This is a sermon I've wanted to preach for a long time, ever since I took a D. Min course from Warren Wiersbe on Preaching with Imagination. Wiersbe walked us through the entire Scripture, calling attention to the metaphors through which God has chosen to reveal himself and his will. He gave us permission to "let our imaginations run wild" with them, recognizing that's the reason God wrapped his truth in metaphor. Being a lifelong fan of rocks, it was the first image I longed to explore. For some reason, it took me years to actually preach the sermon!
This was the introductory message in a summer series entitled, "I AM: God in His Own Words." The series explored ten Biblical word pictures of God. (I would have preferred to subtitle the series, "God in His Own Image," but I conceded to the thinking of the creative team, who found that phrase too confusing.) Each week we produced a "trading card" with that image in iconic form on the front and the big idea and key texts on the back. Our summer sermons are designed to provide a sense of thematic and biblical coherence, even while allowing each weekly message to stand alone.
The first sermon in a series is always a challenge, as you need to set up the series as well as that particular message. I chose on this occasion to lean into the series introduction and then moved quickly into the theme for the message. The "college student" I referenced in the opening was actually my own son, but I chose not to mention that, both to protect his privacy and to prevent people being distracted from the point of his plea.
I decided to leverage my personal enthusiasm for the subject matter, both to pique their curiosity and to gain their permission to share a bit more personal material than I typically do in a message. We want to be sure our sermons aren't "about us," but when our personal experiences are accessible to the listeners, they not only provide windows into biblical truth, but offer people a glimpse into our souls that can be helpful to them in terms of modeling and authenticity. I found that the closing story, in which I revealed a bit of personal vulnerability around preaching and leading, especially resonated with people.
I found myself working with two rather discreet ideas—God as a foundation, and God as a fortress. Every attempt to blend them into one seamless idea seemed to rob them of their punch, so I decided simply to let them stand side by side. It made for a bit of a clunky transition from one to the other, but it made it easy for people to hear, and see, what they needed to in the image of God as Rock.
I chose to include references to some familiar New England landmarks—the rocky coast of Ogunquit and Mount Monadnock—both to lend some local flavor and also to set up a conceptual "link" in their imaginations that might kick in the next time they saw one of them.
This was a sermon in which I was especially grateful for technology, which allowed me to flash pictures on the screen. This not only increased the visual impact of the metaphors, but allowed me to include more images than I might have if I'd had to describe each one verbally.
In the end, it was one of the most enjoyable messages I've preached in a while, both for myself and, apparently, for the listeners.
What do you think of when you think about God? What image comes to mind? Maybe a great-grandfather in the sky who loves you no matter what? How about a cosmic cop, making sure nobody breaks the rules? Maybe celestial Santa Claus who gives people what they ask for if they're good. Maybe you don't think of a person at all. Maybe you think of a powerful force, a presence that pervades the universe. If you've been watching too much TV, you think of Morgan Freeman in a white suit.
Years ago, a great Christian thinker named A.W. Tozer said this: "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." What you think about God makes a big difference in your life. Is he angry or kind? Is God distant or near? Is he just or capricious? Is he personal or ethereal? See, what you think about when you think about God affects every part of your life: your outlook on life, your view of human beings, your response to difficulty and disappointment, your sense of meaning and morality and purpose. For months we've been thinking about doing a series on the nature of God, and that interest was confirmed in a conversation I had recently with a young adult from our church. He's grown up in the church and has a strong faith and a sense of mission about life. But he went off to college a few years ago and has found some of his childhood beliefs put to the test. There have been some disappointments along the way. And as he looks to the future, he finds himself facing questions that aren't easily answered. After talking about these things for a while he said to me, "I just want to know what's absolutely true about God. What can we count on, no matter what? That's all I need to know."
