When I was very little, our neighbors across the street were a lovely older couple named Myron and Veta. They were both retired educators. One of Myron’s hobbies was rock collecting, and he got me interested in that too, teaching me to look for fossilized plants called crinoids in creeks and streams, to recognize quartz, shale, and limestone. He had a collection of interesting rocks in his cellar, and also a big, barrel-shaped rock tumbler. Into the tumbler he would place rough agates, quartz, and jaspers and some grit—and after a multi-step process, he would produce vivid, rounded stones in a rainbow of hues and patterns. He sometimes even made the smaller stones into jewelry.
Stones play two important roles in today’s gospel reading of in Luke 4:1-13 in the daily office. Jesus, fresh from his baptism, is driven by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness, there to fast and be tested for 40 days. At the end of this period, Jesus is presented with three temptations: to turn stones into bread, to worship someone other than God for political gain, and to throw himself off a great height toward the stony ground to prove God’s love. In the first temptation in Luke 4, stones are a potential source of comfort, while in the third temptation stones are a potential source of injury.
In this gospel, we also hear something that always has made me pause: the devil quoting one of my favorite psalms in his testing of Jesus. In the first and second temptation, the devil uses what sounds like logic to entice Jesus. In the third temptation, the devil quotes two verses from Psalm 91:
“For God shall give his angels charge over you,
to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you in their hands,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
— Psalm 91:11-12
Psalm 91 is a beautiful expression of God’s promised favor, yet the devil attempts to use part of it as a stumbling-block, as a stone in the path. The devil tries to tempt Jesus to put that promised favor to the test by deliberately placing himself in harm’s way as an experimental challenge of God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness. As my friend and teacher, Dr. Clint McCann, pointed out to me in his Psalms class, it is exactly wrong to believe that God’s favor means we will not have times of trouble or trial. This misuse of scripture by the devil to attempt to hurt rather than heal is always also a good reminder to be wary of that tendency to weaponize scripture, particularly against others, in our own lives. At times like that, it’s best to step back and take a look at the big picture, rather than pull isolated verses out of their context, as we see here.
If we look at the sixteen verses of Psalm 91, we see 18 different mentions of a danger or trouble, including fowler’s snares, poisonous snakes, and virulent diseases that strike quickly and carry one off in the night. In this psalm, God is depicted as a nesting bird, a refuge, a shield, a shelter, and a fortress. The constant emphasis in Psalm 91 of deliverance and protection only make sense if there is something from which we must be delivered or protected.
God’s promised faithfulness to us is not a talisman that insures us against any pain or suffering. God’s tender, vigilant faithfulness assures us that, no matter what we encounter, God’s love is with us always. How often, when we do encounter tragedy or suffering, do we hear that silky voice in our heads telling us that we are being punished by God for something? We must resist the temptation to convert God’s steadfast tenderness toward us into a transaction that seeks to commodify grace.
I love walking barefoot, but that also means I risk encountering a lurking, jagged piece of gravel from time to time. Our feet will encounter plenty of stones in our journeys, even with our guardian angels working overtime. Perhaps the real test of God’s love in our lives is the willingness we ourselves have to let that love take hold of us and transform us into more loving, more faithful disciples. Can we trust in the power of God’s transformation enough to continue in the way of discipleship, even on bruised feet?
But also, just as I learned in Myron’s shop all those years ago, we also might consider transforming the way we look at the stones we encounter from time to time. And, truly, there are times when our attitude toward the potential stones in our own lives make all the difference as to whether we are helped or hurt. They can be jagged or smooth. They can be either obstacles or building blocks. They can cause fear or wonder. Just as I learned with Myron all those years ago, there is sometimes beauty lurking within the stones we find in our path, beauty that is only revealed with some friction, some patience, some resilience, and some polish.
Photo: Psalm Rock, 2014, by Leslie Scoopmire
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayer