The Cloud and the Sea

When I first saw today's passage, I had to look at it again and again and again, because I had a strange sensation about this text that I rarely get about a biblical passage anymore. I had the sensation that I had never seen this passage before. I know I have read it before because I have read all of Corinthians several times, but something about the imagery Paul uses here was very odd for me. It sounded strange--more mystical than Paul usually sounds.

Listen to that first part again: Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.

Usually Paul sounds like he's trying to teach us something with carefully constructed arguments and logical progressions. Here he sounds like he's struggling to communicate something that is just beyond his ability to express--as if what God is telling him is just a little more than even he can comprehend.

He is trying to tell us about his Jewish ancestors, whom he wants us to see as our spiritual ancestors, even if we have no actual Jewish heritage. He is trying to communicate his great love and respect for them and yet at the same time point out that they ultimately failed in the same ways that we are prone to fail in our own life and times.

He wants us to know that he believes in God's covenant with the Jewish nation--he believes strongly in God's love for them:

• God who led them with a pillar of cloud
• God who parted the sea to free them from bondage
• God who provided them with the spiritual food of manna in the wilderness
• God who brought forth water from the rock to cure their thirst.

Paul wants us to remember that before God was our God, God was their God. So convinced of this is Paul that he makes the case that Christ himself was present in the forms of salvation that were offered to our Jewish ancestors. Christ, who would not be born on this earth for many centuries, was nonetheless for Paul present in the saving acts of God toward the wilderness generation. He guided them with the cloud. He baptized them in the sea.

Paul says they were "baptized into Moses," and that they drank from a spiritual rock that was to come after them, the rock which was Christ himself. Paul knew this might not make sense to anyone. How could Christ have been present to people who lived centuries before he was born? How is that possible?

But for Paul, just as God saves us through Christ, God attempted to save them as well; and for Paul, salvation in any era, extended to any person, is God in Christ reaching out to us. For Paul--all salvation, however it is offered--all saving acts through which God reaches out to humanity--all salvation of any kind, is Christ at work in the world. Christ is salvation and salvation is Christ.

So just as we come to trust that God is reaching out to us in Christ, offering us salvation, we are asked to remember that we are not the first people to be offered salvation from God. Our ancestors were offered it too; and if we wish to avoid the kind of mistakes that can jeopardize our salvation, we need to learn from their experience and take the lessons of their era to heart.

They had salvation offered to them, says Paul. They had miracle after miracle offered to them, and STILL they made the kind of mistakes that humanity has always made and continues to make. They had God's mercy extended to them, and what did they do?

They became idol worshippers. He refers here to the Golden Calf incident in Exodus 22, where a common communal dinner leads to a discussion of whether Moses would ever come back from the mountain and wound up ending with all of them dancing around an idol they made on the spur of the moment. How easy it was for them to abandon God for something shinier, newer, more real to them than a God who requires faith. Are we any different asks Paul? Couldn't we also sit down to drink and rise up to dance?

The former generation became sexually profligate. Here Paul refers to the Baal Peor incident in Numbers 25, in which invitations to participate in an exotic foreign culture led some among the people to choose sensual experience over their own traditions and beliefs. Are we so different? Aren't we drawn like a magnet to the exotic and beautiful? Aren't we susceptible to this sort of temptation to abandon the familiar and seek the foreign, no matter the possible consequences to ourselves or others?

The former generation insisted on complaining and testing God even though God had been nothing but faithful to them. Here Paul refers to the Bronze Serpent incident in Numbers 21. Are we so different? Do we not draw line after line in the sands of our own experience and dare God to step over them? Don't we look for proof of God's love constantly when plain evidence of God's love is all around us?

So why does Paul record such disappointing behavior on the part of the ancestors? Is it so we can feel righteous in our own trust and faith in God? Certainly not. Rather it is so that we may learn from their example how to avoid their mistakes.

We, says Paul, are those to whom the end of the age has come. Testing is coming into the world with the end of times; and yet, if we study the lives of the ancestors, we will realize as Paul states, "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone."

If we do not wish to fail the test, to fail God, by lapsing into the types of sins that trapped our ancestors, we must learn from their sad experience. We must trust in God to help us. We must resist the mistakes of the past.

Sin comes to everyone. All of us are prone to it. Testing situations, in which we are tempted to betray God and ourselves by yielding to sins we know are not God's will for us, these testing situations will come to us just as they have come to every generation of people before us; but if we will learn from the mistakes our ancestors made, we will better withstand the tests of life and triumph with the help of God.

