In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Just over a week ago, the world was horrified to hear the news of a terrorist attack carried out in a mosque and an Islamic center in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. The killer attacked when the people present were most vulnerable, at worship, during Friday prayer services. The death toll was 50. The murderer chose also to make his sickening act even more sickening by “livestreaming” it on a social media platform.
In the West African nation of Nigeria, since February at least 300 Christians have been killed and thousands more have been displaced, in attacks by one of the most notorious Islamist groups in the world, Boko Haram, and nighttime raids—and daytime raids—by Fulani herdsmen. The Fulani are overwhelmingly Muslim, and the president of Nigeria is the son of a Fulani chief. The Nigerian government is making no real effort to stop the attacks. If you haven’t heard anything about this genocide, it’s not surprising. Most mainstream media here in America haven’t reported on it.
When we hear of such things, we are horrified, and when we tell others of these things, we hope that they’re horrified, too. We feel sympathy for the victims, and outrage at the perpetrators, and we expect that our hearers will feel likewise. That’s probably what those who told Jesus about a similar horror were expecting from Him. They told Him “about the Galileans whose blood [Pontius] Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” in the Jerusalem temple, no doubt expecting that Jesus would decry and condemn the governor’s order and the soldiers’ actions as sacrilegious and murderous. Instead, Jesus turns their expectation on its head, using the incident as a lesson on sin and repentance: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:2–3). Those who have suffered because of a natural disaster—such as the flooding, tornadoes, and storms that have hit the middle of this country, or the cyclone that just devastated the East African nation of Mozambique—they don’t seem to get much sympathy from Him, either. Jesus recalls what was probably a natural disaster in Jerusalem: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (vv. 4–5).
In our text for today, the Apostle Paul is proclaiming the same lesson as the Lord Jesus in today’s Gospel: Take heed, be on guard against temptations to sin, or you will perish, just like the Israelites who were “overthrown, strewn about in the wilderness,” because “with most of them God was not pleased” (1 Cor 16:5). Before the Israelites ever heard or received so much as a single one of God’s commandments, before they could keep His law, He showed them His grace and mercy by delivering them from their bondage in Egypt. That is where Paul starts, with the grace of God in Christ toward His people of old. Yes, even in the Exodus, when the LORD brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Dt 4:34), His saving work for them was the work of Christ. That’s what St. Paul is saying. The LORD God showed the people of Israel His grace, His action for them to save them from their plight, and His riches toward them to mark them as His chosen people. How many of them received the grace of God in Christ? “I want you to know, brothers”—literally, Paul says, “I do not want you to be ignorant, 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, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (vv. 1–4a). Five times Paul says “all” received God’s grace: under the Cloud, through the Sea, baptized into Moses, spiritual food, and spiritual drink from “the spiritual Rock”—not a natural, physical rock that was rolling along, but “the spiritual Rock”—following as a shepherd to tend to their needs, “the Rock, [whose] work is perfect, for all His ways are justice, a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright” (Dt 32:4), the Rock proclaimed by Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets, “and the Rock was Christ,” for Christ is God, the “Rock of ages, cleft [wounded] for” us. From the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire He once looked down upon His people Israel in need of His deliverance and protection. Now from the pillar of the Cross He has looked down upon us and all people in need of His forgiveness and salvation.
“Nevertheless,” the Israelites trifled with God’s grace, treating these gifts as unimportant, of little or no value. Rather than thank and praise God for His undeserved kindness toward them in these His acts, they grumbled and complained about what they didn’t have, what they had left behind in Egypt, and the hardships they would have to endure. In the second month after their departure from Egypt, we hear all three of these rolled into one complaint:
And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex 16:2–3).
