Sunday, February 5, 2023

Sermon for Septuagesima - 1 Cor 9:24-10:5


Septuagesima                                          1  Cor 9:24-10:5



          What comes to mind when you hear about the history of Israel in the Old Testament?  On the one hand, it probably sounds so distant and different from our own experience.  After all, we don’t have armies laying siege to our cities.  We don’t live in the midst of people who worship Baal or Asherah. For that matter, we don’t even observe the Torah that God gave to Moses at Mt Sinai.  We can eat any food that we want, and we don’t offer animal sacrifices here at this altar.

          On the other hand, the history of Israel sounds like a broken record.  The very first words the nation speaks to Moses when God has brought them out Egypt through the Passover, and they are trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army are: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?  Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

          Israel complains and complains.  And before they have even left Mt Sinai, they have already been unfaithful and worshipped the golden calf.  This sets ups a pattern of unfaithfulness as again and again they worship the false gods of their pagan neighbors.

          It seems easy to write Israel off as unfaithful complainers. We look down on them because they failed so spectacularly.  But in our epistle lesson this morning, Paul leads us to recognize that this history is crucial for us.  As the people of God, this is our history – it is the history of our spiritual ancestors. Even more importantly, God has provided this history to us in Scripture in order to teach us about how we are to live in the present.

          Our text finds Paul in the midst of a discussion about meat.  The diet of the ancient Mediterranean world was very different from ours.  The people who lived then ate little meat. The meat that they did consume came from basically one source: animals sacrificed to pagan gods at their temples.

          This meat was often eaten at banquet rooms on the grounds of the temple.  It was also the source of meat that was sold in the city.  In our text, the apostle is in the midst of dealing with this issue. He has to because some of the Corinthians had developed false ideas about what the Christian faith meant.  They thought that they were already “spiritual people” who had the victory in Christ.  They knew that there was only One God and all others were false gods. They thought that their baptism and reception of the Sacrament of the Altar protected them from spiritual harm, and so they could do what they wanted.

          Paul approached this subject from two different sides.  On the one hand, he emphasized that Christian behavior must be guided by love for the neighbor. The action by the Corinthians could lead a fellow Christian to stumble in idolatry.   He wrote, “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.”

          On the other hand, Paul addressed the threat that idolatry posed to the Corinthians.  Faith in Christ and reception of the Sacraments is no magic protection against willful sin. As Christians, we don’t get to do whatever we want just because we believe in Christ.

          Paul had already affirmed that while the Corinthians were sinners, through baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ they have received forgiveness.  After describing the sins that characterized their past he went on to say: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

          Because of baptism in Christ, your sins have been washed away.  You have been made holy in God’s eyes.  You are justified.  You are already know the verdict of the Last Day.  It is innocent, not guilty!

          Paul confessed this.  But he also knew that those forgiven in Christ are called to struggle against sin. He says in our text, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

          Athletic contests were a big deal in the Greco-Roman world, just as they are in ours.  Paul uses the examples of runners and boxers.  He says that like runners, we have to focus on gaining the prize - of finishing in the faith.  Like a boxer, we need to discipline our body against sinful urges.

          Then, in our text, Paul turns to warning the Corinthians that reception of Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar is not protection against willful sin.  He points to how Israel had experienced God’s miraculous action when he brought them through the Red Sea, and fed them with manna and water from a rock. Yet this had not preserved Israel as they were unfaithful. 

He explains: “For I want you to know, 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. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”

We may view Israel’s history as foreign and distant.  We may see them as spiritual losers who failed all the time.  But the apostle Paul says that Israel’s experience is directly relevant to us.  Immediately after our text he writes, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.”  Paul says that they are types – examples that teach us about how we are to live and not to live.

Referring to the golden calf incident, the apostle goes on to say, 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.’”

          These words call us to consider all the things that we place before God.  What role does money and wealth play in our lives?  Does it give us our sense of security?  What do our actions say about the place it has in our life when it comes time to give back a portion to God in our offerings?

          Paul refers to the sexual sin involved in paganism when Israel worshipped Baal Peor as he says, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.”  What role does sexual immorality play in our life? Are we engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage? Do we look at pornography on our phone?  Do we accept the fact the relatives are living together outside of marriage without any kind of objection?

          The apostles then adds, “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 Israelites put Christ to the test when they complained and grumbled about the manna God was giving them.  Do we complain about the way God cares for us?

          Paul has referred to several different events in Israel’s history.  Then he adds, “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.”  These events are not just ancient history.  They do not simply show us how miserably Israel failed. They are instead examples that have been written down for our instruction.  The Holy Spirit has provided them through the inspired Word to teach us. They teach us – the ones upon whom the end of the ages has come.

          Israel’s history is your history.  Baptized into Christ, the seed of Abrahm, you are now the offspring of Abraham.  You are, as Paul tells the Galatians, the Israel of God.  The apostle says that God has given us this history in the Scriptures to teach us.  Of course, to learn from it you have to study it.  That means you have actually have to read it.

          So where are you on this?  What role does the reading and study of Scripture have in your life?  How much do you actually read each week?  How much time do you spend studying God’s Word, and how does that compare to the time you spend on your hobbies and interests?  Do you attend Bible class?  Are you making sure that your children attend Sunday school?  These things were written down for our instruction.  But they can’t instruct us if we don’t take the time to read and study them.

          We approach the Scriptures as God’s Word given to instruct us.  And we do this because we know that we are those upon whom the end of the ages has come.  That is what happened in Jesus Christ.  In the fullness of time – at the right moment in history – God sent forth his Son as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. 

Jesus received the end time judgment of God in our place when he died on the cross.  He received the wrath of the Day of the Lord as he suffered and died.  But death was not the end.  Instead, on the third day God raised him from the dead.

Now resurrection is, by definition, a Last Day event. The Scriptures teach us that God will raise the dead on the final day of judgment.  But, in Jesus Christ something new burst onto the scene.  God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruits of the resurrection.  In Christ, the resurrection of the Last Day has already started!  That is why Paul can say that the end of the ages has come upon us.

God raised Jesus through the work of the Spirit.  In baptism you received the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Spirit.  The presence of the Spirit within you is the guarantee that you too will share in Jesus’ resurrection when he returns in glory.

The Spirit is also the One who enables you take up the struggle against sin that Paul describes in our text. He gives us the ability to run the race of life with our eternal purpose firmly in view.  He is the One who helps us to discipline our body and keep it under control.  He is the One who instructs you through his inspired Word.  So let us listen to that Word this week.  Let us read and study the Scriptures. They were written for our instruction – the ones upon whom the ends of the ages has come in Christ Jesus.


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