Sin is not something any of us escape. It is part of our human condition. Having sin in one's life does not make one a less beloved child of God than anyone else. However, this does not mean that we should get used to our sins or accommodate them or excuse them in ourselves. Sin is still sin and God still calls us to cast sin aside.

The gospel lesson paired with Paul's letter for today raises another issue common to our discussions of sin. It is the age old question of whether death and disaster are meted out to some people by God in proportion to the amount of sin in their lives. The Gospel story is Luke 13:1-9.

Here Jesus discusses some recent tragedies with the crowd that has come to hear him. Apparently Pilate had killed some Galileans in a mass atrocity; and Jesus asks his listeners, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not so," said Jesus. "Or the 18 who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than others living in Jerusalem? Of course not!" said Jesus. "But unless you repent, you will perish as they did."

Repent of your sin or you will perish as they did? But didn't he just say they weren't killed because they were abnormally sinful? Why then does Jesus warn the crowd to repent or they will die as well? The larger context of the gospel reading is Jesus' teaching about the end of the world--the coming Kingdom of God--which was his first and most frequent preaching topic. Death comes to everyone--to those who repent and to those who do not. The end of time will come upon those who have repented and upon those who have not. Rather than speculate on the REASON someone died and whether their death was caused by their sin, better, Jesus advises, to repent of your own sin so that sudden death or the sudden coming of the Kingdom of God does not end your life with your sins still unacknowledged or confessed.

So often in life we must leave the question of evil unanswered and that is hard. Sometimes we simply cannot know why disaster happens to one person and not to another. It is uncomfortable. It is unsettling. It shakes our understanding of the universe. But Christ invites us to shift our attention away from things we cannot control and onto those things we can control. We can control the good we do in the world. We can control how we respond to evil. We can set aside the things we can't understand or control and resolve simply to live our best lives.

Paul is saying a similar thing in Corinthians. We should take heed and take responsibility for our own true spiritual status, not thinking too little or too much of ourselves in comparison with others. If you think you are standing, be careful that you do not fall. No one's sin is greater or more spectacular than another's in the eyes of God. Sin is sin, and God knows everyone's. But God is not going to hold you responsible for someone else's sin, only for your own--so one should spend more time concerned with one's own sin than with the possible or suspected sins of others.

Sin comes to all of us. Death comes to all of us. What we as Christians hope is that we will prepare ourselves for death by putting sin as far away from us as we can. We are not part of the generation that perished in the wilderness. We are not those upon which a tower has suddenly fallen. We have the advantage of time to look back into faith history and then look at our lives and consider: Have I abandoned my sin? MY sin? Not someone else's, but mine?

Am I doing any better than the wilderness generation at being grateful for God's saving acts in my life? Am I showing that gratitude by reforming my life? Have I put away my own personal idols, those things that I give greater importance to than God in my life? Have I reformed my relationships so that they are free of exploitation and selfishness? Have I taken God's gifts for granted, and am I constantly demanding that God prove his love for me with test after test, doubt after doubt?
If I have not rid my life of these and other sins, why would I expect that I should not perish just as the wilderness generation did? They had gifts from God and did not appreciate them. They had grace offered them and did not accept it. If we do not do better than they did, why shouldn't we perish as they did?

For one, it is not God's will that we perish. Sin and temptation are merely testing, says Paul. Momentous times are upon us. Times when Christians are being tested. God will not let us be tested beyond our strength, but testing will come to us as it has to every generation. Our goal is to withstand the tests--the temptations to sin--that the world throws at us, so that we can be a different kind of example to future generations than the wilderness generation is for us.

God is inviting us to be a generation of those who pass the tests! God is inviting us to cast our sins aside so that others can see that we understand that salvation is being offered to us. God is giving us the opportunity to witness to our salvation--to show the world our salvation--not by being perfect and sinless--none of us can do that--but by showing the world that sin CAN be conquered, sin can be resisted, we CAN do better than our base inclinations.

We are those who have been led by the cloud, who had walked through the sea, who have tasted spiritual food and who have drunk freely from the rock that is Christ our Lord. Our wilderness surrounds us, and yet if we will be true to God, he will give us the strength to triumph over the tests that life throws at us and we too will arrive, in greater and greater numbers every day, at the shore of the Promised Land.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.