Take Heed Lest You Fall!
Click here for an audio version
The text for today is our Epistle lesson, 1 Corinthians 10:12-13: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“You’re only three Sundays away from never going to church again.” I’ve told my own children that many times. They laugh. They think I’m exaggerating. Or I’m just saying that because I’m a pastor, and it would look bad if they didn’t go to church. But I’m serious. Any one of us here may be only three Sundays away from never going to church again.
The names of formerly active members who are no longer in attendance at worship on Sunday morning are scattered on the membership rolls of churches all around the world. St. John’s is no exception. Just look around. There are “holes” in the pews, empty places that used to be filled by particular men, women, and children. Some of them are your family members and friends—all of them are your brothers and sisters in Christ! And the saddest part is that many of them don’t just drop out of a particular congregation, they fall away from the faith completely.
If you asked them, I’m sure most of them would tell you that they never intended for that to happen. They can’t even really tell you how it came to be. It was not a conscious decision. Many of them were very active members, involved in leadership roles in the church and participating in groups and committees. They brought their kids to Sunday School every week, maybe even taught Sunday School or helped with VBS. They came to Bible study regularly and were pillars of the church. Then something happened and they’ve just never made it back.
Before we proceed, let me emphasize that I’m not really going to be preaching about them today. That would not be all that helpful. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t care about them, or that there is no hope of them ever returning. By God’s grace, many do make it back at some point. And all of us need to keep reaching out to them continuously and regularly, inviting them to join us in receiving God’s good gifts in Word and Sacrament. More importantly, we need to pray for them, that the Lord would bring back the erring and the straying, that He would gather His people as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.
But I’m not preaching about those people this morning because I cannot preach to them! They are not here to hear me. But you are—and you and I are not immune from this very thing happening to us, too. The only advantage I have over you is that I have an added incentive to be here. You would probably notice if I happened to skip a Sunday or two! At least, I hope you would.
But seriously, any one of us could be only three Sundays away from never coming here again. Think about it. You miss one Sunday for whatever reason. Maybe you aren’t feeling well. Perhaps you just want to sleep in. Or you are gone for the weekend. It really doesn’t matter why; the effects can be just the same. If you’re like me, you’ll probably feel a bit out of sorts, like something is missing from your whole week. The next Sunday, it won’t take as much to keep you away from the worship service. And you won’t feel near as empty as you did the week before. By the third Sunday, you might not even feel much of anything at all.
And shortly after that, you might feel bad enough about missing, that the devil or your own sinful flesh will whisper that people are going to talk if you come back. They might make you uncomfortable by asking where you’ve been. Or even worse, the other members might have just moved on fine without you. The little voice might even tell you: “Why do you want to go there? They don’t seem to care about you! Did any of them even call to see why you were missing?”
No, any one of us could be only three Sundays away from never coming here again. Think it can’t happen to you? Don’t be so sure of yourself! The old Adam is weak and vulnerable to temptation. Heed Paul’s advice from our text, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
In our text for today, St. Paul isn’t specifically addressing church attendance. I just use it as an example of one of the common temptations that we all face. But Paul is writing to the Corinthians about misplaced confidence in one’s own strength, rather than trust in Christ. Paul is well aware that such temptation could cause him to be disqualified from the blessings of Christ, even as he proclaims them to others.
For the Corinthians, too, the danger of being “disqualified” is real. So Paul takes them (and us) to the Old Testament for an important spiritual lesson from the history of Israel. Although the Corinthian church consisted mainly of Gentiles, the, like we, had been grafted into the vine of Israel and were therefore entitled to think of the fathers of the Jewish people as “our forefathers” in faith.
Israel’s safe passing though the waters of the Red Sea foreshadows the waters of Baptism. At the Red Sea, all the covenant people “were baptized into Moses.” They submitted to his leadership as he guided them through the waters, and when they saw what the Lord had accomplished there, they “believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses.” Accordingly, Moses was a type of Jesus Christ, the greater mediator of the new covenant, into whom we have been baptized.
Just as these Israelites received a type of Baptism, so they also received a type of the Lord’s Supper. All of them were sustained by the manna, described by the psalmist as the “grain of heaven,” the “bread of angels,” which the Lord “rained… on them to eat.” Its heavenly origin explains why it is called “spiritual food.” It was superior to ordinary bread, just as the “spiritual body” with which the believer will be clothed in the resurrection is superior to the natural body.
Likewise all the Israelites received “the same spiritual drink,” which was water, but also corresponds to the wine of the Lord’s Supper. Both at the beginning and at the end of their wilderness wanderings, the Lord provided them with the miraculous water from the rock. Paul points to Christ as the true spiritual rock who accompanied Israel, ascribing to him the title “the rock,” which the Old Testament ascribes to the Lord (Yahweh) as Israel’s great protector.
