The Rock Was Christ

by Rev. Nick Chambers

“O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water."

For the Jewish worshipper, desert language in the psalms would conjure images of the Exodus and exile, times of wilderness, weariness, and want. Paul reflects on these annals of Hebrew wandering and the way God guided and provided: “for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them.”

Paul may be referring here to a Jewish tradition that the rock from which God brought water was actually carried by the Israelites as they journeyed. Regardless of its historical reliability, the image is compelling, especially considering the contrast of the two stories of water springing from the rock. In Exodus 17, the Israelites thirst in the desert and Moses is told to strike a rock, from which water then flows. In the same situation in Numbers 20, however, Moses is instructed to speak to the rock (the same one according to a certain Jewish tradition). Instead he strikes it. Water again gushes forth, but Moses' disobedience is what sends Israel back into the wilderness for another forty years, barring that generation from the promised land. The rock both comforts and convicts. It represents not only presence and provision but also failure and refusal to listen. Whether a literal or figural “rock,” to carry it along the way would be a reminder of both divine wisdom and human folly. 

Then the kicker: the rock was Christ. 

There is deep continuity between Israel and the Church. The moment we sever our solidarity with our Jewish ancestors, it becomes easy to read the Hebrew Scriptures with superiority, taking comfort and self-satisfaction in their failures and follies. The Church has a dark history of indulging in this sort of spiritual schadenfreude, thinking we know better. Paul even seems to confirm: with Israel’s example we do know better. But he says it as a word of warning. The point is to listen and live with hearts not victorious but vigilant. The history of the people of God ought never be an opportunity to rest on our laurels, safe to accuse and complain. It is always an invitation to see ourselves more truthfully. It is a mirror into our own soul.

Jesus himself urges such a response. In Luke 13, when approached with questions about the fates of others, Jesus essentially asks, “Do you think they were any worse than you?” Rather than humor our curiosity about the sin and fate of others, Jesus has us examine our own sin and fate. To live in the company of Christ means to know our own urgent and continual need to cultivate and feed.

My childhood as a church rat endowed me with an (un)healthy dose of cynicism, which has tended to trigger involuntary eye-rolls at kitschy Christian knick-knacks and collectibles. Even so, I put on a crucifix every day in order to carry with me the symbol of God’s presence and provision as well as my constant need for it. It was on the cross that the Rock who is Christ was struck, bringing forth blood and water. It is through the cross that humanity most ultimately failed and is forgiven. The cross is the tree that must bear fruit in our lives, lest there not be "one more year” to repent. It is the cross that teaches us in the wilderness to pray:

“O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water."