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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
March 24, 2019 at 10:30 AM
Central Passage
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Lent 3C

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: March 23, 2019, Lent 3C

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Desert Faith


              In May of 2012, I went with some friends to Vegas. During that time, we rented a Camaro and blasted through the desert at high speed. We stopped at Hoover Dam for a tour (and an endless number of “Dam” puns). We then tried to find a public access point on Lake Mead. We didn’t find one we trusted. Taking a spur off of U.S. 93, we came to a trailer park that gave us the creeps, so we turned around and headed back to Vegas. What struck us was how utterly desolate everything was. A few shrubs dotted the desert sands. No trees. No towns. Barely a sign of life. Just the sun, the rocks, and the people zooming down the highway. (By the way, don’t drive at 90 miles per hour in the desert with the top down. You’ll feel like an Egyptian mummy at the end of the ride.)


              The church in North America and Europe has been in its own desert for quite a while. We already know that. Things seem very uncertain, as they did for the ancient Israelites. Membership numbers continue to drop. Even among members, there is far less active participation than there was. Pew Research, I believe, has now acknowledged regular attendance at worship services to be twice a month, rather than every Sunday. Congregations are no longer the social hubs they once were. A slew of non-congregational activities and clubs have taken those roles.  On top of all that, the organized churches have done their best to make themselves hypocritical and irrelevant to the wider culture. They have sheltered abusive or incompetent leaders. They have obsessed over their own survival rather than following their Savior’s example, who gave his life for the life of the world.


Now, I don’t say these things to shame anyone. But they are trends that are a long time in the making. We continue to blast through the desert as the cars on the road grow fewer and the sky grows darker. And in this desert, it’s hard to remain faithful to our original calling to be a community led by Christ. It’s hard to keep a desert faith.


But it’s in the crucible of a desert like this one where faith “as sharp as a two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12) is forged. Rather than cursing the times, wishing for the old days to return, we can understand this desert as the way in which God sharpens and strengthens us into the people he called us to be.


Think of Paul’s words on the Israelites in 1 Corinthians 10. Paul emphasizes the continuity between the ancient Israelites and the church. We’re all one people of God. Paul goes even further, saying that those same Israelites took part in the same sacraments that we take part in today, though under a different form. They underwent baptism when they went through the Red Sea. They received communion through the manna that fell and the water that came from the rock, which, Paul identifies with Christ himself. Same people of God, same sacraments, same call to holiness – which means not just “set apart”, but also “whole-iness” (w-h-o-l-e). The call to be a people of God is the call to be a people that embody wholeness. To embody living well as God intended us to live. There’s a relationship between the Hebrew words qadesh, which means “holiness”, and shalom, which means “wholeness” or “peace”. The people that God calls to be a community of faith should be the people that embody wholeness and peace in their lives.


Of course, as we know from Scripture and from our own lives, sin gets in the way. Paul describes this inner conflict very well in his letter to the Romans. “I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate. 21 So I find that, as a rule, when I want to do what is good, evil is right there with me. 22 I gladly agree with the Law on the inside, 23 but I see a different law at work in my body. It wages a war against the law of my mind and takes me prisoner with the law of sin that is in my body.”[1] We know what the right thing is. We just find it very difficult to do sometimes. We are, since the fall, inclined toward thoughts and actions that rebel against God and put us in first place.


Which is another similarity we have with the ancient Israelites. Hear some of the temptations that the Israelites faced:


  1. Upon facing serious discomfort by traveling through the desert, the Israelites say, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”[2]
  2. Upon setting up camp at Rephidim, where there was no water, the Israelites say, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”[3]
  3. Fearful and anxious because Moses failed to descend from Sinai in a timely manner, “[The Israelites] gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He collected them and tied them up in a cloth. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!””[4]
  4. Fearful upon hearing the report of the spies who went into Canaan, “All the Israelites criticized Moses and Aaron. The entire community said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt or if only we had died in this desert! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our children will be taken by force. Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” 4 So they said to each other, “Let’s pick a leader and let’s go back to Egypt.””[5]


The connections may not be immediately obvious between their temptations and ours. But here are the common themes. All complaining is brought on by discomfort, anxiety, or fear. The temptations are to mistrust God. To turn their backs on the Promised Land and the abundant, free life offered them there – a better life that they can barely imagine. To regard the life of the slave as the “good life”. To turn away from the better life they can’t imagine and return to a romanticized image of what used to be. To go back to Egypt. Back to slavery. To retreat into themselves instead of boldly stepping into God’s future.


Those are like the temptations we face. Beloved people of God, the Egypt of the 1950s and 1960s is behind us. It may have seemed like a good time in the life of the church, and I’m sure in many senses it was. But the church was enslaved to forces it couldn’t see. It was enslaved to the notion that the churches were responsible for creating good American citizens. It was enslaved to the lie of American innocence in our involvements around the world. It was enslaved (as it is today) to the forces of racism, prejudice, and fear. It was enslaved to itself and its own success.


And now, the temptation is to look back on those times with rosy glasses. To miss the fact that by reducing our centrality in American society, God has freed us from so many of these burdens. Instead of seeing our mission as recruiting more people for our own sake, or doing ministry for ourselves until we die, God has freed us to live out the gospel for the sake of the gospel. For the gospel that liberates. For the gospel that makes people whole and holy. For the gospel that calls us to die to ourselves, to die to these forms of slavery, and live for Christ and his saving word.


At the end of the day, the truth is this: Christ is faithful. Even though the Israelites were disobedient again and again, their children entered that Promised Land. Even though we are disobedient again and again, out of our fear anxiety or discomfort or hurt, Christ will lead us too to our own Promised Land. I’m not just talking about heaven. I’m talking about the regenerated life rooted in the gospel. In the Word and Sacraments. Jesus is faithful to us in every and all circumstances and continues to work on us to make us holier and more whole people. To make us a shalom people. To make us people worthy of the name “Zion”, which means the place of God’s presence, or “the beautiful city of God”, as the old hymn says. Jesus will do this. He is like the gardener in the parable who spreads fertilizer around the tree to make it bear fruit, who begs the master for one more year. He is the one who has worked and continues to work on us to build a resilient desert faith.  Let us pray.


Lord Jesus, renew and strengthen our trust in you and in your good purposes for us. Develop in us that tough desert faith we need to face temptation. Amen.


© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.


[1] Rom. 7:15, 22-24; Common English Bible, 2011.

[2] Exod. 16:3, CEB.

[3] Exod. 17:3, CEB.

[4] Exod. 32:1-4, CEB.

[5] Num. 14:2-4, CEB.