Don't we all need to know that? Whatever age or stage of life we might be in we need to know that. We know there are questions that can never fully be answered in this life. We know that doubt and mystery are a part of the journey. But we also need to know what is absolutely true about God—what can we count on no matter what. So that's where we're headed in this summer series. We decided the most reliable source for information about God would be God himself. What words does God use to describe God? As we survey the Scriptures, we quickly realize that many of the words God uses to describe himself are actually pictures: Rock, Shield, Shepherd, King. And so we have selected ten word pictures that God uses to reveal himself to us in his word. Some of them are familiar, and some a little bit more obscure. Each week we'll be taking one of those word pictures and walking around it a little bit, reflecting on it, asking what it teaches us about God and about our lives with God.
As soon as we came up with our list of ten metaphors, I quickly signed up for Rock. I've always loved rocks. I love looking at rocks and climbing on rocks and standing on rocks. I took geology in college for fun. So I've always wanted to do a sermon on God the Rock, and here's my chance. Unfortunately, I've got a whole lot to say and a lot of rock stories to tell, but I'll try to focus my thoughts and keep them to two this morning.
God is the Rock that is solid and dependable.
We find the first thought about God as a rock in Deuteronomy chapter 32. A little background will help us understand these verses. Remember that for generations the people of Israel have been enslaved in Egypt. They have been far from their homeland; they've been living among pagan people, surrounded by a pantheon of other gods, with only stories and traditions from their forefathers to hang on to. After hundreds of years that gets kind of thin. But now for the past forty years or so, throughout the Exodus, God has been active among his people again, revealing himself through his works, his deliverance, and also through the giving of the Law that came through Moses. The Law of course included the Ten Commandments, as well as all the other guidelines and prescriptions and prohibitions that would lead people to a good, satisfying, long-lasting life. So now Moses has come to the end of his life and the end of his tenure as leader in Israel. Before he departs from the scene, he wants to drive home these fundamental truths about the character and work of God. So he gathers all the people before him. He reviews the Law with them. He has the book of the Law ceremonially placed in the tabernacle beside the Ark of the Covenant; and then in front of all the people, he bursts into song. It's a song of praise to God—the song of Moses.
Let's pick it up at verse 3 and 4 of chapter 32: "I will proclaim the name of the Lord. Oh, praise the greatness of our God. He is the rock, his works are perfect and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he."
Now, Moses uses quite a few words to describe God here in just a couple of verses. He tells us that God is great, that God is perfect, that he is just, he is faithful, he is upright, and he does no wrong. That's a pretty good list. It seems like those things alone are reason enough to praise God and to trust him. But having offered us this long list, Moses now adds one more thought: he tells us that God is a rock. What does he mean by that in particular? And why does he feel it necessary to add this characteristic to an already impressive list of attributes?
Let's take a look at that image of the rock for a moment. How would ancient people have thought about a rock? Well, we know that to ancient people in particular, rocks were immovable. When they heard the word rock they probably thought about the massive boulders or the towering rock formations they had seen on their travels through the wilderness. Those rocks didn't move. There were no bulldozers to plow them out of the way, no dynamite to blow them to bits. When you encountered a rock like that in the wilderness, you went around it. If you struck rock ledge when you were building, well, you built on that rock ledge because it wasn't going to be moved. Rocks didn't move, and rocks didn't change. From time to time, the people in their wanderings through the desert would have wandered through familiar places. They spent forty years there, so they would have passed through places they had passed through before, and no doubt things would have changed a little bit. The sands might have shifted with the wind, the soil might have settled. There might have been more vegetation, or less. Stones and pebbles might have been washed away in a flood. But the rocks would not have changed. They would be just the way they were the last time the people passed through. Generally speaking, rocks don't move, and rocks don't change. And there's something comforting about that, isn't there? That's why we like to look at them. That's why we like to take walks along the rocky coastline in Ogunquit, Maine, year after year after year. That's why it's nice to look up the highway and see Mountain Monadnock in the distance in all its rocky baldness. They are always there, always the same.
