|Paul's Retrospective on Exodus (1 Cor. 10:1-13)
This sermon was preached in dialogue with John York.
John: Well, we've come to the close of fifteen weeks in Exodus. What do you think we should do next?
Rubel: Since this has worked so well, why don't we just keep going through the balance of the Pentateuch?
John: Great idea! About ten days ago, I received an e-mail from a person who has been reading our Exodus manuscripts online. He already was jumping ahead of our study, wanting to know about good commentaries on Leviticus! And I thought, Why not? There are all kinds of obscure things in Leviticus that people have never heard of, like the all of the ritual purification laws when babies were born, or all of the dietary laws, or my personal favorites, the mildew laws.
Rubel: Wonderful! Then we can move right into Numbers. I'm sure everybody wants to know the details of the Israelite census, the names of the census takers, the marching formation of the twelve tribes, how the Levites had special status among the tribes, and all the exciting stuff there. Why the very title "Numbers" means the study of this book will likely be a dream come true for all the CPAs in the church.
John: We're only kidding! What we really intend to do is to move back to the New Testament – to the Gospel of John.
Rubel: One of the things I look forward to in preaching the Gospel of John is getting to "walk around in" the life of Jesus — much as Exodus has had us "walking around in" the shoes of our spiritual ancestors of 1500 years before Jesus' time. As I read John, he is far less concerned with Luke's "orderly account" (1:3) or Matthew's prophecy-fulfillment motif (1:22, et al.) than simply to reflect on the spiritual impact of God's presence in human form on Planet Earth. He takes the sort of liberty you and I have encouraged this church to take with the slavery, redemption, wilderness trek, and other aspects of Exodus. Just as we have tried to read ourselves back into their story, I see John provoking his readers to put themselves back into Jesus' time, place, and actions. By doing that, he hoped to lead people "to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (20:31). Do you agree? Is that a fair way of reading John? Is that a fair way to read Scripture generally?
John: Yes, I think it is. John wants us to experience the power and imagination of stories – in this case, the stories of Jesus. He wants us to get inside them. How did you put it? To "walk around in" the Jesus experience – just as he had done as the beloved disciple.
One of the great things you discover in the narratives of Holy Scripture is that the stories have great freedom and flexibility. They are the same, yet they're not exactly the same in the retelling. The Gospels are like that, but John has woven his account together in such different ways from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Those three Gospels have two very distinct geographical movements in the ministry of Jesus — the time spent in Galilee, then the time spent in Judea. In John, Jesus is constantly moving back and forth between the two. In John's story, it is often difficult to distinguish the words of Jesus from John's own testimony about Jesus. He is a story-teller, and I know it will be fascinating to find our place in his story.
Rubel: So what has been the value of the Exodus study, as you look back over these fifteen weeks?
John: I really like that quotation from Alister McGrath that you included in the study notes and that I read last week. Their journey is our journey — We were slaves in our own Egypt. We are on a journey to the promised land. We were delivered from bondage. We are in the wilderness. God has pursued us and redeemed us. We've seen ourselves in this story in amazing ways.
Rubel: That the story line of Exodus continues to have appeal is witnessed not only by Alister McGrath but by Steven Spielberg as well! Successful movie-makers don't sink their millions into stories they consider marginal. There is something of a "formula" most of them look for. Mike Cope and I were invited to be consultants to the movie that became The Prince of Egypt. Unfortunately, I missed my one chance at Hollywood by being in Russia when the original meeting of the people invited for the project were assembled — and anyone unable to attend the initial meeting was, understandably, out of the loop for the remainder of it. But Mike told me this wonderful story.
When Jeffrey Katzenburg was relating how he, David Geffen, and Steven Spielberg first sat in a circle of three to talk about future movie possibilities, Spielberg told them he wanted to do the story of Moses. "Moses?" they asked. "Why the Moses story?" And he proceeded to explain that everything you wanted in a gripping, compelling story was there: oppression and tyranny, bad guys and good guys, hardship and deliverance. And they saw immediately that he was right. The story is powerful just on its surface.
