A Strong Base for Life
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 29, 2019
Reading: Isaiah 26:1-11
There was an incredible report on the CBC, emanating from Halifax last week, by Jack Julian. Jack tells the story of fear that there might be a major sinkhole under the Trans-Canada Highway between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Many of you will have read the story of the sinkhole in Oxford, a town near the border with New Brunswick, not far from the famous Springhill where the mine disaster took place, and where Anne Murray is from.
Oxford is a wonderful little town, but it's collapsing as this sinkhole is eating away from the park and the Lions Club and is only a very short distance from a gas station. This is serious business. They are discovering through new technologies that the whole area might have sinkholes, and one of them could be under the Trans-Canada Highway itself. With this new technology they have discovered that what were potholes that have been filled year in and year out with stone and rocks and then paved over, might just be the edge of a great, big sinkhole that could bring down the Trans-Canada Highway. They are so concerned about it that they have emergency measures in place in case it happens.
Now, doesn't that give you a lot of comfort? What they find is that no matter what kind of a base they have to the highway, no matter how strong the foundation laid by those who build it, if the real foundations of the earth are crumbling, it doesn't matter what kind of a highway you put on it, it will come to nothing.
I've thought about this recently, particularly in light of what I see as crumbling foundations, not only with the earth, not only in sinkholes and roads and physical things, but foundations of our lives. Things we trust, and that make us feel secure. I think there is a sense in society, and I see it in op-ed pieces, that the foundations of the western world are being eroded. And no matter what we build on them, if the fundamental foundations are shaking, then things become tenuous.
Think about it for a moment. We have, in the home of democracy, a prime minister who has been deemed to give legal advice to our beloved Queen, we've got a president facing an impeachment inquiry, we have politicians of all stripes apologizing all over the place for things that have gone wrong. We have former enemies that were once not considered to be a threat, rearming. We have alliances and allegiances, which were previously something we could trust, eroding. There is this sense of dislocation.
We saw some of that in the eyes of young people this week, who are anxious about the future of the world. You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices. There's a sense that the most fundamental foundations, it seems, get shaken, but it's not only in the realm of social order, and not only just in the natural world, it also goes to the very heart of religion and faith. I think many people feel tenuous about the future of the church and as an institution, as a place, as a fellowship, whether it is on a firm foundation as we move forward.
There are Christians who, throughout the world, have been persecuted for their faith every single day, and they live with the tenuous sense that the foundations of freedom are being eroded, and they, themselves, could lose their lives. In so many places there's this sense that foundations are more like sinking holes than they are solid places of rock.
This is exactly what Isaiah was writing about in our text today. It's a text about foundations and the home of Judah and Israel. This is the third of my series on home. The first one, I talked about home being where God is, again from Isaiah. Last week the prodigal son, where the prodigal walks away but then returns to the father who receives him. This is about the foundations of that home itself, and for Isaiah the foundation of Judah and of Israel was none other than the Lord God Almighty. This foundation is the predicate on which all other foundations can be built.
He's writing between two eras really. On the one hand he has witnessed an attack, an actual physical attack on the city of Jerusalem, which had been repelled. He saw what happened in the past and he's confident in the present, but he's also looking to the future and he sees the Babylonian empire rising in the distance. He is concerned about what this will mean for the people of Judah so Isaiah is betwixt two worlds, yet he's writing this song of victory. It's a song about how Jerusalem has withstood the problems, but he's reminding the people that some things are happening that they should be conscious of.
What are the tenets of what Isaiah was saying and why would a prophet that was writing 600 years before Jesus Christ, possibly have anything to say to us today? I think his message is powerful because he is suggesting that the foundation of life is really founded in God. The foundation for good life is founded in God. He writes, "Our city is strong. We have a rock, an everlasting rock, on which our city is based." He's not talking about walls and bulwarks and ramparts, he's not talking about the physical strength of Jerusalem, which was a strong city on a hill, he is talking about the fact that the people knew that they had an everlasting rock.