One of my favorite rocks in the world is called Eagle Rock. Eagle Rock is a small rock outcropping overlooking a lake in Vermont. It may not look like much to you, but what makes that rock so special to me is that it's always been there, and it's always the same. I've been going to that lake since I was ten years old. I hiked up Eagle Rock when I was a kid. Karen and I hiked Eagle Rock when we were dating and trying to figure out if we were right for each other. I dragged my kids up Eagle Rock when they were little, slugging them along in a backpack, and I chased them up later when they were beating me to the top. I've been to that lake in times of struggle, when I was wrestling with God over something, and I've been there in times when my heart was bursting with gratitude for his goodness to me. And through all those stages and through all those changes, I knew that I could always walk down to the dock at any time of the day and any season of the year and look up, and Eagle Rock would be there, same as always.
There's something comforting about that, something solid and dependable. And Moses is telling us that God is like that. He's always there, and he's always the same. You see, when Moses added the word rock to that description, he was telling us that all these things he had just said about God were not only true, but they would always be true. God would always be good. His works would always be perfect. His ways would always be just—they could count on that. Everything else in life changes, doesn't it? Governments come and go, the economy rises and falls, careers wax and wane, people get older, life is unpredictable, friends move on. But God is a rock. You can count on him. In fact, you can build your life on him. And that's the first thought I'd share with you this morning. Because God is a rock, I have a firm foundation for my life. That's what Moses is saying to his people here as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. He's reminding them to build their homes, build their cities, and build their nation on God and his Word and his laws. God would always be good, and his laws would always be right and just. He would be the immovable, unchanging, unshakable foundation for their lives.
Years ago, Bob Dylan sang, "How does it feel to be on your own with no direction home, like a rolling stone?" Sometimes our lives feel like rolling stones, but God is a solid rock. In the words of Larry Norman, one of the first contemporary Christian musicians: "Jesus is the rock that doesn't roll."
I wonder if Jesus had this Old Testament text in mind when he told the parable about the wise man who built his house on the rock. The rains came down, the streams rose, the wind blew and beat against that house, but it did not fall because it had its foundation on the rock.
A couple weeks ago, our staff was on retreat down at a Catholic retreat house on the south shore. In the afternoon I went for a run along this beautiful road in Cohasset, with the rocky shoreline on one side and beautiful homes along on the other side, and I came across a house that was literally built on the rock. It was as if the house and the rock were one. Think about how long that rock has been there. Chances are, it's going to be there for a long, long time to come. That's a firm foundation. If we could take a picture of your life, would it look like that?
Is every aspect of your life resting on the unchanging, unshakable, immovable foundation—the character and work of God? Your home, your career, your marriage, your reputation, your retirement—does it rest on the unchanging truths and ways of God? You can build a life on all kinds of foundations—money, achievement, education, talent, pleasure—but those things are fleeting and fragile. They are here one day and they can be gone the next, washed away by the storms of life. But Jesus said, "Whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock." I honestly don't know what people do whose lives are not founded on God and his Word. When life unravels, when things fall apart, when bad things happen, when change comes, where do they go for wisdom? Where do they turn for timeless truths? Who do they call on for help? I don't know. But I know where I go, and I know where I trust you go as well. We sang about it a few minutes ago: "How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word." Because God is a rock, I have a firm foundation for my life.
God is the Rock that provides protection.
But there's more to this word picture. Let's jump ahead to another book of the Bible and another writer and thinker, who also describes God as a rock but with a slightly different point of view. Let's go to the Book of Psalms. There are actually quite a few Psalms in which David refers to God as a rock—10 or 12 of them. Let's look at Psalm 31:1-5:
In you, Oh Lord, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness!
Turn your ear to me;
come quickly to my rescue!
Be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me!
Since you are my rock and my fortress;
for the sake of your name lead and guide me;
free me from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
redeem me, Oh Lord, the God of truth.
