Sermon 03-20-22: “If You Stand, Take Heed Lest You Fall”

March 31, 2022

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Prayer for illumination

Blessed Lord, you have caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning—grant us that we may in such a way hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that by patience and comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Book of Common Prayer (1552)

I want to describe something that happened to me and my family just before Christmas last year. My wife, Lisa, my son, Ian, and I were driving back from a restaurant in Lavonia. We had just celebrated the completion of Ian’s Christmas band concert. I was behind the wheel. It was dark. Highway 17 is a divided highway at that point. We were approaching a bend in the road up ahead, visibility wasn’t great… when suddenly I saw a fast approaching car, coming toward me, in my lane, on the wrong side of this divided highway! I looked in the lane to my left—and thought, “Can I get over?” Naturally, I couldn’t… there was a car right beside me… So I tapped the brakes and let that car pass, I swerved over into the left lane. And the fast approaching car passed us by without incident

And then immediately I saw, on the other side of the highway, about five cop cars racing to apprehend this man before he killed someone. I don’t think he did.

When that happened, Lisa was like, “Brent, are you okay? We nearly died! That was such good driving!” And Lisa looked at me with stars in her eyes. I mean, I really impressed her with my outstanding driving skill and lightning-fast reflexes. And I don’t easily or often impress my wife of 29 years, believe me! But I definitely won some brownie points that night.

But I promise I didn’t let it go to my head. Why? Because there have been so many other times in my 36-year history of driving when I was the equivalent of that maniac driving on the wrong side of the divided highway! No, of course I haven’t ever been on the wrong side of a divided highway, and I’ve never had five cop cars chasing after me, but I’ve made plenty of mistakes that could have easily cost me my life! 

Mistakes like driving on too little sleep, and for a moment dozing off. And then waking up and feeling a sense of relief that I didn’t die or kill someone. Mistakes like getting distracted by fumbling around with the settings on the car radio, only to realize that I crossed the center line and came this close to plowing into someone. Mistakes like driving too fast in a heavily wooded area, when a deer darts out a few inches in front of me. Mistakes like breaking the law by looking at my smartphone instead of paying attention to the road. I’m not proud that I’ve done these things, I’m just being honest.

My point is, when Lisa was patting me on the back for my good driving, I knew that I wasn’t nearly so good… and that I’ve come this close to being killed! And I will surely face deadly dangers plenty more times in the future. Because driving is dangerous! I pray that I’ll be okay!

I can’t take for granted that I’ll be safe. I can’t afford to become complacent. I can’t presume that because of my excellent driving I’ll always be okay.

Which is very similar to what the apostle Paul is warning the Corinthians about in today’s scripture: living a Christian life is fraught with dangers all around. Don’t take for granted that you’ll remain safe—don’t take for granted that you’ll be saved! Don’t stop working out your salvation with fear and trembling.1 Don’t become complacent… don’t live as if you have your act together… Don’t presume that you’re mature in the faith… Don’t presume that you’ve got nothing to worry about!

In fact, in the scripture just before today’s scripture, Paul says that he himself doesn’t presume or take for granted that he’ll be okay, no matter what. If you have your Bibles—and you should—look at chapter 9, verses 26 and 27. Paul compares himself to an Olympic athlete and says:

So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.

“I myself might be disqualified”… If anyone shouldn’t have to worry about being disqualified, it’s Paul! And yet, he believes it’s possible even for himself.

Besides, he says in today’s scripture, God has given us an example from scripture of ancient Israel. What can we learn from them about the dangers of living a faithful Christian life? 

That’s what this sermon is about. First, how are we like ancient Israel? Second, how should we not be like them but sometimes are. And third, how are we definitely not like them? 

But first, how are like them?

In the very first verse, Paul gives us an important clue: He calls ancient Israel our “forefathers.”

In his speech before Congress last week, in which he asked the U.S. to do more to help Ukraine fight this Russian invasion, President Zelensky of Ukraine made an appeal to our forefathers. He said:

Just like anyone else in the United States, I remember your national memorial [at] Mt. Rushmore, the faces of your prominent presidents, those who laid the foundation of the United States of America as it is today: democracy, independence, freedom, and care for everyone, for every person, for everyone who works diligently, who lives honestly, who respects the law. We in Ukraine want the same for our people, all that is [a] normal part of your own life.2

He was saying, in other words, “You’re the same people who fought, time and again, to defend and protect these American values. This is who you are. You’re related to these people who’ve gone before you. And because this is who you are, of course you’ll want to help us fight for these values that we both cherish.”

