Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do you think the group of people that marched out of Egypt in the middle of the night, headed for the Promised Land, were privileged? They saw things that no one ever saw before or since. They were a part of things that no one had been a part of before or since. They witnessed the devastation of the Ten Plagues upon Egypt. Israel saw the Creator God blazing a trail for them through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud in the daytime and a pillar of fire at night. Who else but Israel had walked through the center of the Red Sea on dry ground with the water stacked up on both sides? They had heard the voice of God himself. He fed them miraculously in the desert. Were they privileged? You bet they were!
Like those Israelites of old, all of us Christians are privileged people. The grace of God has touched each one of us. We are people who have received a baptism in which God brought forgiveness and adoption into our lives. Like those Israelites, we have the privilege of eating and drinking spiritual food again and again—the very body and blood that Jesus Christ gave and shed for us. And as many of you would be quick to remind me, you were born, baptized, confirmed, and married in this very Church. Are we privileged? You bet we are!
Yet St. Paul the apostle has a warning for us. Those privileged Israelites sinned so grievously that God was furious with most of them. God killed every adult Israelite in the wilderness except Caleb and Joshua. What about us? How many of us will make it to the promised land of heaven?
Keep in mind the unfaithfulness of Israel
What a sad statement that is. Out of the 600,000 plus men 20 years and older who left Egypt, only two, Joshua and Caleb, lived to enter the Promised Land. Why? The simplest way to put it is this: Israel did not take God’s Law seriously. They certainly didn’t fear the threats he attached to his commandments. They took God’s grace lightly. They did not appreciate how much God loved them. They took for granted all he had done for them and said to them. Most Israelites fell away from God, so they died in the wilderness and did not make it into the Promised Land. Let this be a warning. It is dangerous and deadly to take God’s Word too lightly.
What sins were led to their destruction? Their appetite for evil things, their sexual desires, idolatry, and discontentment overcame them. Paul mainly refers to a few incidents: the golden calf, the desire to go back to Egypt, the mass immorality with the Moabite women, and the bronze serpent’s story. Paul is giving us these warning examples from Israel’s history—to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things!
Beloved, we need to take these warnings seriously. I fear we have become so casual about our Christian lives that we do not treat temptation, sin, and disobedience seriously enough. More and more people are living together before marriage. Divorce is common, and pornography is readily available in our society. Do we always take to heart the sixth commandment not to commit adultery? How often do we put our God to the test by complaining and grumbling about every little thing that happens in the Church that we don’t like? How easy it is for us to get tired of waiting for Jesus to come again, to live as though Jesus is never going to show up again. It’s easy for us to put on a show of Christianity but live like anyone else in the world. Our god becomes whatever we put above Christ. So, no matter how many benefits God showers on you, you should never assume that you have a non-refundable ticket to heaven. The Christian life requires moral effort, self-restraint, and self-denial.
Look, the Israelites were as good as baptized. They were a people who were spiritually and literally drenched with the presence of God. God saved them from slavery in Egypt. He baptized them in the Red Sea and led them in Person. He fed them food and gave them fresh drinking water in a place of pure death. And yet, despite the God right in front of them, they kept giving sidelong glances to Baal. Despite hearing God’s terrifying voice calling them to live holy lives, they still took up sexual orgies the moment they got the chance. And despite the loving hand of their loving God all-but handing them bread every morning, they complained like spoiled brats and got what they had coming to them.
Simply put, if all that could happen to them, it certainly can happen to you also. If we think we don’t have these weaknesses, that is proof that we do. When we stop being humble and repentant, we stop being children of God. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Sacraments will not save you if you refuse to live in the way that God desires. Yes! This applies even to you who were baptized into Christ and eat his flesh and blood weekly. You are also drenched with the presence of God. Be warned, all of you! “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Co 10:12).
Take to heart the faithfulness of God
Paul switches from the unfaithfulness of Israel to the faithfulness of God. Repeatedly in the Old Testament, Israel sinned and deserved to be blotted out of existence. But because of his faithfulness to a promise, God forgave them often. Even though a generation of Old Testament Israel did die with their bodies scattered over the desert, God was faithful and gave his people the Promised Land and the Promised Savior.
We’ve said that the sacraments are not intended to give you a non-refundable ticket to heaven. Just consider baptism for a moment. What does baptizing with water signify? “It signifies that the old Adam in us, together with all sins and evil lusts, should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance and be put to death, and that the new man should come forth daily and rise up, cleansed and righteous, to live forever in God’s presence.” (SC IV.12, Tappert). Your baptism indicates that you will begin to live in a particular manner pleasing to God.
That’s why Paul says, “God is faithful.” He always keeps his promises. He remembers the covenant he made with you at your baptism. God claimed you there as his child. He is not going to abandon you. He wants you to make it all the way to the Promised Land. That’s what God said in our Old Testament lesson! He has no desire to see the death of the wicked, but rather wants to see them turn from their wickedness and live! God will help you along the way to get there. Did not Jesus teach us to pray, “And lead us not into temptation”? He did. God will give you the strength to resist and to overcome temptation. Your heavenly Father wants you to make it. He has united you to Jesus Christ, your savior, who defeated the devil in the wilderness when he was tempted. Jesus was hung upon a cross so that if you look at him in faith and trust his guiding hand, Christ will see you through to the promised land. Stay close to Jesus because he will strengthen you and help you when you are tempted.
This calls for humility, repentance, and faith. Humility is involved because you should never think you are so super-spiritual that you could not fall into temptation. If you realize you are being lured away from God into following the ways of the devil, the world, or your sinful flesh, you need to repent; you need to turn away from those things and ask God for forgiveness and for help to do better. This calls for faith because it means trusting in God’s promises to forgive you. It means trusting that God will give you the help and strength to endure, for Christ’s sake.
Remember the case of Israel. If any of us think we are strong enough to control this monster of evil inside our hearts, heaven will be lost to us. What happened to Israel in the wilderness can happen to us. So, when we are tempted to be unfaithful, the place to go is to our faithful God. That is the good news today. Every time we were forgiven, our faithful God forgave us. Every time we did what was right, our faithful God gave us the power. Every time we resisted temptation, our faithful God provided the way out. He sent his Son, Jesus, to be the Passover Lamb for you so that you could be delivered from your bondage to sin, Satan, and death. God provides us with the sacraments, not to give us a non-refundable ticket to heaven. No, the sacraments create, nourish, and strengthen spiritual life in us so we can be strong, fight temptation, and keep the faith. God is faithful; ask him for help today to stay close to Christ and not fall into temptation, and He will always create a way for you to endure. This faithful God never lets trouble come into our lives without giving us some way to get through it. If we’ve sinned, we can come back. When we’ve slipped and fallen, this faithful God has seen that the blood of his Son cleanses us from every sin and help us to endure.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen