Thursday, 12 March 2015

Lent day 20

The opening verse of Psalm 95 recited daily at Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer says:

"O come let us sing unto the Lord: let us heartily rejoice in the rock of our salvation"

This is the image it brings to mind for me. A place high above others, a place where one can not only look out, but find refuge, a place of safety, although cliffs can be hazardous places to anyone unfamiliar with their paths. The word 'rock' in scripture becomes associated with the idea of refuge, fortress, protection.
God is praised as a rock, a protector, a refuge for his people. Here are three examples from over two dozen in the Psalms.

"The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold." (Psalm 18:2)

"Blessed be the LORD, my rock." (Psalm 144:1)

"In God, my salvation and my glory rest; The rock of my strength, my refuge is in God." (Psalm 62:7)

The climate and geology of the Holy Land have shaped a landscape of mountains and valleys whose heights have little vegetation, exposing bare cliff faces, so that the everyday landscape for both inhabitants and travellers is one in which the presence of immovable rock is hardly ever out of sight, out of mind, a sign of permanence and strength.

"O Lord, thou hast been our refuge,from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made, thou art God from everlasting, and world without end." (Psalm 90:1-2)

This imagery appears in prayers cited in the historical books, and in the utterances of the prophets:

"O LORD, my strength and my stronghold, And my refuge in the day of distress, To You the nations will come From the ends of the earth and say - Our fathers have inherited nothing but falsehood ..." (Jerermiah 16:19)

"For you have forgotten the God of your salvation And have not remembered the rock of your refuge." (Isaiah 17:10)

The 'cornerstone verse from Psalm 118:22 is one of the key interpretative texts used to speak of the exaltation of the Crucified One to acknowledgement as Lord and Messiah, and is even put into the conversation of Jesus by Matthew, Mark and Luke.

"Jesus looked at them and said - What is this that is written - The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner? Whosoever shall fall upon that stone shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder." (Luke 20:17-18)

This is not about rock in truly massive form however, but in pieces that can be managed as building material which becomes a stumbling block. In fact there is little reference to rock in the New Testament. Paul, in expounding his teaching on justification by faith uses the image of the stumbling block in a compilation of quotes from Isaiah 8:14 & 28:16, although 'rock of offence' is no more than a poetic way of re-stating the same thought in different words.

"They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, "Behold I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed." (Rom 9:32-33)

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus compares those who heed his teaching to the wise man that built a stable dwelling on rock foundations.

"... he is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock." (Lk 6:48)

Uniquely in Matthew's Gospel is the word 'rock' used in the same stable foundational sense, in relation to the future ministry of Peter, and it is a pun on his name Petros.

"And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matt 16:18)

In context, it is an ironic association as Peter is the one who crumbles and flees when Jesus is arrested. At the end of the story, as the church comes to birth after Jesus leaves his disciples to continue his work, Peter is re-instated and fulfills is calling from the Lord. In the epistle attributed to him, he writes, citing but slightly adapting the same 'foundation' texts from Isaiah as Paul used earlier:

"And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture: "Behold I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed." (1 Peter 2:4-8) 

The adoption of this simple word-image carries with it centuries of use in thinking about the strength, reliability and protection God offers in relationship to humankind. It is so different from images of divinities that are capricious, violent, change like the weather, and leave their devotees feeling anxious and vulnerable. 

Awe and wonder in the face of divine constancy and might, is altogether a different experience.

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