I’m a survivor. Yes, I’ve survived several earthquakes, although none of them have been massive. The largest quake we ever experienced was the Northridge Quake in 1994, but it was centered miles away from our apartment in Rancho Cucamonga. That quake started with a jolt and then a rumble. The moment it struck I didn’t know its intensity or its epicenter, but I knew it wasn’t a train going by the complex. So I jumped out of bed, grabbed Brett, and headed for the door jam. The quake didn’t last long, just a mater of seconds, but it rattled my nerves, and it was a while before we got back to sleep. We later learned that it was a 6.7 earthquake that, wreaked havoc on the Los Angeles basin. It led to the deaths of 17 people, injured scores more, and took down important freeway overpasses and numerous buildings in the San Fernando Valley. When I got to work at the library in Pasadena, which was much closer to the epicenter, I discovered I had a mess to clean up – including a number of collapsed bookshelves.
Quakes are funny, because the damage is often related to the ground upon which buildings are situated. Take for instance, the quake that hit my hometown of Klamath Falls in 1993, just days after we had left town after a vacation visit. Now, you need to understand that quakes are a rarity in Klamath Falls, so people aren’t as prepared for such an event as they might be in Los Angeles. This quake registered around 6.0 on the Richter scale, which is a pretty-good sized quake, and it destroyed several older brick buildings in the downtown area, including the venerable courthouse. Surprisingly, the oldest building in town, the unreinforced-brick Baldwin Hotel escaped without any damage at all. You see, unlike the other downtown buildings, which sat on reclaimed lake bed, the Baldwin was built on solid bedrock. That foundation wasn’t going to move anywhere!
1. Wrestling with the Life’s Unexpected Events
Earthquakes are unpredictable, often coming when least expected. The extent of damage and death is often related to where and when a quake hits. If a quake hits out in the desert, it’s not going to cause much damage or death. But, if it hits at rush hour in a major city – as was true of the 1989 Bay Area quake — then great harm can occur. Of course, if you live in an earthquake prone area, you’re more likely to take precautions – just in case. That’s why Chile had fewer problems after their quake than did the Haitians. Perhaps the spiritual life is much the same. You have to be ready for the big one,
The Foundations of the earth do shake.
Earth breaks to pieces,
Earth is split in pieces,
Earth reels like a drunken man,
Earth rocks like a hammock;
Under the weight of its transgression earth falls down
To rise no more!
(Is. 24:18b-20 translation unknown)
The fragility of the earth reminds us of the fragility of our own lives. It’s easy to grow cold and callous about life, taking it for granted and become arrogant in our belief that we have the power to control our destinies. We do have choices in life, but as the prophets of old remind us, not everything is in our control. It often takes a devastating quake , tornado, war, flood or loss of a loved one to wake us up to the realities of life, to wake us up from our slumber, so that we might begin wrestling with the uncertainties of life. Too often we ignore the words of the prophets until the reality of their words hit home – that is, unless we’re prepared spiritually for the tests that come our way.
In the aftermath of World War II, theologian Paul Tillich preached a famous sermon entitled The Shaking of the Foundations. In it, he called on his audience to consider the devastating power humanity had recently unleashed on itself. He reminded the congregation that humanity now possessed the tools of its own destruction. But, even though science had given humanity the tools to shake heaven and earth, Tillich asked the question – is this our right? [Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, (New York: Charles Scribners, 1948), 2-3].
