What Remains is That Which Cannot Be Shaken
Richard Slyhoff, a Pennsylvania man who lived in the late 1800s, never cared all that much about God, never thought all that much about God, until he neared the end of his life. As he pondered his impending death, Slyhoff became convinced that he would have to face some form of eternal judgment. Did this fear cause him to repent and seek a relationship with God? No. Slyhoff had a better idea. He would hide from God instead.
He dug his burial plot in the shadow of a large boulder. According to Slyhoff’s beliefs, a great earthquake would occur on the Day of Judgment, and all the dead would rise from their graves. Slyhoff was counting on that earthquake to dislodge the boulder and cover his grave. In this way, he reasoned, on the Day of Judgment there would be no way he could rise from the dead, his tomb would be hidden from God’s eyes and he wouldn’t have to face judgment.
BUT, over the years, the boulder hovering ominously above Richard Slyhoff’s grave has shifted. Part of that movement is due to erosion and part is due to a tornado that actually moved it out of place. The boulder no longer hangs over Richard Slyhoff’s grave. When the Day of Judgment does come for him, as it will for all of us, he will be surprised to discover he no longer has a rock to hide under.
Even if our theology doesn’t exactly match up with Richard Slyhoff’s, most of us would probably like to avoid paying for our sins. And, of course, there is a way to be cleansed of them: through the cross of Jesus Christ. I think all of us would also like to find a safe place to stand when the earth begins to shake beneath our feet. We all want something solid to hold on to, something that will not deteriorate or shift when we are at our most vulnerable. Well, there is such a something and, even more, there is such a someone upon whom we can rely. There is hope when our lives are shaken.
As I write this, the northeastern portion of the United States is reeling from the effects of what has been called, Hurricane Sandy, Frankenstorm, the Storm of the Century.
In researching for today’s entry, I came across a message on such shakings by King Duncan from which I’ve drawn the Slyhoff illustration and from which I’ll draw some other illustrations today.
As we enter in, however, we look first to Hebrews 12, verses 18-29:
“You have not come to a mountain [Mount Sinai] that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, 'I am trembling with fear.'
"But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, 'Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.' The words 'once more' indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire."
Though not everyone reading this today is trying to pick up the pieces after the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we will all certainly experience times when our world will be shaken.
Problems in a marriage, perhaps. Dr. William Barker once noted that, since 1688, Lloyd’s of London has underwritten insurance on nearly everything. Lloyd’s was established originally to insure losses on ships and cargoes. Through the years, the syndicate has expanded to cover nearly every imaginable contingency. Lloyd’s settled claims in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, on the Titanic, and on thousands of less famous disasters. The company has written policies covering pianists’ hands, dancers’ legs, singers’ voices, and actresses’ faces. Coffee crops, space flights--the riskiest ventures have been protected by Lloyd’s underwriters.
But even Lloyd’s of London will not insure a marriage. Think about that. They will not insure a marriage. A wedding, yes. A couple can arrange to make sure the caterer will appear as scheduled, the musicians will perform as planned, and the photographer will take pictures as contracted. All the details of the ceremony may be covered by special policies. But a successful marriage cannot be insured by Lloyd’s or any underwriter anywhere. Only a man and woman living up to their covenant to each other and to God can guarantee a lifelong marriage. Sadly, as we’ve seen, many marriages do not survive.
There are other emotional and spiritual shakings. Ill health. Loss of a job. Loss of a home. Loss of mobility or sight or hearing. Loss of a pet. Loss of a loved one. Financial loss. Loss of innocence. Loss of social status. Loss of freedom. Loss of youth. Unplanned pregnancies. Injuries. Betrayal by a friend. The end of a dream.
Things seem to be going along quite smoothly, but then we feel the ground starting to move beneath our feet. And suddenly our whole world is violently shaken. Where shall we turn when such times come?
Some people lose themselves in their work when they feel the ground shaking. Or they turn to television or movies or work on the house or in the garden. Or they look to drugs or alcohol. These serve only to mask the hurt and, indeed, may complicate the problem.
