Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

Fragile, living stones - a "Passion" series based upon 1 Peter 2:4-10
the stone of sanctuary and stumbling"

Message preached March 7, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Isaiah 8:13-15

Order of Worship

            Last week, the first Sunday in Lent, we began a series of sermons using stones as tangible reminders of things that are hard to put your finger on. Before going any further, letís make sure everyone has a stone in their hand. If you didnít get one last week, or didnít grab one on entering this room, please raise your hand and the ushers will bring one to you. Let me repeat, these stones are not for throwing at the preacher. (Pause until all have one.)

            Today we focus upon "the stone of sanctuary and stumbling." Starting with the first part of that title, the word "sanctuary" in English has for us two meanings. First, it refers to a place that is "holy" - the word, "sanctuary," derived from "sanctus" which, in Latin, means "holy." A "sanctuary" is "sacred space." In a "sanctuary" we sense the "holy" presence of God.

            It was in a vision of a heavenly "sanctuary" that Isaiah was called to be a prophet. In that sacred space, God was seated on a throne, "high and lifted up" it says, and the hem of his robe - just the hem, mind you - filled the place. Surrounding the Lord were heavenly beings who cried out "Holy, Holy, Holy." What Isaiah saw and heard in those moments drove him to his knees, and he responded, "Woe is me, for I am not holy. And I live among people who are not holy. Yet, even so, here I am in this sacred place" (Isaiah 6:1-5, my paraphrase).

            Have you ever experienced something similar, though maybe not that dramatic? In such moments and places, Godís awesome, holy presence becomes very real to us, and we sense our own smallness in comparison to the great "I am." The "sanctuary" where this happens doesnít have to be in a church building, you know. A "sanctuary" can be located anywhere.

            This room in which we are worshiping just now is not a grand cathedral, but still we call it a "sanctuary." How often, though, are we filled with a sense of awe and wonder when we walk through those double doors, under the sign which reads, "quiet please"? Weíre not always quiet when we enter, are we? Itís not easy to stay quiet, either, especially when youíre young and restless. Sometimes, though, itís the older folks who are the noisier ones. Is "quiet" an essential for experiencing Godís holy presence?

            A "consecrated, holy place" - thatís one of the definitions of "sanctuary" you will find in the dictionary. But there is a second definition. A "sanctuary" is also "a place of refuge." The "holy of holies," the most sacred part of the sanctuary of God in ancient Israel, was a place only the priests could enter to make sacrifices on the altar. However, according to religious custom, this sacred space was also a place where a person could claim "sanctuary." That is, when pursued by those wishing to do him harm, a man - even if he was a criminal fleeing the law - could find refuge from his attackers in a sanctuary. In fact, aspects of this practice continue today.

            Is this "sanctuary" a "place of refuge" for you? When you enter this space, do you sense the "protective" presence of the Lord? Perhaps we struggle to be "quiet"in this "sanctuary" because here, with these people gathered in Jesusí name, we feel safe. Donít we want our children to know that this is a refuge, that here they can truly become what God created them to be? Of course, when youngsters feel safe, they behave like - well - like children. And Jesus said, "let the children come to me, donít stop them, for Godís kingdom belongs to them" (Mark 10:14). Jesus revealed to us our heavenly "Father" whose arms are outstretched to embrace his children of all ages, a mighty fortress of a God who is also warm and loving, a safe refuge.

            In this morningís scripture reading from Isaiah, the prophet was told that God - not a building, but the Lord - "will be a sanctuary" to His people. Now, on the surface this sounds like a real warm and fuzzy promise, leading to a feeling of being safe. Except, it wasnít. Not exactly. The prophet Isaiah, you see, was growing frustrated that people werenít listening to what God had instructed him to say. King Ahaz, for example, wasnít trusting in the Lord for refuge. In the dangerously unstable world of that time, this king, out of fear, was doing what kings do - making all kinds of power moves to keep his kingdom safe, all of which would eventually lead to a powerless state and to the exile of Godís people.

            In response, God said, "I am the One you should fear and respect. I am the holy God, the Lord all-powerful!" (CEV). "If your going to worry, worry about The Holy. . Fear God-of-the-Angel-Armies" (The Message). "I will be your sanctuary..." This promise, like the two definitions we give to this word, "sanctuary," can move in a couple of directions. Actually, itís the words that follow which make this clear. God "will become a sanctuary," Isaiah was told, but the Lord will also become "a stone of stumbling."

            Last Sunday we each were encouraged to take our stones with us throughout the week, using this object as a tangible reminder. In the previous sermon, we spent time remembering our own experiences of rejection (which was the theme of the day), and then we shifted focus to explore how Jesus was himself rejected. Did you take your stone with you this week in your pocket or purse? When touching it, did you remember both your own experiences of rejection, and how Jesus was rejected? Did it serve as a tangible challenge along your way, asking how you yourself might be rejecting Jesus every day?... Yes, Jesus was and is still rejected. But remember, also: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone" (Psalm 118:22).

            Today, we use these same stones to remind us that God can be for us a "sanctuary" as well as a "stumbling block." By "sanctuary," we refer to both "sacred place" and "refuge;" "holiness" and "safety." Whenever you think of the word "sanctuary," hold both understandings together, for they are not two different stones. They are one. God is an awesome God, high and lifted up. The very edge of his outer garment is more than enough to fill every space in the sanctuary that is this room, or the sanctuary that is our heart, soul, and mind. Touching holiness blows away our self-centeredness, and brings us to our knees in awe. God is also our refuge, arms outstretched, drawing children of all ages to the safety of his embrace. In Him we are free to become what He created us to be, nurtured and challenged. "Sanctuary" means both.

            This week, as you reach into your pocket, or wherever you carry it, and touch your stone, think about how God is your sanctuary. How are you living out of that sense of "sacred place" and "refuge?" Not just in this room, but every room - your office, your school room, your shop, your kitchen, wherever you find yourself this week - do you sense Godís holy presence even there? Is God a refuge in all these sacred places also? The mighty fortress of Godís refuge is not intended to be a means of escape. How might you extend Godís shelter into your place of work, study, or play? Ponder this whenever you reach for your keys, for instance, and find that stone.

            There is another stone in this passage from Isaiah. Yes, the Lord is our "sanctuary." But God is also a stone over which people can stumble. We are currently in a season of stumbling, you know. The foundational story behind Lent, as we approach the cross of Christ and the resurrection that followed on the third day, is something that believers and unbelievers have stumbled over for 2,000 years. It is by no means a simple, open and shut case. All the controversy surrounding the release of Mel Gibsonís recent film, "The Passion of the Christ," would still be there even if he had chosen a different way to present the story.

            The cross of Christ is a stumbling block. It always has been, and will continue to be - no matter how the message is presented. We might chose to tell the story in a less controversial way than the current film, but there would still be something in this message over which people will trip and fall. Mel Gibson graphically portrayed the "how" of the passion. For some, it is more than they can take. Please do not feel you are any less of a Christian if you do not feel able to see this film, given everything youíve heard about it. Itís rated "R" for a reason. What is not really explored is the "why" of the passion. Why did Jesus have to die? All the controversy has seemed to center on the "who" - as in "who" actually killed him, but the bigger question is "why?"

            Was it to appease a holy God, who needed a significant sacrifice in order for there to be a right relationship between heaven and earth once more? This has been one of the answers given to the "why" question over the years. For many, this hits the nail on the head, while for others it is a stumbling block. It sounds like child abuse for God to send his son to die in order to assuage his own sense of righteousness. Of course, this is oversimplifying the issue, but people have stumbled and fell over it since day one.

            In fact, an earlier answer to the "why" question involved the battle, if you will, that Jesus undertook with the powers of evil. In this understanding, Jesus went to the cross, not to appease his heavenly Father, but to defeat Satan and set free Godís people. This answer resonates with many, but it also can be a stumbling block to some, for God becomes a secondary player in this great drama and evil is given more credit than it is due.

            These are not the only answers given to the "why" question, just two of the oldest. If you say in response, "I can see some of both answers being true," then they are not tripping you up. However, there is much to stumble over in the passion story of our faith, and we have not even begun talking about the empty tomb. Talk about a stumbling block! There itís not so much the "why" that causes us the problems, but the "how." The "how" of the cross makes perfect sense after many of us have witnessed too much violence in our own generation. The "how" of resurrection, though, thatís a different stumbling block.

            Anyway, you have your stone in hand this morning with a new assignment. Take it with you this week, and whenever you touch it think about the things in your faith - especially when it comes to the passion of Christ - which might cause you to stumble. Be honest with yourself and with your God. Accept this fragile stone of stumbling on your part. Doubt, by the way, is not the opposite of faith. God uses doubt for greater purposes. Fragile stones can become living stones. It was so even for the people in Isaiahís day who stumbled. Their "stumbling" lead to the tragedy known as the exile, when Godís people were deported to a foreign land. However, it was in the "sanctuary" which Babylon became that faith was reborn. God, their true refuge and strength, then took them by the hand and led them home.... So, take your "stone of sanctuary and stumbling" with you this week, and remember.

For commentaries consulted, see Isaiah.

©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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