignant. “Nevertheless,” (all’) Paul begins verse 5 with. This word that we also sometimes translate as “but” or “yet” is a word that can signal a bad or good turn. In some cases the Bible’s “nevertheless” can signal God’s grace in the face of human sin. In I Corinthians 10, however, it signals a description of sin in the face of God’s grace.
God, says Paul, perhaps with an aching heart, “was not pleased with most [Israelites]; their bodies were scattered over the desert.” In verses 6-10, Paul goes on to list four examples of what displeased God, examples of Israelite ungrateful responses to God’s extreme generosity. He notes that God’s Hebrew sons and daughters were “idolaters” (7). They gave their whole selves, in other words, to various gods instead of the one true God. God’s Hebrew wilderness wanderers were also, Paul grieves, sexually immoral (8). They were, in other words, intimate with someone (or perhaps even thing) to whom they were not married.
What’s more, Paul writes in verse 9, Israel tested the Lord. He links that to Israel’s grumbling that led to the plague of poisonous snakes whose bites killed 23,000 of them. Finally, (at least in this passage), Paul mourns the Hebrews’ “grumbling” (10). While Israel grumbled throughout her wilderness sojourn, Paul seems to be especially alluding to the grumbling that led to Exodus 12:23’s “destroying angel.”
These “things” (11) – these punishments – happened to the Israelites, the apostle continues, “as examples, and were written down as warnings for us.” The biblical accounts of Israel’s sin are, in other words, illustrations of what N.T. Wright (The Bible for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, University Press, Cambridge, 2003, 128) calls “the earlier parts of a long narrative that has now reached its climax in the Messiah and in the people who have come to belong to him through the gospel.”
The sinful Israelites’ story is, in other words, not just theirs, but also ours. So when they sinned against God in the wilderness, God wasn’t just warning the Israelites against and punishing them for their disobedience. God was also warning all of God’s people about the consequences of willful disobedience.
Yet that warning is so chilling that God’s people sometimes struggle to understand and even heed it. Perhaps some 21st century Christians especially struggle to view God as being so holy and righteous that God punishes sin. It may even be a reason why some of God’s modern adopted sons and daughters emphasize how God turned God’s anger with our willful disobedience onto God’s Son, Jesus Christ, especially at Calvary. We didn’t “get” what Israel got and we deserve. Jesus “got” it.
Those who proclaim this text won’t have time to fully address the issue of God’s apparently harsh punishment of sin in the context of one lesson, message or sermon. But we may want to note that God’s punishment of disobedient Israel is a sign of how seriously God takes all sin as well as the radical nature of grace.
Paul reminds his hearers that we too are tempted toward the kind of willful disobedience Israel practiced in her wilderness wanderings. “If you think you are standing firm,” he warns in verse 12, “be careful that you don’t fall. No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.” That suggests that while temptation is nearly as old as humanity, there’s little new “under” temptation’s “sun.” What’s more, it means that the evil one is just as interested in the destruction of God’s 21st century beloved children as he was in God’s ancient Israelite children’s ruin. He may even use our self-confidence to heighten our vulnerability to temptation.
Yet as Wright (ibid) notes, God’s grace embraces everyone who deals with temptation. Yes, temptation is nearly as old as humanity. But God’s faithfulness is even older. The evil one is endlessly improvising on a handful of ancient temptations. Yet God is working even more relentlessly.
“God is faithful,” we can almost hear the apostle sing in verse 13b. Wright (ibid) calls that little phrase “words to be carved in letters of gold on the memory and in the imagination of all Christians.” After all, it means that while God’s adopted sons and daughters are only sporadically faithful, God is persistently and forever faithful. People are reliably unreliable. God is reliably reliable.
So when God’s beloved children face the kinds of temptations our ancestors, we and succeeding generations have and will continue to face until Christ returns, God graciously gives us an “out.” Paul says that takes two forms. First, God will not let the evil one tempt us beyond what we can “bear” (13b). In other words, while God lets the evil one wreak havoc, God doesn’t let that havoc take the form of temptation that’s too hard for God’s people to resist.
Because, if nothing else, God will also “provide a way out so that [we] can stand up under it” (13c). While temptation sometimes seems like a short one-way hallway that has no exits, the apostle insists that God always provides a door that leads out of that hallway.
Those who proclaim this text might spend some time exploring with our hearers what kinds of doors make up those “way[s] out.” Certainly those doors may include prayer, meditation on God’s Word, confession and even accountability to brothers and sisters in Christ.
Yet that’s not the limit of God’s grace. God fully graces God’s beloved children with everything we need to resist temptation. Yet in Lent God’s people confess that, among other things, we’ve not always made full use of those means. While God has fully equipped us to resist any and all temptation, we have too often succumbed to temptation.
So while the Epistolary lesson the RCL appoints for this week may seem to end with grace that’s limited to the power to resist falling into sin, at least our liturgy if not also our proclamation should go one step farther. After all, God generously extends God’s grace to even our disobedient failure to employ the means of resisting temptation. In other words, even when we don’t “stand up” (13c) under temptation, God, for the sake of God’s own Son, Jesus the Christ, graciously forgives us – and re-equips us for further service to God, our neighbors and creation.
In her article, “A Long Obedience,” (The Christian Century: January 7, 2015) Katherine Willis Pershey writes about a “way out” of temptation that God gave her: “It is strange to think of a particular person as the person with whom I did not have an affair … And yet there is one man I cannot help but think of as the man with whom I did not cheat on Benjamin.
“We had no improper physical contact, no inappropriately intimate conversations. I don’t even know if the attraction was mutual. There was, however, temptation. I felt desire… When I realized that I had feelings for this man, I was shocked. I dearly love my husband, to whom I have been married—mostly happily, and decidedly faithfully—for more than a decade.
“I almost didn’t recognize the crush for what it was, it had been such a long time since I’d had one. It was disorienting, terrifying, the slightest bit exhilarating—like being on a roller coaster but knowing full well that upon hitting the last loop-de-loop, your car will derail and you will plunge to your death.
“My internal alarms all tripped at once, clanging an overwhelming and persuasive warning. Danger, danger… [So] I did the only thing I could fathom: I told my husband everything. Even though there wasn’t much to tell — oh, how profoundly glad I was to go to him with a clean conscience! —the conversation was risky.
“Would it wound Benjamin to know that his wife, though delivered from temptation, had experienced it? Yes, it did. But it was a hurt he could sustain, because he understood that at the root of what I was telling him was that I was trustworthy. I had been tested and proven faithful.
“As we pondered the nuances of fidelity, a curious thing happened: our love for and attraction to each other deepened. Benjamin trusted me to nurture the new friendship. I established the boundaries that would govern my platonic relationship with this man to whom I am not married, and in so doing, I rediscovered the intrigue of my delightfully unbounded relationship with the man to whom I am.”
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