Flee From Idolatry
How did this happen? Years ago, in the town we used to live in, there was a bridge over the river. And the bridge had become so worn down that vehicles, especially trucks, weren’t able to cross it safely. So they shut the bridge down. Then people asked the question, “how did this happen?” You would expect the answer to that question to be, “time and rust.” But no, the question was getting to a different answer. The question says, “how,” But what it really means is “who?” Who did this? And how incompetent can they be so as to let this happen? When we see tragedies like this, it’s hard to not ask that question, “how did this happen?” And we aren’t alone. In the apostle Paul’s day, it was the same. In 1 Corinthians 10, we read: “1 Now I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless God was not pleased with most of them, since they were struck down in the wilderness.” (1 Corinthians 10:1–5 CSB17)
The Lord God led thousands of Hebrews up out of Egypt. They were rescued from Pharaoh’s army as it was drowned in the Red Sea. They drank water from a rock. And even more amazing, Paul tells us that that rock that watered them was Jesus. Well, if they were so blessed by God, then how did this happen? How is it that other than two men, that entire generation’s bodies died one by one and never made it into the promised land? How did this happen? They concluded that they were saved for their sins instead of from their sins. This is a warning for us too. We have been baptized into Christ. Through water and word he has delivered the forgiveness that Jesus won on the cross to us. But it is possible to throw that gift of salvation away and not make it into the promised land of heaven. How is that possible? In the words that follow, Paul tells us: “6 Now these things took place as examples for us, so that we will not desire evil things as they did. 7 Don’t become idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and got up to party. 8 Let us not commit sexual immorality as some of them did, and in a single day twenty-three thousand people died. 9 Let us not test Christ as some of them did and were destroyed by snakes. 10 And don’t complain as some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer.” (1 Corinthians 10:6–10 CSB17)
How is it possible to throw heaven away? The answer is idolatry. That’s not a word we use very often. So we need to ask the question, what is it? Luther, in his large catechism puts it this way:
What does “to have a god” mean, or what is God?
Answer: A “god” is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need.1
Where do you go to find fulfillment and joy? And where do you go when things fall apart? Where you go is your god. If we go to any other place than to our Triune God, either when things fall apart, or to get fulfillment, that is idolatry. And Paul gives two example of idolatry from the Old Testament. First, There is the example of sexual immorality. Second, Paul gives the example of grumbling. And notice what Paul says about these sins: “These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11 CSB17)
Why does the bible record the fact that many Hebrews committed sexual immorality and then were put to death? Why do we read that thousands of them grumbled and then were bit with burning poison until they died? Were these events written down for them? No, they died. They were written down for us. And so we take these words to heart. When the bible warns us against the idolatry of sexual immorality, we listen. Guard your eyes. There are places on the internet that should never be seen by anyone. But now they are easily accessible to all. Guard your eyes so that you don’t go there. And if you go there by accident, quickly run away. Also, guard your hearts. For those of you who are married, be very careful what you think and say about your spouse. Infidelity starts in our hearts. It starts when we begin to conclude that someone else has better assets and attributes than the person God gave to us as a husband or wife.
Idolatry is like a salty spring. You go to it expecting to have your thirst quenched. But you end up worse after than before. It’s true when it comes to sexual immorality. But it’s just as true with grumbling and complaining. I hear it as a pastor. Some hymns are too short. Some are too long. And the difficulty with this grumbling and complaining is that its thirst is never quenched. If the number of verses isn’t enough, then the next target is the style of music isn’t enough. And if it’s true here in the worship setting, then it’s also true out there in the world. It’s shocking that now, on Facebook, you can post a shocking, eighth commandment-breaking insult to hundreds of people. And you never have to actually speak to that person. Grumbling is a salty spring and an empty well. That’s the sort of idolatry that it is. And that brings us to the final words of this section of scripture. Paul urges us to flee from idolatry. But what does that look like? Paul tells us: “12 So, whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall. 13 No temptation has come upon you except what is common to humanity. But God is faithful; he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation he will also provide a way out so that you may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12–13 CSB17)
Paul brings up two important points. First, sin is common to humanity. Every sin is common to humanity. God’s word wants us to hear these words because each of us is capable of the worst sins. The people in prison are no different than you are. If put in the right circumstances each of us is able to do horrible sins. And even though we might conclude that gossipping and grumbling isn’t as sinful as sexual immorality, God says just the opposite. And shockingly, there is a very real comfort in that fact. How so? When there are those times when we fall into sin, and we feel guilty because we are guilty, Satan will be there to tell us that some sins are forgivable—but not yours. And when that times comes, we can remember this verse: “No temptation has come upon you except what is common to humanity.” (1 Corinthians 10:13 CSB17) That heinous, horrible sin I committed is able to be forgiven by Jesus. And that’s exactly what he did. Each one of us can say that, for all the times I thought impure thoughts or took impure actions; for all the times I gossiped and grumbled—those sins are paid for. They are paid for by a perfect Savior who never sinned even once. They are paid for by Jesus who as true God and true man died to pay for them.
So no temptation has come upon you except what is common to humanity. But notice what he says in these closing words: “But God is faithful; he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation he will also provide a way out so that you may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13 CSB17)
Now, notice what these words do not say. These words do not say that God will magically take away the temptation. No, he says that along side the temptation there is a way out. God has placed his Holy Spirit in us. He has given us a new person, born of water and word, to combat that old person. There is a way out. There is a way to say, “no.” There is a way to flee from idolatry.
So, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, flee from idolatry. Do not give into sexual immorality or into gossipping and grumbling. Flee from it. Do so by remembering that no temptation has come on you except that which is common to humans. Do so by remembering that your Savior Jesus forgives these sins and promises to give you a way out—a way to say, “no” to them. Amen.
1 Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 386.