A Sermon for Septuagesima
January 28, 2024 at Holy Communion
Deuteronomy 34:1–12, 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, 1 Corinthians 3:10–15
“I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
There is a scandal in our Old Testament Lesson today. Although we hear that “there has not since arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10), Moses is not permitted to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land. Instead, he dies on its border, allowed a vision of the whole land, but not allowed to enter it. Moses dies in the wilderness.
In our Epistle, St Paul gives himself as an example: he pursues Christ like a disciplined runner, like an athlete who strives to win a prize. And why? Because he is concerned that “after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). I imagine that if St Paul were a member of our congregation, we—I too—might try to comfort him, saying, “Paul, really there’s no chance that you will be disqualified from the spiritual race. God is merciful.” And God is merciful. But then again, what about Moses, who died within sight of his spiritual homeland?
There is a background to Moses’ story. In Numbers 20, Israel is once again grumbling, because, no matter how many times we see God provide for us, we skill get anxious when we’re in trouble. This time the Israelites are worried about water, and they complain to Moses. So God instructs him to take his staff, speak to a certain rock, promising that water will pour out of it. Instead, Moses takes his staff, shouts at the people because he’s fed up with them, dares them to ask him to provide miraculous water, and then strikes the rock. The water gushes out as promised, but Moses made it seem like he had made the water come. He didn’t use it as a teaching opportunity for the people; he didn’t even mention God. Dying in the wilderness along with the rest of the disobedient Israelites is Moses’ punishment.
In short, he let his temper get the better of him. He put his own anger ahead of his vocation to teach the people to trust God. His pride and anger reduced him to the level of the rest of the people.
So when St Paul worries about being disqualified in his spiritual race, he is also concerned about the temptations which could overcome him, or his readers, at any moment. As his argument goes on beyond the passage we read this morning, it becomes clear that he is concerned about two demons lurking just outside of the door of the church, two ways in which his audience might feel tempted to fall back into old ways and squander what they have gained in Christ. They are, in fact, what Paul considers to be the two paradigmatic sins of the non-Jewish world: sexual immorality and idolatry, the worship of dark forces and principles which are not ultimate.
He refers back to the Israelites in the wilderness, pointing out that they enjoyed the grace of God just as much as we Christians do, and yet still many of them didn’t keep the faith but fell into those very traps, and died, like Moses, without receiving what was promised to them. “Therefore,” he says, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
God’s characteristic mercy is reliable, but our faithfulness is not. We can be, like Moses, overcome by anger. Like Paul’s congregation, we can be tempted by pleasant immoralities, and we do cave to pressure to worship the conventional gods of our age—gods of reputation, consumption, and isolation.
But it would be easy to misunderstand what we mean when we discuss the danger of “falling short.” We do not mean that God sets arbitrary and high standards that he expects you to live up to, and, if you can’t, then you’re out—hellfire and brimstone for you! Hardly. Paul’s metaphor for the spiritual life as a “race” has the beautiful implication that life is a journey, a pilgrimage from one place to another. It has a goal, and reaching that goal involves a process of transformation. When Paul uses the same metaphor in Philippians 3, he calls the goal “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (v 14). In Colossians 1, he says that the mystery of his Gospel is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (v 27). The goal of our spiritual life is to live in and with Christ, so conformed to him that we desire what he desires, we do what does, and we think what he thinks.
If this is true, then anger or lust or false worship do not disqualify us because God sets an arbitrary standard, but because these things are contrary to our goal. We simply cannot attain the goal while giving destruction a place in our lives. We have to choose.
But in another sense, Paul is threatening us with fire, just not perhaps the hellfire you might expect. The true fire of God purifies. Earlier in 1 Corinthians (3:10–15), Paul says that faith in Jesus Christ is like the foundation of a building, and that each of us is building on that foundation. Some people build with precious and sturdy materials—gold, silver, precious stones—while others build with wood, hay, and straw (v 12). What we haven’t realized is that when the day of the Lord comes, our building will be tested with fire (v 13). Those who built well will receive a reward (v 14). Those who did shoddy building will be saved, since the foundation of Jesus Christ remains—they will be like the eleventh-hour labourers who are included by the generosity of God entirely apart from their deserving—but they will “suffer loss” and be saved “only as through fire” (v 15). “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) and he will certainly burn away whatever chaff we bring with us into the heavenly kingdom.
Paul wants the prize, not the fire. And we should want it too. Ultimately there is no way around conforming one’s life to Jesus Christ: you can do it now or later. But it will be—forgive the dark pun—a hell of a lot more comfortable to do it now. We can embrace living with and in God as a joyful way of life, as something we choose and pursue and enjoy, instead of as a shock and a burning when we come before our Maker later.
And that requires discipline. But perhaps “discipline” gives the wrong impression, makes it sound too much like something imposed on you from outside. Instead, we might say that the spiritual life requires “regularity.” Every runner who is serious about accomplishing a marathon gets up every morning and runs, in good weather and bad. Every Christian who is serious about growing closer to Jesus gets up every morning and prays, in good spirits and bad.
The means by which we grow closer to God are no mystery: prayer, study, acts of compassion, participation in the sacraments, and participation in the fellowship of the church. What makes the difference is how regular our commitment to these practices is.
So, to conclude with a specific and practical suggestion: a healthy spiritual life is regular enough that you can write it down. When do you pray? When do you study the Bible? How often do you go to church? How do you show compassion to your neighbours? How often do you take intentional time to examine your own conscience? Writing these things down, and committing to them, is called having a “Rule of Life.”
This coming Lent is a time of renewal—and very little will renew your heart as effectively as using that time to form a clear commitment to healthy patterns for your spiritual life. This is traditionally done in conversation with your spiritual director, and, unless you have a relationship like that already, your priest is your spiritual director. That is to say, I will be happy—thrilled, in fact—to sit down with you and talk through a pattern for your spiritual practice.
To God be the glory.