1 Corinthians 9:24–10:5
February 9, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church—Chicago, IL
In the name of + Jesus.
St. Paul compares the Christian life to an endurance race. And endurance requires discipline. The top athletes of our age hone their bodies to do amazing things; and they do it to receive a hunk of metal and sometimes a pile of cash. But so often their discipline doesn’t extend to their possessions, and once successful athletes end up destitute.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, 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 (vv 24–27).
It’s at this point that you would expect St. Paul to begin to list some spiritual disciplines like reading your Bible for 20 minutes a day, or keeping a prayer journal, or meditating to center yourself. But that’s not what he does. He tells the story of Israel!
There is a point of comparison between an athletic event and Israel’s journey from slavery to promise. To use a cliché, it’s a marathon not a sprint. Israel did not beeline from the Red Sea to the conquest of Canaan. They wandered. 40 years. An entire generation.
God doesn’t measure time the way that we do. Especially in our hyper-accelerated, results-driven, consumerist mindset, we expect to see results and we expect them yesterday. But God’s has long-term plans. He thinks in terms of generations. I the Lord am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Ex 20:5–6).
Israel wandered for 40 years. We hear the story so often, I think we get numb to what that really meant. What were you doing 40 years ago? Me, I was still getting my diapers changed. Many of you were doing nothing because you didn’t yet exist. And even our most seasoned members here today were in a much different season of life 40 years ago.
So it seemed like they were wandering aimlessly. But Paul reminds us that things are not always as they seem with God. 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 (vv 1–2). The cloud and the sea gave meaning to the Israelites’ wandering. It was a type of baptism, Paul says; they were the people who passed through water to get to where they were going.
And as their journey began in and through water, it would end in and through water. The Jordan River marked their finish line. Water gave them purpose. Water gave them a promise to aim for.
But a generation is a long time. A generation of wandering requires endurance and endurance requires sustenance. And all ate the same spiritual food, Paul continues, and all drank the same spiritual drink (vv 3–4). Two of the featured stories from the desert wandering are of food and drink. First, God’s provision of manna and quail was the answer to Israel’s anxiety over losing the Egyptian meat pots. And when they grumbled that God was killing them with thirst, He gave them water from a rock. Twice. Once even in spite of Moses’ disobedience and theatrics.
These were very tangible, physical, material provisions, yet St. Paul calls them spiritual food and drink. Spiritual in this case doesn’t mean immaterial, but food and drink that is given with and connected to God’s Word. It was food and drink to strengthen bodies and spirits—bodies by providing the basic building blocks of biological life; spirits by giving them faith to trust that they were not wandering aimlessly or beating the air. Their spiritual food and drink was to assure them that the journey that began in water would end in water with God’s promises fulfilled.
And then St. Paul says something very curious. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ (v 4). It would still be over a millennium before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but Paul says that Christ followed Israel. For the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and so there is no spiritual food or drink apart from Christ.
Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness (v 5). How do we avoid the same fate?
I’ve been reading a lot about the state of our Western culture, and several themes continue to come up, regardless of author or study or even religious tradition. One of the major struggles for people today—and especially young people—is to find meaning and purpose in life. We are an aimless people, lacking discipline, swinging at the wind, connecting with nothing. Our culture has not turned to idols of stone or gold; it’s turned to nihilism.
But there is purpose here. There is meaning in the Church. And it begins in water. Israel was baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They became recipients of the Law and God’s covenant. That gave them meaning. You have been baptized into the greater Moses; For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (Jn 1:17).
Sea and cloud. Font and Spirit. Grace and truth. The baptism of Jesus gives new birth and new life. And it gives new meaning. The meaning is the name of the Trinity, etched onto your forehead. Father, Son, Spirit. The Son is the eternal expression of the Father and the Spirit is the eternal expression of the love they have for one another. Baptism places you into the household defined by mutual love and service, submission and sacrifice.
Baptism also gives you a purpose. It give you an aim in your life. It gives you something to live for. A life whose meaning begins in water will also find its fullness in water. Just as Israel made their way to the banks of the Jordan to inherit the land promised to them, you also make your way through life to the completion of your baptism. Life for the baptized is not a life ignorant of death or in fear of it. Baptism aims you through death to the fullness of life that comes in resurrection from the dead.
But the way is long. Sometimes 40 years. Often 80 years. The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. And it requires endurance and sustenance. Because it is the way of the cross--If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mt 16:24), says Jesus—the food and drink must also come from the cross.
If anyone is thirsty, let him who believes in me come to me and drink, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow streams of living water.” When this Rock was struck with a spear, immediately there issued forth a stream of blood and water. This is a drink that refreshes those who thirst for righteousness. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn 6:35, 51).
Your life in Christ begins and ends in water. The way is long, and with many perils. But it is not an impossible way. One has already traveled it. If you need sustenance to endure, it is provided here. Upon the altar is spiritual food and spiritual drink from the Rock that follows you.
Christ Is the Rock
Come, and have a drink.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard
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