Sunday 24 March 2019
The Third Sunday in Lent
During this season of Lent, we have lots of time to reflect on wilderness. The forty days of Lent parallel the forty days that Jesus spent being tested in the wilderness and the forty years that the Hebrew people spent in the wilderness after being liberated from slavery in Egypt, but before entering the Promised Land. In his letter to the Church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul uses the story of the wilderness wandering of the Hebrews in order to make a very interesting point to his contemporary Christians.
Like many Christians in our day, some Corinthians seemed to believe that because of their baptism and faith in Jesus Christ, they were completely free from the law and were thus able to do whatever they wanted without fear, guilt, or consequence. Now, Paul is usually all about the freedom of the Christian and how in Christ Jesus we are no longer under the curse of the law. But in this case, Paul thinks some of these Corinthians have taken the idea of Christian freedom too far, and he thinks they need some correction.
So Paul draws a very interesting connection between his contemporary Christians and those early Hebrew wilderness wanderers. Paul tells the Corinthians that they had better beware of Christian arrogance. They had better beware of thinking that they are in a new age and that none of the old rules apply to them. They had better learn from the lessons of the past instead of thinking they are a rule unto themselves.
Looking back at the story of the Exodus, Paul notices that the escaping Hebrews were led by a pillar of cloud to their freedom, and that they found their freedom by passing through the waters of the Red Sea. This is an established part of the faith. No one would question it. But the way that Paul interprets these events is shocking. He claims that those ancient Hebrews were actually baptized into Jesus Christ. The waters of the Red Sea, the spirit of the cloud—that was baptism through water and the Spirit, just as much so as the baptism that we practice today. Which is really kind of ridiculous on its face. It’s a bit shocking for us to think about, the idea that people who lived more than a thousand years before the birth of Jesus were actually baptized into Christ Jesus. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it is what Paul argues.
And Paul doesn’t stop there, either. He goes on to point out that when the Hebrews were in the wilderness, they were fed with holy food, that is, they ate manna from heaven, miraculous bread on the desert floor. And they also drank holy drink. When they were thirsty, Moses struck a rock with his staff, and water came gushing out of it. And Paul says that rock, the rock that Moses struck for miraculous water, that rock was Jesus Christ. The Hebrews ate spiritual bread in the form of manna, and they drank spiritual drink in the form of water from the rock. Alarmingly, Paul says that that was the sacrament of Holy Communion. Again, this should be shocking, to think that centuries before Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, the Hebrews in the wilderness were practicing it. It makes very little logical sense, but it is what Paul argues.
So, Paul says to those among Corinthian Christians who are full of themselves and overconfident, You don’t have anything over people in the past. Yes, you have the miracle of salvation in and through Christ Jesus. You have the redemption that comes in Christ. But, Paul argues through his rather clever interpretation of scripture, so did the ancient Hebrews. They had salvation in and through Christ Jesus. They had baptism. They passed through the Red Sea, led by the Holy Spirit in the form of a cloud. And they also had holy communion. They were fed with bread from heaven, and they drank water that flowed from the rock of Jesus Christ. Don’t think that you are any better than they were. Don’t think that you have some advantage that they didn’t. They shared in every bit as much of the blessings of Jesus as you do.
And Paul draws the comparison out even further. Even though the Hebrews in the wilderness had salvation in Christ Jesus, they still fell. Many of them succumbed to idolatry when they worshiped the golden calf instead of the God who had freed them from slavery. Some of them engaged in sexual immorality. Some put God to the test. Some were overcome with complaining and ingratitude, poisoning their spirits. They fell.
And just like they fell, despite the fact that they had all the advantages that we have today, we too can fall. The fact that they fell short of the glory of God should be a lesson and a warning to the Corinthians, and to us, that becoming a Christian does not automatically make you perfect. It is a warning against Christian arrogance. It is a reminder that we will all find ourselves tested at times, that we will all find ourselves missing the mark.
