Monday, October 12, 2009

Living Stones - 1 Peter 2:4-8

Have you ever had that sinking feeling when something really valuable goes missing? You have mislaid your wedding ring and as you think back over all your movements you become convinced that it has gone into a waste bin. You have already riffled through the waste-paper baskets so now you must tackle the garbage bin. You empty the bin on your lawn and pull everything apart but it's not there and you begin to curse yourself that you didn't take care of it because your mind was on something else.

I remember the time when I was left minding my young son on a beach. My wife and her sister had taken my daughter for an ice cream and I was supposed to watch the toddler. I was engrossed in a book so I didn't see him wander off. When the women returned they noticed him missing. We ran up and down the beach looking for him. Had he run down to the sea and drowned? Had he been abducted by some childless woman or even worse a pedophile? We were panicking but eventually someone found him crying half a mile up the beach.

But they had not just mislaid the cornerstone - they had actually rejected it.

This wasn't just a mistake of the moment like when the computer asks you, "Are you sure you want to delete the whole PhD thesis?" and you click on "yes". This was a deliberate, well thought out decision. Nor was it a decision made out of ignorance. Years ago I was treating patients with a very expensive drug called IL-2. Sometimes we had to slow down the drip because of side effects with the result that it went past its sell-by date while there was still drug left in the syringe. The nurses, knowing that they could no longer give it to a patient through it away, whereas I knew I could still use it for laboratory experiments and was very cross. It wasn't the nurses' fault, they did not know better.

A politician has the answer to the current global financial crisis. You listen to him. His arguments are plausible. It means you have to change your ways. You have to give up some of the privileges that you have. But his arguments are cast iron and you know that the present approach is not working. Yet the past is familiar. You like your privileges. You don't want to change and in any case the fellow is probably a charlatan. You have heard some whisperings against him so you reject him. Then three days later, he rises from the dead.

That is the closest analogy that I can come up with. The Prime Minister tells us that we must continue to print money or the recovery will falter; we can start repaying the debt in a couple of years. The Leader of the Opposition says, "No, the debt is so large we need to start repaying it straight away." Who is right? It's a political decision. You might choose one way or the other. But if Gordon Brown had emphasized his views by walking on water that he had turned into wine you would tend to favor what he said about anything. (Not that I think Gordon Brown is the Messiah - far from it!)

The rejection of Jesus was a deliberate act by the rulers of the Jews. They had all the evidence they needed to accept him; their rejection was willful and wicked.

The IL-2 that the nurses rejected was precious to me and the stone that the builders rejected was precious to God. Diamond prospectors in Sierra Leone find a grubby stone that they chuck it away. The laborers don’t recognize it for what it is, but the foreman sees it and knows that it can be polished up and cut into a precious stone. Jesus uses this image of a stone to refer to himself and quotes from Psalm 118 in the parable of the tenants in Matthew 21:33-46 and Peter in his speech before the Sanhedrin in Acts chapter 4 explicitly states that Jesus is the stone "YOU" builders rejected who has become the capstone. In both passages, the first parabolically, the second explicitly, the Jews are being told that they have rejected the ruler of the Universe and that they too will be rejected. There is a play on words in Psalm 118 in the original Hebrew, which does not come through in any of the translations. The word we have as 'capstone' or 'cornerstone' could refer to the stone that holds an arch together or the stone that anchors and aligns adjacent walls as it is placed at the corner of a building. But in Hebrew the word for corner is used as a metaphor for the chief ruler. Jesus not only identifies himself as the Son who is sent as a final gesture to the wicked tenants – surely they will listen to him – but also as the chief ruler of the Universe.

Middle class areas like Bournemouth can't hope to support very good football clubs, so in recent years AFC Bournemouth has been near to bankruptcy. They had a new stadium built, which didn't help their finances. The stadium might be finished one day but at the moment there is seating on three sides, but the other end is a pile of rubble and is known locally as the Brighton Beach end. This is a jibe against the other large south coast resort. Whereas Bournemouth has seven miles of golden sands for a beach, our rival Brighton is all stones. Stones may be good for building with, but they are hopeless as a beach.

The passage we are studying today refers to us as living stones.

As you come to him, the living Stone — rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him — you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: "See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame." Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, "The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone," and, "A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall." They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

The message in this short passage is plain: [1] Jesus is the Living Stone, the cornerstone of our faith. [2] We are being transformed to be like him. [3] If we acknowledge this and obey the divine plan we will not be put to shame, but if we disobey we will come a cropper.

Have you seen the movie “The 300”? The legend has it that a visiting potentate asked to see the walls of Sparta – but Sparta had no walls. Instead the King pointed to his warriors, “These are our walls.” If you have been reading Bernard Cornwell’s books about Saxon Britain at the time of King Alfred you will have heard of the term ‘shield wall’. The warriors locked their shields together to form an impenetrable wall. If one man fell then one from the second rank immediately took his place. The British Square was made on similar lines. All have in common a united front – each individual subjecting himself to the common cause – each individual acting as one whole.

There never was a Good Samaritan. It was just a story Jesus told. But it was a story with a message. Had he been following Dawkin’s rules he would have preserved his own DNA, but he had a fellow feeling for someone who was his traditional enemy. We hear of soldiers in Afghanistan being killed by a second bomb when they went back to rescue a fallen comrade. Why did they do it despite the danger? It is because the teaching of Jesus has so permeated our culture. As living stones we are locked together in the walls of a Holy Temple held together by the mortar of love.

Not just walls; we are a Holy Priesthood. What does a Priest do? He speaks to God and he offers sacrifices. In the theocracy of Israel certain individuals were set aside to be priests, but the New Testament has nothing of this. We have one High Priest (after the order of Melchizedek who has made sufficient sacrifice for every sin) but no other intermediary is needed. Nowhere in the New Testament is a holder of a church office designated a priest. All Christians are priests and Holy Priests at that. Holy in the sense that we have been set apart for God, and priests in that we may speak to Him with no-one having to make fresh representations on our behalf.

But what are the sacrifices that we must make? Not the blood of lambs or bulls as in the days of old, but Spiritual Sacrifices acceptable to God. What can I give him poor as I am? wrote Christina Rosetti. “Give my heart” was the answer. Not just the anatomical heart, but my total commitment. Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small, wrote Isaac Watts. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

I like cricket. There was a time when I would spend hours in the sun listening to the thwock of leather on willow punctuated by a splattering of polite applause, but my time is more precious now. Giving up playing the game was painful; giving up watching is worse. But first things must come first.

Every element of a Christian’s life must reflect his commitment. The Christian life is not just a hobby, to be fitted in when you have a spare moment, but communion with the Holy Spirit pervades the very warp and woof of existence. For me to live is Christ.

‘Now to you who believe this stone is precious’ is an incorrect translation; the NIV has interpolated words that are not in the Greek. ‘Now to you who believe is honor’ would be more accurate – it is the honor due to Jesus bestowed upon us. But to those who do not believe…

Stones that are not incorporated into a building can trip us up. They can do worse; they can fall on us and crush us. Let’s not strain the metaphor too far. If you disobey the message then there is no ultimate honor or joy.

Have you ever been in a maze? Sometimes you will hit upon a system; such as always turn right at the first opportunity, which will take you a long way. You may seem to be making progress – you are on a broad highway to success, but suddenly you come upon a dead end. There is no way out. Even worse you may stumble into a deep pit from which there is no escape.

The trouble with wrong turnings is that they are not labeled ‘wrong turning’ and they may well seem the easiest way to go. The more people who take it the broader the path will be. Following the crowd does not guarantee it’s the right way. Remember the film ‘The Poseidon Adventure’? Most people were following the authority figure the wrong way, but they would not turn back.

We would be in a proper pickle had not God revealed Himself in the Bible. We may look at the creation and be sure that there is a God. We might look at the laws of physics and know that He is a God of order, but without the Bible we should not know that he is a God of love.

The Living Stone is both salvation and danger; to those who believe salvation; to those who reject it destruction. They stumble because they disobey the message. That is their human responsibility, they bring destruction on themselves. ‘Which is also what they were destined to do’; God is not taken by surprise. He knows that some will reject the message; He even knows who. Why some are not rescued is a matter for God’s sovereignty. Destined for destruction? I cannot fathom why, but the last person with the temerity to ask God face to face was met with the answer “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” I would not dare to outguess God.

1 comment:

Debs said...

Wow! What a great blog. You are a wonderful writer, and you clearly have a lot of wisdom. Thank you for sharing this!