I love this song. Many of you will remember it from times immemorial: “Rock of Ages.” This is the phrase he uses, “Rock of ages, everlasting rock. This is the foundation," he says, "on which it is built." But he also knows that in the past that wasn't always the case. In fact, earlier in Isaiah Chapter 17 he said, "You must remember who your foundation is and the rock on which you are based." Why? Because in the past there was a king of Judah called Ahaz. He was a king who had lost his sense of the foundation of God in his life. To protect Israel he decided that he would enter into an agreement, an entente cordiale with an emerging empire, the Assyrians, under their leader Tiglath-Pileser III.
I've mentioned his name many times, haven't I? Tiggy for short. Tiggy was an amazing character. He was a brilliant solider, a wonderful diplomat, a magnificent organizer, and he had a heart of darkness. Tiglath-Pileser led to the first creation of a modern military in the Middle East, which overran all the countries around and had an incredible empire that went from sea to sea. He was a powerful character. When Ahaz decided to enter into this agreement, he thought Israel and Judah would be spared from the oppression of the Assyrians. He thought he was doing the right thing, even though he was warned by the prophets not to do this, because he’d be making an alliance with someone who fundamentally turns his back on God.
Disaster came. Tiglath-Pileser lied, destroyed Israel and took on the north. This was not someone who could be trusted. Ahaz decided to have a foundation in his life that was based on the expedient, not the right, based on his own wisdom and not on the wisdom of God. He built on a foundation of sand and a sinking hole.
Isaiah, in the time of his writing, knew that there was king called Hezekiah, who was a man of faith and prayer, so he says, "Jerusalem is built on something solid. We don't have to worry about things. We know that we have a king who is righteous, we have a strong city, we have repelled an attack; things are good." He knew the foundations were strong and he was convinced that God would be the strength to protect Judah. He says, "If we trust in this foundation, we will be fine, but if we don't, watch out." Why? Because foundations are built on relationship and they're based on the fidelity of the people who have that relationship.
There's no question that as far as Isaiah was concerned, the people could trust in God, but he also knew that there were cities in the past who had built on foundations that were unrighteous, and disobedient. I think, and most scholars do, that he reflects on the time of Edom where Saul and David conquered Edom because it was weak and did not abide by the law of the Lord. Edom had turned its back on the law and on the foundations on which it had been based. It then became a place, a symbol of a weak city that had lost its foundations and would be was easily defeated.
What Isaiah is getting at is to be cognizant of your foundation. Don't be like Edom. Don't go back to the days of Ahaz. Have your foundation firmly grounded in the Lord God Almighty, and you will be fine. You have to live up to that. You have to be obedient. It's no point simply saying, "Great, we have this wonderful foundation, and everything will be fine." That's like saying, "The earth is solid and everything is fine," but then you build a road on top of it only to discover it isn't, in fact, solid. You have to build on a foundation of obedience, righteousness, and truth. That's what you have to build on. That must be your foundation. You can't go building on foundations that are going to and disappear. The problem was that the people in Isaiah's day were starting to drift. They were affluent, their king was good; things were fine. Why would they need anything else?
In the passage that I read from the Gospel of Luke, I know Jesus had Isaiah in mind and these passages about the foundations in God. He says quite clearly, "It's not he who says, 'Lord, Lord,' that is really the righteous one, it's the one that does my will." He then moves on in the parable of the man who built his house on a strong foundation, and when the storms came, the foundation was able to withstand it. Those are the ones who listen to the word of the Lord and follow Jesus. Then there are those who built without a foundation or build on a foundation of sand, and when the storms come, they have no foundation. They are the ones who do not listen to the word of the Lord. We need to listen to the word of the Lord, but so often we're thinking our lives and so many other things are more important.
I read a fascinating article in an archaeological magazine about Pompeii. You all know about Pompeii that was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. One of the things they found, and they found many things, was a skeleton of a person clutching jewellery in their bony hands. They tried to save their jewellery, but they, themselves, had perished.
Isaiah sees that the people had put their trust in everything except God. He says, "Let's remember that when you don't trust in God bad things happen." Jesus wasn't wishy-washy, was he? He's hard but he's real. He knows if we create, as the Apostle Paul said, "A foundation other than that which has already been laid," then when difficult times come, there are problems. We need to remember our foundation at all times.