Some people reach out to their friends. This can be helpful, particularly to reach out to a friend who shares your faith. It depends on the friend, of course. Some friends, even Christian friends, can give terrible advice. The best friend simply allows you to express your pain.
Some people try counseling. This may be more productive. Many people have profited from time spent with a professional counselor. That is true whether you are dealing with marital problems or grief or any other problem that is weighing you down. But, still, there comes a time when each of these solutions seems inadequate. Where do we turn then? We turn, of course, to our faith.
In preparation for this entry, I did some research on Mother Teresa on the release of her diaries ten years after her death. In these, she confesses to having agonizing doubts about God. Now some may be surprised by what I’m about to say but I do question whether Mother Teresa had a regenerate faith in Jesus Christ. She believed she received a call to enter into the ministry at a young age and, later, a call within that call to minister with the poorest of the poor. But she then spent the next 50 years of her life struggling with an emptiness inside of her. She spoke of having no faith, no love, no zeal. The saving of souls, she said, held no attraction. Heaven meant nothing.
“What do I labor for,” she asked. “If there is no God, there is no soul, and Jesus you are not true.” According to many reports, there is nothing in her writings to suggest that she believed Jesus to be the only way of salvation. Her stated intent was to make someone a better Hindu, a better Buddhist. Mother Teresa was probably a Universalist; she may never have given her life to Christ. So, while I commend her charity and humanitarian work, I pray that while there was still breath in her body, she prayed to receive Christ as her Savior. I am reminded in reflecting upon her life of the verse in 1st Corinthians 13: “If I give all I possess to the poor . . . but have not love, I gain nothing.”
Remember salvation comes through Christ alone, not through our works. So, if Mother Teresa did not have a relationship with Jesus, this woman – viewed by many people as a great saint for her works – may not be a saint at all in the eyes of God. A sanctified person, in the Christian understanding, is a person made holy through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
It’s been said that, “The road to faith is paved with doubts.” True. But though we – who have called on Christ in faith -- may have those moments of doubt, may go through dry spells and dark nights, times when we’re not feeling His presence calming us and soothing us – we still cling to our Savior and Lord. Eventually, the doubts subside, the water of the Spirit slakes our thirst, the dark night opens onto a bright new day, and we feel His mighty presence as we draw near to Him in faith. Then, we may, as I have done, look back on those moments of shaking to chastise ourselves for ever doubting or succumbing to the dark night. We may look back and realize we didn’t need to struggle so if we’d only sought the Lord, the Lord’s will, and the Lord’s purposes in what we were experiencing.
Philip Yancey, in his book Reaching for the Invisible God, tells of his father‑in‑law, a Bible teacher and committed Christian. The older man’s faith troubled him in his final years. A degenerative nerve disease confined him to bed, preventing him from sharing in most of the activities he enjoyed. As if this were not enough, his 39‑year‑old daughter battled a debilitating form of diabetes.
During the most severe crisis, he composed a Christmas letter and mailed it to family members and friends. He expressed his uneasy feelings about many things he had once taught. What could he believe with certainty? The old Bible teacher staked his faith on three realities and here is his list: “Life is difficult. God is merciful. Heaven is sure.” Those three things, he concluded, he could count on without reservation! When his daughter died of diabetic complications the week after he sent out this letter, he clung even more closely to those truths.
Life is difficult, said this wise Bible teacher. We know that’s true. That’s what earthquakes are all about. But then he adds the other two realities: God is merciful, and heaven is sure. That’s the testimony of the writer of Hebrews.
In our text for today, that writer contrasts Mt. Sinai in the Old Testament to Mt. Zion in the New. Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the Law, was a place where God came in power and judgment. The focus here is on terrifying warnings and severe penalties. The response to God’s presence on Mt. Sinai was fear. Here described is a “mountain . . . burning with fire . . . darkness, gloom and storm . . .” It was a mountain where people were given commandments “they could not bear . . .” Even Moses trembled when he came near the mountain.
