Rock of Ages
Based on Psalm 31, Acts 7:55-60, 1Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
The Rev. Augustus Montague Toplady, born in 1740, was in his early 20’s when he penned the poem that ultimately became the beloved hymn “Rock of Ages” (#361 in the UM Hymnal). The most frequently cited story behind the genesis of the poem is that the Church of England priest was caught outdoors in a frightful thunderstorm and sought refuge under an overhang of rock in a small cave (a cleft) in the hills. While sheltering from the storm, Rev. Toplady was inspired to write at least the first verse of his poem saying, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee….” He published the poem in a magazine he edited in 1776. His complete poem, which used the metaphor “rock of ages” for the risen Jesus, was set to music in 1830. Like actual rocks and our spiritual rock, Jesus, the hymn has stood the test of time.
You all know that I am fascinated by rocks – I’ve preached about this before. There’s something magnificent and comforting about looking at a rock, a mountain or a building made from stone, knowing that all will last far longer than I will. The oldest rocks may be as much as 4 billion years old! Human ancestors began making tools out of stone some 2.5 – 3 million years ago – and were using caves made of rock for shelter from the earliest of times. Humans have an affinity for the stability and protection that rocks afford. Not a surprise then that rocks and stones have been used as metaphors in the Bible to help us understand the eternal and protective aspects of God.
Our scriptures for today talk a lot about rocks and how humans have used them as metaphors for good and as agents for evil. From the Psalmist proclaiming that God is his rock and fortress, to Jesus the living stone who is the foundation of our faith and preparer of a place for us, to the martyrdom of Stephen who was stoned to death for his faithful following of Jesus. Let us go to God now in a prayer of thanksgiving that God’s love for us is as solid and ageless as a rock…
Stephen is a light that burns brightly but quickly fades. We first meet him in chapter six of the Book of Acts when he is chosen along with six others to be the first deacons in the new Jesus movement. By the middle of the chapter, however, he is arrested because he is filled with the Holy Spirit and performing many miracles. The seventh chapter is his soliloquy to his accusers about how from Abraham onwards the spiritual leaders have not followed the teachings of God. He accuses them of being betrayers and murderers of the One true God made flesh. This is seen as blasphemy and he is taken outside the city and stoned to death, even while he asks God to forgive his killers.
The reading from 1Peter today is really beautiful language to describe what it means to be people dedicated to following the risen Christ. The elect of Christ must rid themselves of all negative worldly ways in order that they might grow into salvation (e.g., the mind and heart of Jesus). They must allow themselves to be “living stones” as Jesus was, so that God can use them to build the new Church (i.e., “spiritual house”). The writer of 1Peter ends this section equating believers in the risen Christ with the people of Israel whom God chose to bring into the light through God’s great mercy. The stones that the world rejects will go on to build a strong and solid movement unlike anything the world had ever seen.
John 14 contains some of the most comforting words of Jesus in all the New Testament. These promises of Jesus for all believers are a lifeline thrown to us at times when our hearts are troubled; when we are lost, grieving, despairing, unsure of which way to turn for help. When we ask like Thomas, “How do we choose from the many ways we are offered which leads to our best life?”, Jesus tells us to trust that He is “…the way, and the truth, and the life….” Jesus, the rock of ages, is also the stone mason who goes before us to build an addition on his Father’s house for us to return to; a place where we can be at home with Jesus for eternity.
There is literally no place on Earth where there are no stones. Even islands in the middle of the ocean have sand beaches that are made of tiny particles of rock. It is no wonder then that our hominid ancestors, surrounded by rocks, began to use them in creative ways. The Stone Age began some 3 million years ago and lasted until the Bronze Age which began about 3500 BCE. For millions of years then, our ancestors relied on caves for shelter and rocks for defense, harvesting of animals and plants, and later for religious ceremonies and idol worship. It is no surprise then that rocks hold a special place in our psyche as an easily accessible, comforting and dependable resource.
The Reverend Toplady was caught outside without shelter in a violent storm. I am certain that this is something to which we can all relate. In this time of unknown, while we are tossed about by the storm of an infection we do not fully understand and cannot control, aren’t we all searching for that place of safety and shelter – that cleft in the rock? Augustus found his way to a cave in the rock and sheltered until the storm passed – a bit soggy but none the worse for wear. During the storm he had an epiphany that led to his writing of the poem that became our beloved hymn. The words flowed out of his deep and abiding faith in God’s everlasting love and protection. As a follower of Jesus, he immediately saw the connection between the providence of the cave in the storm and the role of our Savior Jesus to provide shelter from the storms of life.
God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit…a trinity of dependability and permanence which are like that of stone to humans who only live an average of 4 score years. Jesus, our rock for all ages, is a living stone that continues to create a place for all generations to call home not just in this life but for eternity. Jesus is also the master stone mason who takes us into His hands and builds us into a spiritual house – that is, into a Church as the author of 1Peter wrote. This Church, the Body of Christ, is in fact a “holy priesthood” offering our lives as a living sacrifice “acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. Jesus builds His Church out of the clay of humanity because it is all He has with which to work. At our best, when we are working with Him and the Holy Spirit, we are an unstoppable force building lasting structures for good in this world. However, when we fall away from Him and seek only to build our own glory and honor, we become for those who are seeking Jesus, “…a stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall….”
The grace of God can save all of us from that latter fate. The writer of 1Peter reminds us all that we, “…are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we [you] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us [you] out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy….” As God’s chosen and graced children we have a responsibility to build for all our neighbors a place of mercy where they can find shelter in the storm. A dependable place of safety and security that will withstand the winds of chaos and stand resolute against the forces of sin and evil. Will we as “living stones” allow Jesus to build us into such a place for those seeking sanctuary? Will we allow ourselves to be molded into the kind of Church that Jesus, our precious Rock of Ages, died to create? God has revealed to us that Jesus is the place where we can all find shelter, where we can be made guiltless and free from sin, where we can grow into the mind and heart of Jesus and where we can invite others to come and do the same, in this life and in the life to come.
The choice is ours – do we wall ourselves inside our church buildings as in an ancient stone fortress, repelling all outsiders or do we move out of the safety of the cave to show others the way and the truth and the life that is available to them? As for me, I choose to follow Jesus our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen!