"Still Holding On"#90-11
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 13, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Luke 21:28
Yosemite Valley, California, is a precarious, ecological wonder where devastating forces clear the way for new creation. On July 10, 1996, at 6:52 p.m., a slab of granite, the length and width of a football field, cut loose from the top of a 2,000-foot cliff above Yosemite Valley. The 90,000-ton slab free falls for 10 seconds. The impact would register on seismographs a hundred miles away as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake. Upon impact, it sends forth a shockwave of compressed air and pulverized granite like a massive bulldozer advancing at 200 miles an hour. The blast levels a thousand trees the size of telephone poles, uprooting some, snapping others in half 40 feet up the trunk. Dust shrouds the valley in a cloudy chaos, blacking out the setting sun.
Because of the late hour, most of Yosemite National Park's 20,000 or so visitors had gone home for the day. But many who had lingered were injured, and one man standing at a snack bar, hundreds of feet away from the impact was killed by the exploding rock.
Events like this are not uncommon in Yosemite. No one can precisely predict when they're going to happen, but they happen all the time. The first recorded rock fall in Yosemite occurred in 1872 when a similar blast knocked a building off its foundation. Today, around 80 rock falls are reported every year within that seven-mile valley. The day after the ground shook and the sky fell in 1996, news crews rushed into the valley to interview visitors and park rangers. One woman whose family had been in the area of the rock fall hours before it happened was still visibly shaken. "It's definitely given me a sense of insecurity," she said. "I'm looking around now to make sure there are no big boulders above me. All you see when you look up are mountain sides of pure rock." One park ranger put it candidly, "There is no way to guarantee anyone's safety in the park at any time. We are not risk-free standing here right now. The only way we could make it safe would be to close the park entirely."
Yosemite Valley is a dangerous place where devastating forces clear the way for new creation, and still it's paradoxical beauty draws around 3 million visitors every year.
Three years later, on June 13, 1999, just after 7:30 p.m., 21-year-old, Peter Terbush was killed in another Yosemite rock fall. In 2014, his father, Jim Terbush, wrote a book about his son titled: Through the Valley of the Shadow. Jim is a man of science and a man of faith, paradoxically, some might say. He is a medical doctor with over 30 years' experience. He understands that there is a place for scientific explanations of why things happen. Jim is also a devoted follower of Jesus, a Christian. As a Christian he believes from the Bible that God is the Creator of all things. He believes that God is still actively involved in His creation, as Jesus taught that not even a sparrow will fall to the ground apart from God your Father. Jesus says to His followers, "Even the hairs of your head are all numbered" (Matthew 10:29).
Jim Terbush says that he feels closest to his Creator when he is out on the rocks in the hills and the mountains. "However," he says, "to be in the presence of something, of Someone, that much bigger than myself is devastating. 'I am,' God says, and we have no reply." Jim knows the tension of being simultaneously drawn to God like visitors to Yosemite yet also devastated in God's presence. His thoughts turn back to the rock fall that killed his son Peter. "Did God really cause those rocks to fall?" He asks. "Or did God allow it? Was it part of a plan?"
Christians are called to live in the tension of these paradoxes that God designed the world to work according to discernible laws of motion, but that nothing is random. Nothing is meaningless because God is still involved and can intervene in His creation. And the Bible teaches that God has intervened, not hypothetically, but historically in devastating judgments that cleared the way for new creation. God cleared the way decisively for His chosen people, Israel, and finally through His Son, Jesus, born of a virgin, an Israelite woman named Mary. God was clearing the way when Jesus was ministering in the hill country of Galilee. God was clearing the way when Jesus was crucified, dead and buried just outside of Jerusalem. God cleared the way with power that moves mountains on the third day when Jesus rose from the dead. And God will clear the way when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, leveling the ground for the new creation.
