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 temptation"

Message preached March 14, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Luke 4:1-13

Order of Worship

            "The Passion of the Christ," that recent movie many of you have already seen, begins in the Garden of Gethsemane. In what St. John of the Cross would later call a "dark night of the soul," Jesus there prays his way through the disturbing hours to come. As I watched that scene, I wondered what someone unfamiliar with the story would make of it. Without opening credits, or even a title frame, moviegoers are thrust into a moment of mental and spiritual anguish which foreshadows the intensity of the next hour or so of pain. Perhaps the experience of naively jumping into this scene is similar to someone new to the Bible opening it at random and reading a psalm of lament which hurls the dark side of human existence at the very throne of God.

            You hold in your hand, I hope, a stone - something tangible, touchable, take-able. Itís small enough to be portable, to fit into a pocket and go with you wherever you go. I encourage you to use this stone as an aid to your spiritual walk with Christ this Lenten season leading up to Easter. Along this journey thus far, this stone has symbolized rejection - our own experiences of being rejected by others, which helps us to connect with how Jesus was rejected when he walked this earth as a man. Touching this stone throughout the week also, hopefully, has provided moments of questioning, for each of us, of how we continue to reject him on a daily basis.

            Last week, this stone represented two very opposite things. God is our rock, our sanctuary, our foundation, our mighty fortress, upon whom - yes, yes, yes - we can depend. Christ is the very cornerstone of our lives, individually and together. Without him, whatever we "build" can collapse all-too-easily, which leads us to the opposite meaning. This cornerstone can also be a stumbling block along our way, tripping us up when - in our smug, self-satisfaction - we think weíve got it made. Such a "rock of offense" (Isaiah 8:14 KJV) on our path can actually be our very salvation, the way in which God gets our attention, and turns us from a direction that is leading - ultimately - to our own destruction.

            Thus far, then, along our journey toward Easter, we carry with us a stone of rejection, which is also a stone of sanctuary, as well as stumbling. Now, donít get so attached to your stone that it becomes more than it really is. Just as the oil in our anointing service is just something we can feel - something touch-able which connects us with something we canít really see or touch: the healing presence of God in our lives; so, also, this stone in your hand is just that - a stone. But when you touch it, remember the fragile part of who you are. Yes, you are a fragile stone. So am I. However, in Christ, we are also a living stones, as it says in 1 Peter 2:4.

            Today we add another element - temptation. "Lead us not into temptation," we prayed together earlier in worship, repeating those words taught by Jesus himself. Of course, the question always is - as we pray this prayer - are we really serious about it? I mean, we ask God not to lead us into temptation, but the problem is not Godís leadership but our own. If anything, God places stumbling blocks along our way because we have our eyes set not on the prize of the kingdom, but upon the very things that pull us away from God. We are walking, no - running, toward that which entices us. A stumbling block can be a good thing if it distracts our attention. Stumbling can be a good thing if, as we pick ourselves up, the pain opens our eyes to the truth.

            Our society is literally drenched in tempting possibilities, is it not? "Lead us not into temptation?" Good grief, weíre already there! Iím not just talking about the obvious stuff, like porn - an ever-present temptation toward a "pretend" sort of intimacy which in reality pulls men (primarily) away from "real" relationships. What would be the equivalent for women? Thereís other "obvious" stuff out there, probably the most current would be those "reality" television shows which are anything but real. Theyíre fake with a capital "F," which means they Flunk at what it means to really be a "Survivor," to truly find a mate as a "Bachelor" or "Bachelorette," to work with other people as an "Apprentice," or to face into your "Fear Factor."

            All of lifeís little temptations pull us away from what is really real, from what lies at the heart of our existence as people created by God - from the center, if you will, of the turntable (to borrow an image from this morningís childrenís story). Iím not just talking about what may be the "little stuff," however. There are bigger fish in the sea of temptation. Actually, in the prayer Jesus taught, a better translation of this phrase might be, "help us not to succumb to the trial." The trial Jesus faced in the wilderness after his baptism, a trial revisited in the garden of Gethsemane during his "dark night of the soul," reveals to us some things about this "stone of temptation" we all face.

            One thing I didnít quite appreciate about the movie, "The Passion of the Christ," was its representation of the devil. It was too easy to be repelled by this character. I mean, if the devil is, as Jesus said, "the father of lies" (John 8:44), a more "attractive" character would be closer to reality, donít you think? There was nothing in that person that would lead me to want to follow him, or was it a her? Actually, the actor in the role was an actress, but thatís beside the point. For Jesus to be in such agony as he prayed, there needed to be an appealing alternative to the cup from which he finally chose to drink, submitting himself to Godís will.