This is a passage of joy, it's a song of victory, it is a foundation, most of all, of peace. What I love about all of this is that as Isaiah says, "The steadfast in the faith will have peace." Let's not focus on the wars, the corrupt kings of the past, or the problems of Eden, let's concentrate on us being strong and in our strength, having peace and seeing where that peace comes from because that peace can determine how we live when the storms come.
I read something that I think is certainly, in my lifetime, unprecedented, and it was on Facebook. It's been in the newspapers in the United Kingdom this past week, but it's actually an appeal by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, Justin Welby. The Archbishop, His Grace, said the following, and he's talking, of course, about what's happening in the UK at the moment. "The foundations of our unity and way of life are being challenged." There needs to be a cooling of tempers on all sides to enable people to come to an agreement, to see what solution can unite the country, and do what has to be done." He then quoted from the bishops of the Church of England. "We should speak to others with respect. We should also listen. We should not denigrate, patronize or ignore the honest views of fellow citizens but seek to respect their opinions and their votes,"
He did this and wrote these things because of the growing aggression happening when people feel that their foundations are being eroded. Regardless of your position on what might or should happen to the United Kingdom, it's immaterial. The problem is people getting aggressive, and they get aggressive when they're uncertain, and they get uncertain when they don't think there is a foundation in their lives anymore. There is a correlation between an absence of foundation and an aggression towards others. Jesus knew it, Isaiah knew it, and we know it. That is why Isaiah said, "The steadfast live in peace." The peace comes from firm foundations.
This week something else happened that caught my attention, and I thought about foundations. I saw on television, Prince Harry and Meghan going to visit southern Africa, which you can appreciate got my curiosity. They arrived in Angola of all places; Huambo, and they walk in the place where there were landmines because that whole area between South West Africa, Namibia and Angola was one of war and danger, with many landmines. They were trying to reinvigorate the late Princess Diana's campaign to remove landmines that had blown the legs off children and others in the area.
It's funny how things trigger your memory, and I thought back to 39 years ago when I was in Angola, not on a pleasure trip, I'll tell you that, where I walked along the coastline around Luanda on the Atlantic coast, and saw buildings riddled with bullet holes from the war between the MPLA and UNITA; a civil war. As I looked more closely, I saw that embedded in the walls were shackles with the white rock showing evidence of bloodstains, although very faded. I was told that these are from 200 years ago when the slaves who were going to be shipped off to the New World were shackled there before they boarded the ships. There are similar buildings all the way up the coast from Guinea-Bissau to Ghana to what is now Liberia.
I then though about William Wilberforce, who I've mentioned before. Wilberforce, of course, was the main force within the British Empire to bring an end to slavery. This man who had grown up in a religious home, turned his back on God and on Christ and went to Cambridge University where he lived a profligate life of drinking and carousing and self-absorption, before hearing a sermon – now this is good news for us preachers – by Philip Doddridge that changed his life. He says, "My life is not based on good foundations. In fact, I'm self-absorbed." For the rest of his life he was committed to the welfare of children who were forced into labour. He was committed to the welfare of animals and is one of the founders of the RSPCA, and he became the voice against slavery. He fought and he fought some more in the House of Commons. He was defeated time and time again, and when finally he was able to get a law passed that would end slavery within the empire, the slave owners still bypassed him, and for the next 30-odd years, continued to ship off those slaves from places like Ruanda and Ghana. Yet, in the end, he was victorious.
But he was wondering, and this is the point, whether his foundations were crumbling. With all the opposition and death threats, he wondered if he had done the right thing. When he received a letter from a preacher saying: "Unless God has raised you up, I see not how you can go through with your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy. You will be worn out by the opposition of men and endeavours, but if God is with you who can be against you? Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go in the name of God, and in the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it."
One week later the preacher who wrote that letter died. That preacher was John Wesley. Wilberforce needed to be reminded who his foundation was. He needed to know the peace that comes from having the right foundations. Every society in every era from the time of Ahaz and Tiglath-Pileser, to Isaiah, to Saul and David, to Jesus and Peter and Paul, and to ourselves, need to be reminded that the foundation is always God, and God is the one in whom we can trust. So, let's be faithful, for where that trust is, there is our home. Amen.