On Christ - our foundation - 1 Peter 2:4-12
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The earthquake struck with shocking immediacy at twelve minutes past five on the morning of Wednesday, April 18, 1906. It was estimated to register between 7 and 8 on the Richter scale. The earthquake and the resulting fire was the worst natural disaster in the history of the Unites States resulting in the death of over 3,000 people. Many lessons were sought to be learnt from the great San Francisco earthquake, not least ensuring higher building standards which would result in buildings able to withstand a similar quake in the future; after all, a city delicately poised on a fault which forms the boundary between two major plates is going to have an existence which is precarious at best- it is just a matter of time before geological history repeats itself. However, after about a year the building standards were in fact lowered so that they were lower than pre-1906 standards "by upwards of 50%" according to one estimate. It really is quite remarkable how we can play fast and loose with buildings when people’s lives are at stake. And if that is the case in the physical realm of towns and cities, it is no less true in the spiritual realm of people’s souls. According to the Bible what we build our lives upon will determine what survives into eternity. And this morning we are going to be looking at a passage in the Bible which illustrate this vitally important truth and it is found in 1 Peter chapter 2 which stresses our relying on the work of Christ just take a look at 4-6, ‘As you come to him, the living Stone--rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him-- 5you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame’
Surely one of the worst experiences anyone can have is the feeling of rejection, the stomach churning sense of being abandoned. That is when you are made to feel like you are a nobody, worthless, a ‘waste of space.’ And that is a very difficult thing to live with. Indeed, because of such experiences in childhood some struggle with having a sense of self-worth the whole of their lives. Sure they may put on some show of bravado, conveying the idea that nothing can hurt them, but if the truth be known it is but a flimsy ill concealed cover, an over-compensation for the aching vulnerability they feel deep inside. Well, let me tell you that these young Christians to whom Peter is writing were experiencing rejection of a similar kind. They were being made to feel like ‘aliens/ exiles’ as Peter addresses them in chapter 1, by the surrounding culture. If they were not exactly in outright persecution territory yet, they were just on its borders, because later Peter encourages them to standfast in suffering for doing good (1 Peter 2:20-21).
And so in order to strengthen and encourage these believers to ‘keep keeping on’, Peter draws on an imagery which not only speaks of solidity and permanence but value and beauty- the Temple. The temple back in Jerusalem was by any standards an architectural masterpiece as it was made from huge blocks of stone, 4 feet high and 15 feet long. Anyone seeing this for the first time would simply have their breath taken away by its shear grandeur. ‘Well’, says Peter, ‘you are being built up into a temple; in fact one which will eventually dwarf that Jewish temple, for the Temple of which you are a part will remain when that has been trampled into the dust’ which happened a few years later in AD 70. In effect he us saying, ‘For you, my brothers and sisters are being made into a spiritual temple as you come to Jesus who is the chief cornerstone or capstone. As you are united to him, then you are being incorporated into a huge edifice being made in heaven which is to be the wonder of heaven according to Revelation 21- a spiritual house or household, just as God promised King David way back in 1 Samuel 7.’
Now the word Peter uses here for ‘stone’ is a fine dressed stone, one which is cut for purpose to be used in an exquisite building. In the first instance it refers to Jesus who was chosen by God and prepared by his obedient life and rescue work on the cross. And notice he is described as ‘the living stone’, and as we are united to him by faith then we become living stones too, when as a community we become a dwelling place for God himself, this spiritual house on verse 5.
What is more Jesus - the ‘living Stone’- is described in v 6 as the ‘cornerstone’. The cornerstone was not only the first stone to be set in place; it actually constrained the rest of the building. It is in every sense of the word the foundation stone upon which the whole building rests and from which it derives its shape and stability. It defines the angles of the walls so that everything is aligned in relation to this stone. Peter describes Jesus as the ‘living Stone’ because he is alive, having defeated death, and is now above all the ruling authorities which are giving the Christians so much grief at the moment, he is immovable, he is solid, he is dependable and true. ‘Sure,’ says Peter, ‘he was rejected by men, but he has been chosen by God and is precious to him as he is precious to you. So in one sense don’t to be surprised if the same happens to you, the other living stones. Just because you are having a rough time does not mean that God has abandoned you any more than he abandoned Jesus. On the contrary, rejection by men is not a sign that we are rejected by God; for as he is precious, we too are precious as we are united to him.’