            This scene, as I mentioned earlier, is actually a reprise of an earlier struggle. Remember that story with me for a minute. Jesus, upon stepping out of the waters of his own baptism, stepped into a wilderness of testing. Forty days worth. This, by the way, is something those of us who choose to be baptized also face as we step back into our lives from the water. "Help us not to succumb to the trial," is a prayer for facing the real testing of life, which leads us either toward God or away. Itís not so much about the little, picayune stuff. Itís about holding on to the rock of our salvation or letting go, about walking by faith in Godís larger purpose or giving up.

            In the wilderness, as the story goes, Jesus was tempted by the devil with some pretty attractive realities. You heard them. Hunger is not part of Godís will for this world, is it? Itís not in the divine plan that bellies go empty. Yet people still starve, even though this earth, which God created, contains all the resources needed to feed everyone. In a Biblical "reality show," the devil tempted Jesus there in the wilderness with a false vision. Stones changed to bread. Yes, that would be a miracle, but would it change anything? Instead of fighting over bread, people would now fight over stones. No, one does not live by bread alone. Itís not the real answer. Itís fake. Choosing it, as appealing as this option might be, would turn away from where God is leading.

            The world, after all, is hungry for more than food. Power is the big thing, no matter how you define it. Nobody wants to feel powerless. Truth is, all our conflicts are, at their root, about power. With enough power, the lie goes, all our problems will be solved. Thatís what the devil then offered Jesus in that desert place - authority, power, glory over the entire world - as if that really was his (the devilís) to offer, or that it would really solve anything in the long run. The catch, and there always is a catch: such power always comes with a leash attached. You know, like the genie in the bottle who is "all powerful," but in reality is but a slave. The path God set before His Son, Jesus, was not to grab power and thus become enslaved to it, but to become a servant and lead people to real freedom. "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him."

            The third temptation - you heard it - involved the Temple and another stone. Standing at the highest point, where he would be visible to everyone, the enticement was to jump. Everybody knows that God would send in a rescue team of angels to keep even so much as Jesusí tippy-toe from harsh contact with that stone at the bottom. Or so the devil said, quoting scripture. The real temptation here had nothing to do with boo-boos band-aids, however.

            Imagine what wouldíve happened if Jesus had chosen this route, and everybody saw the heavenly swat team in action. What better proof that this was the Messiah? The masses would join up like crazy in a holy revolution, following this superstar anywhere. But why would they follow? Because this was the right way, or because they had seen something really cool? With one step off the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus could have started the mother of all rebellions. He couldíve skipped all the hard work of taking a motley crew of ragged rebels and making disciples who would conquer not with a sword but with compassion. No, that step off the pinnacle would have changed everything. It wasnít Godís route. "Donít put the Lord your God to the test."

            Luke then says that "when the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time" (4:13). Guess when that opportune time was? The "dark night of the soul" in Gethsamane was when Jesus faced his ultimate temptation. Would he stick with the plan? Would he follow through to the end? Would he remain true to who he really was? Or would he chose another cup? What that "other cup" was becomes crystal clear when later he told his disciples to put away their swords as he was taken prisoner. "All who take up the sword," he said, "will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?" (Matthew 26:52b-54).

            Jesusí real temptation was not to run away, to avoid the final conflict, the pain of those final very human hours on earth. No, the truth is, He could have chosen to bring forth the kingdom of God by force with a heavenly army Rome, nor any other nation to this very day - even the one remaining superpower of our own era - could not have matched. But such was not Godís way. It would have pulled Jesus away from who he really was.

            That, in a nutshell, is what temptation does with us all. It pulls us away from who we really are, or rather, from what God created us and intends us to be. Yes, we are sinners - no "if"s, "and"s, or "but"s about it. Even so, thatís not the whole picture. While there is a centrifugal force, if you will, at work in our lives, pulling us away from God, there is also a centripetal force that pulls us toward God, toward the heart, the center of who we really are in Jesus Christ. In him, you are free to live out your calling, the path God - who loves you and knows you better than anyone else - created you to walk. Donít be tempted by all the fake stuff. Keep to whatís really real.

            Let your stone be a reminder to you this week. Carry it with you, not as some magical object, but as something tangible to bring you back to Godís reality. When you face temptation, which you will, touch that stone. You may be tempted to give up, or to give in, the fragile stone that you are. But donít. Just remember that in Him, you are really a living stone. Keep the faith!

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Luke.

©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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