Let’s just come out and say it: this is not an easy text to preach. And it’s a difficult for at least two reasons: 1) from a law-gospel perspective, there’s precious little gospel intrinsic to what Paul is doing here (“God is faithful” gives us a glimmer of light at the end, but even that word is fraught in its context…more on that later); and, 2) this text is itself exegeting Old Testament texts that would require quite a bit of unpacking even among a biblically literate crowd. Even when Paul goes Christological (v. 4: “…and the rock was Christ”), he is drawing from an extrabiblical, rabbinic source precious few of us have ever read. So, nothing’s easy.
That said, let’s give it a shot. There are at least four themes within this text that I believe are worth pursuing homiletically.
First, Paul’s use of the Hebrew narratives of Moses and the exodus are richly evocative, and they embed Paul’s discourse within the broader arc of the story of God. In this sense, this epistle reading picks up where the Old Testament reading for Lent 1 left off (Deut 26:1-11). The creed Moses lays out there (“My father was a wandering Aramean…”) places God’s salvation history upon the lips of the ancient Israelites as they enter the Promised Land. Here, Paul imbues that same salvation history with deeper meanings for the earliest Christians in Corinth (and for us) to give them roots deep enough to withstand some of the same idolatries the ancient Israelites faced.
Second, it is important to note that this whole text is framed as a warning against the temptation to participate in the worship of idols, which is why it tilts so heavily into law proclamation. As preachers, then, if we are seeking out how to center this sermon in the gospel, we could ask ourselves: what is the opposite of a warning? There isn’t one way to answer that question, and there might be as many answers as there are contexts for preaching on this text. But, as just one example, if a warning is a message cautioning against imminent danger, then its opposite would be the announcement of a wonderful surprise in the midst of testing or trial. I think that is at least part of what is going on in v. 13, but such a move would also connect the proclamation to the parable in today’s gospel reading (Luke 13:1-9) and the effervescently hopeful gardener who will do everything in his power to get a barren fig tree to bear fruit. The story cuts off before we can find out how the gardener’s extra work will turn out, but can you imagine the look of delight on his face, come next year, when he plucks a ripe fig from its branches?
If a warning is a message cautioning against imminent danger, then its opposite would be the announcement of a wonderful surprise in the midst of testing or trial.
Third, there are obvious sacramental overtones to this text. Given the imagery throughout, I would opt to dwell more on baptism than the eucharist. It’s just simply more straightforward, and I wouldn’t have to untangle how the “spiritual” in spiritual food and drink (vv. 3-4) jives in our hearers’ minds with a sacramental understanding of the real presence. Also, the parallel Paul draws with the baptism “into Moses” (v. 2) heightens the meaning of our baptism into Christ and how this baptism fortifies us to withstand every test and trial of life in this world.
Finally, what exactly to do with verse 13? On its surface, it is a word of comfort, and there is much comfort to derive from it. But I also fear its theodicy trap-door, especially in light of the no-fault catastrophes Jesus references in the gospel text. I would want to take great care to proclaim the promise that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” in such a way that it doesn’t devolve into simply a more sophisticated way of saying “it will all work out.” Sometimes it doesn’t, and someone within earshot of this sermon will know that harsh reality more than most. I would want, as far as possible, to preempt any response along the lines of “Well, that’s easy for you to say, preacher.” That likely means spelling out the promise in narrative rather than propositional terms, how we’ve concretely seen God keep this promise in our midst. The key here is to focus the promise not on the amount of testing we can endure, as if God is some kind of cosmic carnival barker at the high striker that is our life, rigging the game so that nobody will swing the hammer hard enough to ring the bell. Rather, the promise is rooted in the fact that the only way we can endure any ounce of suffering in this life is because Jesus Christ—the effervescently hopeful gardener—is tending the soil of our lives most lovingly in exactly those places that are most barren. That’s why we are baptized into him.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Corinthians 10:1-13.