They would also long for “the melons, the leeks and onions” and other fruits and vegetables plentiful in Egypt. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with fruits, vegetables, meat, or bread. What was wrong and sinful was their desire to turn back toward the land of their slavery, forsaking the LORD God who had delivered them, rebelling against the One who had compassion on them! Five times all received the grace of God in Christ, but five times “most” or “some” of them trifled with temptations, to the sins of craving evil things, idolatry, sexual immorality, putting Christ to the test, and grumbling against the LORD and against His servants and messengers. God had given them “means of grace” that were types, figures, of the Means of Grace He gives us in Christ the Crucified and Risen. They all were “baptized into Moses in the Cloud and in the Sea,” Moses as a type, a figure, of Christ, the Cloud as a type of the Spirit, the Author of the Word, and the Sea as a type of the water in Holy Baptism. They all “ate the same spiritual food,” the manna, “the bread from heaven,” a type of the body of Christ, who is “the Living Bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51); they all “drank the same spiritual drink” from the stricken Rock, a type of the drink, the blood of Christ poured from His wounds and stricken side. If their baptism into Moses was that significant, then how much greater is our Holy Baptism into Christ Jesus! If the food and drink they partook was that heavenly and nourishing, then how much more heavenly and nourishing is the Holy Supper of Christ’s body and blood that we partake! They trifled with those graces of God, and what great judgment and destruction came upon them! Shall we escape judgment and destruction if we trifle with the fullness of the grace of God in Christ, if we disdain our baptism, if we trample the blood of Christ underfoot, or treat His body and blood as common things? Does this diminish the promise of God in these Sacraments? By no means! For though we may be faithless, God is faithful, and He is true to His Word and promise.
Several years ago, cable TV pioneer Ted Turner said that our society should do away with the Ten Commandments as outdated, and replace them with “Ten Suggestions” better suited to modern society. Many Christians were up in arms over his proposal, as though it would be taken seriously. Then again, maybe Mr. Turner won. After all, don’t we accept as “normal” many things that were once regarded as sins? Children, have your parents warned you when you’ve engaged in some sin, or when you disagreed with the Bible? Or did they accept your sin or your view as inevitable and “that’s the way things are in the world today”? That may be the world’s way, but is that how Christ calls us to live as His holy people? Absolutely not!
We who have received and continue to receive the grace of God in Christ—in Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, in the Word, in the Holy Absolution—must daily return to this grace, or if we think we’re standing firm, we may well fall. The Apostle Paul said, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). St. Paul, disqualified?! Yes, if he had trifled with the grace of God in Christ and with the temptation to sin, then he would have fallen away. There is no “once saved, always saved.” Rather, as in the Small Catechism, baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (SC, Holy Baptism, Part 4). “Guard yourself,” Luther also says, “… against this error” of thinking that you are pure and need not slay your sin. Do not disdain God’s grace in Private Confession and Absolution, which is simply a return to the grace and forgiveness of your baptism.
I confess my complaining, my grumbling, about many things, my frustrations—the church, fellow workers, parishioners, the wrongs I perceive, the wrongs I think I’ve “suffered,” and my own faithlessness in this, that I’m not worthy to be here, to serve Him. Yeah, I know, none of us is worthy. Thanks be to God that someone recognized my spiritual danger, and found this prayer for me in the Lutheran Book of Prayer, “during hard times,” p. 212, and I end with it:
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Merciful Father, You know how difficult these days are for me. In Your holy Word You have promised to hear those who cry unto You in the day of trouble. Listen to my cries for mercy and send me help from the sanctuary of Your grace. Preserve me from bitterness of spirit, and rescue me from every temptation to despair. Calm my frustrations with the knowledge that my life is secure in Your redeeming love, for I am baptized into the death and resurrection of Your Son. Draw me out of self-centered worry, which stifles faith, and cause me to take comfort in the great and precious promises that You have made to me and all believers in the Gospel. Sustain and strengthen me under every cross and affliction, that Your grace might be made perfect in my weakness. Give me confidence to pray without losing heart and to trust in Your mighty deliverance according to Your good and gracious will. Father, into Your hands I commend myself. Hear me, for the sake of Your Son, who alone is my Brother and Savior. Amen. [Revised edition © 2005 Concordia Publishing House.]