But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Trinity 9 – 2023

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

“Now let that be a lesson to you.” When you were young, you probably heard that from your parents, as a response to some blunder that you committed, or that someone else committed, resulting in a bad outcome. They wanted you to avoid this blunder in the future.

In today’s reading from his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul is, in effect, telling you and all who profess to be Christians: “Now let that be a lesson to you.” Literally, he writes:

“Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.”

“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”

In many places the Bible speaks a message of warning and judgment against the flagrant unbelievers of the world, who do not follow God’s ways, and who do not make any pretense of following God’s ways or of being a part of God’s church. But in today’s text, Paul recounts a time of divine judgment against many who were externally associated with God and with God’s people.

Paul reminds us of certain events of Old Testament history in a way that serves to give a serious warning to many today who have indeed been baptized into the church, and who have partaken of the Lord’s Supper within the church, but whose sins are setting them up for God’s wrath and punishment.

With the use of imagery that immediately calls to mind the sacraments of the New Testament era, Paul describes the trying experiences of the children of Israel, during the Exodus, in this way:

“I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.”

All of the people of Israel who participated in the Exodus were beneficiaries of God’s special deliverance. They were all “baptized” into the freedom and independence of the new nation of Israel. And all of them ate and drank of the miraculous nourishment that God provided to his chosen nation.

Paul adds, by the way, that it was actually Christ – the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in his pre-incarnate state – who was the divine companion of Israel during its 40 years in the wilderness. So, there is much similarity between these ancient Hebrews, and those who are sacramentally associated with Christ and his church today.

Now, even though all of the people of Israel were delivered by God from Egyptian slavery, and even though all of them were brought together to be a new nation under his protection, Paul tells us: “But with most of them God was not well pleased.”

Most of them did not remain true to the new identify that God had given them in their national baptism, as they passed through the Red Sea. Most of them did not continue as grateful and faithful followers of the God who had graciously made provision for them – in the manna that fell from the sky and in the water that flowed from the rock.

Instead, they rebelled against God, both in their hearts and in their outward actions. They defied him and turned away from him. And so he turned away from them, and punished them – often with death. They tested God – indeed, they tested Christ – assuming that they could get away with their wickedness. They were wrong.

They were judged as unbelievers and as haters of God, because in their hearts that’s what they had become: even though they were still outwardly associated with God’s people, and even though they had previously been recipients of God’s favor and blessing.

Paul gives a few examples of what it is that they did to bring God’s wrath down upon themselves. But what Paul says does not pertain only to these people, and it does not merely satisfy a historical curiosity we may have about what happened back then. What he writes, he writes for us, as a warning to us:

“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.”

“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.”

What kind of faith-destroying sins did the Hebrews fall into – even though they were, in effect, baptized and communing members of the church? Paul tells us:

“Do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.’”

“Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer.”

The idolatry example is a reference to the incident with the golden calf. But we need to take note of the fact that the people thought that the golden calf represented the Lord Jehovah, who had brought them up out of Egypt.

Or at least this is what was suggested to them by Aaron, the misguided brother of Moses. In the Book of Exodus, we read:

“Aaron…built an altar before [the calf]. And Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’ And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”

For their supposed worship of the Lord on this occasion, the Israelites borrowed some of the Egyptian religious practices with which they had been familiar during their years of slavery. Employing these familiar practices would allow them to feel comfortable in their worship.

They also thought that their worship on this occasion should be fun and entertaining, not reverent and serious. They “rose up to play.”

The Israelites thought this was great. They called it a festival to the Lord. But the Lord didn’t like it at all. He called it idolatry.

Faithful worship is not just a matter of saying that we are worshiping God, regardless of what we are actually doing. God is the one who gets to decide what true worship is.

Faithful worship is a matter of listening devoutly to what God wants to say to us in law and gospel, as his Word comes to us through sermon and song, through readings and rituals. And faithful worship is then a matter of humbly believing what he tells us, and of responding to him with prayers of thanksgiving and petition that his Word has shaped in us, and taught to us.

Faithful worship does not involve “rising up to play,” in fulfillment of a misplaced craving for fun and entertainment in church. Faithful worship does not involve bringing worldly attitudes and worldly behaviors into the worship of the church.

But the list of offenses committed in the wilderness does not end with Paul’s condemnation of the idolatry of the Israelites. Paul also mentions the sexual immorality that many of the Israelite men indulged in, with women of Moab.

These men knew better. Either they had their own wives at home, whom God had given to them as their legitimate companions, to whom they should have remained faithful; or, if they were single, they should have sought out godly wives from among their own people, with whom they could have been honorably married, rather than fornicating with pagan women.

We shouldn’t think that it is only our generation that is “sexually liberated” – that is, liberated from self-discipline, self-respect, and self-control in sexual matters. There have been plenty of times in human history, when decadent cultures have fallen into a lifestyle of fornication, and of the sexual exploitation of others without any respect for them or commitment to them.

There have been plenty of times in human history, when people thereby called down upon themselves the judgment of a God who forbids adultery and everything associated with adultery. In this incident with the Moabites, 23,000 men found out the hard way what happens when God’s standards are flagrantly violated.