John: As we saw last week in Nehemiah 9, the Exodus story continued to play a shaping role in the identity of the people of God 1000 years after the events themselves. The events were given more coverage in Ezra's prayer than creation itself, or God's calling of Abraham. Five hundred years later, when Messiah has come and a new redemption story has been accomplished which far surpasses the old, it is fascinating to see how the Exodus story continues to have life and power in the Christian community. A great place to see this is in Paul's conversation with the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 10.
Corinth is a thoroughly modern – and thoroughly pagan Roman city – when Paul begins preaching there. The church consists almost exclusively of Gentile converts who have come out of a variety of pagan beliefs and practices. It is a city in which the meat markets are all tied to religious temples. The people are used to conducting business at the many different religious festivals and feasts that were a constant part of social and cultural life for all the citizens. Until their conversion to Christ, they had no notion of one God, to the exclusion of all others. They were members of multiple religions and believed in many gods and worshiped in all kinds of places. Then they become Christian and are immediately told to leave behind all of those other religious beliefs. At the intellectual level, they are convinced that there is only one God. But at the social/practical level, they still have to buy meat to eat and they still have to conduct business, which up until now was most easily naturally done at the religious festivals.
Because many of the Corinthians now see themselves as empowered by the Holy Spirit and therefore spiritually strong, they don't think it is any big deal to eat meat purchased at the pagan temple meat markets or even go into the festivals to conduct business. They've been baptized into Jesus, they meet together and take in the spiritual food of Christ — the Lord's Supper. They have the Holy Spirit within them, so they are safe, right? Listen to what Paul says about the Exodus:
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors 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, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. It's that very first sentence that I find so incredible: You need to be aware, brothers and sisters, that "our ancestors" — our Fathers, our kinsmen did so and so. These people aren't Jewish, but the Exodus story is their story!
Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play." We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:1-13).
Paul goes on to describe the wilderness not as a horrible, God-forsaken, God-absent event, but as a God-surrounded event. God was active everywhere in everything. His language of baptism in the cloud and in the sea correspond with the Corinthians' baptism in water and the Holy Spirit. They ate and drank spiritual food and spiritual drink, just like the Corinthians were eating and drinking the Lord's Supper. Paul even uses a Jewish legend about the water actually following the people around in the desert to say that Christ himself was present with those people just like he is with the Corinthians. They were hemmed in on all sides by God and God-activity.
All this was written "for our examples" or "to instruct us," Paul says. Even when surrounded by God, those Israelites succumbed to the temptation of idolatry and unfaithfulness. He gives four examples, one from Exodus 32 and the next three from Numbers 25, Numbers 21, and Numbers 16. The wilderness was the place where God surrounded them with his presence, took care of them in every way, revealed himself on the mountain. How could they believe for a second in other gods? How could they complain about their circumstances and be lured away? So you Corinthians who have been baptized in water and Holy Spirit, who now eat and drink at the Lord's table, who now are far too intelligent to believe that these temples with their idols are anything — you had better not think too highly of yourselves. Do you see how he has wrapped them up in the Exodus story? I wonder if he has not wrapped us up in the story as well.
By the way, that great verse (10:13) that we so easily lift out of context and set down in all kinds of settings as a promise that God will not let us be tempted beyond our strength is a verse about idolatry. The temptation context is that of the Israelites in the wilderness, grumbling, putting God to the test, engaging in sexual immorality. God surrounded them; God has surrounded the Corinthians; God has surrounded us too. I wonder what idolatry and grumbling and putting God to the test looks like in our time.
Rubel: Last Sunday I mentioned another book I am reading that puts this story center stage. And I was particularly impressed — no, perhaps the better verb is stung — with an observation by its author. It seems to fit well here with your comments about ancient and modern idolatry, about our tendency to grumble and put God to the test.