If you read Jim Terbush's book, you'd hear him mourning the tragic death of his son, Peter. And he will admit that he has more questions than answers because it is hard to hold on with this tension in the rope between judgment and redemption. But Jim trusts that Jesus is holding on to him and his son, Peter, even in death. Christians believe that God's work to save us is paradoxical like the devastating beauty of Yosemite. At the return of Christ Jesus, God's judgment will come crashing down on our world. The sky will fall. The earth will shake. Creation will come undone. Like a 90,000-ton slab of granite cut loose high above the valley, Jesus will eternally transform the landscape of this world. God's judgment is a devastating force that clears the way for His new creation in Christ. This is what the Bible teaches, but sometimes to protect God's image in our minds, we imagine Him separately from His judgment.
Christians even sometimes do this because the Bible tells us that God is love. And because we have a hard time mentally reconciling God's love with God's judgment, we separate God from His devastating power to undo what He's created. But think about what happens when we do this. In this mental world we create for ourselves, we no longer have the true God, the God of the Bible, but the God of our imaginations, a God who is a bystander who leaves us to suffer in a creation that is coming undone, destabilized by human sin, crashing down all around us.
Psychologist Jordan Peterson in his book, Beyond Order, discusses meeting a client, a young woman in her early 20s. The young woman was paralyzed with dread over the thought of impending ecological disaster. Overcome with anxiety, she had spent much of the last six months lying in bed. In the mental world she inhabited, she was certain that environmental chaos was coming and that we, the human race, deserved it. "Humanity is guilty and doomed," she dourly declared to her therapist; although he noted she seemed to derive some pleasure in this self-righteous pronouncement. This woman may seem like an extreme case, but a recent study from Stanford University suggests otherwise. It indicated more than half of 16- to 25-year-olds inhabit a mental world in which they think humanity is doomed. And nearly 40 percent say that fears about the future make them reluctant to have children of their own.
We can tell people there is no Creator God who is going to judge you in the end. And that may produce momentary feelings of relief, but then what? We still have our own judgments and judgments of others to contend with. And we're still in the shadow of this precarious valley now left to contend with its devastating forces on our own.
Yosemite Valley is a place where devastating forces create views that had not existed in human memory. And through that valley we might get a new view on God's judgment revealed in the Bible. God created the universe, all its peaks and valleys. He crystallized His creation with embedded order and integrity. But we find ourselves caught up in a spiritual rebellion against God. Rather than receiving God's creation as a gift, we try to take it on our own terms. But the natural world will not rebel against its Creator. Like a horse that bucks off a thief or a vessel that self-destructs in the hands of an enemy, the natural creation breaks down under human rebellion. Bonds disintegrate, joints weaken, structures decay, and the walls come tumbling down. God in His judgment levels the ground to clear the way for something new.
The Gospel according to Luke, one of the biographies of Jesus in the New Testament, tells us how Jesus warned His people of the coming judgment. Jesus could see the cracks and fissures in the wall elongating. When He approached Jerusalem, He wept for the city and her people. He knows disaster is imminent. He knows they will reject Him and the peace He offers. He knows they'll soon be demanding that the Romans crucify Him while releasing another man guilty of insurrection and murder. It's a sign of things to come. In the decades to follow, Jerusalem's rebel ways will lead them into war with the Roman Empire. Rome will send its legions to surround the city, and the whole thing will come crashing down on their heads.
So Jesus weeps for them and He says to them, "Oh, that you would've known on this day the things that make for peace, but now they are hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and tear you to the ground, you and your children within you. They will not leave one stone upon another because you did not know the time of your visitation. You did not recognize that your King, your Creator had come to you" (Luke 19:42-44). Jesus weeps because He knows that many of them won't listen. They'll stand there and be crushed by the weight of their sins. The day of judgment came on Jerusalem about 40 years after Jesus was crucified. Jesus described that historical judgment on Jerusalem as a dramatic picture of God's coming judgment on the world. And now, Jesus, risen from the dead, still sends out His followers to weep for a world in rebellion. Not to self-righteously denounce people, but to plead with them: "Oh, that you would know this day the things that make for peace."
