THE STONE THE BUILDERS REJECTED (Cornerstone – part 1)

The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. [Psalm 118:22-23 (NLT)]

Meiringen-Turm der Burg RestiAfter telling the Parable of the Two Sons, Jesus told one about the Evil Farmers. As parables go, it’s pretty easy to follow. The landowner (God) builds a vineyard (Israel), sets up a protective wall (the Law), and leases it to tenant farmers (religious leaders). When he sends his emissaries (faithful priests and prophets) to collect his rent, the farmers ignored, mistreated and even killed them. The landowner, thinking the farmers would respect his son (Jesus), sends him to the vineyard. Wanting the estate for themselves, the farmers murder him. When Jesus asked his listeners (who were the chief priest and elders) what the landowner would do to the famers when he returns to his land, they responded that he’d kill the tenants and lease the vineyard to new farmers who would honor him with his share of the crop.

It was then that Jesus asked his audience if they were familiar with today’s verse from Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.” When we encounter the word cornerstone in the Bible, there is some disagreement as to whether it is referring to a cornerstone—the first stone in a building and part of the foundation—or a capstone—the last stone that completes a building. The Hebrew literally means head of a corner so the exact meaning is unclear. Since Jesus is the Alpha and Omega—the first and last—perhaps both meanings apply. He is both the foundation upon which the church is built and the capstone which crowns the whole.

Regardless, in this context, the transition from a metaphor about a vineyard and evil farmers to one of architecture seems odd. Then again, we’re not first century Jews who would have been familiar both with Psalm 118 and the ancient rabbinic legend about the stone the builders rejected. When the first temple was being built, the stones were carefully cut at a quarry several miles away from Jerusalem. Although each stone was shaped to fit perfectly into place at the temple, the story is that the first stone to arrive didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Oddly shaped, the builders tossed it aside where people stumbled over it and weeds grew around it. When construction was nearly complete, it was time to place the final stone, the great lintel, in place over the doorway to the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle. Supported by scaffolding until then, once the capstone was placed, it would stand by itself. The builders, however, could not find the necessary stone. When they sent to the quarry for it, they were told they’d already received it. It was only then that they remembered the stone the builders had rejected. Retrieved from the weeds, it slid perfectly into place. As the capstone of the Temple, it held all the other stones in their proper position.

Just in case the religious leaders missed His point, Jesus told them that, like the vineyard, the Kingdom of God would be given to a new nation who would produce proper fruit. Changing metaphors back to the stone, He warned, “Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.” [Matthew 21:44] Until I learned the legend of the rejected stone, this verse troubled me—how could someone trip over a stone that also could fall on him? That rejected stone, however, could do both!

In this exchange, Jesus was telling the religious leaders that He was both the landowner’s son and the stone rejected by the builders—the very ones who should have recognized Him. His final words were a clear warning that the Kingdom of God could not be built without Him. Those who didn’t build on His truth would stumble over it and break while those who tried to pull it down would be crushed by it and destroyed!

For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says, “The stone that you builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.” There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” [Acts 4:11-12 (NLT)]

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FIRM FOOTING

Hear my prayer, O Lord; listen to my plea! Answer me because you are faithful and righteous. … Show me where to walk, for I give myself to you. … Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious Spirit lead me forward on a firm footing. [Psalm 143:1,8b,10 (NLT)]

sign on schilthornMany years ago, I was facing a difficult decision about a project. In spite of praying, pondering, searching Scripture for direction, and consulting with wise advisors, I was still in a quandary. Nothing brought me closer to a clear answer to my dilemma. Although it seemed like a good idea (at least in theory) and I felt like I should want to be part of it, doubts kept nagging at me. Wanting God to make known His will, I prayed the words of Psalm 143:10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious spirit lead me forward on a firm footing.”

