At the 2pm service yesterday the Gospel passage contained Jesus’ advice to build our lives on his words, actually doing as he says. In this way we build a solid base for our lives, like building a house on rock. When storms come, as they inevitably will, we will survive the experience rather than being destroyed by it. In my sermon I shared how this had worked out in practice for me at a difficult time in my life.
The readings were Genesis 16:1-12, 15, 16, Psalm 106:1-5, Matthew 7:21-end.
Several years ago, a poor farmer in Sicily made the decision to fill in a well on his farm. It had dried up long ago and he thought it was a danger. Each morning he thought about doing it but there always seemed to be so much to do that he never got round to it. One morning he awoke to the most horrible sounds. He dashed outside and found that the sound was coming from the well and was being made by his old donkey which seemed to have managed to fall down it. The donkey was obviously frightened and kept up the terrible noise for hours while the farmer tried to think what he could do to rescue the animal.
In the end, the farmer decided that it wasn’t possible to get the donkey out of the well. For all he knew, it might have a broken leg anyway and it was really too old to do much work, so was probably not worth the effort. He called his neighbours and asked them to come and help him fill the well in. Each neighbour came with a shovel and they began to shovel earth into the well. At first, as each shovelful landed in the well, the donkey gave a great cry but gradually this stopped. The farmer thought that the donkey must be covered with earth by now and peered down to check. He was amazed to see that the donkey was still alive and uncovered. As he watched a shovelful of earth landing on the donkey, he saw the animal shake it off its back and trample it under foot. By shaking off the earth and standing on it, the donkey was in fact gradually getting nearer and nearer to the top of the well.
After many hours of work by the farmer and his neighbours, the donkey stepped out of the well unharmed, amid much rejoicing. The donkey was saved because he shrugged off the earth that was thrown at it, and in fact had used it as a platform.
Stories can only go so far in illustrating a truth and this one is not a perfect way to show what Jesus was saying when he talked about how to build our lives but it gives some idea. The donkey suffered a calamity and let the world know that he was frightened by making a great noise. Even worse than the initial calamity was the farmer’s ‘solution’. At that point I guess the donkey could have continued braying until he was covered in earth and could bray no more. Instead he realised he had something solid to stand on despite the difficult circumstances, and as a result he survived.
In the gospel passage Jesus warns his listeners that just saying the right things is not the way to get into heaven. The way to get in is to actually carry out God’s will as explained by Jesus. He is saying what James says in his letter: ‘Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves’. In order to fulfil this, we need to know what the word is first of all, and then actually follow what it says. It reminds me of the advice: Read, mark and inwardly digest. To that we need to add: Act.
In the process of preparing to take our place in heaven, we actually help ourselves here and now. As we read we take in information about what Jesus is like, so what God is like of course, and we learn just how wonderful and trustworthy he is. We are effectively building a relationship with Jesus when we do this. It takes time, it can be hard work just as it would be if we were chipping away at rock to get a level base for a house, but it’s worthwhile.
Jesus paints the picture of a really bad storm with rain, floods, and howling winds which blow around the house. That’s a picture of our lives when the inevitable troubles come our way. It’s a time of chaos, when we can no more control events than we can control the weather. There is no doubt that whatever a house is built on, a storm will still have an effect. The windows will rattle, maybe some rain will come under the door or through the roof, it will be noisy and frightening. However, by taking the trouble to build well and solidly, preparing ahead of time, the storm will not win in the end. For someone who hasn’t prepared, who has done a quick and easy build on sand, disaster awaits.
I don’t think any of us can be sure how we will react in a crisis, but it does seem to be a common experience for those with faith, that they are aware of being held in times of trouble. They experience what Moses said to the tribe of Asher just before he died: ‘The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’
Certainly I found that I felt safe at Christmas time when my husband Phil was very seriously ill due to a heart defect. I knew he could die at any moment but I felt confident that whatever happened I was being looked after, as was he. The trouble with being calm was that it seemed weird to everyone else! We were under no illusions about how serious it all was but somehow it didn’t overwhelm us as it did others. Phil’s boss likes to quote the voicemail message I left for him, telling him simply that Phil was in surgery to repair a heart problem. He panicked but I had been totally calm, as was Phil.
I know that Zoe, our daughter, watched me with great care, expecting any moment that the implications of the situation would suddenly hit me. When they didn’t seem to, she worried that I was in denial but I know I had fully appreciated what was going on.
I don’t think it was necessarily anything special about me that made this happen. I just think that I found, like many others have done, that I could rest on God’s word in the midst of all that life was throwing at me. I had learnt about him in the good times and when the bad times came I was able to relax to a certain extent. I have a feeling that we need some practise to actually manage this. I know in another really bad crisis a few years before, I was nowhere near as calm but perhaps finding that God was with me in that, even if I only realised it afterwards, helped me develop my trust.
We live in an unpredictable world and even all our science and knowledge cannot guarantee to protect us from calamity. God however, is our rock and our redeemer and will never let us down.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor