Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity

                                                                                    Trinity 9
                                                                                    1 Cor 10:6-13

            This past fall I had the opportunity to go to Madison, WI and speak at the South Wisconsin District pastors’ conference.  I was asked to speak to the two hundred pastors who were there about the Gospel of Matthew, and especially about this Gospel with a view towards preaching on it.
            It was a great experience as first, I had the chance once again to work more closely with Matthew in preparing for the four hours of presentations that I had agreed to do.  And then, the conference itself was a lot of fun.  The pastors there were very interested in learning new things about Matthew as they prepared to preach on the Gospel once again.  I enjoyed having the opportunity to meet in person for the first time pastors in Wisconsin that I had gotten to know on Facebook.  And let’s face it, who doesn’t enjoy being the “expert” for a couple of days?  This was the first time I had been a speaker in a setting like that. And while in Madison, I had another experience that was a first.  Several pastors took me out to a steakhouse that was unlike anything I had seen before.  The restaurant was laid out with a very large – probably ten feet long and six feet wide – charcoal grill located in an area near the salad bar. 
            It turned out that the unique thing about this steakhouse is that you chose your own cut of meat … and then you prepared and grilled it yourself.  There would be no one to complain to if you didn’t like your cut of meat, because you chose it.  Right next to the grill they had a large refrigerator with glass doors, similar to what you see at the grocery store.  It was filled with every cut of steak that you can imagine – and let me tell you, if you wanted to you could have some rather pricey beef.
            And then, if you didn’t like how your steak was prepared and cooked, there would also be no way you could complain because you were the one who had done it. They had all kinds of seasoning that you could put on the steak, and then you grilled it yourself and took it to the table and ate it. It was a fun experience and a delicious meal. And the best part, was that since I was a speaker at the conference, I didn’t have to pay anything for it.
            My experience at the steakhouse illustrates a fact of our lives that we take for granted.  We eat meat – and lots of it. We assume that people are going to eat meat, and that there are whole industries dedicated to providing all the beef, pork and chicken that we want.
            Things were very different in the first century Greco-Roman world in which Paul wrote our text.  People in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea like Greece ate very little meat. Their diet was basically grain based.  Most people got the fat their bodies needed from things like olives. They might have a little fish.  But when it came to meat – beef and pork – they ate it very infrequently. And when they did it came from basically only one source.  It was the meat of an animal that had been sacrificed in a pagan temple.
            The person making the sacrifice could invite family and friends to share it with them.  Temples also had attached dining rooms where meat that came from the sacrifices of the temple was served in social gatherings that always retained some kind religious flavor. So, you want to celebrate your son’s birthday? You invite your family and friends to dine with you at the temple.  And then the meat that you could purchase in the market, almost all had its origin in animals sacrificed at a temple.
            Such a setting presented real challenges for the first Christians. What was ok and what wasn’t ok to eat? What was just a matter of food, and what was participation in paganism?
            In 1 Corinthians chapters eight to ten, Paul is addressing all of these questions. And he does so because there are two different groups of people at Corinth.  On the one hand, there are the “strong.”  They boasted, “We know that we all possess knowledge.”  They said, “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”
            These people said that false gods aren’t real because there is only the one true God.  Armed with this knowledge, they believed that because they had been baptized and received the Sacrament of the Altar, they were protected from paganism.  They could do whatever they wanted and participate in the setting of a pagan temple in any way they wished.
            On the other hand, there were the “weak.”  They saw the pagan connections in everything, and for them, to take part in any of it was to abandon the faith.  Paul wrote, “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.”
            In these chapters, Paul primarily addresses the “strong.”  He warns them about how their behavior will impact the weak Christians, and tells them to put the welfare of the other Christians ahead of themselves. He writes, “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.”
            On the other hand, there is also the matter of the “weak.”  They are failing to recognize the victory that Christ has won for them.  In their timidity they are failing to understand what it means to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
            In our text, Paul is taking up the fact that the “strong” Christians think that because they are protected by Christ, they can do whatever they want. They can go to pagan temples and participate however they want. After all: they are baptized!; they receive the Sacrament of the Altar! Paul has just described how Israel had the miraculous experience of passing through the water of the Red Sea, and of being fed by God in the wilderness.  But in spite of this fact, Paul goes on to say, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
            Then Paul says in our text, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.”  In spite of experiencing God’s miraculous saving work, the Israelites still perished in the wilderness as they craved the things that violated God’s will.  And Paul says that this fact has been written down for the instruction of Christians.  He wants the Corinthians to know that the sacraments are not some kind of magic protection.  If they choose to sin like Israel, then they too will perish.
            Paul says therefore: “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.”’”  The apostle warns the Corinthians not to take part in pagan idolatry, like the Israelites did when they worshipped a golden calf. He says, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” Paul warns against using sex outside of marriage – something that was promoted by pagan practices. He says, “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.”  The Corinthians are not to act as if they can do whatever they want.  And they are also not to be like Israel who constantly grumbled and complained against the Lord.
            All of these things happened to Israel and were recorded in Scripture. So Paul tells the Corinthians – and us: “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.”  Paul wants us to know that these things are recorded in Scripture to guide us as we live in this new and different time – the time in which all of God’s saving plans have found their fulfillment in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Paul’s conclusion from all of this is in our text is clear: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
            You may not have any trouble with meat and pagan temples. But the apostle’s words speak directly to you as you live in what is becoming a post-Christian world.  They warn you about the thing, that frankly, you don’t really believe.  They warn that your choices have consequences. They warn that faith can be lost; that salvation can be lost; that the Christian faith is not a matter of once saved, always saved. 
            We hear a warning about every false god that we would enshrine in our life – everything in which we would put our trust and consider to be most valuable.  And the world around us has kicked into high gear encouraging us to think in these ways.  The world says that the only thing that matters is you and your personal satisfaction. You are the measure of what is good and true, because there is no right and there is no wrong.  I won’t belabor the obvious ways that sex is treated as a god and you are told that there are no limitations on how you can use sex in order to find enjoyment.
            Paul’s words strike home when he says, ““We must not put Christ to the test.”  Yet there is another side here as well.  Paul tells the Corinthians not to grumble like the Israelites.  Much of the Israelite grumbling took the form of whining about their situation. They grumbled and complained about life in the wilderness – about the food, the lack of water and the discomfort. 
            We are guilty of this too.  We see the Christian faith being pressed in on every side. We see the Church being persecuted around the world. And we act like the “weak” Corinthians.  We say “woe is me” and we whine about how hard things may become. We grumble and complain about the job God is doing taking care of his Church.
            And so Paul reminds us this morning that we are those upon whom the end of the ages has come. We are the ones who live in the knowledge that the Son of God has entered into our world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  We are the ones who know that he died on the cross to win forgiveness. We are the ones who know that the Last Day has already begun because Jesus defeated death when he rose from the dead.  Don’t forget, we know the very first Christian confession: Jesus is Lord.
            He is the risen and ascended Lord who will bring the “not yet” in which we live to a close when he returns in glory.  And make no mistake about it: he will rule all. He will destroy the enemies of the Gospel and his people. He will give rescue and relief and peace and eternal joy to all who have believed and trusted in him.
            Paul says in our text this morning: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”  Our faithful God promises support that we need to face every temptation in the present.  And we can be assured that the final escape of Christ’s return is the hope that will not disappoint us.

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