Sermon: “The Way Out” February 28, 2016

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Way Out” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
February 28, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Last week a friend gave me a list of things that may reveal people to be Episcopalians.  Here are a few of those:

You might be an Episcopalian if you recognize your neighbor or rector in the local liquor store and go over to greet them.

You might be an Episcopalian if you watch Star Wars and when they say, “May the force be with you,” you automatically reply, “And also with you.”

You might be an Episcopalian if you ever find yourself saying, “Oh, but we’ve never done it that way before.”

You might be an Episcopalian if you know that the Senior Warden and Junior Warden are not positions in the local prison.

Lastly…you might be an Episcopalian if you reach a point when you’re not sure about anything theologically, but you still feel completely at home at the altar rail and somehow know you’re meeting God there, even if you can’t begin to understand how.

A recurring theme in the assigned lectionary readings during Lent is temptation.  Temptation is something all of us, Episcopalian or not, experience.  In seasons of temptation all of us need to find a home at the altar rail and receive help from God.

Each year on the first Sunday in Lent the gospel reading centers on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and in the collect for that day we make the following request to God: “Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save” (The Book of Common Prayer 218).  This sets the tone for all of Lent.

Today is the Third Sunday in Lent, and similarly in the collect for today, another gem, we ask God for both external and internal help in the face of temptation:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul (BCP 218).

Do you really believe that?  Do you really believe that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves”?  Admitting that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” is humbling, really humbling, but it is the first step in overcoming temptation.  In commenting on this collect Episcopal priest and scholar Paul Zahl writes:

First, we admit to God the plain fact that “we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.”  Is this plain?  Is it obvious?  Or is it a fact subject to dispute?  Step One of the Twelve Steps concurs.  World history concurs—at least if you reckon that the wars and holocausts in the twentieth century took more lives than every single conflict in the nineteen centuries preceding.  Your personal history probably concurs, at least if you have ever been mired in a hole so deep that left to the devices and desires of your own heart you could only sink further into it (The Collects of Thomas Cranmer 37).

In the last verse of today’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians we find the source of help when “assaulted by many temptations” or in a time in which we recognize that indeed “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves”:

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

The word translated “testing’ here is often translated “tempted.”  In this verse we are assured that with every temptation God always provides “the way out.”  In other words, when you are assaulted by many temptations or mired in a deep hole, look for the exit sign, look for the way out.

In the verses leading up to this promise of “the way out” Paul discusses four specific kinds of temptation to which the Israelites succumbed in the wilderness: idolatry, sexual immorality, putting God to the test, and complaining.  Paul emphasizes that the Israelites had already experienced God’s powerful saving work in delivering them from bondage in Egypt when they experienced these temptations:

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that 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 (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).

It is the same in the church isn’t it?  Even those who have somehow experienced the saving work of God in their lives, even those who have been baptized, even those who have received Holy Communion, even those who have sensed the presence of Jesus Christ the rock with them—and yes, even Episcopalians—are not immune to temptation to idolatry, sexual immorality, testing God, and complaining.

In the wilderness the Israelites were tempted by the idolatry of the nations with whom they interacted like the Moabites or Ammonites.  In our lives temptations to worship idols abound.  These idols might not be images of Baal or Ashtoreth; they are simply anything we worship instead of God.  The big three of course remain money, sex, and power, but there are many others—entertainment, sports, pleasure—you can fill in the blank.  Idolatry caused the downfall of many Israelites in the desert, and can be just as dangerous to us.  Interestingly, Paul is not the only apostle to warn against idolatry.  The Apostle John closes his first letter with a simple warning: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

Sexual immorality proved the downfall of many Israelites as well, and was often linked with idolatry and pagan religious rituals that essentially were orgies.  I do not need to delineate about the veritable smorgasbord of sexual immorality that is prevalent today.  You are fully aware of that.  As I have said before, there is actually a technical term for someone who is immune to temptation to sexual immorality: liar.

Paul also warns about how the Israelites continued to test God, which simply means they kept seeing how far they could go, how much they could get away with.  You may remember that during his time in the wilderness even Jesus was tempted to put God to the test, and in turn Paul warns, “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed.”

Finally, Paul warns against something that is often overlooked but proved to be just as lethal to the Israelites in the wilderness as idolatry, sexual immorality, and testing God: complaining.  In the Old Testament book of Numbers we read that the Israelites often complained—for example, in chapter fourteen—“All the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!” (Number 14:2).  The consequences for the Israelites who complained was the same as it was for those who tested God, as Paul bluntly writes, “Do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed.”

Speaking of complaining, I received a hilarious birthday card once that featured a cartoon on the front of Jesus performing the miracle of the multiplication of the bread and fish at the feeding of the five thousand.  It is a beautiful sunny day and Jesus is standing on a hill holding out a loaf of bread in his left hand and a fish in his right, but the crowd is full of complainers.  One complains, “I can’t eat that; I’m a vegan” and another asks, “Has that fish been tested for mercury?” and a third asks, “Is that bread gluten-free”?  On the inside the card reads, “Avoid complainers and have a great birthday.”

Some of you may remember the early 80’s Saturday Night Live sketches when Joe Piscopo and Robin Duke played Doug and Wendy Whiner, a married couple who complained non-stop about anything and everything to the exasperation of all around them.  No matter what was going on they would whine and whine and whine.  In one sketch they were on an airplane and they complained about not having enough leg room and needing a blanket and the air-conditioning being too cold, on and on.  When the stewardess asked if anyone wanted a headset, all the passengers on the plane immediately stuck their hands up at once—anything to keep them from having to listen to Doug and Wendy Whiner.

So what about you today?  Have any of these four temptations Paul warns about assaulted you?  Have any of them mired you in a deep pit?  Have any of them left you with the realization that you have no power in yourself to help yourself?

That is where the good news of the gospel comes in.  Again, as Paul put it, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out.”  In his commentary on this passage the late biblical Scholar Leon Morris put it this way:

(God) will always make a way out.  This word (ekbasis) may denote a mountain defile.  The imagery is that of an army trapped in rugged country, which manages to escape from an impossible situation through a mountain pass.  The assurance of this verse is a permanent comfort and strength to believers.  Our trust is in the faithfulness of God (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 1 Corinthians 142).

There is a way out and there is an exit sign.  The way out is Jesus Christ and the exit sign is the cross.

Scripture assures us that in Jesus Christ we have a high priest “who in every respect has been tested (or tempted) as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).  In the wilderness Satan tempted Jesus with idolatry and testing God, and while it may make some people squeamish, if Jesus was indeed tempted “in every respect,” then he was also tempted by sexual immorality and complaining.  Yet, Jesus did not sin.

Moreover, when Jesus carried the cross to Mount Calvary, when Jesus could have called legions of angels to help him provide a way out, he did not.  Instead, he died to atone in your place for every occurrence of idolatry, every episode of sexual immorality, every time you have tested God, every complaint you have spoken.

And this means that as scripture assures us, when we find ourselves assaulted by temptations, we are able to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

So even if you are an Episcopalian who is not sure about anything theologically, you can be sure about the grace of Jesus Christ, who helps those who have no power in themselves to help themselves, and you can be sure of the grace of Jesus Christ, who is the Way out.

So today, once again, may you find yourself completely at home at the altar rail.

Amen.