So if you think you are standing, Paul says, watch out that you do not fall. Just like everyone else in the world, you will be tested. Just like the Hebrews in the wilderness, just like Jesus in his forty days in the wilderness, we too will be tested. In that sense, we aren’t special. We have to live our lives, with all of its ups and downs, just like everybody else.
But, Paul tells us, there is still reason for hope. Yes, we will all be tested, we will all endure some hardship and suffering, but God is faithful. God will not let us be tested beyond our strength.
Now, those are interesting and perilous words. They have been words of great comfort to many, and they have also been words of great angst. When you are in the midst of real hardship, real suffering, real testing, real pain, is it comforting to hear that God will not give you more than you can bear, that however hard it seems, you are strong enough to handle it? Or is it just aggravating, depressing, and destructive? Does it just seem like God is saying, chin up, it’s not so bad, remember, I’d never give you more than you can handle, so what are you complaining about?
More than once, I have been with people who are in terrible pain, and I have heard them say, “I know God never gives us more than we can handle, but I just don’t know. I’m trying to be strong, but I just don’t know.” Sometimes remembering that God won’t give us more than we can handle is just the reminder that we need, just enough hope in our time of doubt to carry us through. It becomes a source of strength and encouragement in difficult times, a reminder that we do not face our troubles alone, that God is always there, right beside us, offering us strength.
But other times these words can be downright destructive. Sometimes these words discourage us from expressing our feelings of pain and doubt. We become embarrassed to admit that we feel like we have been given too much to bear. We get forced into an unhealthy silence that denies our situation and our struggle. We cannot let anyone else know that we feel overwhelmed, because that would be to doubt God’s faithfulness. Sometimes it even discourages us from seeking help, because we think we should be able to handle these things on our own. Both guilt and shame prevent us from reaching out when we are most in need, because to do so would somehow be doubting God, questioning God’s goodness, or would be admitting to some lack of faith.
That’s why Paul’s next words are so important. In the midst of trials, God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. God does not ask us for quiet, obedient suffering. God does not ask us to endure whatever befalls us without question. Along with the testing God will provide the way out. God does not leave us to suffer alone. This can be particularly important for people in abusive situations. God is not asking you to suffer in silence; God will help you find a way out. God will provide people who can help you, and it is no shame at all to ask for help when you need it. Providing help is part of God’s plan for you.
There’s an old preacher’s story you may have heard before. It’s about a man whose town is being flooded. As the waters are coming toward his house, he prays to God, saying, “I know that you are faithful and you will save me.” A car comes by and the driver says, “You’ve got to get out of here. Do you need a ride?” “No,” the man says, “God will save me.” The waters came higher and as the man goes up to the second story of his house, the first floor floods. He prays, “God, I know you will save me.” A boat comes by, and they tell him, “You’ve got to get out of here. Get into our boat.” “No,” the man says, “God will save me.” The waters get even higher. Pretty soon, the man has to climb out onto the roof. He prays, “God, I know you will save me.” A helicopter comes by, and the megaphone projects, “You’ve got to get out of here. Climb up this ladder.” “No, says the man, “God will save me,” and he waves the helicopter off. The water continues to rise, and the man prays again, “God, I have faith, I know that you will save.” The water continues to rise, and the man is drowned. When he comes before God he is upset and confused. “God, I was a good and faithful man, why didn’t you save me?” God answers, “I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter—what more did you want?”
God never promised us that our lives would be free from all suffering and hardship. What God does promises is that no matter what situation we find ourselves in, God will be with us. God will walk with us in our suffering. When we are most under pressure, God will guide us to a way out. God will provide us help.
And that help doesn’t have to come from some showy, supernatural intervention. Much more often, God’s help comes from very ordinary means, from the people God has put in our lives. And so there is no shame in asking for help nor in accepting help. That is part of God’s providence for us. God has made us to help one another. God has made us to be support for one another in times of trouble. God has made us a community together, not only so that we can offer help, but also so that we can receive it. Thanks be to God, who graciously provides for us in our hour of need.