David wrote this Psalm in a time of trouble. We don't know exactly what kind of trouble it was. Maybe it was wartime with other nations advancing against Israel, or maybe it was during a season of rebellion when his son Absalom literally drove him out of the temple and out of Jerusalem. But in this time of trouble, David turns to God for protection. Twice he refers to God as his rock, once as a refuge and another time as his fortress. Why a rock? What images, what truths did that image conjure up for David? Once again, we need to put ourselves in the sandals of ancient nomadic people. What did rocks mean to them? Well, if you were traveling, making your way through a barren wasteland or desert, rocks would often be a welcome sight. Rocks, if they were big enough, would often provide shade from the sun, and maybe shelter for the night if there was a cave or a ledge. If there was vegetation in those rocks, it often signaled the presence of water, a spring or a pool. If you were being chased by an enemy, rocks offered a hiding place and protection from flying arrows. If the rock was set up high, it became a natural fortress, easily defensible, a vantage point from which you could follow the movements of your enemy and repel his attacks.
So David has plenty of experiences with rocks of refuge. Remember the early years of his life when he was on the run from King Saul who was trying to kill him. David and his band of men often took refuge in the rocks and caves of the wilderness surrounding Jerusalem. For a time, he and his men found a stronghold in something called the Cave of Adullam. On another occasion he escaped by hiding in the hills of Engedi, a place that provided a natural means of escape and protection. It's easy to understand why rocks came to symbolize strength and protection for David.
When we think of rocks like this today, we might think of the Rock of Gibraltar. The Rock of Gibraltar is a limestone promontory that juts out into the ocean off the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. It rises nearly 1,400 feet from sea level, almost straight up. For centuries the Rock of Gibraltar has stood as a fortress to guard the shipping lanes and the entrance into Europe. During World War II, 30,000 troops were stationed there. With gun batteries placed facing every direction, it was an impregnable fortress, unable to be captured or entered by force.
When Moses thought about God, he had in mind a foundation stone, immovable and unchanging. When David thought of God as a rock, he had in mind a fortress, impregnable and invincible. And that's the second thought I have for us this morning: because God is a rock, I have a stronghold in times of trouble.
It's interesting how many times characters in Scripture turn to Psalm 31 for help and protection in times of trouble. When Jonah found himself in the belly of the whale, repenting of his disobedience, he clung to words from this very Psalm. "I will trust in the Lord," he said. When Jeremiah the prophet was thrown into the stocks for preaching God's truth, he took courage in words that came from this very Psalm, a Psalm of protection, with God as a rock. And of course, when Jesus hung on the cross, looking death squarely in the eye, he turned to this Psalm: "Into thy hands I commit my spirit." They could kill his body but he knew his soul was safe with God.
There's an interesting thing about this image of God as a rock. It assumes that we're going to be in trouble sometimes. You only need a fortress if you're under attack. You only need a hiding place if someone's chasing you. So when we say God is our rock, we're not saying bad things won't happen to us; we're saying bad things won't get to us. They won't conquer us, because God is a mighty fortress. It's not a promise of physical protection necessarily; it's a promise of spiritual security. See, the Bible describes Satan as the Enemy of our souls. He's always prowling about, he's always pursuing, wanting to rob us of joy and peace, wanting to drive a wedge between us and God. Satan wants to accuse us and imprison us with fear and doubt and guilt and anxiety. But he won't be able to do that, the Bible says, because God is our rock.
So when we're in financial trouble, we take refuge in God—a God who knows what we need and a God who can grant us contentment and peace, whether we have much or little. When we're in relational trouble, when our heart is breaking, when people we love have hurt us or disappointed us, God can't spare us from the pain of that, but he will protect us from bitterness and vengeance and anger and isolation. When we find ourselves in spiritual trouble, when we've sinned or wandered from God and find ourselves in a very dark place, we can look to God who can forgive us for our sins and failures and restore us to relationship with him. He is the God who is always there, always watching even when we can't see him. And when we're walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we can look to our God knowing that He has conquered the greatest and last enemy—death; that he can bring us safely through to the other side and make us fully ourselves, restore us to fellowship with his people and with himself for all eternity.