2. A Call to Prophetic Ministry
Nature’s power can be frightening, but so can the prospect of proclaiming the word of God. Prophets understand that their audience might not like what they have to say. They also face the possibility that they’ll be ignored. That’s why Jeremiah was less than eager to heed God’s call to be a prophet. Jeremiah told God that he was just a boy and therefore too young to take up such a calling. No one would listen to him, so why bother, and besides, even if people listened, prophets were rarely received well by the people. Now Jeremiah did accept the call, but he also got the treatment when his fellow citizens stuffed him in a cistern and had him carted off to Egypt. The thing God is, God can be persistent, and so God reminded Jeremiah that he had been created for this purpose. His vocation in life, from the moment of conception, was to deliver a word of judgment, and therefore, he needn’t be afraid. Yes, God told him: “Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:4-10). Do you hear the contrast between the call to tear down and the call to build up? Both are placed in Jeremiah’s hands. According to Hebrews 12, God called another prophet named Moses, and when Moses heard the voice of God he trembled with fear – largely because the voice of God shook the earth. As for us, the word of God comes in a different way – as Hebrews puts it:
“But you have drawn near to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, to countless angels in a festival gathering, to the assembly of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks better than Abel’s blood” (Heb. 12:22-24 CEB)
We have received an invitation to enter the holy city, the dwelling place of God, to share in the heavenly worship with the gathered saints of God, having Jesus as our mediator and guide.
3. A Sifting of the Eternal
The Book of Hebrews reminds us that we should treasure that which is eternal – much as Jesus spoke of placing our treasure in heaven (Luke 12:22-34). As I think on what is important in life, what is lasting, what is eternal, my mind goes back to the Baldwin Hotel. I’m reminded that this old brick building survived, when the newer, better built, and more imposing courthouse didn’t. The difference between the structure that survived and the one that didn’t, wasn’t the quality of its construction, but the foundation upon which it was built. One was built on solid rock while the other was built on silt and mud.
The question raised by our text this morning concerns our response to the ways in which God shakes the foundations of our lives. What will survive, when God sifts our lives? What is built on solid rock? And what is built on shifting sands? Will we heed the prophets and embrace that which is eternal?
According to Paul Tillich, the prophets spoke with boldness because “their power sprang from the fact that they did not really speak of the foundations of the earth as such, but of Him Who laid the foundations and would shake them; and that they did not speak of the doom of the nations as such, but of Him Who brings doom for the sake of His eternal justice and salvation” (p. 9) As we face the difficulties of life, as our lives are shaken, in whom will we put our trust? Do we put our trust in our own abilities? In the government? In our families? Or, even in the church? Or do we put our trust in the God who laid the foundations of our lives?
There is only one thing that is unmovable and unchangeable, and we must build upon it. As Tillich puts it:
“When the earth grows old and wears out, when nations and cultures die, the Eternal changes the garments of His infinite being. He is the foundation on which all foundations are laid; and this foundation cannot be shaken. There is something immovable, unchangeable, unshakable, eternal, which becomes manifested in our passing and in the crumbling of our world” (p. 9)
As we wrestle with this question, it’s important to recognize that the temporary often seems more attractive and enticing than the eternal. Fads come and go, but at the moment of their revealing, they seem so exciting. The eternal may not seem as glamorous or as hip, but when the temporary disappears, the eternal one remains standing. Quite often, the temporary collapses under its own weight, when the time of shaking begins. The question then is: how will we respond to the times when God sifts our lives? According to Tillich there are two choices: despair and faith ( p. 10). Which one will you choose? Putting our hopes in the temporary and the faddish, leads only to despair. But to put our hope in the eternal leads to a faith that will not disappoint. Faith comes, Tillich says, when we “see through the crumbling of a world, the rock of eternity and salvation which has no end!” (p. 11).
When we stand on the rock, which is the God who created us, redeems us, and sustains us, we discover that when the shaking stops, like the Baldwin Hotel, nothing will have moved! If we choose to walk in faith, which means putting our trust in God’s grace, goodness, mercy, and love, then we will have built our lives on the bedrock of eternity. This is the message God wanted Jeremiah to proclaim to a people who had fallen for the trap of the temporary. They had put their faith in their own ability to overthrow the Babylonians, even though Jeremiah told them to put their trust in God, who is the mighty fortress and the bulwark that never fails. We come this morning, invited by our Lord, to place our lives at God’s disposal through faith, so that when the sifting and the shaking occur, we will remain standing!