Five times in the first four verses, the adjective “all” is used to describe the recipients of God’s deliverance of Israel. All of the Israelites received these high privileges as God’s covenant people. All were saved in the exodus. All were sustained in the wilderness. But with the word, “nevertheless,” in verse five, Paul reminds the Corinthians that most of Israelites failed to reach the Promised Land, despite being the recipients of God’s lavish grace. Out of the more than six hundred thousand men who left Egypt, only two—Joshua and Caleb—were able to enter Canaan because they trusted in the promises of the Lord. The others paid the penalty for their disbelief and murmuring. Over forty years of wandering, their corpses were scattered all over the Sinai wilderness.
Paul’s purpose in drawing the parallel is this: just as many Israelites were disqualified because of their unfaithfulness and false worship, Christians also face the danger of being disqualified from salvation if they engage in false worship or fail to remain in repentance and faith worked by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace—the Word and Sacraments.
In its attitude toward the Sacraments, the church of all ages faces two equal and opposite temptations. One is the danger to which most of the Israelites and some of the Corinthians fell: the adoption of a complacent, “magical,” view that there is spiritual benefit in simply “going through the motions.” This takes the Sacraments for granted and forgets their purpose is to create and sustain faith. Faith apprehends God’s grace, the benefits of Christ, His love and forgiveness.
Faith should then lead to godly lives and appropriate works. A Christian cannot participate in the Sacraments and then carelessly continue to live in sin. The Corinthians seemed to have the mistaken notion that having participated in the mysteries of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper they had passed into a zone of spiritual blessedness that made them immune to spiritual danger. They misunderstood Baptism and failed to grasp their baptismal unity in Christ. They abused the Supper, so Paul had to admonish them and given them additional instruction about the proper preparation for and reception of Holy Communion.
The other danger the church faces in regard to its attitude about the Sacraments is to detract from the reality and power of the Sacraments as true spiritual food and drink, and reduce them to mere symbols. This happens when Christians consider Baptism to be merely a demonstration of our faith, rather than an action of God which confers the forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, adoption as God’s child, life, and salvation as the Scriptures affirm. This happens with the Lord’s Supper, when Christians fail to discern Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament, which bestows the benefits earned by Christ on the cross.
The Old Testament events described in the first five verses of our text are intended to vividly show the Corinthians (and us) that the God who has called them (and us) into communion with His Son is the same God. He has bestowed His grace on us, as He bestowed it on Israel, but if we give in to the same sins, we will be punished just as Israel was punished.
Mindful of this, we should not be complacent or arrogant. It is only by humble faith that we continue to stand. So Paul urges, “Take heed lest [you] fall.” Paul’s concern reflects the proverb: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18). Christians who pride themselves on their power and freedom in the Spirit should be careful not to fall from grace.
Now, we’ve just heard a ton of Law. There’s a danger that we might find false security in thinking we’re safe. We’ve kept the Law, at least a whole lot better than most people. We might even convince ourselves that we deserve God’s love. There’s also the danger of complacency. We might think that since God has already made us His children, we’re home free. Paul’s strong dose of Law should rid us of any such thoughts. None of us deserve God’s love. Each of us is prone to wander. Each of us can become complacent in our walk of Christian faith.
But we must be aware of another danger as well—having heard such stern Law we might fall into despair. We might be overwhelmed by the challenge of resisting temptation due to our fallen, sinful nature, throw our hands into the air and just give up. To temper this possibility, Paul adds a word of encouragement. “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
The temptations we encounter are those common to humanity, trials to which all sinners are susceptible. Many of Israelites fell by the same temptations, as they spurned God’s Word and promises. But nevertheless, God remains true to His promises. God is faithful, even when we are not.
All of God’s promises are kept in His Son, Jesus Christ. God’s promises are distributed to us through His Word and Sacraments. It is no coincidence that Paul has previously stressed these means of grace, because they are the very means by which we are equipped to resist temptation. They are the means that restore us when we have given in to temptation. They are the “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” that can sustain you and provide a way out the temptations you face. That is why it is important for you to be here each Sunday. Missing church takes you away from the very means that create and sustain faith. Neglect of God’s Word and Sacraments separates you from God’s promises!
Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues you from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ keeps His promise to “be with you always,” and gives you victory over sin and hell. His body and blood strengthens you for the new life in Him.
In His holy Word, Christ who overcame all temptation and defeated sin, death, and the power of the devil with His sacrificial death and victorious resurrection continues to promise: “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who had given them to Me, is great than all; no one can snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
Christ battles for us against temptation as we pray. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray with Christ that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them. Remember: God is faithful. He will not allow you to be tempted beyond your ability to resist temptation.
And even when you are caught in the temptation, the Lord promises to provide a means of escape. What is that means of escape? Contrition and repentance. Confession and absolution. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves; but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
So, repent and believe the Good News. Yes, you have given in to temptation. You have indeed sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But in Christ and for Christ’s sake, you are forgiven for of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.