The phrase “firm footing” reminded me of a sign I’d seen at the top of the Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps. Warning that high-heeled shoes shouldn’t be worn while hiking the mountain, the caution seemed to demonstrate a firm grasp of what seemed obvious. The steep slope was covered with scree and would prove precarious even for a properly equipped and skilled hiker! I realized the footing on this particular project felt anything but firm. In spite of its good intentions, it was as ill-considered as wearing a pair of strappy high heels while hiking the Schilthorn. While there’d been no cautions about prohibited footwear, I’d seen plenty of other warning signs about the venture; I just hadn’t wanted to heed them. It’s easy to confuse what we want to do with what God intends for us or to think we’re hearing God’s voice when it is only ours speaking louder than His!

Had I been reading any other Bible translation, rather than “firm footing,” the verse would have read level ground, land of uprightness, level pastureland, or good paths. Whether those words would have resonated with me the way “firm footing” did, I don’t know. But, as God would have it, I was using my NLT Bible and I finally understood the project was not right for me.

God has challenged, admonished, cautioned, and tested me but He has never steered me wrong. Even when I haven’t especially liked God’s task for me, He’s always given me a sense of peace along with His mission, even when it meant stepping into unknown territory. Admittedly, obedience often has upset my plans, meant more work, pushed me out of my comfort zone, or challenged my capabilities, but it always has led to peace. The sense of peace I had as soon as I declined this undertaking told me that I’d finally found and followed God’s will.

If we don’t have peace about a choice we’ve made, if we don’t feel confident in our walk, it’s time to stop, reconsider, and pray. We’ll only know we’re on firm footing and following His plan when God gives us peace about our decision.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

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HOPE

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. [1 Corinthians 15:42-43 (NLT)]

lake lucerne sailboatThe anchor, the Christian symbol of hope, is the most prevalent of all the Christian symbols found in the Roman catacombs. In fact, all of the symbols, paintings, mosaics, and reliefs found in the miles of labyrinth-like narrow tunnels and thousands of graves in the catacombs reflect hope in some way. Instead of the dark funereal images you might expect in an underground cemetery, the white walls of the Christian catacombs feature living things like flowers and birds along with Bible stories expressing hope in God’s plan of salvation. Prominent themes from the Old Testament include Daniel emerging untouched from the lions’ den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego exiting unharmed from the fiery furnace. Frequently depicted are the stories of Noah, who escaped from the flood, and Jonah who was delivered from the sea monster. Continuing the theme of deliverance are many images of the good shepherd so frequently mentioned in Psalms. New Testament stories usually showed Jesus raising the dead (with over fifty representations of Lazarus), healing people, and feeding the multitude. The art of the catacombs is all about man’s hope in God’s deliverance, provision, and plan of salvation.

As I read about the displays of hope found in this ancient place of grief and death, I thought of my mother’s final days. I was only fifteen when I sat at her hospital bedside. Even though she knew her end was near, my mother had no tears. Instead of worry or fear, she radiated a sense of peace and hope. I recall my father reaching under the plastic of her oxygen tent, brushing back her hair, caressing her face, and saying, “You look like an angel tonight.” Indeed, no angel could have been more beautiful that she was that night. My mother smiled back at him and said in a voice filled with hope, “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll be with them!” She could say those words so confidently because my mother was a believer and, like those early Roman Christians, she knew Jesus and trusted the promises of God.

The stories and symbols found in those ancient catacombs remind us that, for a Christian, death is not something to fear. Going beyond the here and now, Christian hope reaches past the grave into the glorious tomorrow promised by God! Death, for a Christian is not an end but a beginning; it is like emerging from the trials of a lion’s den, fiery furnace, or whale’s belly unharmed. When that last breath is taken, the Christian simply pulls up anchor and sets sail for a new land—one where tears, pain, and sorrow are replaced by peace, joy, and praise. That is the hope seen in the art found in the catacombs of Rome and the hope I saw firsthand in a Detroit hospital room nearly sixty years ago.

