Saint Paul gives us very stern warnings today. He bases his words on the history of the people of Israel in the wilderness. Time and again, they ignored the voice of Moses. They chose grumbling and rebellion, and they reaped the consequences. May we not follow their example.
The Israelites committed idolatry with the golden calf. However, the text from Exodus that Paul quotes does not sound like idolatry: “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” Here Paul is talking about the behaviors of the people that went along with their idolatry. As they held a celebration of their new golden calf, they engaged in feasting and play. We might ask, what’s wrong with play? Well, they were not playing monopoly or checkers. The word “play” most likely means the kind of sexual immorality that often went with idolatry.
We do not have open idolatry. There is no literal statue of a false god in our homes. If you do have one, please talk to me after the service. Yet we still have plenty of idols. Instead of a gold idol, we often have gold as our idol. If not money, then we appreciate possessions and comfort a little too much.
Sometimes, we overindulge in food or drink, as the Israelites did. Their overindulgence was a sign of their idolatry. So is ours, even if our idols are more subtle.
We sometimes engage in “play”. Even though we are members of a church, some of us think living together in sin is no big deal. Divorce is no big deal. Pornography can invade our homes. Although there are probably not many homosexuals among us, we may sometimes feel that it is not a sin. Although we may not “play”, we often do not feel that we have any right to judge. So we may find ourselves giving silent approval to sins that are most grievous in God’s sight.
Be seriously warned. The Israelites engaged in sexual immorality, and about twenty-three thousand fell in one day. God punished them to show us how grave the matter of sexual sin is. Do not take it lightly, because God does not take it lightly.
Do not test the Lord. Do not push Him, as some Israelites did, and were killed by poisonous serpents, and many died. That sounds serious. How did the Israelites test the Lord, that caused Him to react so strongly? The text of Numbers 21 says that they became impatient and spoke against God and against Moses.
So be warned that God hears your words. He listens to the idle conversations when you may speak against this or that.
One obvious target of such words might be me, your called minister. I am certainly very far from being a perfect man. I am obviously no Moses, yet some of the same principles apply. Christ said of His ministers, “He who hears you hears Me.” In the ministry, I do not represent me. So be careful what you say. Remember that the Lord listens to your words.
Be careful about grumbling. Some Israelites grumbled, and were destroyed. Just for grumbling! We are certainly no strangers to complaining. We like to pretend that we do not, but we do. Complaining can indicate mistrust of God. It shows that we are too concerned about our own well-being and comfort.
In this, we too often follow our first parents. Adam complained that Eve tempted him to eat the fruit. What he really meant was that God made a mistake when He created Eve. Eve complained that the serpent tempted her. What she really meant was that God made a mistake when He created the serpent. Grumbling will lead us to this kind of thinking if we let it. Therefore let us resist it.
These things were written for our instruction, especially in regard to when we feel secure and strong in the faith. As Paul says, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Do you think that you are doing well in your Christian walk? Then be on your guard. The devil loves those who feel like nothing can trip them up. They are vulnerable.
For instance, are you so spiritually mature that you do not need Bible study? This is what our flesh wants to tell us. But the truth is, the more spiritually mature we become, the more we realize that we desperately need the Word. The true spiritual reality is that we are beggars who need every scrap of grace we can get. But if we feel that we are rich and full, then we may convince ourselves that we do not need much. God forbid that we feel that way. May He instead show us our weakness and sin, which never leave us until the grave.
Meanwhile, we must face many temptations. The Israelites faced sinful lures, and many of them fell. If we succeed where they fell, it is only by the grace of God, not by our strength.
We face many temptations, but nothing that is unique to us. God has not singled you out for some special temptation. No temptation comes to you that is not common to man. The point here is that God is not out to get you. He is not laying traps for you, as if He wants you to fall. No, God tempts no one. He may test us, but His desire and aim is always to build us up in faith, not pull us down.
Because of His loving will for you, He will always provide a way out of temptation. Whenever He allows you to be tempted, He gives you an escape route. There is always a way to avoid the snare of the tempter.
It may not feel that way to us. A temptation may seem so strong that we cannot possibly resist it. But that is an illusion. The devil may seem to box us into a corner from which there is no escape. But it is not so. God is still watching out for you. He would never allow you to be so thoroughly entrapped by satan. There is always a way out. God has promised.
That does not mean that we will always succeed in resisting temptation. We most certainly sin much daily. So the Lord comes into our midst. More than anything else, Jesus Christ is our way out of temptation, because He is the Mediator and Propitiator for our sins. Because He shed His precious Blood on our behalf, God’s wrath for our sin is taken away. Because Christ died, we have peace with the Father.
Christ is in our midst to remind us of this, and to keep bestowing His forgiveness. He also traveled in the midst of Israel in the wilderness, in the pillar of fire and cloud, and in the holy of holies in the Tabernacle.
Christ’s presence for them had a negative side. It meant that when they were rejecting Moses and disobeying God, they were rebelling against Christ who was in their midst. Similarly, when we sin, we sin against Christ who graciously dwells with us.
Yet He did not chiefly come among them, or us, to punish. He wants to always be the Savior, full of grace. He set up the sacrificial system for the Israelites so that they could receive forgiveness. In the same way, He has set up Baptism and the Lord’s Supper for us. He has given us Absolution and Preaching. He proclaims His gracious Word and bestows His Benediction upon us.
So remember that Christ is among us. We are His beloved people. He is where we go to flee from temptation, especially when we need forgiveness because we have failed.
What great privileges we enjoy as the Church of Christ our Lord. We live now in the end of the ages. Paul said this about the Corinthians almost two thousand years ago. The end of the ages is all the times of this present earth that come after Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We live in these end times, which can be scary. But we also have the benefits of living at the end. We see clearly the plan of God’s redemption fulfilled in Christ our dear Lord. We have the precious Sacrament of His Body and Blood to strengthen us in faith and forgiveness. We have been cleansed in the washing of rebirth and regeneration by the Holy Spirit.
When you are hard pressed by satan, your sinful flesh, and the hostile world, take refuge in these wonderful treasures. Remember the merciful promises of the Lord.
The Israelites sometimes forgot their merciful Lord, and that is when they fell into temptation and destruction. They forgot that the Lord had rescued them from Pharaoh and his army. They forgot that He fed them manna in the wilderness. They forgot that He gave them water from a rock. When they forgot, they grumbled and went astray.
If we forget the infinite grace that has been poured upon us, then we may also find ourselves in paths of transgression.
Therefore fix your eyes upon Christ and His Cross, and set your feet upon paths of righteousness, and be quick to repent.
God grant this to us for His mercy’s sake. Amen.
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