There’s a screen-saver picture that appears this week on my computer: an image of this enormous cliff, this sheer rock face as part of a mountain side… this overwhelmingly large flat, hard, grey rock, filling the whole screen.
And right in the middle of this rock face, in the centre of the picture, so tiny as to be hardly noticeable to the naked eye, is a climber, climbing, scaling this wall of rock.
Rocks and stones and enormous granite cliffs give this impression: of a fixed, unmovable barrier, an impenetrable boundary.
And we relate.
Life is, we might say, full of times and places where we feel we’ve run up and smacked hard against the rock of life, shocked, bewildered, not knowing where to turn.
… a sudden diagnoses of cancer, or dementia, in either a family member, friend, or ourselves
… seemingly insolvable problems and frustrations in our places of work
… the death of a loved one, acquaintance or friend.
We’ve all been there; smacked hard against that rock face, that impenetrable wall, not knowing where to turn.
Today’s scripture passages all contain within them images of rock and stone and mountain.
And yet, there’s an astonishing surprise waiting for us at the end of these passages.
Because in each of them, is described a reality far greater and more powerful than what would appear to be an impenetrable, rock-face barrier, or dead-end.
The mountaintop in Isaiah, is not this terrifying, stormy summit of hard rock, but rather, a joy-filled, communal feast overflowing with rich foods and the best of wine.
The city in the book of Revelation is not some threatening, scary and immoral den of cement and stone, but rather a beautiful, “holy” city, filled with the presence of God.
And of course, Lazarus does not remain entombed in a rock-hard cave of death, but is raised and unbound to live a new life.
These places of hard rocks and impenetrable, despairing tombs, are transformed into places of fresh air, renewing waters, life-giving food, a new life of beauty and goodness.
God has a way of upending, of blowing apart our deepest held assumptions and expectations.
… where we blandly assume that “that’s just the way it is, and nothing will change”
… where we simply want to give up and give in to death and suffering and sorrow as being the “be all and end all” of all things
… where we sink into the despairing thought that our fears and anxieties have the final say …
God suddenly and unexpectedly appears on the horizon of our consciousness, and says, “Wait a minute. Hold on a second. Wait and watch and see the new thing about to happen….”
Deep in the Pyrenees mountains in south France, are the Gargas caves.
Some 27,000 years ago, in these rock caves, humans lived; humans, apparently, with deeply held religious and spiritual sentiments.
Painted on the walls are nearly 250 images of adults and children.
But curiously, in some of these images, different body parts seem to be missing.
A leg would be missing in this one. An arm in that one. The head, or torso, over there.
Anthropologists and historians have studied these curious painted images of people with missing body parts in caves around the world, and have come to this very interesting conclusion.
Contrary to what might appear to be an artistic oversight, or an accidental smudging out, or fading away of some of the painting over time, these original artists actually were intentionally omitting these body parts, which they imagined were on the other side of the rock.
In other words, the rock face represented the thin membrane separating this world, from the other world, the world of “the spirits”, the eternal dimension.
Part of the person’s body occupied space in this world, and other parts inhabited the “other world.”
These early, ancient humans, had a vivid sense of the Divine Presence close by, near them, so much so that even the seemingly impenetrable hard rock of their lives and world couldn’t separate them from God’s living and loving presence.
God was just “on the other side”, “around the corner”, not too far away.
The Celtic Christians will talk of “thin places” – those places where God’s eternal presence more easily intersect with our material, tangible world.
Somewhat like portals, gateways, into that other dimension.
Not unlike Platform 9 ¾ at Union Station in the epic Harry Potter series, or that famous wardrobe in C. S. Lewis’ iconic Narnia series.
Much has been written about the Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl, and his harrowing experiences in Nazi Concentration Camps during the Second World War.
What is remarkable is how exactly he survived that horrific, extreme situation.
With death, abuse, exhaustion, and malnutrition all around him, Frankl nevertheless kept going, and encouraged others to do the same.
Frankl had a vivid awareness of a world beyond that which presented itself to him; an awareness of God “just around the corner”, “behind the wall or rock.”
He encouraged his fellow prisoners to focus their minds upward on the image of a loved one… a spouse, or child or parent or friend.
In the midst of the grit and grime and corpses, one could still rise upward: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space” he later wrote.
In the darkness after lights out, he told his fellow prisoners that someone was watching them – a friend, a spouse, somebody alive or dead, or God.
This awareness of another world beyond the immediately apparent, led him to concentrate his energy to figuring out how best to respond to the hard circumstances impinging upon him: to the guards, the soldiers, the abuse heaped upon him…
… and the very many different choices he had in his choice of words, his attutide, his overall approach to what presented before him…..
He came to understand that the task in life, primarily, is not figuring out how to get the most out of life – a self-centred and narcissistic attitude truth be told — but rather, figuring out what life wants from you, what life expects from you, what the future is calling you to do, and how best to respond to whatever circumstances are set before us.
Every Sunday, this space, this place becomes another “thin place”, where the divine and holy presence comes close to us, intersecting with our lives as we gather around the Word, and the Communion Table.
And even as we may be running up and smacking hard against the seemingly impenetrable rock of life, God is there to pick us up, and carry us forward.
Praise and thanks be to God, who is always, just there, just around the corner.