Death to the Christian is the exchanging of a tent for a permanent palace. Here we are as pilgrims or gypsies living in a frail, flimsy home subject to disease, pain and peril. But at death we exchange this crumbling, disintegrating tent for a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [Billy Graham]

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. [Romans 8:23 (NLT)]

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PREFECT TIMING

God makes everything happen at the right time. Yet none of us can ever fully understand all he has done, and he puts questions in our minds about the past and the future. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 (CEV)]

Big Cypress Fox SquirrelSaturday mornings we usually walk through a nearby park that is home to a unique subspecies of squirrel found here in southwest Florida: the Big Cypress fox squirrel (or BCFS for short). Larger than a common gray squirrel, the BCFS has a black head and back, buff sides and belly, white ears and nose, and a long bushy tail.

We’re always on the lookout for these black-masked critters, but they are cautious and secretive and it had been two years since spotting one. Thinking the endangered rodent no longer inhabits the park, I’d given up hope of seeing one again. Recently, while trying to focus my camera on some holly berries, the shaking branches above them caused me to look up. A large BCFS was staring down at me and even stayed long enough for a photo! Our brief encounter was exactly what I needed to lift my spirits after several discouraging weeks. As I thanked God for the “Aha!” moment, I pondered how God’s timing is both unpredictable and perfect.

I’m not sure David thought God’s timing perfect while spending fifteen years on the run hiding from Saul and his army and I suppose the Israelites questioned God’s timing as they waited 400 years in Egypt and 40 more in the desert before entering the land promised to them. Joseph may have questioned God’s timing during the years he spent as a slave in prison before becoming Pharaoh’s second in command. Sarah and Abraham waited twenty-five years between God’s promise of a son and Isaac’s birth and, after waiting decades, Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up any hope of a child when she became pregnant with John. I look at my prayer list and see that God often seems painfully slow. Nevertheless, the squirrel’s unexpected appearance reminded me that God is present whether or not we see Him. Rather than losing hope, we must trust in His perfect timing.

Rather than providing photo ops, the squirrels’ lives revolve around berries, seeds, nuts, one another, and avoiding predators. They’ve been in the park all the time but, because my timing isn’t perfect, I missed seeing them. God’s timing, however, always is perfect. Like the squirrels, His purpose is not to satisfy or entertain us. God wants to teach us to trust Him as we grow more like Christ. While we may not always understand or appreciate His timing, the appearance of that BCFS was a reminder that faith in God means faith in His presence, plan, and timetable.

If the Lord Jehovah makes us wait, let us do so with our whole hearts; for blessed are all they that wait for Him. He is worth waiting for. The waiting itself is beneficial to us: it tries faith, exercises patience, trains submission, and endears the blessing when it comes. The Lord’s people have always been a waiting people. [Charles Spurgeon]

The Lord says: “My thoughts and my ways are not like yours. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, my thoughts and my ways are higher than yours. [Isaiah 55:8-9 (CEV)] 

Dear friends, don’t forget that for the Lord one day is the same as a thousand years, and a thousand years is the same as one day. [2 Peter 3:8 (CEV)]

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ANOTHER SONG OF MOSES

Take to heart all the words of warning I have given you today. Pass them on as a command to your children so they will obey every word of these instructions. These instructions are not empty words—they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River. [Deuteronomy 32:46-47 (NLT)]

queen anne's laceYesterday I wrote about the Song at the Sea or Song of Moses found in Exodus 15. There is another psalm known as the Song of Moses. Found in Deuteronomy 32, it was sung forty years after that first one, when the Israelites were again preparing to enter Canaan. With Moses’ death imminent, God had appointed Joshua as the nation’s new leader. Knowing that the people would turn their back on Him once in Canaan, the Lord met with Moses and dictated the words to this song. God’s words were ones of warning and Moses was to teach this song to the Israelites as a reminder of the consequences of disobedience.

Starting with praise for their “glorious God…a faithful God who does no wrong” [32:4], it moved into a brief history of the people and God’s faithfulness in bringing them out of bondage. Taking a prophetic turn, it then spoke of Israel’s future ingratitude, idolatry and apostasy, God’s resulting anger that “blazes forth like fire and burns to the depth of the grave,” [32:22] and the judgments of abandonment, disasters, famine, and terror that would be inflicted on Israel by their enemies because of their sin.

Even though the song ends on a note of hope, with God promising vengeance on Israel’s enemies and salvation for his people, it’s a grim prophecy and one we know comes true. We know that God’s clear warnings in this song were not heeded any more than His promise of victory in the first song was believed. We know of Israel’s idolatry and alliances with pagan nations, the divided kingdom, the northern kingdom’s defeat and removal to Assyria, and Judah’s fall and exile to Babylon. We know that, when the Jews finally return to Jerusalem, they are ruled by a foreign nation and that the temple will be destroyed and Judah cease to exist in 70 AD. We know that nearly two thousand years will pass before Israel again is a nation.

God is not like a sadistic teacher who springs a final exam on us without warning. Throughout Scripture, like a good parent, He’s warned his children about disobedience and its consequences. Will we heed His words? Will we learn from those who’ve walked before us?

Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. Remember what it says: “Today when you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled.” [Hebrews 3:12-15 (NLT)]

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THE SONG OF MOSES

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; he has hurled both horse and rider into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song; he has given me victory. This is my God, and I will praise him—my father’s God, and I will exalt him! The Lord is a warrior; Yahweh is his name! [Exodus 15:1-3 (NLT)]

Capitol Reef - UtahFollowing the Israelites’ successful passage through the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, we find Moses and the people singing a song of deliverance and praise in Exodus 15. This beautiful and powerful psalm vividly describes the warrior God Yahweh hurling Pharaoh’s chariots and army into the sea. This is Moses’ song but he doesn’t figure in the account at all. A paean to the supremacy and unrivaled power of Jehovah, all of the glory is given to God.

This psalm, however, doesn’t stop at Israel’s rescue from Egypt; looking ahead, it warns God’s enemies with its prediction of Israel’s successful entrance into the Promised Land. This is a victory song of both past and future divine deliverance with its promise that the Canaanites would “melt away” as terror and fear fell on them. Following this song, Miriam led the women as they danced and sang of God’s triumph. The confident words of their songs were quickly forgotten when, several months later, the fearful people, ignoring God’s promise of victory, rebelled and refused to enter the Promised Land. Walking through the sea on dry ground, witnessing the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, and having sung of God’s power and promised victory in Canaan were but a distant memory.

This psalm may be the oldest recorded song in history. With its expression of faith in God and recognition of Him as both protector and warrior, it could be considered the founding song of Israel. Jews know it as the Song at the Sea or Shirat Hayam. Recited every day at morning prayers, it has become a focal point of Jewish tradition and liturgy.

Many Christians know this psalm as the Song of Moses. It’s found in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other Christian liturgies at the Easter vigil when the history of salvation is recounted. Just as the exodus story defines Israel’s history, it also defines ours. Like the Israelites, we have been redeemed from slavery, not to Egypt, but to sin. Like the Israelites, we passed through the water, not of the Red Sea, but the water of baptism. Like the Israelites we have a redeemer who redeemed us in the past and will give us victory in the future. For both Jews and Christians, it is a song sung by people redeemed from slavery to the redeemer about their redemption. The difference is that the Jews are still awaiting the Messiah while we know that He has come!

The Song of Moses is the first song in the Bible and we find reference to it in the last song found in Revelation 15. Moses’ song was sung at the Red Sea and this one is sung in heaven at what appears to be a crystal sea. The first one, the song of Moses, celebrates God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt; the second one, the Song of the Lamb, celebrates God’s deliverance of His people from sin.

And they were singing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your works, O Lord God, the Almighty. Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations. Who will not fear you, Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous deeds have been revealed.” [Revelation 15:3-4 (NLT)]

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