Sermon for 3rd Sunday In Lent Yr C, 14/03/2004
Based on I Cor 10:1-13
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson,
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Learning From Past Mistakes”
A famous philosopher—I believe it was Spinoza—once said that people must pay close attention to the mistakes of history and learn from them; for if they don’t, they are condemned to make the same mistakes again.
In our second lesson today, the apostle Paul is basically saying the same thing. He cites the examples of the Israelite exodus out of Egypt; their escape through the sea, and the pillar of cloud, which was a visible symbol of God’s presence as they wandered about in the wilderness. God had delivered, provided for, and been with the Israelites during this period of their history. Nonetheless, the Israelites had committed some very serious sins against one another and against God. Paul tells the Corinthians and us today that the history of the Israelites is a warning. We are called upon to pay close attention to their mistakes; otherwise we are condemned to make the same mistakes.
What, then, are we able to learn from these mistakes of Israelite history; which, may, by the grace of God, prevent us from being condemned to make the same mistakes?
First, there is the warning against pride and over-confidence. This caused the Israelites to believe that they were invincible—they were able to do anything and nothing would happen to them—for God was on their side. The people who are not on God’s side get what they deserve. Only bad things happen to bad people. “We are Israelites. We are God’s Chosen. We’re the best people in the whole world, therefore how can anything bad happen to us?”
This sin of pride and over-confidence is very dangerous because it also causes people to falsely believe that they are so great that it is impossible for others to prove them wrong or correct them. However, the ancient Israelites did not have a monopoly on pride and over-confidence—every race, nation, and individual is tempted by this sin. The false belief that I am or we are greater than anyone else very quickly leads people to believe things like one race of people is superior to all the other races. We all know what evil that led to in Germany during World War II. We also know what evil that has led to in countries like South Africa when it was under apartheid and the incidents of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Balkan nations and nations like Rwanda. In response to the sin of pride and over-confidence, Paul warns the Corinthians and us today with these words: “Therefore let any one who thinks that he/she stands take heed lest he/she fall.” The New English Bible, also places great emphasis on the urgency of Paul’s warning by translating it this way: “If you feel sure that you are standing firm, beware! You may fall.”
Paul is saying, “Once you have made it to the “top” so-to-speak, be very very careful because that is precisely where you are in the greatest danger of falling!” Or to put it in a very simple way: When you’ve reached the top the only place to go is down. The pages of history are filled with examples of individuals and nations and civilizations reaching the top so-to-speak only to go toppling down like a row of dominoes. Therefore, we are wise to pay very careful attention to Paul’s warning lest we fall.
Second, the apostle Paul warns the Corinthians and us against the sin of being preoccupied with what God regards as evil and forbidden. Paul once again instructs us to learn from the mistakes of Israelite history. He warns: “These things all happened as warnings for us, not to have the wicked lusts for forbidden things that they (i.e., the Israelites) had.” (Vs 6, The Jerusalem Bible)
Today our society seems to be more and more preoccupied with what God regards as evil and forbidden. People are intrigued with what is taboo, warped and perverted. As Malcolm Muggeridge once put it (to paraphrase him) we now live in a society where evil is good and good is evil. Many people have become so bored with themselves and life in general that they go looking for what is forbidden to get entertained and satisfied. They watch violent T.V. shows and movies; they read pornographic magazines; they are drawn into all sorts of outlandish cults and the occult. In these and several other ways, they are playing with destruction and death. This sin of being preoccupied with what is evil and forbidden cheapens the true value of life; destroys life and leads people away from God. It is the nature of evil to attract, entertain, deceive, and excite by resorting to sensationalism. Paul warns us that we are in serious trouble if we fall into this sin. We are to avoid and resist this sin by learning from the terrible mistakes of Israelite history; which serves as a warning to God’s people that the consequences of such sin shall lead to death and destruction.
Third, Paul warns the Corinthians and us to be vigilant. “If you feel sure that you are standing firm, beware! You may fall.” (NEB) Beware! Take heed! Be careful! Lest you fall. Be alert and watchful or the enemy may very well overtake you.
Again and again a fortress has been stormed because its defenders thought that it was impregnable. In Revelation 3:3 the risen Christ warns the Church of Sardis to be on the watch. The Acropolis of Sardis was built on a jutting spur of rock that was held to be impregnable. When Cyrus was besieging it, he offered a special reward to any who could find a way in. A certain soldier, Hyeroeades by name, was watching one day and saw a soldier in the Sardian garrison drop his helmet accidentally over the battlements. He saw him climb down after it and marked his path. That night he led a band up the cliffs by that very path and when they reached the top they found it quite unguarded; so they entered in and captured the citadel, which had been regarded as very safe. Life is a chancy business; we are instructed to be ever on the watch. 1
We may believe the fortress of our Christian faith is impregnable and very strong. We may think that we can stand firm in the faith at all times. But we can never stop being vigilant if we are going to remain strong in the faith.
This Lenten season, may we be watchful and alert, lest we lose our way off the path, which leads us to our crucified Saviour. For only in following him along that path do we discover that we are truly alive, saved and secure. Amen.
1 Cited from: Wm. Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Burlington, ON: G.R. Welch Co. Ltd., 1975), pp. 89-90.