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Amidst the thorns: a sermon on cactus and Jesus

March 12th, 2007 by isaac · 2 Comments

This sermon got double duty this Sunday. I preached it in the morning at one Mennonite church, and in the evening at the Mennonite church to which I belong. After preaching it in the morning, I realized that I had to cut out this boring part where I talking about this strange allusion Paul makes to Christ as the rock that followed Israel in the wilderness to supply them with water. It’s an interesting case where Paul looks a whole lot like the rabbinic tradition, especially like Pseudo-Philo. But I realized that all that interesting stuff doesn’t preach.
Title: Amidst the thorns
Date: 3/11/07
Texts: I Corinthians 10:1-13; Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8.

When I was around 10 years old, my family moved from the beaches of California to the Sonoran desert of Tucson, Arizona. It’s interesting to hear how some people here in North Carolina talk about the desert. It’s always associated with barrenness, with desolation, with death, with lots and lots of sand. Nothing grows in the desert. Even though people over-state their case, there’s some truth to it. For example, my parents’ house in Tucson, Arizona doesn’t have grass in the front yard like many houses around here. Instead of growing up with grass to play on, we had rocks. Most of the yards in Tucson are decorated with rocks—bland, ordinary, rocks. It makes sense: in the desert, it’s a bad idea to waste water on lawns.

Although the landscape looks life-less compared to the luscious greenery of North Carolina, there’s plenty of life—but it doesn’t look like the green stuff here. And there’s something else that happens a lot in the desert that has to do with life, or I should say, fake life. Mirages.

On a hot day, as you feel your skin baking, as your throat feels dry and dusty, if you look into the distance, you can see what looks to be a large body of water, a lake or something. I can remember, soon after moving from California to Tucson, taking a walk and seeing this mirage in the distance. And I thought for a second that we brought the ocean with us. But I was wrong. It kept its distance the further we walked toward it.

In our passage from I Corinthians 10, Paul takes us back into the Old Testament, back to the people of Israel, back into the desert. He says, “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” (v1). Paul is retelling the story of Israel rescued from Egypt, and set free to wander in the wilderness. The story of God liberating Israel from Egypt has something to say to us as well, Paul says, if we listen to it.

In Exodus 14 we read how God opened a way through the sea, while hovering in pillar of cloud above the Israelites, protecting them from the Egyptians. Paul calls this Israel’s “baptism” (v2). This marks the beginning of Israel’s new life with God, just as our baptisms marked the beginning of our new way of life with God. And after their liberation from Egypt, God doesn’t leave Israel to fend for themselves as they wander in the wilderness. Paul says that they ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink (v3). And so we read in Exodus that after Israel crosses the Red Sea out of Egypt, they are sustained in the wilderness by miraculous manna, and with a fountain of water that comes from the rock at Horeb (chapters 16 and 17).

This is why Moses can say, in Deuteronomy 2:7, “These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing.”

Paul wants to make it clear that the same God that was at work sustaining Israel in the wilderness, is also at work in the church sustaining it as it wanders in the desert.

It’s about God’s gracious provision. The God whose “ways are higher than our ways,” as Isaiah says, and finds ways to sustain his people. God opens a way through the sea when it looks like the Egyptians will surely slaughter them. God rains down Manna from heaven when there is no food in sight. And God sends a traveling rock, a moving well, to supply water for Israel in the “dry and weary land where there is no water,” as the Psalmist says.

God will always provide a way for us to continue the journey, to keep us along the path. As Paul says at the end of our passage, “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” (v13).

Now the trouble with Israel is the same for the church, Paul is saying. And the problem is idolatry. Paul mentions a few episodes in the story of Israel where they forget the faithfulness of God and turned to idols. The first one he mentions is probably the most significant. In verse 7, Paul quotes a line from Exodus 32, the story of the golden calf: “The people say down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play” (I Cor. 10:7; Ex. 32:6). That’s a line straight from the Old Testament story; it’s a description of what Israel did during the celebration after they built their golden calf.

Here’s the thing about idolatry. I know that whenever I hear the warnings in Scripture against it, I usually shrug it off as something that happens in pagan temples oh so long ago. Idolatry has to do with sacrificing to other gods, or bowing down to images—that sort of stuff. Or sometimes we try to make it more contemporary, so we talk about all the idols in our lives. Stuff like working so hard for more money; or being addicted to shopping; the list goes on. So, the preacher gets up here and names off the idols in our lives and we all repent.

All that may be good and right, but there’s something else about our text from I Corinthians and the story of the golden calf that’s worth considering. Paul says, toward the end of the passage, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” (v12). The temptation of idolatry sounds a bit more deceptive and subtle. It seems to me that when we usually talk about idolatry, we are talking about something that we all know is wrong, and we do it anyway. Or we read in the Old Testament about all those times when Israel worships idols, and think to ourselves, “Wow, they’re really stupid.”