But Mt. Zion is an entirely different place. Here is how the writer of Hebrews describes it: “the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
Here the writer of Hebrews appeals to those who have come to a living faith in Christ to persevere. As the church of the firstborn, as those saints set apart to God, we must not imitate faithless Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. We have been covered in the saving blood of Jesus. Abel’s blood, spilled by his brother Cain, cried out for justice and retribution, whereas the blood of Jesus shed on the cross speaks of forgiveness and reconciliation.
This is the new unshakable kingdom of Christ about which he writes. It is life in the presence of God, where there is no fear. How do we find ourselves in such a place?
There are two truths that make the kingdom of God accessible to us: The first is the character of God and the second is the cross of Christ.
Those who are trusting in Christ as Savior are part of an unshakable kingdom because of God’s great love for us. No other religion on earth emphasizes the love of God as does the Christian. Our unshakable kingdom is impossible without God’s love.
At the beginning of the 20th century a clergyman named Frank Graeff was suffering from severe illness and depression. He felt that God was very far away. In desperation, he opened his Bible and stumbled on a verse from the book of 1st Peter. He read these words from 1st Peter 5:7: “Cast your care and anxiety on God, for God cares for you.” In that moment, God graciously came near and brought life to Graeff’s difficult circumstances. He still confronted tough times and though he might not have understood why God would allow those tough times nor how God could use those tough times for his good, what he did know, with certainty, was that God walked with him through them. As a response to this encounter with God, Graeff wrote the hymn, “Does Jesus Care?” Here are the words from the first verse and refrain of this hymn:
“Does Jesus care when my heart is pained too deeply for mirth and song; as burdens press and the cares distress, and the way grows weary and long? O yes, He cares; I know He cares, His heart is touched by my grief; When the days are weary, the long nights dreary, I know my Savior cares.”
That is God’s character. That’s who God is. God cares about every one of us. God not only sees us in our need, but God’s heart is touched by our need. We do not have a God who is far off from us. Your marriage, your child, your finances, the one dear to you who is suffering, the miserable circumstances you yourself may have worked yourself into, your every need . . . God knows. And God cares. We have an unshakable kingdom, first of all, because of God’s character. The shaking will end. He may shake the earth beneath us but what will remain is that which cannot be shaken.
We have an unshakable kingdom because of Christ’s cross and we cling to that rugged cross in any and all shakings we encounter.
Writes the author of Hebrews: “You have come to God, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood . . .”
In 1988, a devastating earthquake tore through the tiny country of Armenia, bringing down homes and buildings and destroying precious infrastructure. Fifty-five thousand people died in the aftermath. But great devastation creates great motivation; God made the human spirit to rise above tragedy with a selflessness that is simply breathtaking.
Out of the tragedy of the Armenian earthquake comes the story of Susanna Petrosyan, a humble mother who sacrificed herself to save her precious child.
According to Associated Press reports, Susanna and her four-year-old daughter were trapped in the debris of their fallen home. As they waited for rescue, Susanna’s heart broke at the sound of her daughter’s cries. The little girl was so thirsty, and Susanna had no way to satisfy her.
“It was then that I remembered I had my own blood,” writes Susanna.
Using a jagged shard of glass, Susanna slit her own fingers and allowed her daughter to drink some of her blood. For the next eight days, until mother and child were rescued, this was how Susanna sustained the life of her child.
Sustained by her mother’s blood . . . That sounds strangely similar to what we believe about Jesus Christ.
Here is the Good News for the day. According to the writer of Hebrews, those who have come to faith in Christ are protected by Christ’s own blood, we are sustained by Christ’s own blood, we are brought into reconciliation with God by Christ’s own blood. We don’t need to hide from God and bury ourselves beneath a boulder. God loves us. Christ died for us. Don’t lose hope the next time you feel the earth trembling under your feet, regardless of what that shaking might be. We are part of an unshakable kingdom. Christ has brought us into the Kingdom of God so let us be thankful and worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.