The liturgical context for Lenten preaching in the historical church year is to prepare catechumens for baptism at the Easter Vigil. The church intends these Sundays to include a brief yet intense series of catechetical sermons on the Christian life. What does it mean to be Christ’s? What will it cost? What will I lose? What will I gain? How will I endure to the end? Preachers ought to lay hold of this season as their most direct means to shape the piety and life of their people. How will you paint before their eyes Jesus Christ as the Crucified?
We find with each Sunday that life and death is in the balance. Temptation and worldly lures are not merely occasions for the foot to slip in due time, but is the Satanic onslaught by which the Enemy seeks to drag our living souls into hell eternally. This is surely true of every Sunday and every sermon, but Lent has a way of renewing our preaching, to sharpen the point on the Holy Spirit’s kerygma of warning, judgment, and our great comfort in the wounds of Christ.
1 Corinthians 10 is a powerful catechetical text that puts forth the two ways of either life or death. We need to teach our people to fear, as the gravest enemy, spiritual death and all that leads to it. Sometimes the way to do that is to proclaim loudly and clearly the Ten Commandments word for word: “Thus saith the Lord…” But Paul offers us a powerful theological-rhetorical alternative to the letter of the Law by instead walking us through the Old Testament narratives as τύποι of warning for us. In Romans 15, Paul explains that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4) and he says something similar here (v. 11). God in His mercy and providence has endured Israel’s unbelief and punished them for it, “so that we might not desire evil as they did” (v. 6). Here we learn how committed and faithful God is to bring about our sanctification—even overthrowing Israel so that He might not overthrow us.
We find a marvelous key to unlock the Scriptures when we realize that the Holy Spirit deals with us “now”. Today is the day! There’s no sense speculating about why God suffered Israel’s unbelief or why He was, to our mind, too harsh with them. The sacred history of Israel took place for us and for our salvation. These words of warning are to save us from the coming judgment, so that we would receive His grace now and endure faithfully in our temptations to the end.
Preaching on this text means walking your people through that sacred history and painting the grim picture of Israel’s unbelief and God’s wrath. Take time to walk through that history yourself this week. Notice in the accounts from Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, which Paul mentions, that there is always a contrast with God’s faithfulness to “all” and the unbelief of “most.” Paul’s sermonette is meant to expose the “most” in the church of God at Corinth. It’s as if he were saying: “You’ve all received Holy Baptism and have been absolved of your sins and communed on the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, and yet with most of you God is not pleased. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. And when you baptize, you don’t even know into whom you are being baptized, whether into Paul, Peter, or Christ (1 Cor. 1). And after you have been absolved, you boast about a man taking his father’s wife? What!? Are you completely ignorant of how God dealt with Israel? Don’t you know about the coming judgment? Let me remind you. All Israel received the spiritual blessings. All were baptized. All ate the spiritual bread of heaven. All drank from the spiritual Rock, who is Christ. And yet with most of them God was angry. I don’t want you to be ignorant anymore. So let me tell you the stories again. It’s time to catechize you again in the sacred history of Israel.” As Paul does in Romans 4 and 9 or Galatians 4, he launches into OT catechesis.
For preachers today, I fear this has become a lost art—one that we desperately need to recover. We don’t need witty anecdotes or personal stories so that we can relate to our people or give them a hook to remember. Whenever I try something like this (however textual it may seem to me!), alas, they only remember my little story and forget the text. To be textual in our preaching, we ought to do as Paul does, and drag our people through the Old Testament narratives. We ought to let the Holy Spirit do the illustrations. Of course, Paul’s illustrating too, but he’s doing it in the Spirit and using the Holy Spirit’s own vocabulary. If we press the sermon in that direction, then we’ll begin to learn in the school of the Holy Spirit how to proclaim the Old Testament to our people now. The blessings are not only for them, but for us preachers, too.
“These things,” Paul says, “happened to [Israel] as an example for those [who remained], but they were written down for our νουθεσία (instruction or correction), on whom the ends of the ages have come”(v. 11). If you preach the tail end of this text, you’ll notice that Paul puts both the sin of idolatry and sexual immorality under the banner of pride. Pride is what killed so many in Israel, and it is the sin that will kill the saints of God today. Therefore, Paul continues as if to say, “For this reason, because of this, so that we don’t die in disaster on the Final Day, let no one think that he is well. Let the one who thinks he stands watch out, so that he doesn’t fall, because whoever thinks he’s standing has fallen already.”
The paradox stands before us. No one who thinks he stands stands. But the one who thinks he falls endures to the end, because he must hang it all on Christ. And so we’ve returned to Christ’s temptation and the victory that we have in Him. There is no way out of it. Temptation is sure to come as long as we have flesh. But the way to endure is to pray and to watch. God knows that for Christians the spirit is willing, even while the flesh is weak. But God is faithful. And so the church prays: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching I Corinthians 10:1-13.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach I Corinthians 10:1-13.