Christ the rock: a sermon

I preached this sermon at the Nashville Regional Festival of Young Preachers at Belmont University On Friday October 24, 2014. Please look for the forthcoming video from the Academy of Preachers. 

Here is my manuscript: just in case you want to spoil the sermon before I am able to post the video here.

“Christ the Rock”
Jonathan Balmer 10/24/2014

Numbers 20: 1-13
The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there.

 Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. The people quarrelled with Moses and said, ‘Would that we had died when our kindred died before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.’ Then Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting; they fell on their faces, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.

 So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’ Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.’ These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarrelled with the Lord, and by which he showed his holiness.

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I sympathize with Moses. Everybody who has ever been responsible for a group of people and watched things fall apart can almost hear themselves yell with him, “I’m just trying to help!”

The Israelites had rebelled in an earlier episode with the same cry “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!” Just as they were about to pack up to leave, Aaron and Moses threw themselves at the feet of the people, begging them to stay the course “The land…is a good land. . . If the LORD is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.”  The whole crowd threatens to stone him. That wouldn’t be the last time Moses had problems with rocks.

God’s patience, apparently, was running thin. Moses contended with God to remember to be “steadfast [in] love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” and to spare the people.  The LORD agreed and spared the people, but vowed none then-living would enter the Promised Land. Now, faced with another angry crowd, which threatened same thing, the same punishment fell upon Moses because Moses did not “show God’s holiness before the eyes of the Israelites”.

What does “showing God’s holiness” mean? And what could Moses’ ambiguous question—“Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” — mean? One option is that Moses is taking credit for he and Aaron, claiming the miraculous act of drawing water from the rock for themselves. The other could be that Moses is in disbelief: You think we could draw water from this rock?

Either Moses dismissed the gifts which come from God or attempted to dominate and claim them as his own doing. These are opposite and twin dangers which prevent God’s holiness from being shown.

It’s easy to trivialize gifts. I teach English in Frankfort, Kentucky. This high school has a large number of students involved in auto-tech and agriculture classes—both areas completely foreign to me and to my upbringing. I have been teaching them how to write personal essays: how to state what they believe in writing and speak about it through personal experience. I told them to avoid making commercials: don’t tell me what the kind of pizza is best. Tell me what you believe about living life.

One student told me his belief is that Cummins diesel engines are the best there are. I say that’s not a belief. It’s a personal preference. He objects, “No, Mr. Balmer, the tools you have matter. Towing power, the engine you know versus the one you don’t, it’s about what’s reliable. It’s the difference between towing a trailer stuck in the mud and staying stuck. It’s the difference between a job done and not done.” He might have said, “It’s the difference between bread and water and nothing.” Perhaps this was not unlike the Israelites. Their gifts meant the difference between manna from the sky and water from the rocks or starvation. My students took pride in their work on engines. Where I saw engines, dull, indistinguishable from one another, they saw a gift. Where Moses may have seen a non-descript rock, there was God’s reliable gift, God providing.

The second meaning of Moses’ question could be not that he ignores the gift but takes credit for the miracle for himself. The gift is not ignored but The Holy Giver is. The rebellings of the people became a source of anger for Moses. He may think, we have a promised land to get to, and land of milk and honey. And here you say again it would be better for us to die in Egypt! Don’t you know my plan? Can’t you see I’m doing? Why do you impede what I want to do! Look, I’m the boss, your true provider, shall I not take water from this stone!

This is the same attitude which people have when they have road rage in traffic. They rage at traffic, at the obstacles in the way, without realizing, for everyone else, they are traffic. When we try to usurp God’s position, we’re fast to absolve ourselves of our sin– quick to claim all those sinners around us are devils. If Moses was taking credit for himself, his patience with the people he once pleaded to stay with him, seems to have grown short. The Holiness of God, the welfare of the Israelites— have taken the back seat. They are just a means to a Promised Land end.

Yet this is not how God works. God doesn’t choose the most obvious, most practical, candidates. God chooses odd things. It is a scandal of particularity. The author Marilynne Robinson, points out: in New Testament parables, the first to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, are prostitutes and tax collectors. We also see God treasures in jars of clay and in simple rocks/  Robinson is a Calvinist. Speaking of her theological hero, she found his thoughts on human interaction most astounding. Calvin held that “when another person is presented to you or given to you—[Calvin] uses that language—God is posing a question to you. And the question is, what does God want from this encounter at this moment? .…’what do I want’ is no longer the question.”

Moses, in taking credit for the miracle himself, may have neglected showing God’s holiness and ignored the image of God in the people he once defended. Both the water drawn out of the rock and the people drawn out of Egypt are a gift ignored.

When I was in 6th grade, a man named Steven Newman spoke to my class. He had walked around the world: 15,000 miles in 4 years. In May 1983, he was on a foggy Shenandoah Valley road and heard the voice of an old woman named Estaline Mantz.

“Yoo-hoo! Yoo-hoo!” she was yelling, with an excited wave. “Young man, have you had any breakfast?”

Newman said he hadn’t eaten since noon the day before and had spent the night sleeping in an abandoned farm house. “Well, you get up here and eat breakfast!” she demanded.

He knew better than to say no. She fed him a feast of a breakfast and, a few times, Newman thought he caught Estaline “looking at me as if I reminded her of someone she loved dearly.”

“When I was a little girl”, she confided, “my mother used to read to me from the Bible. Her favorite passage was the one that said God sometimes sends angels to us disguised as men to test our charitableness. Well–” she blushed, “–I’m eighty-eight years old and my eyesight is not so good anymore.”

Estaline had been sure that Newman was a messenger of God meant to test her charity. And, perhaps unawares, he was. The old woman had that attitude of which Robinson spoke: when she saw a hungry looking man on the road she thought “What might might God want me to do with this gift?” Whether through sarcastic doubt or self-righteous power-grab, Moses ignored this question.

When we read the New Testament, we see Paul considers the rock even more than a gift. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says “all [the Israelites and Moses] drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Some of us, in our modern ways, are baffled by this habit of early Christianity—to see Christ behind every tree and under every rock and, yes, sometimes as the rock itself. Many seminary and religion professors love to chock that Paul would fail an Old Testament hermeneutics or historical criticism course. But, on closer inspection, Paul does not seem so strange.

Is it any surprise Paul sees this rock as Christ? Think of Palm Sunday. The religious leaders tried to silence Jesus’ followers. The people shouted:
 “Blessed is the king
    who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
    and glory in the highest heaven! ”

The leaders are incredulous. This man coming on a donkey—that is supposed to be God’s anointed? What an embarrassment: tell those people to shut up! Yet Jesus tells them, “if these were silent, the stones would shout out!” Even now, the simple rocks God has chosen do not take kindly to silencing what is set apart to announce God’s Holiness.

Even more aptly, do we not see the woman at the well, in contrast to Moses, run into town and tell everyone of the man, Jesus, who has told her everything she has done in her life, who has given her the “living water”? Do not we see Christ and the rock providing life-giving water: one temporarily, one eternally, both miraculously? Paul looks at Christ, and looks at the rock of Meribah, and says, “Christ is the rock”.

Christ is the rock and yet there are times when the warped sin-logic of the world seems to lock us into the same problem as Moses: in which we doubt God’s faithfulness, or we neglect the image of God in our neighbor. We feel as if we are given a choice between sin and sin: dishonoring God or neglecting our neighbor.

An extreme, heart-wrenching, example is in the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, a fictionalized account of Fr. Rodriguez, a Jesuit missionary, and the persecuted and tortured Christians of Japan in that era. These Christians were offered a choice: step on an image (a fumie) of Christ or face persecution.

Father Rodriguez gets a special deal: step on the image of Christ, an official says, and your flock will be spared. The priest is locked in a quandary. The message Father Rodriguez will be sending by crushing the icon of Christ is clear: “I deny Christ.” His persecutors, no believers in Christ, know exactly what this symbolic act entails.

Endo writes, “The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample!
“It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world.’ The priest placed his foot on the fumie [icon]. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”
Rodriguez had to choose. He had to choose between outwardly denying Christ or to throw the people he loved to the wolves. Right or wrong, in Endo’s telling, the choices seemed stacked to favor sin and tragedy.

Yet there is hope. Many of us have been warned of “cheap grace.”  I do not believe it cheapens grace to recognize its wonderful existence and that it runs through the veins of scripture. At the beginning, I said I found Moses sympathetic, butI have been rather harsh on Moses. Moses, like Fr. Rodriguez, sinned against God, and probably felt like he was in an impossible situation.

But don’t the Gospel writers tell us that Moses, while never entering the Promised Land, appeared at the Transfiguration with Elijah and Jesus? And, alongside a crew of other faith misfits, don’t we see Moses in the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews? Though Moses failed to show the holiness of God in the promised land, he is an example of one who, through faith, were a beacon of that Holiness. That there are righteous men is something everyone knew. That there are scoundrels is something already knew.

That through the incarnation, that through Jesus Christ, we might become more fully human, that we sinners might through the power of the Holy Spirit become saints is an earth-shattering revelation.  The God who chooses the strangest candidates to make known God’s Holiness, doesn’t give up on those sinful prophets. God doesn’t give up on those ordinary stones, those jars of clay, God treasures.

Think of Peter, whose betrayal echoes with every rooster crowing, who was renamed to be “Petros”, “Rock.” Christ Jesus is our ultimate rock, stumbling stone, cornerstone. Moses, Peter, the rock, the church: we are chosen to be the rocks which testify to His Holiness. The Church is built on the rock of Christ. It is built to cry out for the Holiness of Jesus. Will you be silent? Will we be the rocks that cry out?

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