Monday, January 29, 2018

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5, for Septuagesima ("Seventy") (1 Yr Lectionary), "Finish with Christ"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today in 1 Corinthians, in two pictures, Paul shows us how to finish the Christian life with Christ—first, a runner competing to win a race, and second, the journey of Israel through the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. Both picture the dangers and challenges of not finishing that race or journey—but they also point us to the imperishable crown of eternal life that we find only in Christ Jesus, our Spiritual Rock. Each picture has something to teach us about our Christian life, so let’s look at each in turn.
First, Paul uses the picture of a runner trying to finish the race. Next month’s Winter Olympics help us remember that it takes dedication and hard work to compete at the highest levels. As he wrote this, Paul might have been remembering the Isthmian Games, which were held in off-years between the ancient Greek Olympics, near Corinth. Ten months of training was required for each athlete, and they competed for a “perishable wreath”—of olive branches, pine, or withered celery (yuck?), that crowned the winner. They didn’t care what the crown was made of.  They cared about the glory, fame, prestige, and even money that came with it. They gave up everything—subjected their bodies to intense training and strict diet, to deny themselves all kinds of pleasures to stay powerfully focused on the goal of winning. Only one claims the prize.
Paul shows us this kind of self-control, discipline, and intent focus, should describe our Christian lives. “Run that you may obtain it”. We’re competing for the infinitely more valuable “wreath”—the crown of eternal life. Christ says, Revelation 2:10, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Paul says the mark of an athlete is their self-control. If an athlete loses self-control, or fails to discipline their body by hard training, they lose their competitive edge, they can become soft or weak, lose focus, or even be disqualified.
Self-control is one of the key Christian virtues, and it’s a muscle every Christian athlete needs to exercise and train. To lose or lack self-control can take many forms. Indulgent—if we cannot restrain our desires and are constantly caving into our weaknesses and pleasures, and can’t show moderation. Reckless or impulsive—if we have loads of energy, speed, strength, or enthusiasm, but can’t direct them in productive ways. Temperamental—if the struggles of competition and life get us so angry or emotional, that our failures and obstacles derail us or unsettle us. Exercising our “self-control muscle” means disciplining our body and keeping it under control, like Paul. To learn how, for example, to use our tongue wisely, with love, to build each other up—not to condemn, tear down, slander or gossip. Or to control our emotions, by striving to be objective and impartial, and handling situations with calm and patience, being ready to listen, to help. Or learning to master our passions—not letting greed, lust, rivalry, resentment, or other vices turn us to sin, but to turn our desires to the good.
Paul says all this hard effort is because we’re not running aimlessly—we’re not boxing the air, with no purpose, but we’re striving for that imperishable crown. Now a word about how we receive it—so far it all sounds like it’s our effort and striving that gets us there. The finish line is the end of this race called life, and the crowning of eternal life. Some of us are well past the days of physical fitness. Others, even in youth, may not be the most athletic in their class. But is this a competition only for the fit, the strong, the beautiful? Are we lone competitors, in rivalry with each other? Not at all! This is a spiritual race, with our strength, our beginning, middle, and ending, all belonging to the power of God working in us. He has given us a “spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). We Christians are one body; a team effort, with all the members sharing together in hardship and in blessing. Hebrews tells us we have a cloud of witnesses cheering us on to finish the race, which we run with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:1-2). To Finish with Christ is not something begun in the Spirit, but finished by our strength—we begin, continue, and complete in the Spirit. That’s why self-control, along with faith, hope, love, etc, are called “fruits of the Spirit!” This is His work in you! Paul urges us to stay focused—see the reward that is before you!
Second to the race image, Paul parallels our Christian life, marked by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, with the Israelites who 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. For they drank from the Spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” Those OT believers also underwent a baptism and ate bread from heaven, like us!
Their journey through the wilderness was not mere history, but also a foreshadowing of our discipleship in Christ Jesus. And their story is filled with lessons and warnings for us. What are the dangers and hindrances? Our Old Testament reading gave one example. God had just miraculously delivered them from Pharaoh’s army, leading them across the Red Sea on dry ground—but almost immediately they fell back into faithless doubting and complaining, that there was nothing to drink and God was going to let them all die. Yes, they actually thought that God would rescue them by a miracle, only to let them die a week or two later! Sometimes our faith is so short-sighted and weak, it would be laughable, if it weren’t so serious. I fear we’re often no better. But God instructed Moses to strike a rock, and water poured out and nourished them.
So one lesson is not to fall into doubting and complaining. A few verses further in Corinthians, and he uses them to warn us against idolatry and sexual immorality—both led them astray. Then comes some well-known verses “let anyone who thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall  No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:12-13). In other words, no one should presume they are immune from danger, from falling, or giving into temptation. We’re tempted by idols of our own making today, or sexual temptations, or just plain grumbling and thanklessness, just as they were. But know that God is faithful to give a way of escape, and He strengthens us against temptation. We need His strength against our stubborn sinful flesh.
The Christian life is surrounded on many sides by dangers! But “fight the good fight with all your might; Christ is your strength, and Christ your right”…and “faint not nor fear, His arms are near; He changes not who holds you dear.” (LSB 664:1,4). Surrender is easy. Losing self-control is easy. Fighting and finishing is hard. Self-control and discipline is hard! But Christ is our Strength! His arms uphold us! He disciplines us in love. And moreover, He has won the battle for us, finished the race before us, to secure that crown of everlasting life.
Take a look again at the verse: “they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Notice, it’s not the physical rock, but the spiritual rock that followed them. Moses didn’t hit Christ, and Christ wasn’t a granite boulder—the physical rock. But Christ is the spiritual Rock. What does this mean? Rocks obviously don’t produce water when you hit them, and they are inanimate objects that cannot follow a crowd of Israelites through the wilderness. But Christ, God’s chosen Son, in invisible form, did accompany and follow the Israelites through the wilderness. Whether at a rock that miraculously produced water, or feeding them with bread from heaven, the manna, that foreshadows the Lord’s Supper—Christ was with them all through the journey. Though they only heard the words of Moses and saw the miracles at the Red Sea, the manna, and the rock, it was Christ’s work being displayed.
And it says He followed them. At first that surprised me. I kept expecting it to say He led them. But when I went back and looked in Exodus, Christ did lead them by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night—but also, at least one occasion, at the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud/fire moved behind them. Why was that? Christ moved behind them to defend them against their enemies, so they could safely cross—every man, woman, and child, while Christ blocked their enemies from behind, and threw them into confusion. A baptismal hymn written by the famous St. Patrick has this line: “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger” (I Bind Unto Myself Today). Christ behind me, Christ before me. We are surrounded on every side by the presence and the protection of Christ Jesus. We are baptized into Him, and Christ is bound to us by His own Word and Promises. Christ leads us on this journey, Christ feeds and nourishes us on this journey, and Christ follows us, picking us up and carrying us when we grow weak and faint. It’s only in Christ that we finish the race.
And for the weak, for the stumbling; for those who have thought to surrender many times, who have felt their will break and falter, there are words to comfort us. Words that lift us up and set us back on the journey again. Words that St. Paul called “trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance”, because they give us strength for the journey and grant us to Finish with Christ: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:15-17).

