Grace Presbyterian Church
March 20, 2022, Lent 3C
It was a year ago this past week that a man went on a killing spree at a number of spas or massage parlors in the Atlanta area, killing eight people, mostly of Asian descent. In the time since the murders, we have learned (among other things) that the man claimed to be waging a “war” against the “sex worker industry” and to “eliminate” temptation; that upon entering one establishment he shouted “I am going to kill all the Asians” before he began shooting; and that before the shootings he had sought treatment at a “Christian rehab center” for his supposed addiction to sex.
While there’s a lot going on in these various reports and claims, one thing that becomes clear is that there’s a serious misapprehension about how the business of “temptation” works. The Apostle Paul has something to say about that in his letter to the church at Corinth, but he gets there by a somewhat circuitous route through the account of the Exodus, and some cautionary tales about the responses to temptation among the Hebrew people on that journey.
Paul’s descriptions are not always easy to relate to the Exodus account as we have it in the book of that title, but clearly one episode involved the notorious golden calf the people prevailed upon Aaron to make while Moses was on an extended trip up Mount Sinai. The outbreak of debauchery that followed likely constitutes much of what Paul is describing, but there are other episodes noted as well, such as the instances where the Hebrew people took to grumbling and complaining against Moses and against God over the inconveniences they faced.
Paul reminds the Corinthians that the Exodus participants enjoyed many blessings and protections of God (such as cloud and pillar to lead through the wilderness, water from the rock, manna from the sky) – which Paul likens to such Christian sacraments as baptism or the Eucharist – and yet so displeased God that the generation involved did not live long enough to make it to the Promised Land; only their descendants did. Paul also makes clear that the sins they committed – idolatry, sexual immorality, putting God to the test, and all that complaining – was their own doing. No one in the wilderness was luring them to worship an idol or to go wild or to grumble against Moses; it was their own doing.
Even if that had been the case, though, there would have been no excuse for their behavior. No matter what someone else is trying to do to get you to sin – even the Devil, if we remember the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness – you aren’t required to respond by being tempted, much less succumbing to temptation. The Hebrew people in the wilderness were too eager to indulge in their own desires and appetites, and they destroyed themselves in doing so. The Atlanta spa shooter, far worse, destroyed others over his own temptation.
Paul is eager to warn the Corinthians away from such indulgences and offers these accounts of the fate of the Exodus generation as a set of cautionary tales (as he admits in verse 11), meant to warn the folks in Corinth that they were subject to the consequences of their choices and actions, and that indulging their own desires and wants was quite likely to lead them to a similar result.
Apparently, some of the folks in Corinth thought it was no big deal in participating in some of the rituals of the various temples to the various deities patronized in the city, as if they were somehow still regulars at those temples as opposed to part of the body of Christ. Paul had already spilt much ink in arguing that eating meat that had previously been offered to those idols was not an issue unless it caused a sister or brother to stumble, but actively participating in temple rituals was a different matter altogether. Paul expends a lot of rhetorical energy trying to persuade the Corinthians against this and pointing out that the “blessings” of being part of the body of Christ (like the divine blessings that had followed the Exodus travelers) did not mean they could not destroy themselves by such indulgence.
[Short digression here: Jesus’s dialogue with his questioners in Luke 13 offers a needed clarification here. Not all such calamities are the result of such indulgence. Those “whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices” did not die from their own giving in to temptation, but from Pilate’s crime. Nor did those who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell die of their own fault. Bad things do happen. Not all such calamity is self-induced.]
But back to the Corinthians, and one last bit of instruction. In verse 13 Paul makes three interesting statements about the nature of temptation itself, and how specifically God is involved in such dealing. Each of these are meant to point the Corinthians away from that temptation to idolatry, but they also point us away from any impulse we might have not only to give in to temptation, but to claim that we had to do so.
- God “will provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” You are not hopelessly penned in; there is a way to not give in to the temptation you experience. God does not leave us abandoned. (Sing v.1)
- There will be no temptation you face “that is not common to everyone.” You’re not unique in your temptation experience. Countless hosts have faced it before you and walked away from it. (Sing v.2)
- There is no temptation you face, in God’s support, that is “beyond your strength.” Of course, the trick here is to realize that your “strength” is not in yourself. To whom are you committed? Who do you follow? Are you in fact trusting in the triune God for “strength“? (Sing v. 3)
God is faithful. Temptation is not a thing to be blamed on any other; temptation is not a thing to be fought off under your own power. Being in the body of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, following the lead of Christ, under the kingship of God; this is how one begins to reject temptation even before one faces it.
(Sing v. 4)
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #739, O For a Closer Walk With God; #438, Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me; #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah