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 heart of stone"

Message preached April 4, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Ezekiel 11:18-20, 36:25-28

Order of Worship

            How many of you have, by now, been to the theater to see "The Passion of the Christ?" This film has become a blockbuster, due in part to the controversy it generated before it was even released. Reactions to this movie have run the gamut. Many have been touched deeply by the suffering they saw Jesus undergo, and their faith has been strengthened. Others were appalled by what seemed to verge on a glorying in the extreme nature of his suffering, and (within it) the graphic violence to which our society has become addicted. Iíd venture to say that some who saw the film were probably both greatly moved and repulsed at the same time.

            Regardless, we stand on the edge of a week of remembrance, in which the events portrayed - for better or worse - in that movie are but a portion. We began our worship this day with the triumph of Jesusí entrance into Jerusalem. Forgive me if you came expecting a palm branch to take home and were disappointed to be handed a stone instead. Actually, Lukeís account of the day, which we have followed this year, doesnít mention anything about green leafy substances waved in the air.

            Luke does, however, make notice of the stones all around which, as Jesus said to the religious leaders wishing to tone down the celebration, would "cry out" if all these folks were silent. Now, that would have been an interesting sight. Iíve never literally seen stones "cry out." Have you? Of course, this was not a corny way of saying that you canít stop a party when itís in full swing, that if you turn down the volume on the boom box the wall will itself become like an amplifier for the music to rock. No, Jesus wasnít preaching, "rock on!"

            Those Phariseeís would have heard, in Jesusí words about the stones crying out, a veiled reference to the prophet Habakkuk, who had been very critical of his own generation in Israel. The wealthy then were profiting from the misery of others, their very homes, their society built upon the blood of the poor. "Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm!" Habakkuk shouted for God. "You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork" (2:9-11). Could this Hebrew prophet also be speaking to our generation? What would the stones out of which our homes, our society is built say if they were to cry out? ... "Hosanna! God save us!"?

            What do these stones say about us? If youíve been with us throughout our Lenten journey, youíve had a stone in your hand every Sunday. Perhaps you even took your stone with you into the week, carrying it in your pocket or purse as a reminder of what you heard from God on the Lordís day. I know, for some of you it may have felt like a corny device to get you to think about the sermon after you left church, a sneaky method for a preacher to nose his way into your everyday life. So be it. Anyway, what does your stone say about you?

            If you recall (and for those of you who missed out, let me briefly state), on the first Sunday of Lent the catchword was "rejection." Remembering that phrase repeated several times in the Bible about the "cornerstone that the builders rejected," we got in touch with our own experiences of being rejected. We then made the shift to remembering how Jesus was rejected by people when he walked as a rabbi with his disciples through Palestine. The stones we took home with us were intended to raise a question whenever we touched them throughout the week. The question was this: how are we rejecting Jesus even today?

            If you are in denial, thinking you never, ever do anything that undercuts what you say you believe - have I got a used car Iíd like to sell you! A big reason we keep coming back Sunday after Sunday to the Lordís house with Godís people is not to prove how good we are, but because we are sinners. What we profess is complicated daily by what we confess. Thatís okay, because God loves sinners. Jesus died for those who rejected him.

            Our next stop on this Lenten journey with our stones found us asserting two very different things. With stone in hand, we remembered how God is our solid rock, our mighty fortress. In the Lord we find our true sanctuary. On the other hand, though, we often trip over God, as one might a stumbling block. In fact, God purposefully intends for us to stumble, because we might be headed in the wrong direction, fooling ourselves. Falling flat on our face can be a good thing, if it gets us to take off our blinders and look around. Thatís true if we are headed willy-nilly in an obviously wrong direction. Itís just as true if we think ours is "the" best way which everyone must travel. God has a habit of pulling the rug out from under the self-righteous. Stones do cry out, and trip up. Did yours?

            On the following Sunday, we remembered that Jesus himself faced into temptation. His struggle with the devil in the wilderness twice mentions rocks, so we used them figuratively for our own daily struggle with temptation. The point of carrying our stones with us through that week was not as an ever-present reminder of how often we mess up, but rather as a tool to help recall the resources we have at our disposal every day to avoid succumbing to the temptations we face. I didnít mention it at the time, but in this regard I think of the stone young David used to fell the mighty Goliath. Sometimes our personal temptations feel even bigger than Goliath. Did your stone help you that week to remember the presence of the Holy Spirit and the power you posses in Christ to keep the faith, even when tempted to let it go?