Similarly, Paul is saying that the Christians at the church in Corinth are related to the people of ancient Israel; they’re your family. He’s saying that Israel’s story is also their story! And keep in mind… the church at Corinth is almost entirely made up of Gentiles… Paul is ethnically Jewish; these Corinthians are not. Yet, Paul says, that these Gentiles are now part of the same family. This is astonishing, but it shouldn’t surprise us. In Romans, for instance, Paul says that Gentiles who receive Christ are like “wild olive branches” that are grafted into the tree of Israel.3 That’s because all of the promises given to Israel are fulfilled in Christ, and we are part of Christ, we are in Christ, through faith.

And since I suspect I’m mostly preaching to Gentiles rather than ethnic Jews, Paul is telling us Christians, among other things, that the Old Testament is also about Jesus! Well, look at verse 4: There are two places in the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt in which Moses took his staff and struck a rock in the desert and water gushed forth. According to a later rabbinic story, not in the Bible, there was a literal rock that followed Israel around… and Moses could strike the rock any time he wanted with his staff and bring forth water. Of course that story isn’t true, and Paul doesn’t believe it either, but he’s using it to say that there was instead a spiritual rock that followed Israel around—a rock from which the people could partake and have all their spiritual needs met, and that Rock was Christ! Jesus Christ was taking care of the Israelites while they wandered in the wilderness.

In verse 9, Paul goes on to say that ancient Israel put Christ to the test.

My point is, Paul can see in retrospect that the Old Testament is also about Christ. And he happily reads it that way. A while back, I preached on marriage in Ephesians 5, and I pointed out that Paul says that the very first marriage in the Bible, in Genesis 2, between Adam and Eve, was intended by God to communicate something important about what? About the loving relationship between Jesus Christ and his “bride,” the Church—that is, Christians like us.

The Old Testament is about Christ! I’ve heard several fellow pastors say that they only preach from the gospels and the New Testament because, after all, they want to “preach about Jesus” and the gospel.

Well, so do I, but if I’m not preaching Jesus and the gospel from the pages of the first three-quarters of this book, I’m doing something wrong, believe me!

So if you want to get to know Jesus better, and grow closer to Christ, please read the Old Testament too! Because there are so many amazing promises that now apply to us… because they’ve been fulfilled in Christ. I’ve heard more than a few critics complain about the way Christians use a promise like Jeremiah 29:11—which, I know, is a favorite verse of many of us: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” And these critics will say, “No, no, no… This promise was for those ancient Israelites who would some day return from exile in Babylon… and return home to the Promised Land.

And I want to say, “Wait a second! If that promise is true for God’s people in exile in a foreign land, how is not even more true for us Christians, whom both Peter and the author of Hebrews call “strangers and exiles” on earth.4 “For this world is not our permanent home,” Hebrews 13:14 says, “we are looking forward to a home yet to come.”5

Or how about Joseph’s amazing words to his brothers, who conspired to sell him into slavery in Egypt: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…”6 How could that not be a promise for us Christians, for whom “all things work together for good”? Romans 8:28.

So… read the Old Testament… The people there are our forefathers… Their story is our story… It’s about Jesus.

In fact, Paul’s main point is to say that ancient Israel even had a kind of “baptism”—when they crossed through the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt. They were delivered from slavery to Pharaoh and the Egyptians just as we are delivered from slavery to sin in our baptism. And the “cloud” that he refers to in verse 2 was the pillar of cloud that was with Israel in the exodus, which represented God’s presence with them—just as we are baptized with the Holy Spirit when we get born again—and God is actually living within us. 

And just as they had supernatural, spiritual food and drink that sustained them in the wilderness, we Christians have supernatural, spiritual food and drink, for instance—when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper—that helps sustain us! And remember Christ said that he was the “bread of life,” that he nourishes us spiritually, and that in him is a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.7

Of course in Christ we have much more, Paul would hasten to add, but his point is, we have so much in common with them!

And if that’s the case, well… this bring us to Point Number Two: We’re not just like ancient Israel in the good ways… Paul warns that we can risk becoming like them in bad ways, too. In fact, it’s likely that the reason Paul makes mention of baptism and the Lord’s Supper is because some of these Corinthians might believe that these sacraments magically prevent them from stumbling into sin and falling away from the faith… no matter how they live or what they do… and Paul says no… emphatically, no! To experience the presence of Christ supernaturally through Holy Communion and to become a part of God’s family through water baptism… these are incredible privileges, to be sure.

