SJF • Proper 16c • Tobias Haller BSG
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: one who trusts will not panic.
The last few weeks have been striking for the number of natural disasters that have struck various parts of the world. In addition to the earthquake in Peru, fires in Greece and out west, we saw Hurricane Dean sweep through the West Indies and on into Mexico, with devastating rain, wind and flooding.
I can also personally attest to the effects of the somewhat milder tropical depression that blew through San Antonio when Brother James and I were there two weeks ago. San Antonio is in the middle of what is normally a desert; so when they get 10 inches of rain in an afternoon they literally don’t know what to do with it. The streets and drainage systems were never designed to deal with that amount of water arriving that quickly.
Earlier in the week something had happened to us on our arrival, which at that time left us a good bit angry with the car rental company. We had reserved a sedan; but on our arrival the car-rental company had literally nothing to offer us — their parking lot was empty and according to their records they weren’t expecting a return of a sedan until the next morning! Just as we were lecturing with them about this incompetence — and believe me, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of a lecture on business practice from Brother James! — someone returned a Dodge Durango SUV, which they offered us in place of the sedan — at no extra cost! Of course, the Texans thought this was a wonderful idea: who would prefer a sedan when they could get a big bad-ass SUV? Realizing it was pointless to argue — and that their cupboard was otherwise bare — we decided to take the SUV just so we could be on our way and begin to enjoy the vacation.
Well, needless to say, that SUV came in mighty handy when the floods came. You might say we were crazy to be a driving around in that kind of weather — but this was a Texas vacation — goll-darn-it — and we were plumb set on enjoying it. And I can tell you, we passed by many a flooded-out or stalled sedan as we managed — in our SUV — to ford the streams that flowed across many of the highways, filling all the low spots up to the bumpers.
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Today’s readings all speak of a world turned upside down, a world shaken to its foundations, a world rocked and rolled, and tested to the uttermost. And the tester here is not just wind and water, but the Lord God, the Almighty. What the Lord God is testing is the human heart — the extent to which people will place their trust in God alone, and what happens to them when they fail that test in a number of ways. Some place their trust in something other than God; others reject God out of hand; and still others seem to think it’s enough to have a nodding acquaintance with God rather than to be a member of God’s household. All of these are in for a surprise when the big shake-down comes.
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In the reading from Isaiah we hear of people who instead of trusting in the Lord God have made lies their refuge, and falsehood their shelter. They have even made a deal with death, an agreement with Sheol — which is the old Hebrew name for hell. But, as they might say in Texas, “What the hell kind of a help are lies and falsehood going to be in the face of Almighty God?” And it’s not as if God doesn’t offer them something better. God is offering them a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation — established by God in Zion. And one who takes a stand upon that stone will never be threatened; while the refuge of lies will be swept away by hail and the shelter of falsehood overwhelmed by the waters — and the covenant with death will be annulled, and the agreement with Sheol will not stand. God will test them with the line of justice and the plumb-line of righteousness — and all the lying substitutes will be swept away.
It doesn’t have to be that way — they are offered the sure foundation laid in Zion; but still they choose to live in houses of straw, in a refuge of lies. It’s as if, in the face of a coming flood, the Lord has offered them an SUV but they still insist on having a Cooper Mini!
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The Letter to the Hebrews shows an even stranger kind of response — not even accepting a substitute, but just refusing to accept God and God’s demands. The author refers back to the people of Israel who, gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai and terrified by the thunder and flashes of lightning, begged God to be silent — or to speak only to Moses and leave them alone. One can understand the response, foolish as it is — who would not be terrified at the descent of God to that mountaintop; and the blazing fire and darkness and gloom? And so the author offers Zion once again — a fantastic but beautiful vision of angels in a festive assembly, with God and all of the saints gathered around, and at the heart of it the Lord Jesus himself, speaking not with words of terrifying authority, but with love. Anyone would be foolish to reject that welcome.
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And yet, as our gospel shows, there were those who did reject that welcome when Jesus came to them, just as there are those who reject that welcome to this day — those who refuse to see in Jesus Christ the welcoming and forgiving mediator and advocate for the whole world.
Let us, though, be clear: even this welcome contains a warning. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem — to holy Zion — and as he passes through the towns and villages, any number of people nod benevolently or invite him to dinner, but do not seek to become members of his household, that is, disciples. They are somewhat like the people you hear of even today, who will say that Jesus was a very good man, and that his teachings of love and forbearance are quite wonderful — they stop short at Jesus the humanitarian, without ever coming accept Christ the Incarnation of the living God — himself the precious cornerstone, the sure foundation.
For Jesus Christ is not simply a human example of holy living — someone to be admired, the way you might admire the work of an artist. Rather Jesus Christ is the Son of God, one in whom we are made able, by the power of God at work in us, to do as he did, to follow in his footsteps; to take up our cross day by day. We are not called to be admiring art critics, but hard-working apprentice artists in his school. As he says in another passage that resonates with today’s Gospel, it is not enough to simply call him Lord, but to do as he says. It is not enough to honor him with our lips if we do not serve him with our lives.
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The great testing waters of God’s judgment will come upon us in this life. Will we pass the test? Will we be found stalled-out or flooded in an economy car built out of lies and falsehoods? Or will we be secure in the SUV — that’s the Saving Universal Verity — the ultimate and universal saving Truth that God provides for us in Jesus Christ? Will we cover our ears to God’s persistent voice speaking to us, or open them, and our hearts as well, to listen to his voice and to do as he says? Will we do more than simply speak well of him, do more even than eating and drinking with him here at this Table, by going forth from this place into the four corners of the world to carry the message of salvation and do the works of mercy as his disciples, as members of his household, doing the work that God would have us do day by day and year by year?
There will be a whole lot of shaking going on one day. Whether you fall or whether you stand will depend on the foundation upon which your feet are fixed. Choose rightly, and stand firm with Jesus Christ our Lord.+