But look more carefully at what he says in verse 6, "Behold I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, and he who believes in Him shall not be disappointed." The point here is that if you trust Christ, God's corner stone, you will not be disappointed. This stone will not prove faulty. If you build your life on this stone, your life will not crumble in the storm. If you hide behind this stone, you will be safe. If you stand on the truth of this stone, you will not be ashamed.
But in what way will we not be disappointed or ashamed? Well, it is all to do with salvation and being put in the right with God. You see, this is a quote from the prophet Isaiah around 750 years before Christ came. Here the prophet is speaking to the rulers of Jerusalem who are so cocksure they are safe that nothing could touch them. They thought that while it might be conceivable that the Northern tribes might be wiped out by the Assyrians, which happened in 722 BC, it is was utterly inconceivable that such a thing should happen to them who lived in Jerusalem; after all they occupied Mount Zion, God’s own mountain which they believed was safe and secure because of its holy temple. They had a misplaced confidence you see, which in turn led to complacency. This was compounded by a light view of sin because they had a light view of God. So in Isaiah 8, which Peter is going to quote in a moment, God says this: ‘Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The LORD almighty is the one you are to regard as holy (obviously the others didn’t), he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’ Because God is holy then our sin is very serious. There are several pictures which the Bible gives to bring this home to us: we are polluted by our sin needing to be washed; in slavery to our sin needing to be freed; asleep in our sin needing to be awakened; diseased by our sin needing to be healed and dead in our sin needing to be raised.’ Do you see how intensive and extensive sin is? It penetrates deep into every fibre of our being and embraces everyone on this planet. But tragically these folk were blind to all of that and so they chose to ignore the preaching of the prophets like Isaiah and kept on thumbing their noses at God. You could even say that they were good ‘church going’ people, they kept the formality of temple worship but without the vitality, so nothing could possibly upset them. In short, they were trusting in the wrong things- their own religious heritage, their upbringing, the fact they had the ‘right building’ in which to worship, which was becoming more of a good luck charm than the dwelling place of God. But they were in for a rude awakening when Jerusalem was finally sacked with the most unbelievable cruelty in 589 BC and the temple was reduced to rubble.
And that same misplaced confidence was still in evidence in Peter’s day, hence, the quote from chapter 8 of the prophecy in v8, ‘A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the message which means people are responsible for their resistance God’s truth. But we are not to think that God is somehow caught out by this, or that their rebellion can mess up his saving purposes and thwart him, for we are told that such people still come within the orbit of God’s eternal sovereign purposes, for this is ‘what they were destined for.’ The twin truths of human responsibility and divine sovereignty are side by side.
You know, many look at the life and death of Jesus and see nothing but a tragic story, a young enthusiastic Galilean mystic who preached peace and love coming to a cruel end impaled on a cross. At most such a Jesus will evoke admiration; more often than not he will elicit derisible pity. And the result is even more tragic for God’s means of salvation is then ignored, who is going to bother taking this seriously, and so in this way Jesus becomes a stumbling block.
And we are not to think that such an attitude exists solely outside the church, but it can be firmly ensconced within the church too, with people depending upon anything and everything but the death of Christ for their salvation- not least their own goodness and religiosity. And religiosity is so common isn’t it? It is to be found in every type of church. It can be there in the mass of the Catholics and the meditation of the Quakers. You will find it in the routine of the Anglican Prayer book and in the exuberance of the Charismatics. It is no respecter of persons or churches- going through the motions, being swept along by the crowd, by your friends, by your parents, whether quietly or loudly, with ceremony or without, but with no inner reality or personally trusting in Christ alone.
Let me tell you something. On July 8th 1741 a man stood up in a church pulpit like this one in Enfield Connecticut; Jonathan Edwards was his name, one of the greatest intellects and preachers America has ever produced. He had a very large congregation, made up of nice, respectable, New England stock, the grandchildren of the Pilgrim Fathers no less, who had been brought up on Christianity with their mother’s milk. They attended church not just once but twice or even three times every Sunday and would stand to hear sermons up to two hours long. Impressed? Edward’s wasn’t. He began to preach and do you know what he called his sermon? ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’ Let me read to you some of what he said to these good religious people: ‘You have offended God infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet, it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire this very moment. There is no other reason why you have not gone to hell since you have been sitting in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful manner of attending his most solemn worship. Now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day when Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling, crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day when many are flocking to him, many until recently were in the same miserable state as you are in, and are now in a happy state with their hearts filled with love for him who loved them. Now undoubtedly, it is, as it was in the days of John the Baptist, the axe is now in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees, that every tree that does not bring forth good fruit, may be cast down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, let everyone who is without Christ, now awake and flee from the wrath to come.’
