Sermon Series on Love Wins, Week 5: “Rocks”– citations or references are noted by page numbers. Enjoy!
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
How and when have you encountered God in your life? Or are you not sure if you have at all? Anne Lamott, in her book, Traveling Mercies, shares her story of how she came to faith through a series of intense life experiences. After years of dependency on drugs and alcohol to escape the difficulties of life, she found herself in the depths of her own hell, drunk, on drugs, and alone on one particular night. Shaky, scared, sick, and finally sobering up, she crawled into bed and after a while, felt a presence in the room with her, hunkered down in the corner. She explains that the feeling was so real that she actually turned on a light for a moment to make sure that no one was there. But after awhile, in the dark again, she knew beyond a doubt that the presence was Jesus. And she was appalled. Why? Because she couldn’t imagine what her friends would think if she became a Christian, or how she would handle it herself based on the Christians that she knew. She simply could not allow for that to happen. She screamed out in the darkness to the wall, “I would rather die!” But yet she felt Jesus there on his haunches in the corner, watching with patience and love. She closed her eyes, but that didn’t help because that was not what she was seeing him with. Later, she writes that the presence remained with her and she felt as if was following her around like a little cat, refusing to leave. Over time, she discovered that if she said “Hello” to God, she would feel God say“Hello” back. Sometimes she wadded up a tissue and held it tightly so she felt as if she were walking hand in hand with God (Traveling Mercies, 49-51).
My strange encounter with God came one night when I had just graduated from high school. I was in Mexico on a mission trip with a youth group and I was right in the middle of struggling with my faith and what I believed about God and this whole Jesus thing. Here I was, a Jewish girl on a mission trip with a group of Christian teenagers and I had no idea what I believed. One night I was so confused and upset that I burst into tears and felt more alone than I had in a long time. Why couldn’t God just give me an answer? Why couldn’t God just tell me what I should believe? What I should do? I went to bed that night feeling that I would never find what I had been seeking. That I should give up and just go on with my life and not think about God at all. But in the morning when I woke up, I had a sense of peace come over me like I had never felt before. At breakfast that morning, a friend asked me how I was doing, and I told him about my unexplainable sense of peace. He simply smiled and said, “Good. Glad to hear that because a group of us prayed for you last night, that God would send you a sense of peace and calm and would be with you.” I was stunned. This was the first time that I had known anyone to pray specifically for me. It was also the first time that I truly felt God’s presence in my life, and it was that kind of peace that passes all understanding. That was one of my first encounters with God.
Rob Bell tells a great story in Love Wins about meeting a man who used to stay up all night smoking pot and drawing at his kitchen table. One night he was doing this as usual, when he became aware of an overwhelming presence of warmth and love. The power of this was so strong that he was unable to remain in his chair and found himself on the ground, lying prostrate on the kitchen floor- he knew without a doubt that this was God telling him that he was loved absolutely and unconditionally and that the only possible path for his life was to receive that love and become a follower of Jesus. From that moment on, his life was never the same again (LW 140).
Many of us hear stories like these- people who have encountered God in some mysterious way and in the strangest of circumstances. We might think, “Isn’t it great how God works?” or “God does work in mysterious ways,” and then there are others, if we’re honest, who hear stories similar to the man in his kitchen and think, “Must have been some weed!” (140). And of course the Bible is full of stories where people encounter God in many different ways- just think of Moses and the burning bush, Elijah and the still small voice, Isaiah’s vision and the creatures who touched his lips with coal that he might become a prophet, the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, the Holy Spirit coming like tongues of fire. We’ve all heard these bizarre stories, and still in our world today- many that we might easily dismiss, but they do all have one thing in common- people claim to experience God in a way that is true for them. So that leads me to ask this question: In what kind of world do we live? Is it open or closed? Are we opened or closed to the endless possibilities of God? Or are we alone in the world? Should we dismiss those experiences that creep in out of nowhere that offer us grace and warmth and truth, even in the middle of the night, in the middle of our own worst nightmares? And what do these experiences have to do with Jesus?
To answer that, let’s look at our text from Exodus today which tells the story of Moses and the rock. The Israelites have been freed from slavery in Egypt and they are wandering the desert. It’s not going well. They are thirsty and cannot find water to drink, and they are angry at Moses (what else is new?!). So God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff in front of the people and water will come out. It’s one of those strange stories- with a strange rock. We don’t hear about the rock again in Exodus, but we do hear about it again thousands of years later when Paul writes about it in 1 Corinthians. He refers to the rock, saying that those who traveled out of Egypt “drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” Umm, what? That rock was…Jesus? Of course he isn’t mentioned in the story, but Paul reads this story while insisting that Jesus was present in that moment providing the water they need to survive. Jesus was the life giving, thirst quenching, sustaining element they needed most. According to Paul, Jesus was the rock. Now whether you agree with this interpretation or not, it does raise a good question- Where else has Christ been present? When else? With who else? How else? Paul finds Jesus there as the rock because Paul finds Jesus everywhere (144).
I think we can all acknowledge that there is an energy in the world- you might call it a spark or electricity…if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’d call it “the Force.” This energy, whatever you might call it, “pulses through all creation and sustains it, fuels it, keeps it going. For people of faith, this energy is God, who in Genesis creates…God speaks, and it happens. God says it, and it comes into being. Where there is chaos, God creates order. Christians believe that this life giving energy, this Word of God, took on flesh and blood in the form of Jesus- “the word became flesh and lived among us.” The word that gave life to everything and continues to give life had been revealed “in its fullness” (146). Jesus, for the first Christians, was the ultimate exposing of what God has been up to all along. And, of course, this was and is still for us today, a mystery- a mystery that comes to all people in all times and places. Paul, in Colossians 1, writes that “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery.” Paul says here that what God has done/is doing through Jesus is for everyone, every nation, every tribe, every ethnic group- not just for the Jewish people. In Jesus, something God has been up to all along is now being made known.
Jesus, then, is bigger than any one religion, any one idea, any one denomination. Jesus came for all, is for all, is in all and through all. Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion, but to challenge the convictions and systems of his day. Jesus came to reveal the true nature of God’s love and grace. Jesus is not to be defined completely or boxed in or pinned down. Jesus will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called Christianity” (150). We as Christians can point to him, name him, follow him, discuss him, honor him, and believe in him, but we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he is anyone else’s” (152). Jesus should not be confined to any one religion or any particular group of people. He is not meant to be. When we confine him to just us, we run the risk of wanting to make Jesus look like us, talk like us, think like us- we run the risk of creating Jesus in our own image, and Jesus is much much more than anything we can point to directly.
Many will argue this point and refer to John 14 where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” What is key to remember in this is that he doesn’t say how, when, or in what manner that gets people to God through him- he simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him” (155) and this occurs in many different ways to many different people, whether they know the name of Jesus or not.
There are a few different views that people take on this issue. 1) Exclusivity- Jesus is the only way- that’s it- those who do not believe in him, those who have not heard of him, those who don’t follow him in the exact way as defined by the group doing the defining- you’re either in or you’re going to hell.
2) Pluralistic view- open to all religions- one mountain, many paths, equally valid (Adam Hamilton, Christianity and World Religions)
3) Inclusivist (Adam Hamilton)- insists that Jesus is the way, truth, and life, but “holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural and religious spectrum” (LW 155). This means that God is at work among all people everywhere, even where there is no Christian witness. What Jesus is doing is declaring that he alone is drawing all people to himself, saving everyone- “then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe” After all, we see him in John 10 saying, “I have other sheep that are not in this sheep pen.” He is still their shepherd.
How does any of this explain who Jesus is and how it connects with heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who has ever lived? How does this continue with our theme, that love wins?
1) Hopefully we aren’t surprised when people stumble upon this mystery of God, found in Jesus. We must acknowledge that people come to Jesus in all sorts of ways. We should not be offended when they don’t use the exact language we use or have the same experience we do. We all have our own story. Some people use his name, some do not. We confess that “some people have so much baggage with the name ‘Jesus’ that when they encounter the mystery present in all of creation- grace, peace, love, acceptance, healing, forgiveness- the last thing they are inclined to name it is ‘Jesus’” (158-159). Sometimes Jesus is the overwhelming presence in the kitchen in the middle of the night. Sometimes Jesus is that unexplainable peace. Sometimes Jesus is that presence hunkered down in the corner in the darkness when we don’t want to acknowledge him for who he is. Sometimes he is the wadded up tissue in our clenched fist as a tangible reminder that God walks with us. Sometimes, Jesus is the rock.
2) None of us have “cornered the market” on Jesus and we never will. Jesus is always widening the scope and expanse of salvation. Think of when the disciples wanted to shut down a man in Luke 9 who is healing in the name of Jesus and Jesus says, “do not stop him- whoever is not against us is for us.” May we never forget that Jesus spent his time among tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers. A “sinful woman” pours expensive ointment on him and he calls it worship, when he encounters a despised tax collector, he wants to have dinner with him (159)- Jesus continually does away with our labels, assumptions, judgments- he defies, destroys, disregards- he changes our perspective constantly.
3) We must be very careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people’s eternal destines. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it (John 12)- “We can name Jesus, orient our lives around him, and celebrate him as the way, the truth, and the life, and at the same time respect the vast, expansive, generous mystery that he is. Heaven, after all, is full of surprises” (160).
Jesus is the mysterious divine force at work throughout all of creation. Not everyone sees it or recognizes it, but all are sustained by him. We as people, as the church, name, honor, and orient ourselves around this mystery- the mystery that Jesus is both near and intimate and personal, and big and wide and transcendent. Today, when we take Communion, for example we live into this Holy Mystery and name that it unites us and it unites all. When we gather here to worship, when we gather at the table, we profess that “Jesus is the answer, but he is also the question, the hunt, the search, the exploration, the discovery. We proclaim that he is the rock of our lives, in whatever form that may take, and there is water there” no matter where we are on the journey, no matter what our experience has been, no matter where we have come from or where we are going, Jesus stands firm as the rock of our lives (161). That is why in Jesus, love always wins.