The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 25, 2011
The Psalm: Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Sermon: "Rock Removal"

The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The Psalm:

Attendite, popule

Hear my teaching, O my people; *
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; *
I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.
That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, *
we will not hide from their children.
We will recount to generations to come
the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the LORD, *
and the wonderful works he has done.
He worked marvels in the sight of their forefathers, *
in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
He split open the sea and let them pass through; *
he made the waters stand up like walls.
He led them with a cloud by day, *
and all the night through with a glow of fire.
He split the hard rocks in the wilderness *
and gave them drink as from the great deep.
He brought streams out of the cliff, *
and the waters gushed out like rivers.

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Rock Removal

Highway One, in California, is considered to be one of the most scenic and breathtaking routes in the world. It winds its way along the coast from Baja to the Oregon border. Much of it was first traveled by the Franciscan Fathers who built California’s storied missions in the 1700’s. Some parts of it, though, are fairly recent additions; parts in places that even the intrepid padres couldn’t make a safe path, and had to turn inland. These parts were built in the 20th century with machines and blasting equipment; a triumph of human engineering. A triumph that is, until mother nature intervenes and periodically closes it. Just such a closure occurred a couple of years ago when a mountainous 30-foot boulder was exposed by the rains. It teetered above the Pacific Coast Highway posing a serious risk to life and limb. 

The traditional approach for disposing of huge rocks like this is simply to blast them to smithereens. The problem is that such a blast generates flyrock. Flyrock is the potentially deadly and dangerous rock projectiles created when an explosive blast occurs. The immediate danger to homes nearby, made this a big problem. Engineers considered wrapping the boulder with blast mats. Blast mats can usually stop flyrock from flying out. The boulder, though, was too big to wrap. 

They considered mud-capping, which is basically dumping tons and tons of mud over the boulder, but there was no workable way to cover this 1,200-ton pebble. They looked into other methods, including bursts of electricity from high-voltage capacitors, slugs of water shot at high speed, or steel pistons rammed in water-filled holes. In the end, they used a super-sized jackhammer, and ever-so-carefully chipped it apart, bit by bit. 

By now you may have guessed that I just might be searching for a metaphor here. And you’re right! This is it: you and I all have rocks in our lives. Some are huge. Some are small. They may be at our feet as stumbling stones blocking our faith walk or causing us to trip; or strung around our necks as millstones threatening to sink us down; or lurking in our hearts, shielding us, we think from pain, but actually keeping us from love, hope, and joy; and perhaps even rocks inside our heads making us plain hardheaded toward God. Shakespeare’s Othello says, “My heart is turned to stone: I strike it, and it hurts my hand.’’ The rocks of our lives hurt us. If we even notice our stumbling stones, our rocks of heart or head, our weights about our necks, our sins, our blindness, our denials, bigotries, hatreds, angers, prides, betrayals and jealousies that we carry, or trip over, hurting ourselves, we still may not turn to God for healing. Even when and if we notice the pain we cause others with the stones of our own making, even then we may not turn to God for healing. 

Instead, lacking expertise, we choose to do the demolition alone, by ourselves. We tend to deal with things in our own way, and load up the stones with dynamite whenever we can, sending flyrock debris scattering every-which-way, injuring anyone nearby. 

So how do we deal with the boulders that hover over our lives, or squat stubbornly across the road, impeding our progress? Who can deal with this?

God can. God will. And there won’t be any flyrock either. God doesn’t need a super-jackhammer, dynamite, high-voltage electricity, steel pistons or high-speed water slugs to crack apart the rocks in our lives. The Psalm this morning praises God, saying, “He split rocks open in the wilderness ... He made streams come out of the rock.” He did so in the desert. He can do so to us. The Psalm revisits a critical chapter in the lives of the Israelites. The author, Asaph, perhaps a teacher or a priest, announces his intention at the beginning: “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth” (78:1). Then he begins to remind his listeners of God’s past activity in their lives:

• Their enemies, with superior weapons, had been turned away, verse 9.
• God worked miracles in the land of Egypt, verse 12.
• God parted the sea to allow them to pass through safely, verse 13.
• By day God led them through a daunting wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day, and at night with a pillar of fire, verse 14.

And if that weren’t enough, God “split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers” (78:15-16).

The reason the psalmist recounts these interventions is so that “they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God,…” (78:7).You would think that if you have a God who is acting on your behalf in such ways, having hope would not be a big problem. Even rocks, rather than being obstacles, are split open to provide the waters of salvation.

How hard can it be to believe in a God who does all that? How hard can it be to have hope when you have a God acting and intervening on your behalf like this? Yet, the psalmist notes: “Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert” (78:17).

No wonder, then, that according to the psalmist, God reacts in “wrath,” that is, God withdraws from the people and leaves them to their own devices. Yet, God is gracious. When God’s people turn to him, he turns to them. In fact, he usually turns to us even before we turn to him, as he did the Children of Israel in our Psalm. Even though we deserve to have to deal with these rocks in our own strength and wisdom, drilling a hole, dropping in a stick of TNT, and blasting away with no help for the flyrock risk to ourselves or those around us. But when we confess our sins, approach God in humility, and surrender to the God of cloud and fire, of parted waters and miracles, we find him perfectly able to deal with the rocks in our lives.

So how does God take care of these rocks? God deals with each of us in different ways. God may create a detour around the rock, providing a path in the wilderness that we’d not yet seen, or show us some toeholds and handholds to enable us to climb over the rock. Like the Caltrans engineers, God may simply chip away at these obstacles until they can be removed.

But God also has another way for the most stubborn rocks in our lives. To look at this, we need to go back to that 1,200-ton boulder perched above the Pacific Coast Highway. The original plan had been to roll it down the mountain in a “controlled manner,” (that’s at least how the report put it) and later to inject it with an expanding gel that would quietly shatter it from the inside-out. 

This expanding gel is a special kind of powdered cement that, when mixed with water and poured into holes drilled in rock, exerts an amazing 18,000 pounds per cubic inch expansive capacity. Its expansive strength is more powerful than structural concrete or natural rock. It can easily shatter them as effectively as dynamite, but quietly and without the eruptive mess. 

While the engineers didn’t ultimately use this approach, (they couldn’t figure out how to roll it in a “controlled manner” without taking out the highway below in the process), God has a similar approach that works on the rocks that impede our lives. He starts when we invite him to be present in our lives. We give him total access to our lives, and the problems that impede them. We become faithful in prayer, and in meditation upon God’s Word. We start to trust implicitly in God’s will, God’s methods and God’s timing. 

We allow God’s presence to permeate our souls, our beings, and every fiber of our existence. We allow God to be poured out upon and into the cracks and fissures of the obstacles and troubles that confront us, and then let his pervasive, penetrating power work.

And just what happens when these rocks split open? The Psalmist tells us, that God, “gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers” (78:15-16). The obstacles in our lives may look like insurmountable boulders to you and me, but they’re not. They’re really fountains; fountains of living and life-sustaining water from which we can freely drink and be restored. So, turn to the Lord; he has already turned toward you. Ask him to live in you. Let his expansive power work on your life-obstacles. Let him turn your boulders into blessings. 

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