Linking two statements separated by almost 200 pages in the book, here is what Bruce Feiler says of himself and what he had learned by (literally) "walking around in" the story of Exodus. First, this:
Mine was the generation that could have it all. Our ethos was built on the belief that we could control everything: our bodies, our minds, our bank accounts. Got a problem? Change channels, switch jobs, take a pill, go to the gym. Our bibles were our Day-Timers. Our god was self-reliance.Then, much later in the book and as a reflection on being in the wilderness of Sinai, the same writer says:
When your god is self-reliance, and you let yourself down, there is nowhere else to turn.The spiritual life really is about being remapped! Or, as Terry Smith puts it, it is about letting God "rewrite the scripts" of your life. It is getting away from self-reliance to faith in God. It is moving from a sense of being so filled with oneself to being filled with the Spirit of God. It is moving from a self-absorbed, self-serving life to a God-absorbed, Christ-serving life. Or, to couch this in Exodus language, spirituality is about rejecting the "other gods" of one's own flesh and culture and worshiping the True God who has created us and delivered us (i.e., we remember our own salvation), who has guaranteed us a Promised Land (i.e., we anticipate Christ's return to take us to heaven), and who is leading, feeding, and sustaining us now (i.e., we follow in faith). That's the personal lesson I want us to take from the study. And perhaps we can have that lesson made powerful to us through the communion experience this morning.
This reaction, I was coming to see, is the first lesson of the desert: By feeling uneasy and unsure, by fearing that you're out of your depth and therefore might falter, by feeling small, and alone, you begin — slowly, reluctantly, maybe even for the first time in your life — to consider turning somewhere else. . . . For the secret lesson of remapping yourself, as I was just finding, is that you eventually grow wary of the flat and easy, the commonplace and self-reliant.
John: When Paul wants to hammer home his point that the Corinthians must not treat lightly the cultural surroundings of pagan temples and idol meat and all that could lure these young Christians away, he turns directly to the Lord's Supper and says:
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Cor. 10:14-17).Our proclamation this morning, when we eat and drink together is our mutual identification with Jesus Messiah. We announce to ourselves that there is no other name, no other activity, no other claim to fame for us. There are no other titles, no other life pursuits or career goals, no bank accounts or mutual fund investments that give us security. We are in Christ, indwelt by his Holy Spirit, empowered to be his reconciling presence in this world.
Rubel: Come, Lord Jesus, in the fulness of your risen presence, and make yourself known to your people through the breaking of the bread. We would find our fulness in yours. So empty us of ourselves so that we may be filled with you — desiring nothing so much as we desire you. Be our sufficiency, our all in all. Amen.
Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?" (1 Cor. 10:18-22).When we eat and drink together, we claim a spiritual identity with Christ and one another that mysteriously makes us one body; we are one with Christ and one with each other. That's been said enough in this fellowship that I think we are beginning to sense the power of that identity. But there is a second reality here — that life and life-style outside these walls that finds us participating in the culture of our own time, perhaps even in fellowship with the demonic forces that lure us back to self-reliance, that put us back in charge of our own lives, that turn us back into individuals independent of one another, punching our time- card at church on Sunday mornings before chasing our own destinies the rest of the week.
Rubel: Holy Father, we praise you for calling us out of the darkness of this world and its idolatries into the glorious light of your Son. So fill and empower us, Holy Spirit, that we may radiate that light to others. Through this cup and its holy power to heal, cure us of the world's infections, purify us wholly for yourself, and immunize us to the demonic forces that would lure us back into slavery. We ask this in the name of our Great Physician. Amen.
[After the Lord's Supper has been served.] For those of you who will be meeting in your small groups later this week, perhaps these are the questions for you to ask yourselves – after reading 1 Corinthians 10 carefully in your groups:
1. Do we truly believe that God is the center of community among us?And if you have never been set free from your personal slavery to take up the faith-journey of walking with Christ, the question for you to ask yourself right now is this: Why would I try to get through this wilderness alone? The only answer I can think of would be that you are still worshiping at the shrine of the self-altar, still embracing the demonic myth of your personal self-reliance.
2. Do we think and talk in terms of God's activity in our lives, families, and church? In other words, is this "God's story" or "our story"?
3. What cultural idols threaten to compromise our fidelity to Christ today?
4. What do you imagine "drinking the cup of demons" looks like in our time?
So I would challenge you to pass through the baptismal waters into a life of God-surrender and God-dependence from this time forward. He will be your food. He will give you springs of water in your dry times. And he will lead you in triumphal procession into the Promised Land.
We would welcome you to become part of our faith community in seeking to encourage one another until we see his face.
 Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible (New York: William Morrow, 2001), p. 31.
 Feiler, Walking the Bible, pp. 223-224.
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