SERMON – ROCKS AND GRAVEL

ROCKS AND GRAVEL
A sermon on Matthew 16:13-20
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
September 6, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Well, election season is upon us. Even while we are in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, where so much of our normal lives has been upended and so much is seemingly on hold, politics relentlessly marches on. Three weeks ago, we all watched the Democratic national convention online and then, the next week, we saw the same from the Republicans. (It seems like a lot longer ago to me than that—doesn’t it to you?)…In our 24 hour a day news cycle, there seems to be a never-ending stream of commentary, analysis and news concerning the coming election from talking heads of all political persuasions. And once the election results become official, then the speculation and jockeying for position will begin in earnest all over again for the next election four years down the road…
It did not used to be that way—at least not to my recollection. The election cycle seemed to run more like every two years with fundraising and the garnering of support lasting only half the time that it does nowadays. But back then, there was always one way that you could tell when an election was coming near. Just like the sighting of the first robin is a sign that spring is on the way, this kind of thing is a signal that the next election is just around the corner. I first became aware of it as a teenager when my parents pointed it out to me for the first time. And I have taken note of it ever since. They showed me that you knew that an election was just around the corner when streets were noticeably being repaired and other improvements to roads were being made. (It’s true, isn’t it?!)
It may seem strange to begin today’s sermon by talking about roads. After all, as you listened to the passage being read aloud a few moments ago, Jesus does not explicitly say anything about roads or streets. But there is something in our Lord’s dialogue with his disciples that brings to mind the topic of roads for them. And it says something about roads to us as well…
G. Campbell Morgan was a prominent 20th Century preacher, educator and evangelist who summed up the feelings of a lot of New Testament scholars when he described today’s text as “one of the most remarkable passages in the whole of the gospel.”1 And it is one of those passages that has been the subject of much lively debate over the centuries as to what exactly Jesus was telling his disciples…
Some think that it is an early attempt to bolster the authority of Peter in the days of the early church. They would point out that, in this passage, Christ designated him to be the foundation of the church and that he assigned him the keys of that stewardship. Our Roman Catholic friends point to this
1 G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Matthew (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1929), 208.
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scripture as the Biblical basis for the establishment of the office of “pope” with Simon Peter being the
first one.
Others would suggest that this passage paints for us an important picture of who Jesus is and of
his ministry up to this point. (The fact that he tells his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Son of
God indicates that he was not well known at this time.) Though he was attracting notice, he was still
working among the people rather anonymously. The only ones receiving his message were those who
had eyes to see and ears to hear…
Still others suggest that this passage tell us something of the nature of the church. In verse 18,
the Greek word ekklēsia appears. This is the New Testament word translated as the word “church.” This
is the first time that Jesus utters the word and it is only one of two passages in which he talks about it at
all.2 And our Lord remarks that even the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.
That’s a lot of stuff packed into eight short verses. Truthfully one could create at least a month’s
worth of sermons on just this passage. (In spite of the fact that we haven’t be3en able to meet the last
two weeks, rest assured that I am NOT going to try to cram a month’s worth of sermons into this one
this morning!) Instead, what I want to do is to focus our attention on verse 18 and see what it is that the
Lord might reveal to us this morning.
Verse 18 is part of our Lord’s response to Simon Peter’s great confession. Peter’s confession in
verse 16 is that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This confession lies at the heart of the
Christian message. It is the foundation and the truth upon which our faith depends. Then, after blessing
Simon and remarking that this insight was divinely inspired, he tells him, “You are Peter, and on this
Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”
A couple of significant things about verse 18…First, Jesus gives Simon a new name—the name of
“Peter.” It is a word which means “rock.” Nowadays the name of “Peter” is not that uncommon. Lots of
men and boys are given the name “Peter.” But it was not so in Jesus’ time. In fact, there seems to be no
evidence of “Peter” ever being used as a name prior to this usage. Jesus apparently made it up on the
spot.3 He saw something in Simon that reminded him of rocks. And so he bestowed on him the new
name of “Peter.”
What was it about Simon that reminded Jesus of a rock? That’s a good question. A few verses
later in Matthew 16, our Lord told his disciples how he would suffer at the hands of his enemies in
Jerusalem, that he would be killed and then he would rise from the dead. Simon Peter took Jesus aside
and told him that would never happen to him. Jesus pulled away and called him “Satan”—how do you
2 The other is Matthew 18:17.
3 Ben Witherington III, “Matthew” Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing
Company, 2006), 316.
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suppose THAT made Peter feel? And he also called Peter a stumbling block to his face. That exchange
sounds more like shifting sands than a solid rock to me…
Then, a few chapters later while at the Last Supper, Peter declared that he would be willing to
die for Jesus. But Peter’s actions could not match his words. We all know what happened that evening.
Peter denied that he even knew Jesus to a little slave girl in Herod’s court. And all the while he did this,
he was cursing and swearing like a sailor—which, of course, he had been before he started following
Jesus. Not very rock-like, if you ask me…
But Jesus could see right through Peter’s failings and his weaknesses. He saw the potential in
Peter when probably few others could. Consequently it is this same Peter who appears in Jerusalem on
the Day of Pentecost. He stands up right in the middle of the crowd, shakes his bony finger in the faces
of those who had Jesus murdered and accused them straight up, “You killed the Son of God!”
