To Afflict the Comfortable

By Chris Yoder

“Now these things were our examples.” (1 Cor. 10:6)

They say that preachers should aim to comfort the afflicted — and to afflict the comfortable.

It takes some nerve to preach an afflicting sermon, but neither our Lord nor the Apostle Paul were lacking in the nerve department. They’re not afraid to poke the bear. Take today’s Gospel and epistle, for example.

In the Gospel, Jesus afflicts his comfortable interlocutors, who want to keep the discussion safely abstract. They tell him about the Galileans who were massacred by the governor — and he responds, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” And then he points to the 18 who were killed when a tower collapsed on them, and says again, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” And then he tells a parable about a fig tree that will be cut down if it does not begin to bear fruit, which says the same thing implicitly: “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Them’s fightin’ words. They’re meant to provoke a response, to cut to the quick, to afflict the comfortable.

In the Epistle, St. Paul follows his Lord’s example. Some of the Corinthian Christians wanted to continue dabbling in practices associated with pagan worship, as they had done before becoming Christians. They think they can keep going to feasts in the temples of pagan gods, because they know that there is really one God, and so there isn’t anything wrong with associating with idols.

Their knowledge — and the fact that they are baptized communicants at the First Church of Corinth — will inoculate them against idolatry. But Paul warns them that they are putting themselves in grave spiritual danger: “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” He wants them to change their lives, to stop dabbling in idolatry and, instead, to flee from it.

St. Paul uses the story of Israel in the wilderness to afflict the comfortable Corinthians. He wants to show them that the practices they think are innocuous are, in reality, spiritually toxic. He wants to show them that what they think is indifferent to God is, in reality, deeply displeasing to God. That, despite being baptized Christians who share in the Lord’s Supper, it remains “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31), and that, if they do not change their ways, they will incur the judgment of God.

Paul doesn’t pull any punches with the Corinthians. And I want us to hear what he has to say to them, because he’s also talking to you and to me. And because you — and I — could use some afflicting — in a good, Lenten way, of course. Aren’t you glad you came to church this morning?

Let’s return to the epistle. Look at what he says in verse 6: “Now these things were our examples.” And again in verse 11: “Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition.” Paul wants the Corinthians — most of whom were Gentile converts — to see themselves in the story of Israel. He wants us to see the events of the biblical narrative as prefiguring our situation. He wants us to look to the story of Israel to understand our story, and to learn how to avoid their sins. In this case, he draws out the patterns of correspondence between the story of Israel in the wilderness and the situation in the Corinth in order to warn the Corinthians of the grave danger they are in.

And the patterns of correspondence are unsettling. God gave abundant gifts to the whole people of Israel. But many of them squandered and misappropriated those gifts, thereby incurring horrible punishments. They were all guided with a cloud, all baptized in the Red Sea, all fed with spiritual food (manna) and spiritual drink (water from the rock). “But with many of them God was not well pleased” and “they were overthrown in the wilderness.” Then Paul says, “These things were our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.” “These things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” The punishments the Israelites suffered despite their many gifts are a warning to us. As John Calvin put it, “If God did not spare them, he will not spare us.”

You see, as Christians, we have received even more precious gifts than the Israelites: By God’s pure and gracious gift; we are united with Jesus Christ in baptism, and we are nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ; our sins are forgiven; we are made the adopted children of God; we are given the unspeakable privilege of addressing God as “Our Father” — and much, much more. We have done nothing to deserve these gifts. Quite the opposite, in fact. But, like the Israelites, we too can squander God’s good gifts.

God’s gifts are given for a purpose. They are given, as Paul says elsewhere, that we might “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). God’s gifts are meant to transform our lives. God’s grace calls us to holiness. St. Peter puts it this way: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:14–15). We misappropriate God’s gifts when we indulge our disordered desires and do nothing to pursue holiness. You see, sin is ultimately a matter of the heart, an orientation of the will. It has to do with what we desire, what we love. And God wants to transform our desires, and draw our hearts to him. Thus, the psalmist prays, “O knit my heart unto thee, that I may fear thy Name” (Ps. 86:11).

The Lord rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, but their actions in the wilderness show that their hearts remained enthralled, their desires disordered. Their hearts were not knit to God. They were freed to worship the Lord God alone — but they made a golden calf. They were called to holiness — but they indulged in sexual immorality. They were given what they needed in the wilderness — but it wasn’t good enough for them. The Lord led them to the promised land — but they despaired and asked to return to Egypt. And what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness is a warning to us. The correspondence between Israel and the Church warns us not to take God’s grace in vain. God’s grace always goes before us, but we must cooperate with it if we are to stand. If we presume on God’s grace, we are playing with fire.

“Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” What Paul says to the Corinthians is very similar to something he says in his letter to the Romans. There he asks rhetorically, “Do you suppose … that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself” (Rom. 2:3–5).

Paul aims to afflict the comfortable. But he does not leave us comfortless. He seeks to deflate spiritual presumptuousness, not leave us in despair. The Corinthians may be set about by many temptations, “but God is faithful,” Paul insists. God, he teaches, “will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” God gives us grace to endure temptation, to resist the attractions of the world, the flesh, and the devil. You are not able to do this on our own. Only the grace of God by Christ going before you and working with you makes you able to bear temptation. But you’ve got to cooperate with God’s grace. You won’t find a way to escape temptation if you don’t stop looking for a way in. Hanging about pagan temples won’t help you avoid idolatry. Dallying with what tempts you is no way to avoid falling into sin.

“But God is faithful.” This could be one of the “comfortable words” in Holy Communion. It is our ground for hope, the antidote to despair. Elsewhere, St. Paul writes, “The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; / if we endure, we shall also reign with him; / if we deny him, he also will deny us; / if we are faithless, he remains faithful— / for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:11–13). “If we are faithless, he remains faithful.” “The Christian,” C.K. Barrett says, “has no security, but he may be completely confident, not in his own resources but in God.” “But God is faithful.” He alone is our hope. As the hymn says, “All my hope on God is founded.”

Hugh Latimer, one of the martyrs of the English Reformation, put it this way: “A Christian man’s life is a strife, a warfare,” he wrote, “but we shall overcome all our enemies; yet not by our own power, but through God which is able to defend us.” Today’s collect echoes this: “We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” Nevertheless, “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above what ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”

George Herbert, the saintly Anglican poet-priest, was no stranger to affliction. He knew what it was to put his whole trust in the grace and mercy of the Lord Jesus. I want to close with some lines from his powerful poem, “Perseverance”:

… who can tell [he prays], though Thou has died to win
And wed my soul in glorious paradise;
Whether my many crimes and use of sin
May yet forbid the banes and bliss.

Only my soul hangs on thy promises
With face and hands clinging unto thy breast,
Clinging and crying, crying without cease,
Thou art my rock, thou art my rest.

The Rev. Chris Yoder is rector of All Souls’, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 

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