            My favorite rock along our Lenten journey was the rock whose name I share. We remembered the disciple Peter who became a "rock" for the Lord in more than just his name. Along the way, however, he had to face into his fears. His embarrassing moments of misunderstanding, bumbling, and denial are not swept under the rug in the Bible, but rather make it all the more remarkable that he would be a key leader in the early church. This fragile stone became a living stone for Jesus. Did your stone remind you that the same can be true of you?

            Finally, last week we tackled what is perhaps the most obvious use of rocks - as objects to be thrown at others. We are all very good at condemnation. Some of us may even think that God is a mean, old man standing with a rock in his hand aimed at us, condemning us. Certainly that is part of the picture the Bible paints. It was not without reason that the prophets of old spoke out with fire and brimstone against the idolatry and violence of Godís people. However, the picture Jesus paints of God for us through what he said and what he did is a bit different. The cross was not a weapon God wielded to punish the world, though some Christians think and do just that. In word and deed, Jesus dropped the stone and embraced the world - the true image of God.

            Itís appropriate that last weekís stone should remind us of letting it go, just as those people did long ago who were ready to stone a woman caught in adultery. Jesus spoke a simple truth on that day. With but a few words he reminded her accusers of how they had themselves rejected God, their solid rock, stumbling over his justice and mercy, giving into temptation themselves, out of fear. In so doing he opened the way to God for this woman, and for us. "I do not condemn you," he said. "Go and sin no more." A fresh beginning.

         "I will sprinkle clean water upon you," the Lord promised through the prophet Ezekiel, "and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God" (36:25-28).

            "I will remove ... the heart of stone." I began this series of Lenten sermons by talking about "passion." No, I wasnít referring to "passion" as it usually is spoken of in our society - the stuff that gets our toes to tingle, if you will. What I meant by "passion" is that which gets you out of bed in the morning; what drives you to keep on keeping on, even when things donít turn out quite right. I connect the word "passion" with the word "vocation," the life direction in which we are "called" by God. "Passion," as I said, literally means "suffering." Our "passion" in life is a "calling" for which we are willing to suffer, if need be. It lies at the heart of who we are.

            How many of us, though, really know what our passion is? In Ezekielís day, people didnít have a clue where God was calling them to go, what the Lord was calling them to be. So, they slipped into a wasted sort of life as a people, wandering from lesser passion to lesser passion. Their heart, if you will, was like a stone. It didnít beat with the Lord. It was hard and unforgiving. They didnít desire, as a people, to really walk with the One who said "I am who I am," to listen to Godís commands as if the Lord were right there as a living God and not some false god made out of stone.

            The "passion," the suffering experience of the exile when Israel was yanked out from her home like that adulterous woman and forced to live in Babylon, this paved the way for something new. A fresh beginning. A new heart began beating within Godís people. Judaism was born.

            The passion of Christ which, by the way, I donít shorten to a few hours on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but expand to cover the vocation of Jesus from his baptism in the Jordan river to his resurrection; this passion is what makes for a fresh beginning for us all. If, in watching this recent movie, you had sparked in you a new passion, praise God. If you are among those for whom this movie was not an inspiration, I encourage you to reach for another spark. This is a time for "a new heart," as God through Ezekiel promised.

            Now, the truth is - God doesnít yank out this figurative "heart of stone." In order for there to be a new heart given, the old stone needs to be released. Standing on the threshold of this week when we remember the passion of Christ, my encouragement to you is this - let go of your heart of stone. Release the ways in which you stubbornly reject Jesus. They are the stone which holds Jesus in the tomb. Let go of your stumbling path which is leading you away from God. This is the stone which holds Jesus in the tomb. Let temptation fall from your grasp. This is the stone which holds Jesus in the tomb. Donít let your fear grip you. Release it. This is the stone which holds Jesus in the tomb. Let judgmentalism and condemnation go. They are the stone which holds Jesus in the tomb. In so doing, allow this "heart of stone" to be removed, that God may give to you a new heart and a new spirit.

            To symbolize this "letting go," I invite you to come forward as we sing our last two hymns, and place your stone in the vessel on our worship table. Donít do it, however, just because everyone else is doing it. Let it mean something to you - a fresh start, a renewed passion. You have several verses as we sing to come forward, so we donít need a logjam up front. Extend an arm is someone needs a slight help up or down the steps. If, with this simple action, you are starting something brand new with Christ and wish to be baptized, come over to where I will be standing and say so. By the way, this invitation will be extended during worship next week also.

"Beneath the cross of Jesus," brothers and sisters, letís take our stand.

online resources for these scripture texts:  Ezekiel 11:18-20, 36:25-28

For commentaries consulted, see Ezekiel.

©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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