Aron Ralston was an experienced, 27-yr. old outdoorsman and he was looking for adventure. One day in April of 2003 he decided to drive to a remote desert area of southeastern Utah to explore one of its many deep and narrow slot canyons. Aron went by himself and he didn’t tell anyone where he was going because he thought he could handle just about anything.
But Aron wasn’t ready. A large boulder came loose from the canyon he was exploring. Both he and the boulder fell to the bottom of the canyon, where the boulder trapped Aron’s right hand against the canyon wall. The boulder was about 1000 lbs; there was no way Aron could wiggle free. For five days and nights he sat, chipping away at the rock, desperately trying anything he could to set himself free. Eventually, he ran out of water. He knew no one would find him in this remote place. Out of options, he decided to try the unthinkable. He took his dull pocket knife and cut off his own hand, setting himself free. Eventually he stumbled out of the canyon and found people who would find help and rescue him.
We hear of animals caught in traps chewing off a limb in order to be free. But human beings? What would you have done in that situation? Would you be willing to cut off your hand to save your life? Or, would you rather die than lose something that important?
Tonight we gather to ponder a scene no less gruesome than a young man cutting off his own hand. At the foot of the cross we are led to ask what a human being is willing to give up for the sake of something better. In the case of Aron Ralston, it was his hand. In the case of Jesus, it was his very life.
Aron Ralston was caught between a rock and a hard place. Literally. But if you think of it, over the course of a lifetime we all find ourselves caught between two immoveable forces: the past and the future. Our past, if you think about it, is like a rock. It’s solid and sure. It’s something that’s already happened. Whether the memories of that past are good or bad, it’s known. The future, on the other hand, can be a hard place. It can be hard to face because it’s unknown. We are creatures who want to be in control; the future, over which we have less control, can fill us with anxiety and fear.
There between the rock of certainty which is our past and the hard place of the unknown which is our future we can sometimes feel as trapped as Aron Ralston in that Utah canyon.
But we cannot live in the past for long, any more than we can live in the future. It’s the present that demands our attention. The here and now is where God is calling our minds, bodies and spirits into service. As someone has said, the present is a gift. It’s why it’s called the present.
But sometimes—maybe more often than we know—we find ourselves in a place where we feel stuck, trapped, imprisoned. We long to be free but we are unable to let go of what is keeping us stuck, especially if it’s something we don’t think we could do without. Jesus once said, If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. In other words, whatever is most precious to us—beliefs, things, habits, traditions–may be the very thing that needs to be sacrificed for the sake of freedom…and not only our own but others’, too.
Aron Ralston found that he had no choice but to cut off his hand in order to be free. You can see on the back of your bulletin that Aron now experiences life in a very different way. Jesus, likewise, decided that he had no choice but to let go of his very life. Neither of these men wanted to let go of what was most precious but in order to be released from between the rock and the hard place—in order to be truly free—they did.
Here at the foot of the cross, do we see Jesus’ decision to give his life away as something that was done so that we don’t have to suffer? Or, was Jesus showing us a way to follow, a way that is the key to freedom, a way that very likely includes suffering? Any cross we bear is never the hard stuff that life throws at us over which we have no control. When we bear a cross, as Jesus showed, it is always freely chosen after counting the cost.
If the way of the cross is more than just a thing to admire—if it is a way of life, a way to follow–then one question for each of us might be: In what ways might we be stuck between a rock and a hard place? How is life between the certainty of the past and the uncertainty of the future blocking us from what the Scriptures describe as “the joy of your salvation”? What precious things, habits, beliefs and traditions do we think we can’t live without? And, do we want the abundant life that Jesus describes badly enough to cut ourselves free from whatever binds us?
I, for one, know that I don’t have the strength, wisdom, faith or courage on my own to cut myself free from those things in life that keep me stuck. But by Christ’s example I have the assurance—and you do, too—that by God’s power, grace, strength and love I can be free.