But so often like the people of Jerusalem, we haven't listened. We wall ourselves in worshiping money and sex and power; the cracks and fissures keep getting bigger. When Jesus returns, the sky will fall, the earth will shake, and creation will come undone. He will come to judge the living and the dead. He will clear the way for God to do something new. And you who trust in Him, to you He promises not a hair of your head will perish. And by your endurance, you will gain your life. So when you see judgment falling, Jesus says, "Straighten up, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (Luke 21:28).
Only with Jesus, only in Jesus can we endure this paradox, this tension in the rope between judgment and redemption. But so often we feel our grips slipping when all we can see is devastation. Jim Terbush, whose son Peter was killed in that Yosemite rockfall, said that the sheer power of nature simultaneously fills him with awe and dread. Being in the presence of the living God is devastating. God, was that you? Did you allow the rock to fall? Did you cause it? Does this fit in your plan? Without the promise of God in our ears, we have no answers. Without the resurrection of Jesus in our vision, we have no hope. Without the love of Jesus in our hearts, we lose our grip. And when we fall, Jesus holds the tension.
On that day when Jim Terbush's son Peter died, he and two friends were rock climbing in Yosemite. One friend was high up climbing the rock wall, and Peter was down below. Peter and the climber were tied together in a rope system called a belay. Peter was the belayer. That meant it was his job to hold the tension, the tension on the rope between them to catch his climber if he lost his grip and fell. Rock climbing is inherently dangerous, but there is a sacred trust between climber and belayer. And the belayer promises the climber, "I've got you. I won't let you go no matter what happens."
On that day in the valley, when Peter's climber was 60 feet up the cliff, a thousand feet above him, a 500-ton slab of granite cut loose and cartwheeled toward earth. The other friend on the ground saw it and ran for cover. He and the climber on the wall ended up surviving the rock fall with minor injuries. Peter could have run for cover, but that would've meant letting go of his climber. And so with boulders the size of Volkswagens exploding around him, he held the tension in the rope. And when they found his lifeless, battered body lying in the rubble, he was still holding on.
Three years before Peter's tragic death, shortly after that other big rock fall of 1996, when the ground of Yosemite shook and the sky fell, a park official named Jim Snyder was surveying the damage. At the base of the cliff, he sees the landscape transformed and views opened that had not existed in human memory. He notices that the peregrine falcon nest once perched high up on the cliff face had been removed by the rock fall. But the next day he watches as the pair of falcons returns, soaring high alongside the freshly exposed granite wall. The fall had created new outcroppings in the rock, which the falcons were surveying, looking for just the right place to build a new nest. In the following days, bear and deer enter the blast area to resettle the newly developed landscape. Within two weeks, new ferns began curling out of the dust and fresh shoots leaf out of the bare, blasted stalks of a big leaf maple.
You and I, who know the resurrection story, we can see the creation straining for redemption only because we are in His grip. Jesus stood His ground and was crushed, not for His sins, but for ours. Yet He is alive again. He will come and clear the way and He is still holding on.
Please pray to Him with me. Lord Jesus, You wept for a world in rebellion. Keep me in Your grip so that I can hold the line for others. Because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.
Reflections for November 13, 2022
Title: Still Holding On
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. And we're back with Dr. Michael Zeigler, and I'm thinking about what we heard in today's message. I thought you really did a good job of conveying the image of that destructive power of nature, the visual of that granite slab shearing off the side of the mountain and falling. It just makes me shudder.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. When I read about that, same thing, it was such a powerful image.
Mark Eischer: I thought about my niece; she's climbed out there, and I don't know that she had that history in mind when she was up there doing that. The sermon though also got me to thinking about Noah and the flood. When you talk about devastating force that God is using to clear the way, He's done this sort of thing once before, hasn't He?
Mike Zeigler: Absolutely. And the prophets of the Old Testament often talk about God's judgment in these terms as the undoing of creation. So Jeremiah, for example, he spends much of the book lamenting and weeping over the judgment that he knows is coming on his city, Jerusalem. The Babylonians are going to come with their destructive power, which God is going to use as His judgment on His people. And God's going to do this because the people have broken faith with Him. They've turned away from God and they have taken their own path where they're going to do harm to themselves and harm to God's creation. And so Jeremiah, in 4:22-23, he speaks for God and says, "My people are foolish. They don't know Me. They are wise in doing evil, but they know not how to do good." And so then God says, "I look on the earth and behold it was without form and void." So formless and void—sound familiar?
Mark Eischer: That takes us back to Genesis and just before the beginning of creation.
Mike Zeigler: Exactly. Those are the very words used in Genesis 1:2, "the earth was formless and void." The Hebrew words are "tohu wa-bohu." When God created everything out of nothing, what He spoke into existence began as this uninhabitable chaos. And then God's Word brings order and makes it hospitable for the creatures that He's going to make, and culminating in humanity. But then when we break faith with God, when we corrupt that good creation, we bring God's curse on ourselves. And that curse undoes His original creation. But then the good news of the whole story of the Bible is that He's going to use even that curse for His good creative purpose, to reduce the evil back to dust so that He can start again.
Mark Eischer: And when we talk about God's judgment, this is not an angry tirade or smashing things in some sort of a tantrum—but there's purpose behind it.
Mike Zeigler: Right, so it is destructive, but not, like you said, not a tirade. So for example, if you ever tried turning pottery on a pottery wheel.
Mark Eischer: Oh yeah.
Mike Zeigler: I've done that one time and I wasn't very successful, and I noticed that sometimes I didn't get all the lumps out of the clay. And you do that and you start to make whatever your little vase or cup and you realize, "Oh, there's a lump in the clay." And it doesn't matter how far you've gotten along, you can't do anymore, you just have to scrap it and start fresh again. And that's sort of what's happening with God's judgment.
Mark Eischer: And if you were to keep that lump in there, it would eventually destroy the pot because the thing would explode in the kiln.
Mike Zeigler: Right.
Mark Eischer: Now, as you said, in the final judgment, it's going to be different and better because it clears the way for a new creation, but one without sin and death.
Mike Zeigler: Yes. And the announcement of the New Testament is that the creation has already experienced an instance of this final judgment in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. So when Jesus died on the cross, the New Testament depicts that moment as final judgment. It's come, the day has come in advance. And then when we are baptized into Jesus, it means we've already passed through final judgment, the day has come for us. And by faith, we have risen again in Him on the other side. And the new creation's already started. So Paul will say in 2 Corinthians 5:17, "If anyone's in Christ, a new creation has come. He's a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come."
Mark Eischer: Let's talk also about that illustration you used of the belayer and the climber.
Mike Zeigler: Yes.
Mark Eischer: The belayer is keeping tension on that safety rope. That's an illustration of faith and trust. But it's important to note that the climber is not holding onto the belayer, it's the other way around. And the climber has faith in the belayer, but it's the belayer who faithfully maintains his or her grip on that rope. I'm thinking here of how Jesus made that lonely climb up on the cross for us, and His words, "My God, why have You forsaken Me?" At that moment, it was as if the belayer had stepped away.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah.
Mark Eischer: The rope had gone slack, and Jesus was left hanging there for us.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah, this is the profound mystery of how God accomplished salvation. And the powerful message is that even in and through death, Jesus held on to the rope for us. He was crushed on our behalf. And because He rose again, again, we don't have to face that final judgment alone. We pass through it, tied in to His lifeline, and we are going to rise from the rubble of God's judgment only because Jesus is still holding on to us.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"The Day Is Surely Drawing Near" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)