Remember—the people that he was addressing were powerful people—the very same ones who had
made a gruesome spectacle of Jesus’ death. They had the power to do the very same to him as they had
with our Lord, if they chose to do so. Yet Peter was completely fearless as he proclaimed Jesus to them.
He was utterly heedless of the danger he was putting himself in. That was more like the rock that Jesus
had called him in today’s text…
I think that one of the keys to unlocking the meaning of verse 18 is the play on words that one
finds in the word “rock.” The word appears twice in this verse in most English translations. But it is not
the same word in Greek. Jesus says, “You are Peter.” The Greek word for “Peter” is petros. It really
means “a piece of rock” or “a stone.” And then Jesus says, “And upon this rock I will build my church.”
This second word “rock” is the Greek word petra, which means a much larger mass of stone than merely
a stone. For example, it’s kind of like when we refer to the mountains range located in the western part
of United States as “The Rocky Mountains.” It is as if Jesus is telling Peter something like, “You are like a
stone, something that you could skip across a lake’s surface. But I am strong—like the Rock of
Gibraltar…” There’s a big difference between a petros and a petra…
We began the sermon talking about roads and we have progressed to talking about stones and
rocks. Now let’s put it all together…
You all know that, during the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire controlled the entire
Mediterranean world. As is well known, the Romans were excellent engineers. And they were expert
road builders. It is said that, by the time of Jesus in the 1st Century AD, the Roman road system was
already a brilliantly conceived network of roads connecting the far reaches of the Empire. In New
Testament times, it has been estimated that there were around 200,000 miles of roads, with
approximately 20,000 miles of those roads being stone paved highways. Among the first of these roads
constructed is also the most famous: the Appian Way. This road, begun in 312 BC stretched 162 miles
from the city of Rome to the eastern coast to Italy, ending at the Adriatic Sea. Remarkably, portions of
the Appian Way—with the original surfaces still intact—are still in use today, thousands of years after it
was constructed.
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Roman highways were built with attention to detail. First, the road bed was graded with care
and precision, often digging into the ground or filling in gullies to make it level. The road bed of packed
stone or gravel and clay was laid on top of it to allow water to drain and give the surface a more solid
foundation. They were constructed precisely, so that the roads would stand up to any kind of weather or
traffic without sinking or buckling. Then large flat stones—usually of granite or basalt—were cut into
geometric shapes often 18 inches wide. These were fitted together on top of the road bed as cunningly
as a jigsaw puzzle would be in order to form an absolutely smooth surface. And then for the major
roads, a layer of concrete might be put on the top. The main roads were two lanes wide and each lane
was at least eight feet wide. Milestones were placed all along the way to let travelers know precisely
how much distance had been covered.4
In the days leading up to our Lord’s public ministry, John the Baptist declared to his listeners a
message that came straight from one of the Old Testament prophets. He quoted Isaiah 40 when he said,
“Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every
mountain and hill be made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, and the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see the God’s salvation.”5
Now comes the payoff. Here is the point of today’s sermon: We are all Peter. As followers of
Jesus, we are all petros…stones…rocks and gravel. All of us are hewn from the One Rock which is
Christ. And as rocks and gravel that from the Rock of Ages, we are part of the highway of the King. The
very same ones of whom Isaiah wrote, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight roads for him. Every
valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, and
the rough ways smooth.” We are the body of Christ, the church through which the Kingdom of God will
arrive. And the Kingdom of God arrives—not on a literal road of rocks and gravel—but on the highway
made of the transformed hearts and lives of those who follow Jesus.
We pray it together every Sunday when we meet together. Together we recite the Lord’s Prayer
in unison: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is what we are praying
for in that prayer –that God will help us to be instruments through which the Kingdom will come.
This is our mission as God’s people—to be avenues of God’s blessing to the world around us,
speaking for Christ, advocating for God’s righteousness and mercy, spreading the good news of what
God has done in Christ, as he is in the business of reconciling the world to himself.
It must be admitted that, as we look around us at the world in chaos, that the kingdom of God is
not yet fully here. Jesus inaugurated it by his earthly ministry, death and resurrection. But there is still
much more to come. God is at work. He is busy in working toward the promised new creation. And as
4 Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 125-126 and
www.drivethroughhistoryadventures.com/roads/roman-empire (Accessed August 18, 2020)
5 Luke 3:4-6.
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the rocks and gravel of the highway for our God, we are the avenues for God to continue to work while
he works to create all things new. Let us pray:
God of all creation, we are the rocks and the gravel which make up your church—the highway
for the King into our world. Help us to be steadfast in our dedication and in work for you. Eliminate in us
the potholes of sin and doubt, the sinkholes of fear and despair, that we may be able to be straight
paths and level places—fit for the uses and purposes of the King and his coming Kingdom. We are yours,
O Lord; use us as you will.