A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, July 29, 2018
The Epistle, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 – The Gospel, St. Luke 15:11-32
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. The connection between the Exodus story and our story in Christ
The epistle teaches us that the Christian life is to be understood in the light of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. Israel was “baptized into Moses” as we were baptized into Christ. Israel was fed in the wilderness by manna from heaven and water from a rock as we are fed by the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. However, despite these gifts and graces the Israelites were overcome by temptation in the wilderness. This teaches us that our baptism and reception of the Sacrament do not guarantee that we will inherit the kingdom of God. We also can be overcome by temptation and overthrown. St. Paul writes,
These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore, let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:11-12).
The wilderness was time of testing that prepared Israel to enter the Promised Land. The Christian life is a time of testing that is preparing us to live in the coming kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is already here through the gift of the Holy Spirit. But it is not yet fully here. The central task of the Christian life is to follow the Holy Spirit through the wilderness as the Israelites followed the fire and the cloud—and not to be distracted and thrown off course by temptation and sin (John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress comes to mind here). The goal is to remain faithful through testing and make it to God’s New Creation.
B. The Pursuit of Happiness vs. the Pursuit of the Kingdom
This framework of understanding teaches us that nothing in this world is ultimate. We can be content with things in this world only inasmuch we enjoy them as gifts from God and foretastes of his kingdom. This is a sacramental perspective. We receive Christ in the Sacrament. However, the Sacrament also points beyond itself to the Coming of Christ in person. What we receive now is meant to sustain us as we await its fulfillment.
The sacramental perspective stands in contrast with the perspective of the world. The world offers us the creation as the end and goal. The world sells us non-sacraments. Get this thing—the relationship, the sex, the fulfillment of appetite, money, power, luxury—and you will be happy.
This purpose of the wilderness is to wean us from this idolatry. Someone observed that it took God a week to lead Israel out of Egypt, but it took forty years to remove Egypt from the Israelites. Baptism and conversion of the heart may occur in short seasons of time, but the reformation of our disordered desires takes a lifetime. The Israelites who died in the wilderness represent our fallen nature that must die so that our new human nature, remade in the image of Christ, can grow towards its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. The key to resisting temptation is perceiving the lie that is being presented to us. Temptations promise us what they can never give us. God wants more for his children in his kingdom.
Many Christians struggle with their faith because they do not understand that this life is a wilderness of testing. Many Christians have embraced the world’s idea that we should pursue happiness right now above all else and that all pain should be avoided in the pursuit of happiness. If we try to follow God through the wilderness and aim at happiness in this world, these two vocations will clash; one will eventually give way to the other.
C. The Discipline of Fasting
The wilderness highlights the importance of the spiritual discipline of fasting. We must learn to say no things if we want to say yes to God. Fasting is the way we practice saying no. Many Christians have a fear of fasting—for two reasons. First, if you believe that you will be made happy by having everything you want, it sounds senseless to give up something you want. Won’t that make you unhappy? Second, fasting calls to mind extreme forms of asceticism. For example, St. Simon the Stylite, who lived his life atop a pillar, ate food only occasionally, and never bathed. Does God want us to be like him?
The first fear is overcome by learning that having everything we crave does not make us happy—it makes us miserable. Learning to say no is essential to living a contented life in Christ. However, we are often unable to say no. Thus, we must practice saying no if we want to get spiritually stronger. The fear of asceticism can be overcome by realizing that God probably won’t call you to live on a pole, eat little, and never bathe. But God will call you to practice saying so to things.
We have seasons of fasting, Advent and Lent, where we say no to things for an extended period to prepare to receive Christ in new ways at the feasts of Christmas and Easter. A good regular discipline is to practice some form of fasting at least a day a week. Whatever you are too attached to—food, electronics, entertainments, you know what it is for you—go without it for at least a day a week. One day a week—at least—practice saying no. Start small. For most people simply eating nothing between meals will be a good start. Practice that.
It is unfortunate that in the most overindulged culture in human history most Christians have no regular practice of fasting. It is one reason so many Christians are overcome by so many things, including discontentment. We can’t resist temptation just by trying to say no when the moment of trial is upon us. Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights before he faced temptation. An athlete practices before the game. We must prepare for the spiritual battle by fasting and praying before we face temptation. The epistle says,
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Cor. 10:12-13).
The way of escape may be the regular practice of fasting, combined with prayer, that increases our ability to say no to things and yes to God.