By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture Readings: Genesis 28:18-22; Psalm 18:1-3, 46, & 49; Mark 12: 1-12
In the game “rock/paper/scissors,” paper beats rock with its ability to cover the rock. But, in real life, paper doesn’t seem very powerful up against rock, right? Rocks are pretty powerful things.
Throughout this month, our sermon series is looking at some of the different names or images used to address or describe God in our Bible. It is the hope of your pastors that this series will spark your imagination and inspire you to think more deeply about your experience of God, your relationship with God, and the way YOU choose to address God.
Johanna van Wijk-Bos writes that “All language for God, including biblical language, is metaphorical… it works by comparison.” So, no name or image can fully represent God. But by way of comparison to what we know and experience, we seek to better understand the God who cannot be fully grasped or defined. Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at names for God drawn from human relationships: God as mother and God as Lord. But some of our names for God are drawn from nature. In the first sermon of this series, Pastor Suzanne looked at biblical representations of God as fire. Today, we will consider God as rock or stone.
Rocks and stones were important in the ancient Palestinian world. They were plentiful and were essential for construction, defense and worship. This morning’s scriptures are illustrations of these three ways that rocks functioned, literally, as well as symbolically or metaphorically for God.
In this morning’s story from Genesis, we see the association of rock or stone with worship of God, as being symbolic of God’s presence. A bit about the context of this Genesis story: Jacob is on the run, attempting to escape the murderous wrath of his brother, Esau. Because their father, Isaac, had lost vision, Jacob and his mother, Rachel, are able to trick Isaac into bestowing the blessing of the first-born upon Jacob, although it is rightfully Esau’s. This deception so infuriates Esau that he is ready to kill his brother. Rachel advises her favorite son, Jacob, to leave town and to go live with his Uncle Laban in Haran. So Jacob heads to Haran and, because it is more than a day’s journey, he stops at the setting of the sun to sleep. He uses a nearby stone as his pillow… which doesn’t sound very comfortable, but that’s the story as we have it. As he sleeps, he has a dream. We often refer to it as Jacob’s Ladder, a ziggurat rising up into the heavens. Angels are ascending and descending this ziggurat, moving back and forth between heaven and earth. Then, the Lord appears before Jacob in his dream to bless him and to bestow upon Jacob the promises God had given his grandfather, Abraham.
When Jacob awakens from his dream, he realizes that this is holy ground; a liminal place where heaven and earth meet and God is present. In the morning, he takes the stone that was his pillow and erects it as a monument and pours oil over it to consecrate it. He names this place Beth-El, house of God. The stone is erected as a shrine, symbolizing that this is a holy place of God’s presence and power. Although the word is not used in this story, this stone functions as an eben-ha-’azar, an Ebenezer. This is a stone erected to identify a place where God has crossed the barrier between heaven and earth (a very defined barrier in the mind of the ancients); God has crossed that barrier to provide help to God’s people. The actual word or name, Ebenezer, is found in 1st Samuel, in another story, where God intervenes to deliver the Israelites from their enemies, the Philistines. The prophet Samuel, like Jacob, erects a stone monument and names the place Ebenezer. That stone monument identifies a holy place where God intervened to help God’s people.
This morning, you see stones scattered along the altar railing. I want to invite you to take one with you this morning after worship and to take it home and place it in a location that you will see each morning when you get up. And when you see that stone, remember, that God is with you; that God journeys with you to intercede with help throughout your day. May your stone be to you an Ebenezer, a reminder that there is no barrier between heaven and earth. God is with you and helps you.
[A game of rock/paper/scissors]
As I’ve already mentioned rocks and stones were important in the ancient Palestinian world. They were plentiful and were essential for construction, defense and worship. This morning’s Psalm looks at rocks or stones as instruments of defense. Psalm 18 is credited to David. A note in our scripture indicates it is his song of thanks for the deliverance God gave him over his enemies, particularly King Saul who invested a great deal of time into tracking David down so he could kill him. The verses printed in your bulletin this morning come from the beginning and the end of the Psalm. But listen to some of the words in between:
Psalm 18:46 The LORD lives! Blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation, 47 the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me; 48 who delivered me from my enemies; indeed, you exalted me above my adversaries; you delivered me from the violent.