And notice what else is on the list. Many of the Israelites were grumblers – chronic complainers about Moses and his leadership.

That doesn’t seem so bad – at least not when compared to idolatry and sexual immorality. But Paul thought so. And so did God. He punished that with death, as well.

To grumble against God’s servants, as they faithfully teach and apply God’s Word, is to grumble against God himself. To grumble against the church, and against the people in the church who are doing the best they can to serve the Lord – even with their human weaknesses – is to insult the Savior who loves the church as his beloved bride.

These sins of the ancient Hebrews – the false worship, the sexual immorality, and the chronic complaining – were outward evidence of an inner hardness and hypocrisy. All of these things were evidence of hearts that had turned away from the Lord.

Also today, in the church of today, there may be some who externally go through the motions of worship on Sunday, while in their hearts – and in their behavior on the other days of the week – they reject what the church and its Lord actually stand for.

If you think and act as the wicked Israelites thought and acted, then you, like them, are inviting God’s judgment upon yourself – if not in this life, then in the life to come. You cannot take refuge from this divine condemnation in the false security of outward church membership.

You cannot hide from the flames of God’s holy anger, behind a certificate that documents a baptism in which you are now no longer living by daily repentance and faith; or behind a certificate that documents a first communion and a confirmation, with vows of faithfulness that you are now ignoring.

The Israelites who were on the receiving end of God’s punishment were all a part of God’s people, externally. They had been delivered from slavery with the rest, and were being led through the wilderness like the rest.

But in their hearts they had come to desire that which was evil, and not that which was good and pure. And so they were cut off.

You, too, will be cut off, if you also desire evil, and if you set your heart on that which is ungodly and wrong, and not on that which God’s Word gives and teaches.

Is there hope for us, in the midst of temptations that overwhelm us, and in the midst of struggles in which we flounder? Is there hope for us, if we have already sinned against the Lord by a false faith; if we have sinned against the spouse whom the Lord has given us, or against our own body and the body of another; if we have sinned against the Lord’s ministers, and the Lord’s people?

Yes, there is hope! There is a way to be renewed in our baptism, and to be reconfirmed in our confirmation. There is a way to remain as a part of God’s true church – inside and out.

St. Paul says in today’s text: “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” Jesus is our way of escape. Jesus is our hope. He is able to lead you through the temptations that surround you, and to guard your soul from those temptations, as he instructs your conscience and bolsters your faith.

If you have succumbed to the temptations, and fallen into sin, he is able to lift you out, cleanse you, restore you by his forgiveness, and give you a resolve to amend your life going forward. If your heart has been stained and disfigured by sin, he is able to create in you a clean heart, and to renew a right spirit within you.

God was indeed displeased with most of the Israelites during the Exodus. But he was not displeased with all of them. Those who remained with him – not only physically, but also in their hearts and minds – remained under his grace, and were pleasing to him.

These were the ones who honestly repented of their sins when the law was preached to them. These were the ones who believed the Lord’s word of forgiveness and pardon – pictured for them especially in the tabernacle sacrifices that were carried out on their behalf, according to the Lord’s institution.

These were the ones who then sought, with God’s help, to walk in his ways with good works that conform to the Ten Commandments, as fruits of their sincere repentance and of their joyful faith.

Within the fellowship of the church, there are also many – very many – with whom the Lord is still pleased, and in whom he delights utterly. He is not pleased with them because they have no sin.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.

God is pleased with the people with whom he is pleased, because when they do sin, they call out to him in repentance, acknowledging their sin. They turn away from sin. They don’t turn away from God.

And God forgives them, and pardons them, because the blood of Christ, shed for them in the supreme sacrifice of Calvary, has covered over their sins. The righteousness of the risen Christ is credited to them by faith, so that they stand before God as pure and innocent, even as Christ their Savior is pure and innocent.

This is our hope, when we become aware of our hypocrisies, our inconsistencies, and our failures – and when we are brought to conviction in our consciences regarding our flagrant offenses, too. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and who therefore also takes away our sin. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

When you in faith receive the forgiveness that he brings, the fear of God’s judgment – which your sins deserve – is taken from you. And the peace of Christ – a peace that the world cannot give, but that God’s Son does freely and fully give – is bestowed upon you in its place.

You can know that you, personally, are among those who are pleasing to God for Christ’s sake, and are not displeasing to him. You can know this, because in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus makes these promises to you:

“This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”

The Israelites who remained faithful to their baptism into Moses, through listening to Moses as he preached God’s Word to them, were pleasing to God. The Israelites who remained thankful to God for the manna from heaven, and for the water from the rock, that he miraculously provided for them, were pleasing to God.

Christians today who remain faithful to their baptism into Christ, by daily renouncing their sin and by daily embracing Christ and his mercy, are pleasing to God. Christians today who thankfully eat and drink of the sacramental meal that Jesus provides for us, with a humble desire to be filled with Christ and to be transformed by Christ, are pleasing to God.

“Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.”

“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” Amen.