That sermon led to a revival. Hundreds of people were wailing and sobbing by the end of the sermon. Edward’s could hardly make himself heard. These religious, churchgoing people you see, the kind of people addressed by Isaiah quoted here by Peter; found themselves condemned by his words. And if there is no revival amongst us, maybe it is because we are incapable of having such an experience or listening to such preaching, because the bad news is too unpalatable for our delicate western tastes.
So who were they- and we- to flee to? Who were they to build their lives upon? Well, Christ of course- ‘the one who puts their trust in him will never be put to shame.’
A few years ago a missionary working in Central America visited Britain and the United States and recounting his impressions, he said: ‘The dominant feeling I get increasingly in Western churches, is fear- people are afraid. They are afraid of what’s going on in the culture. They are afraid of what is going on in society, they are afraid of the meaninglessness bound up with their young people, they are afraid of their own futures, and out of that fear they lash out. We are a frightened people and a frightened culture.’ Do you not think he is right? Now of course that fear has been multiplied because of terrorism, economic collapse and unemployment and the crippling debt many of our children will be facing on leaving university. But interestingly enough, there is one area it seems to me where there is a singular lack of fear- fear of God, even amongst his professing people. The question is where are we going to find our security which is the antidote to fear- in this world and, more importantly, the next if it is not Christ? You see, not to be building on Christ is as short sighted and as foolhardy as those San Francisco planners skimping on building standards and materials- it is a disaster waiting to occur. And if we think that we can muddle through this life alone and then expect to walk straight into the next life with our heads held high then that is a disaster in the making.
So let me tell you about Mr Abercrombie. Mr Abercrombie was a respectable pillar in the local community. If you needed any help, Mr Abercrombie was your man. He was also a highly successful business executive and an active member of his local church. Why, he was so keen that each week he a hosted a lunchtime Bible study in his office. Then came the day he invited a speaker who would normally be found in prison. Not serving time, although he had done that, but rather that he spent most of working life now speaking to prison inmates about the Christian faith. But this day he was addressing 19 businessmen elegantly dressed in their blue pinstriped suits and white shirts. It looked like a scene straight out of the film ‘Wall Street’. And so the speaker began his talk. It was about half way through that he said something which caused several of the dignified gentlemen to pull a face as if a skunk had just walked into the room. What he did was to refer to our ‘sinful nature’- the actual phrase he used was our ‘total depravity’, the belief that every part of us is morally twisted- that we are crooked through and through- mind, body and soul. Believe in the tooth fairy, believe in UFO’s, and believe in Father Christmas if you like-but believe that we are morally corrupted? No that is too much to take and one of the businessmen said so. ‘You don’t really believe that we are sinners do you? I mean you are far to sophisticated to be one of those hellfire and brimstone fellows, intelligent people don’t go in for that kind of stuff.’ So the speaker replied, ‘Well, yes sir I really do believe that we are desperately sinful. What’s inside of each of us is really pretty ugly. In fact we deserve hell and we would get it, but for the sacrifice of Christ for our sins.’ Then Mr Abercrombie chimed in: ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ he said. ‘I’m a good person and have been all my life. I go to church and I get exhausted spending all my time doing good works.’ The room went so quiet you could hear a pin drop as twenty pair of eyes burned into the speaker. He said, ‘Mr Abercrombie, if you believe that- and I hate to say this, for you will certainly not invite me back again-you are for all your good works, further away from the kingdom of God than the people I work with in prison who are aware of their own sins.’ Now you may have thought that would have been the end of the matter and the speaker would have been very politely but firmly shown to the door. But no, let me tell you what happened next: As Mr Abercrombie led the speaker down the corridor; he took him to an empty office. As soon as they were inside he said ‘I don’t have what you have.’ ‘I know’ replied the speaker, but you can.’ Within a few moments both men were on their knees with Mr Abercrombie asking for the C word -charity- God’s free unmerited forgiveness and love in his Son. Do you see the switch that had taken place- a shift in foundations? There was a move from the fragile, crumbling foundation of self to the solid, sure foundation of Christ. Now could I ask whether that has happened to you? What are you building your life upon- success in your work, home, even church- priding yourself that you are not all that bad really? Then remember the earthquake which one day will happen when Christ returns to this world and you have to face him. Or are you resting- and what a wonderful word that is- resting, peaceful and secure in what Christ has done for you on the cross, himself taking the earthquake of God’s judgement, in your place because he loves you. As the old hymn puts it: ‘My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.’
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