There's something curious about the phrasing in the verse in this Psalm. Notice that in verse 2, David says, "Be my rock of refuge," as if he's asking. And then in verse 3 he says, "You are my rock of refuge," as if he's declaring something. Well, which is it? Is God his rock? Or is he asking God to be his rock? Well, the answer is both, of course. David wants to know by experience what he believes by faith. See, it's not enough when you find yourself in trouble just to believe that God is your stronghold. At some point you have to actually take shelter in him. You need to open his word and look for wisdom. You need to go to his house and worship him. You need to fall to your knees and ask for his help. You need to look to the heavens and look for the God who is always there, and when you do that, you'll know by experience what you have believed by faith: God is a stronghold in times of trouble.
This happened to me a couple of summers ago. I wasn't in trouble, but I was feeling a little bit lost, a bit vulnerable, like a traveler in the wilderness, so to speak. It was right at the beginning of summer. As soon as the school and church year had ended, Karen, Daniel, and I took off for Colorado where I was doing some teaching at Denver Seminary for a week or so. We had planned a little road trip after that around the state of Colorado, so as soon as I was done teaching, we hopped in the car and started driving. We spent two days driving through the high deserts of southern and western Colorado. We ended up in a little mining town called Durango. By this time I was feeling far from home and far from God. It had already been a long year of ministry, and I was feeling pretty weary and played out, and then after five days of teaching, I was feeling even more drained. Even though it was only July, I was already feeling the pressure of next year. What were we going to do next year? What would we teach? Where was God leading us? Sure, God had met us in the past year and it had been a great year at Grace, but who was to say it would work out in the next year? For five days I had been teaching pastors how to preach and lead; what if I got home and failed miserably at my own church? I was feeling very inadequate and afraid and alone. The next morning happened to be a Sunday, and I woke up early and found my way to a little Starbucks on the main drag of Durango. I picked up a coffee and a Sunday paper and had my Bible and Encounter With God devotional book with me as well. I plopped down in a big easy chair in front of a big picture window. For a while I thought to myself, Sunday paper or Bible? And I nearly went with the paper, but I started with devotions.
The Encounter With God reading for that day took me to Psalm 61, where I read these words: "Hear my cry, Oh God, listen to my prayer; from the ends of the earth I call to you; I call as my heart grows faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe." Pretty interesting Psalm, given the way I had been feeling. I wasn't quite at the ends of the earth, but southwestern Colorado can feel like that sometimes. Then I picked up the devotional guide and read these lines: "This is a Psalm for those who find themselves a long way from home and know they have come to the end of their resources. If this is you, the Psalm invites you to find your strength, the Rock that is higher than I." And in that moment I looked up and out the window in front of me, and for the first time, I noticed the foothills rising into the mountains right at the edge of town, right off the main drag. And there about halfway up one of those hills was a large, red rock—a massive piece of sandstone sticking out of a ledge. In that moment I felt this rush of peace and confidence, and I literally laughed out loud right there in the Starbucks.
I was amazed that God would find me at a Starbucks in Durango, that he would speak to me through an ancient prayer and open my eyes to a rock that he had placed there thousands of years ago just to let me know that he would still be my Rock. The morning light hit that red rock—it just glowed—and it reminded me that the God who was with me in Massachusetts was there with me in Colorado as well. And the God who saw me through the last year would see me through the next year as well, and the next one and the next one and the next one after that. These attacks of fear and guilt and inadequacy were just that: feeble attempts by the Enemy to rob me of faith and joy and strength, but he couldn't do it, because God is my Rock. And I came to know by experience what I believed by faith.
I don't know how you feel about rocks. I don't know if there's an Eagle Rock or a red rock in your life, but I pray there might be. The next time you find yourself watching waves crash against an unyielding rocky shoreline, the next time you look up at a granite mountain peak, remember that your God is like that. You have a firm foundation for your life and a stronghold in times of trouble.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.