But ancient Israel experienced incredible privileges, too… Yet none of these great privileges prevented the vast majority of ancient Israel—with only two exceptions, in fact—from dying in the wilderness… instead of entering the Promised Land. The children and the grandchildren of the Israelites who left Egypt entered the Promised Land instead. See verse 5: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”

“You’re like them in so many ways,” Paul says. “But don’t you see? You’re at risk of becoming like them in these other ways. Don’t do it! Repent!” 

And Paul cites four specific kinds of sins that Israel committed while they wandered in the wilderness—idolatry, sexual immorality, covetousness, and grumbling or dissension or divisiveness. Because he sees those same sins at work in the Corinthian church.

I might need to explain idolatry in Corinth. It’s not that the Corinthians were literally kneeling and worshiping idols. Most of them used to do that. But the so-called “strong” Christians—the ones who felt especially mature in the faith—were perfectly comfortable going inside the pagan temples and having meals with friends and business associates. These temples had banquet halls. A pagan priest would offer a sacrifice of a bull or a goat to an idol. Oddly enough, the idol wasn’t very hungry, so the meat left over was served in the temple banquet halls. These “strong” Christians would therefore be present when the pagan priest and others committed idolatry.

“But what’s the harm? Idols aren’t real!” these “strong” Christians said.

In chapter 8, Paul has already said one harm is that Christians of more tender consciences, who have recently been converted to Christ out of a background in which they themselves used to worship idols—these “weaker” Christians might see their brothers and sisters in Christ go into these temples, and they might be tempted to do the same… except in their case, they might resume their lives of idol worship… and make shipwreck of their faith.

Paul agrees in principle with these “strong” Christians that idols are nothing—but in the interest of love, why would they risk destroying the faith of their brothers and sisters in Christ… just so they can have a good steak dinner? Paul says he would rather refrain from eating meat entirely if it caused his brother or sister in Christ to stumble and fall.8

And then later in this chapter, in chapter 10, he says that these idols aren’t completely nothing—at least not inside the temple. Because there are demonic forces that are at work behind and through these idols. 9 So, he says, because of the danger of spiritual warfare, Christians should never enter into these pagan temples.

So again… Don’t mess around with idolatry! You are simply underestimating the dangers you face in your Christian life. 

Like the ancient Israelites, you might fall… even though you’re standing strong in the faith right now—or so you think… you might fall

Don’t presume that just because you’ve professed faith in Christ… you’ve been baptized… you partake of the Lord’s Supper… you’re a church member… that by all outward appearances you’re a Christian… don’t presume that you won’t fall. Don’t presume that because of some past event—something you’ve done in your past—that you will be eternally secure. Don’t take that for granted, Paul warns!

Now I understand that our Methodist doctrine of “backsliding”—the idea that even after we’re born again it becomes possible to lose our salvation—I understand this doctrine isn’t very popular. And for two-thousand years, Christians have disagreed with one another about this. And backsliding tends to be one issue over which Baptists and Methodists, for instance, tend to disagree. But even if you disagree with that doctrine—and that’s okay if you do—you gotta admit it sounds like backsliding is a real danger here!

The alternative to a belief in backsliding, of course, is what’s often called the doctrine of “eternal security” or “once-saved-always-saved.” I grew up in a church that believed this. But here’s the most important thing: whether we believe in the possibility of backsliding or in once-saved-always-saved, it ought to make little practical difference in the way we live. Why? Because we all know people who at one time professed the Christian faith and no longer do. We all know Christians who at one time in their lives seemed to be on fire for Jesus but no longer are. And we all know people who say they’re Christians—who’ve walked down the aisle and prayed a sinner’s prayer, or gone through confirmation class, or who’ve been baptized church members—who would even say they’re Christians today, but who live their lives as if Christ makes no difference whatsoever in their lives.

Whether they were saved at one time and lost their salvation, or whether they were never saved at all, the end result is the same… They need to repent and believe!

When I was pastoring my church in Hampton, Georgia, what I’m about to describe happened on two different occasions within months of each other: A young adult from our church who grew up in our church—who grew up going to Vacation Bible School, who grew up in Sunday school, who stood up in front of the church and received a Bible when they got promoted to third grade, who grew up in youth group, who baptized and confirmed—and who got blessed by the church when they graduated high school—these young people moved away from Hampton. One of them got involved in a Wesley Foundation at the college she attended. The other went to firefighter school and attended a non-denominational church with his new girlfriend.

But both of them, independently of one another—months after leaving the church I pastored—posted photos on Facebook of themselves getting baptized or reaffirming their baptism, along with messages like this: “Today is the greatest day of my life. Praise God, today I received Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord.”

And all of my brothers and sisters from my church in Hampton, who had loved and cared for these young people for the past eighteen or nineteen years joined them in praising God for their commitment to Christ and their salvation and their new birth in Christ. And that’s… great… But, but… I wanted to ask my brothers and sisters… and our children and youth director… and myself… and all the previous pastors who had served this church over the years… Why did these young people have to leave Hampton United Methodist Church in order to find Jesus?

Is that not a problem?

So whether these two young people were standing strong in the faith at one time, as authentic believers in Christ, and fell away and came back… Or whether they were never previously saved in the first place and only now had they received God’s gift of eternal life…

Either way, it sounds like Paul’s warning in today’s scripture applied to them. And it seemed to me that if this happened to these young people, then it likely had happened or was happening to other people in my flock—in my congregation… people who were going through the motions of being a Christian, presuming that they were A-Okay with God because of some past event in their lives, not because of a present relationship with Christ… all the while they are headed for eternal destruction unless or until they repent!

“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”10

And that’s my most urgent message to all of us today!

Are you presuming that you’re a child of God—are you taking for granted that you’re saved—simply because of something you did or said in your past—your baptism, or your confirmation, or that time you walked down an aisle and prayed a sinner’s prayer to ask Jesus into your heart, or that time when you were a teenager when you were just on fire for Jesus, even though now the fire has cooled… 

Or do you know you’re a Christians because right now, at this present moment, you enjoy a vibrant, ongoing relationship with God through faith in his Son Jesus?

Only you can answer that… But that is definitely what Paul is warning about here!

Okay… Point Number Three… Without minimizing or watering down Paul’s warning one iota, I do need to point out that are some important ways in which we are most assuredly not like ancient Israel, and for these reasons many, many of us can and should have confidence in and assurance of our salvation… becauseof our faith.

If you go back and read earlier chapters of this letter you’ll see that these Corinthians are a mess. In chapter 5, for instance, I’m not going to describe it, but there’s even a man in the church who is openly involved in a deeply sinful relationship. According to Paul, even that man hasn’t yet passed a point of no return… He’s in danger of it, to be sure, and the other members of the church should not tolerate this man’s sin—by all means—but at this moment Paul speaks as if this man is still saved, still a Christian. In chapter 6, Paul describes a situation in which Christian men in the church are openly consorting with prostitutes. There was a temple in Corinth dedicated to a Greek goddess Aphrodite, the “goddess of love,” and prostitutes solicited men as part of the worship of this goddess… And, well… this proved to be a temptation that was hard for some men in the church to resist. And Paul has to tell them, “You can’t do this any longer!” But even these men who are engaged in very serious sin, Paul implies, are still a part of the body of Christ; they’re still saved.

And as stern a warning as Paul offers in chapter 10, back in chapter 1, verse 8, he tells these same sinful Christians that God will “sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Even in spite of all their sin, Paul remains confident that God will sustain their faith and they will be guiltless when they face Christ in Final Judgment.

And this is the most profound way that we’re not like the ancient Israelites: Unlike them, our righteousness does not depend on obedience to the law. We’re under a different covenant because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross. We’re righteous because Christ lived the life of perfect obedience to the Father that we sinful humans were unable to live… so that his righteous obedience counts as our righteous obedience. His guiltlessness becomes our guiltlessness. And not only that… even though Christ was completely innocent of any sin, he went to the cross and suffered the penalty for our sins—including hell itself—so that we wouldn’t have to. Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

This means that we are guiltless, as Paul says, because Christ’s righteousness become our own righteousness and Christ’s death for sin counts as our death because of sin.

Do we believe that? If so, we can be assured of our salvation. And if we believe that, knowing what Christ has done to redeem us, how could we possibly take it for granted? 

  1. Philippians 2:12
  2. Catie Edmondson, “Annotated Transcript: Zelensky’s Speech to Congress,”, 16 March 2022. Accessed 17 March 2022.
  3. Romans 11:17
  4. Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11
  5. Hebrews 13:14 NLT
  6. Genesis 50:20a ESV
  7. John 4:14; 6:35
  8. 1 Corinthians 8:13
  9. 1 Corinthians 10:19-20
  10. 1 Corinthians 10:12 ESV

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: