This is a sermon (my first one!) I preached for a Lenten service at Trinity Lutheran Church in North Bethesda.

Isaiah 12:1-6
Thanksgiving and Praise
1You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. 2Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 3With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

4And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. 5Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Romans 9:30-33
30What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; 31but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33as it is written, “See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

1 Corinthians 10:1-4
Warnings from Israel’s History
1I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.

These readings seem to paint two very different images of Jesus. He is described as being both a stumbling block and the rock of salvation – simultaneously. How can something or someone be the thing that causes me to trip and my salvation all rolled into one? When I hear references to Jesus as a stumbling block, they seem to contradict my understanding of who He is. I am much more comfortable with Jesus as the mighty rock of salvation we sing about in Rock of Ages or How Can I Keep From Singing?, than Jesus, the one who causes people to stumble and fall. I’m not a big fan of things that trip me up and perhaps this stems from the fact that I am, as some of you probably know, a rather clumsy person. I become frustrated when I trip over things – frustrated with what I’ve tripped over, which is more often than not my own two feet, and frustrated with myself for not being able to walk upright.

In their desire to walk upright spiritually, many Jews in Jesus’ lifetime, including the religious leaders, had become so obsessed with following the written law as perfectly as they could, they had lost sight of what loving and serving God was truly about. The law that had been given to them as a covenant from God and as a way of guiding their faith had become their focus. They had forgotten how their forefather Abraham had lived by faith, trusting in God’s promise to make him the father of a nation, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac. They had forgotten how Jacob had wrestled with God and refused to let go until he was blessed.

They seemed to forget that their forefathers had not only lived, spoke and struggled with God, but had often broken laws, were deceitful and even treacherous. Even the great King David had broken the Commandments by committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging for the murder of her husband Uriah. Despite all of these sins and faults, God worked through these familiar biblical heroes and remained faithful to His promises. As Isaiah says, “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

Instead of cultivating this type of personal relationship with God, they had turned their devotion to God into devotion to the law. Rather than living by faith, the ancient Jews devoted themselves to following the law to a tee and saw salvation as something to be attained through their own actions, rather than something from God.

I recently read the book The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. This humorous book describes Jacobs’ endeavor to follow biblical law as literally as possible for one full year. He seeks to follow dietary laws, laws about stoning and laws about how to sacrifice animals. He also takes a crack at laws such as Leviticus 19:19: “You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” In modern times, with our food production and our clothing blends, I think we have fully succeeded in breaking all three of those! In preparing for his experiment, Jacobs’ gathers a list which includes over 700 laws from both the Old and New Testaments. 700! I don’t think I could come close to naming, much less following, that many laws, secular or biblical. Following and obeying laws is certainly a good thing, but how can someone possibly follow and uphold so many? It seems impossible. As Paul points out in his letter to the Romans, Israel failed to attain righteousness by upholding the law.

So when Jesus came to the Jews and did not fit their expectations of the Messiah, preaching love and offering the forgiveness of sins and salvation freely, as a gift, it turned their world upside down. These people, much like many of us today, had the mindset of “what do I have to do to attain salvation?,” or “what can I do to merit this?” When someone gives us a gift or does something for us, how often do we think “now what do I have to do for her?” or “what does she want from me?” When the answer is to simply accept the gift, we cannot fathom that we don’t have to do anything else – that all we have to do is say “thank you.” To a people used to trying to attain righteousness and perfection through following the law, this was a huge hurdle – Jesus and His gift of grace, mercy and salvation were a stumbling block.

As Martin Luther put it in his Heidelberg Disputation, “Law says, ‘do this,’ and it’s never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this’ and everything is already done.” This beautiful grace is what we hear every week in Communion: “The body of Christ given for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.” Everything has already been done for us on the cross. Thankfully, the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation do not depend on our actions or how well we do. God’s love for us does not change, even if we make mistakes or fall short.

When you trip over something, you lose your balance – your footing is thrown off and your arms fly out to grab hold of something to steady yourself. I can’t help but think of one of my all time favorite movies, Fiddler on the Roof. In the prologue, Tevye describes life in the village of Anatevka: “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word… Tradition.” Tradition and laws gave structure and purpose to the Jewish life and when Jesus came along with new, radical teachings, He upset the balance. That’s what Jesus did to those He encountered then and He continues to do to us today. He shakes up what we know and causes us to rethink what we’ve been doing and how we’ve been living.

At the same time Christ is shaking up the old way of viewing things, He’s laying a new foundation for the future. With this foundation, we can stand securely, knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God. As Paul writes in Romans, “whoever believes in Him shall not be put to shame.” With faith in Christ, we’ve built our houses on rock – not on shifting sand. Or for a different image, imagine a rock climber clinging to the surface of a rock face. As he journeys up the side of the mountain, he grasps the rock tightly, looking for sure footing and handholds. With the rope of faith tying him securely to the rock, even if he slips, he cannot fall far – the rock he’s tied into will under no circumstances give way.

God’s grace frees us from constantly thinking about whether or not we are good enough to deserve this gift, which enables us to actively share this love with others. Jesus, like a stone tossed in a pond, creates a ripple effect – driving us to move out with purpose and action into our community. We can do this by using the unique talents we have been given to reach out to those around us. We can work in the church or volunteer in our neighborhoods. We can listen to a friend or help a stranger. Standing on the rock of salvation, we are only limited by our imaginations in how we share this love. This rock, the one who causes us to stumble and rethink our ways, offers us solid footing, rooted in grace, faith and love.

So how can Christ be simultaneously a stumbling block and the rock of salvation? The same way God’s grace enables us to be simultaneously sinners and saints. And for this gift of grace, we can use Isaiah’s words: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Amen.

© 2009. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Advertisements