Some of the language in this psalm gets a little harsh. In short, David has no problem with God squashing his opponents like a bug! David sees God as his defender. “Who is a rock besides our God?” David asks, as he celebrates how God has destroyed his enemies.
David was no stranger to the power of a rock to destroy an enemy, literally. As a youth, he killed the Philistine giant Goliath with a stone from his slingshot. Friends: a precise slinger in the ancient world was held in as high esteem as a good sniper in our military today. Just one stone, flung with precision and speed, was a deadly weapon.
Now I confess; I’m not a big fan of war and violence. I’m one of those pastors who avoid hymns with militant imagery. But, there are times in our lives when we feel powerless to defend ourselves. There are people or circumstances that pose a real threat and we cannot stand up to those threats on our own. We find ourselves in a precarious and vulnerable position. And those are the times when we can be thankful that God is like a rock. God’s weight and strength can destroy evil with precision and speed.
Again, I don’t want to encourage or even condone violence. But, when you take your stone home today and when you look at it each morning, remember God’s presence with you. And if the day that lies before you includes a threat or an obstacle that seems overwhelming and intimidating, hold that stone in your hand and close your eyes and imagine that stone growing into a mighty rock because in the game of life, rock beats paper and scissors and everything else because the Lord is our rock and our redeemer; our Lord is mighty to save, deliver and protect.
[A game of rock/paper/scissors]
Once again, rocks and stones were plentiful in the ancient Palestinian world and were essential for construction, defense and worship. Some of you know I come from Pennsylvania, the keystone state. Pennsylvania played a key role in holding the original 13 colonies together just as a keystone in an archway holds together the other pieces. In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus quotes from Psalm 118, employing a construction metaphor and identifying himself as a cornerstone or keystone. Throughout Mark’s gospel, there are frequent honor challenges exchanged between Jesus and the religious leaders. They seek to undermine Jesus and shame him (as the Broadway musical Jesus Christ Superstar puts it) as some bible-thumping hack from Galilee. But each time he is challenged, it is Jesus who gets the upper hand and the religious establishment left with egg on their faces. One such challenge to Jesus’ authority immediately precedes the parable Jesus tells at the opening of Mark, chapter 12. Any Jew would have understood the implications of this parable because Israel is referred to as God’s vineyard in a variety of places in the Hebrew Scriptures. Likewise the socio-economic conditions of this parable were hardly outside the realm of possibility. Peasant tenant farmers were abundant in ancient Palestine and, from time to time, there were uprisings in which these peasant tenant farmers refused to surrender what was demanded of them by the landowner. But this parable goes to the extreme when the landowner’s son is viciously murdered. Although it is always a bit risky to claim interpretation of a parable (it’s a literary form that can be multivalent and a bit mysterious), this parable might remind us of how, throughout Israel’s history, those who represented the establishment resisted and disrespected God’s messengers like the prophets. So now, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, God has spoken “by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” Jesus is the landowner’s son sent on behalf of his heavenly Father. But neither the message, nor the messenger, has been well-received. Then, suddenly, Jesus shifts from a farming metaphor to a construction metaphor when he identifies himself not as the landowner’s son, but as a cornerstone in something new that God is building. The rejection of Jesus cannot put an end to God’s construction of what we will come to know as the Church. This very passage from Psalm 118 will be repeated in other places in the New Testament as a reminder that the Church is like a spiritual building – built by God with Jesus as the cornerstone. Just as a keystone holds together an arch, a cornerstone holds together a foundation. In the ancient Palestinian world, the foundation of a stone building would have the largest cornerstone, spanning both sides of the corner to provide a level base for the upper layers of the structure. In other words, “the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord,” as the hymn puts it.
Friends, it has been hard for us during COVID. It has been hard for us to feel connected to one another, especially during the times we stopped in-person worship. But, no matter what happens next in this pandemic, we are still held together through Jesus, our cornerstone. We are built into a spiritual house, the Church, and Jesus is our foundation. We may feel like we need this beautiful building to draw us together. But it’s really Jesus. Whatever lies ahead for us in the coming weeks as COVID cases soar once again, when you pick up your stone each morning, remember that, all around our community, the rest of us will be picking up our stones, reminding us that Jesus is the cornerstone of the Church. We have been built into a spiritual house and Jesus is our foundation.
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