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5, Paul uses two pictures to speak of the Christian life—one is a metaphor, the other a historical example from the Bible. What are these two pictures? In each case, what do they risk losing? How was the life of Israel more than just history? What does it point to?
  2. 1 Cor. 9:25—why is “self-control” such an essential virtue for the athlete? Describe what self-control is, and come up with some words or descriptions of what it would mean to lack self-control. What are specific weaknesses or temptations to your sinful flesh, that require you to “exercise” that “muscle” of self-control?
  3. How did Paul discipline himself/his body to maintain self-control? 1 Cor. 9:26-27. What did he fear might happen if he didn’t do this?
  4. How did the Israelites have a parallel experience to our baptism and communion? 1 Corinthians 10:1-5. How was Israel’s experience history, but also more than history? What did these events each point to?
  5. Paul does not say that the physical rock that followed them was Christ, but the _____ Rock. What does this word tell us about the food, the drink, and the rock, and how these nourished Israel?
  6. Explain individually how baptism, communion, and Christ are the key to us “running the race” to overcome, and finishing so that we are not “disqualified” or lose the blessing. Why do we need these spiritual gifts to complete the race of the Christian life?
  7. The spiritual rock “followed them” according to Paul (1 Cor. 10:4), and according to Moses the pillar of cloud/fire usually led them, but in the crossing of the Red Sea stood behind them to defend them. Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19-20, 24-25. Why did God take up such a position relative to the people? How does God go “before us and behind us” in life?

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