Bodies scattered in the wilderness. How to stand in a time of testing. 1 Corinthians 10.1-13
1 Corinthians 10.1-13
Lent is a time when we choose to go into the
wilderness – when we strip ourselves of some of the stuff that we rely on – in order
to make space to reencounter the one, the only one, who we can truly rely on.
And this year it seems that Lent has come to us.
It is not so much that we have gone into the wilderness, but that the wilderness has come to us.
Many things have been taken from us: social media, people who we relied on, plans and hopes. Families have been divided. Many have spoken of how they have lost significant sums of money. And we face an uncertain economic future.
It is a time of testing, of crisis. Crisis comes from the Greek word meaning judgement
And we will either stand or we fall.
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul is talking about the time when the people of Israel were led into the wilderness.
They had come out of slavery in Egypt, had gone through the red sea – which here is treated as a picture of baptism, of leaving the old life and entering the new life – but now, before they enter the promised land, they are in the wilderness
For them it was a time of testing, of crisis.
And Paul writes these verses as a warning to his listeners, as a warning to us. Because the people of Israel failed the test.
V5, ‘God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered over the wilderness’ (NIV)
God had made his presence known to them very clearly.
Paul talks about the cloud. God led his people by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. When the Egyptian army was chasing after them, that pillar moved behind the Israelite people and separated them from the Egyptians.
Now I don’t know what that pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night was. I am sure someone would have been able to explain it in scientific terms. But the eye of faith saw that pillar of cloud as a symbol of the very real presence of God – guiding them and protecting them.
And Paul talks about being baptized into Moses in the red sea.
Interesting: you are baptized into someone, by going into the water with them, you become part of them.
And Paul speaks of spiritual food and spiritual drink.
The spiritual food was manna – this bread that appeared on the ground each day, and there was just enough for everyone
And the spiritual drink was the water which God provided for his people – which ran from the rocks, when Moses struck the rock with his staff. Paul describes the rock as ‘Christ’, which is very rich in meaning. It was when Jesus was struck on the cross, that the life-giving water of God, the Holy Spirit, was given.
And yet, Paul says, although God made his presence to the people of Israel so clear, they rebelled against him, ‘and their bodies were scattered over the wilderness’.
We are given a list of five things that they did:
They set their hearts on evil
They were idolators – when Moses went up the mountain to meet with God, and he was gone for 40 days, they thought that he had abandoned them. So they made themselves a God in the image of a cow, a golden calf, and they worshiped it.
They committed sexual immorality
They tested – and Paul’s words here are again significant – ‘they tested Christ’, by constantly forgetting what he had done for them, doubting him and disobeying God’s word
And they grumbled: ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt. Why have you made us wander in the wilderness? Why is the food so awful: it is manna for breakfast, manna for lunch, manna for tea?
And because they set their hearts on evil: on lies (remove the V from evil and you have lie backwards), on fear, on putting themselves first
And because they made their own gods and then worshiped them
And because they abused each other’s bodies and their own bodies, because they refused to trust or obey God, and because they could only see things from the ‘me’ perspective (which is basically what grumbling is all about)
‘Their bodies were scattered over the wilderness’
And Paul continues and says that they
are a warning to us
‘Now these things occurred as examples for us’.
Well, God has not abandoned us. He is with us. We have signs of his presence
We are part of one body. We were not baptized into Moses but into Jesus. And in Jesus we have each other
We have the gifts of bread and wine, spiritual food and drink: and as we receive the bread and wine by faith, so we both receive Jesus and become part of Jesus.
We have the word of God, the Bible. I’ve been a Christian, a follower of Jesus, for all my life. But it was only when I was about 18 and started to seriously read and study the bible, as the word of God, that I began to experience the power of God working both in me and through me.
We have the token of the Holy Spirit in us, who helps us to pray, and to call out to God, to call God our Father.
Many of us can look back at moments when we can say that we really knew God to be there with us. I was talking last week with a man who worships at Maly Voznesenksy. I asked him about how he came to faith, and he told me of how, after he had left the army, he had a very physical experience of Jesus coming to him.
By the way, when you do have encounters like that, when prayers are answered in an astonishing way, when there is no other explanation apart from God – do write that down somewhere. And occasionally revisit what you have written, and thank God for those times. They may not be many – the people of Israel only crossed the red sea once – and Jesus rose from the dead only once – but those few times are enough
Before we had decided to come here, and Alison was very uncertain, she prayed on Easter Sunday morning: Please God show me something today from Russia. And at church, one of our people – who was Russian and only came to church very occasionally – came up to her with a Russian easter egg, and said, ‘Alison this is for you, from Russia’.
It is little things like that, which often happen when we are prepared to take a step of faith, to move into the wilderness, or embrace the wilderness – trusting God, which can be such strong indicators of the presence of God with us.
But that does not stop us from walking away from God
It does not prevent us from setting our hearts on evil, doing that which is wrong because we are controlled by fear or hatred or lust or the desire for revenge
It does not prevent us from turning things – even good things – which God has made and which were his gifts to us, into our own little gods, into the things that control our lives. That is idolatry
It does not prevent us from being controlled by our sexual instincts and desires rather than our heads and ending up doing that which shames us and others.
It does not prevent us from ‘testing Christ’, deliberately and persistently disobeying him, presuming on his love (or at least how we define his love), his forgiveness and endless patience – that is what these verses are all about
It does not prevent us from grumbling.
This might seem so minor in comparison to all the others that we have just listed: but watch it, if you are a grumbler.
It was said, when warships were made of wood and not iron, that more English ships were sunk by worms than by enemy action
Grumbling is the worm which destroys. It eats us from the inside. It prevents us from seeing God in anything or anyone, it make us see thorns and never the roses, it strips us of the ability to give thanks or to praise. Grumbling are the worms which eventually will sink us. They will drop us into the pit of self-pity, self-justification and the assumption that the world was made to rotate around me and my petty desires.
And when that happens, our faith is shipwrecked, and we are broken.
There are sadly many spiritual corpses scattered over the wilderness
But the good news of 1 Corinthians 10 is that it does not need to be like that for us
We are to guard against complacency
I often quote in this context the story of Gordon MacDonald, a well-known Christian author and pastor. He was asked how the devil would attack him. He answered, in all integrity, ‘I don’t know, but I do know it will not be through my personal life’.
Within a year he was having an affair with his secretary.
He himself wrote of it, in a book called ‘Rebuilding your Broken world’, and he warns others – be very careful when you think that you stand.
Or I think of people who are on 12 step groups. They will never say, for instance, that they are a healed alcoholic. They will always say that they are a recovering alcoholic. There is no room for complacency.
But we also do not need to give in to despair
I occasionally visit an Orthodox monastery in Essex. The former abbot was a disciple of a starets called Fr Silouan. Very early on in his Christian life, Silouan was struggling with a particular sin: and he had a vision of God: and out of this vision came the words: “Set your mind on hell, but do not despair”
It’s the only way to survive the traffic in Moscow
But I would also suggest that it is the only way to defeat sin, and to live this passage.
Set your mind on hell.
Don’t tell me that you don’t believe in hell: most of us will have glimpsed hell. At some point in life we will have looked into, hung over, maybe even dropped into that pit of utter meaningless, hopelessness and despair.
And hell is my destiny, because hell is my choice: I constantly (despite myself) choose evil and petty idols and lust and rebellion and grumbling over against love and obedience and life.
And I am powerless to save myself. I cannot stand.
Set your mind on hell – but do not despair.
We do not need to end up as a spiritual corpse scattered in the wilderness
We have this astonishing promise: ‘And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear’. He will provide a way out.
I know that this is a hard time, a time of crisis, of testing, of judgement.
What I am about to say may sound glib, and in my own experience it is so hard to practice, but we have to hold on to the fact that whatever temptation, whatever test we are facing there is a way out.
And we need to look for the way out
It may not be instantaneous; it will require a daily dying to ourselves; there will be many failures – many times when we give in. It will call for a constant crying out to God to have mercy on us; it will involve great perseverance; it may involve formal confession; it will almost certainly involve the prayer and support of our Christian brothers and sisters (we are not on our own in this) – but there is a way out.
Because we have a God who loves us. We have a God who hates sin; who is not prepared to let sin win. And we have a Saviour who has been to the depths of hell and back. He has the will to save us and he has the power to save us. He is the only one we can rely on.
And I place myself in his hands.
Isaiah 55: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near”.