But Paul thinks we fall prey to idolatry when we do the very things that make us feel like we are “standing firm” in our faith, when we are confident that our worship is efficacious. This is exactly what happens to the Israelites when Moses goes up Mount Sinai to meet with the Lord, and they are left waiting in the wilderness. Let me read a few passages from the beginning of Exodus 32 so you can hear what I’m talking about:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us a god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’… So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf… When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord (YHWH).’ So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry” (Ex. 32:1-6).

The people thought they were worshiping their God, the God of Israel, Yahweh, not some foreign God. They thought this image, this golden calf, provided a way into worshiping the true God. It helped make God present, tangible, real…an oasis in the desert.

So Paul warns the church that it is by the way they think they are standing firm, doing the right thing, crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s—that they may actually fall into temptation.

There’s something about idolatry that looks a lot like real worship, real faithfulness. And Paul warns us that even though we are sustained by God’s spiritual gifts, we may be at the edge of idolatry, just like the people of Israel waiting in the wilderness, at the bottom of Mt. Sinai—dancing before their idol, which they think is how they bask in God’s presence.

The idolatry Paul is talking about is like those mirages in the desert, those deceptive images of water, of life, way off in the distance. At the beginning of my sermon I was talking about how the desert does funny things to your eyes. I remember those hot days in Tucson when all I wanted was water, to take a swim in the ocean, and sure enough, I saw water. My hope came true. I remember the first time this happened to me when I was a kid, new to the desert. I saw the mirage, so I picked up speed, I got a little excited, I focused my energies on getting to that water.

The mirage is the idol. It appears as part of creation, as the one thing that will satisfy our desires. But it never satisfies.

My analogy breaks down at this point because in the story of the golden calf, Israel makes their mirage present. They are in the wilderness, removed from the apparent wonders of Mt. Sinai where God shows up in power. The people of Israel feel absence, distance, separation from God. They want God’s presence, so they seize their mirage, and make an idol. This idol isn’t a way to worship another god; instead, it’s the way they think they can celebrate God’s presence. It’s a way that they can assure themselves of God’s nearness in the middle of the lifeless desert.

Nicholas Lash, a British theologian, talks about the way our Christian faith must be iconoclastic—our faith must be about the destruction of religious images, the destruction of the ways we assure ourselves of God’s presence. Being against idolatry, Lash says, is about “the stripping away of the veils of self-assurance by which we seek to protect our faces from exposure to the mystery of God” (Theology on the Way to Emmaus, p. 9). The stripping away of the veils of self-assurance by which we seek to protect our faces from exposure to the mystery of God.

The point is that idolatry is the way we assure ourselves of God’s presence without having to listen to God. It’s about creating an image of God that can’t speak—like that dumb calf—so we can have the comforts and self-assurances of spending time in God’s presence, without having to do anything we don’t want to do. Idolatry is about taming God, making a God who won’t bother us, who won’t disrupt our lives, who won’t complicate things. These are the “veils of self-assurance by which we seek to protect our faces from exposure to the mystery of God.”

Idolatry is the way we make God a possession, something we can handle, something we can grasp, something we can control. Idolatry is the way we guarantee God’s presence. But in reality, the idol distracts us from the God whose presence is quite mysterious, maybe even unbearably mysterious. Idols alienate us from God; they push God away, they make him distant.

If you are in the Arizona desert, a dry and weary land where there is no water, the worst thing you can do when you’re thirsty, is to rush off to the mirage. You’ll die chasing that beautiful fantasy. What you need to do is stop running, and look around. What you thought was life-less is actually full of life. And the quickest way to find the life-giving water, is to find a prickly-pear cactus. I know, it sounds a bit counter-intuitive. These cacti look a bit ominous. They are covered with thorns. But the individual prickly-pear pads hold water. That’s where the animals find water in the wilderness. But we wouldn’t think of it. The mirage looks a lot more satisfying, and a lot safer. Who wants to mess with thorns?

But that’s the difficulty of Jesus. Jesus destroys all our idols and images of God because Jesus makes us mess with the thorns; he lets those Roman soldiers crown him with thorns. Why would we ever want to find life, eternal life, with this man who didn’t save his life?

But the mystery of God’s face, the mystery of God’s presence, the mystery of God’s life, is that it is found beneath the thorns. And we are sustained in the wilderness like Israel was—with Christ, our water in an unexpected place, like a rock, or a prickly pear cactus. This isn’t a glamorous presence like Israel’s golden calf, sparkling with jewelry—God’s presence is not a spectacle; it’s not spectacular. It’s a presence that’s amidst the thorns.

Tags: sermons

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Elisha.R // Mar 29, 2007 at 3:35 am

    I was really impressed

  • 2 isaac // Mar 29, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Elisha, thanks for reading my sermon, and for the kind comment. Please visit the site again.