The Elemental Spirits, II: Earth
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Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. —Matthew 24–25
During the season of Epiphany, I’m preaching this sermon series called Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water, which the Greek philosopher Plato thought of as the four basic building blocks of everything we can touch and see in the universe, the ancient equivalent of the chemical elements in our periodic table, and so important to the Greeks, practically and philosophically, that Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water became demigods, or daemons, or quasi-divinities. The ancient Greeks personified them.
That works great if, like the ancient Greeks, you believe in many gods. The Greeks deified just about anything, but the Hebrews believed in one God, so these very important Elemental Spirits Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water became images or metaphors for the one true God.
For instance, the Bible refers to God as The Rock 58 times. I do it all the time myself. Most Sundays before I preach a sermon, my prayer is, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.” Fifty-eight times. A very common image for God. I didn’t do a comprehensive analysis, but I am pretty sure the Bible refers to God the Rock more frequently than it does to God the Father.
While laboring arduously at my exhaustive research on Wikipedia, I came across the word ‘monolith,’ which you’ll know from prep school Latin is, literally, a ‘single stone.’ El Capitan in Yosemite is a monolith, a single stone. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is a monolith. The largest monolith in the world is Uluru, or Ayers Rock, smack dab in the middle of Australia. It’s over 1,000 feet high and six miles around. It feels like the nucleus of the whole continent; all Australia orbits Uluru.
Sometimes when I need a vivid image for the Deity, I think about Uluru, God the Monolith: huge, formidable, stable, unmoving, reliable.
You don’t need a PhD. in New Testament to understand that parable from Jesus I read a few moments ago. It’s so obvious that many scholarly works on the parables of Jesus just skip it; Bible scholars don’t want to waste their erudition on the self-evident. You might not even need me to explain it to you, but that’s what you pay me for, so—gosh darn it!—That’s what I’m going to do.
Two guys build a house. One guy does the hard but prudent thing to do. It’s hard to build on rock. You need a pickax or a drill or a jackhammer or dynamite, or whatever passed for such in the first century. But it’s the sensible thing to do; rock is firm, stable, and reliable.
The other guy does the easy but foolish thing. It’s easy to build a house on sand because sand is flexible; it moves wherever you want it; a child with a plastic shovel and a beach pail can build a sandcastle. It’s easy but it is not prudent.
Many of you have been to Palestine so you know it is a dry, brown, dusty place. So it might surprise you to learn that Palestine gets about 22 inches of rain a year, about the same as London. But whereas London gets its 22 inches of rain in 300 rainy days, Palestine gets its 22 inches of rain on 50 rainy days. It all comes at once.
Gully washers are common in Palestine. In Palestine, wadis are stream beds that are dry most of the time until one of these gully washers comes through and wipes away anything in its path. This foolish mason built his house in one of these apparently dry stream beds called wadis. It was easy; it only took a day, but it only lasted a day too. In Matthew’s original Greek word order, Jesus says “Torrential came the rains. Down swept the floods. Angry roared the winds.” And then Jesus thunders with a flourish: “And great was its fall.”
This story ends the Sermon on the Mount. That’s how Jesus wraps up the most famous sermon in history. That’s the last sentence in the Sermon on the Mount: “And great was the fall of it.” That’s how Jesus pointedly pounds home his preachy Palestinian proclamation. Period!
Jesus wants us to be grounded in God the Monolith, anchored to the Rock of Our Salvation, held fast by the Ten Commandments and the life of the Nazarene and the unstinting grace of the Deity and the love the New Testament says God just is, without remainder.
Do you know people who live in shaky, sandy houses? Do you know people who are adrift, up for grabs, completely unmoored from truth and scruple?
Maybe I’m naive but I am so disillusioned by the Houston Astros; there are Red Sox and Mets tarnished by the sign-stealing scandal. I don’t understand people who will cheat to win.
What is it like in your life—on the tennis court, at the bridge table, in your professional existence? If you have to cheat to win, if you have to shave strokes to lower your handicap, if you have to lie to nail the contract, if you have to game the market to make a profit, do you even want that victory? Isn’t it hollow, meaningless, disintegrating, falling down into the sand beneath? You can’t live there. You can only languish there, shrivel there, fall down there, perish there.
Baseball is not just a game. Football is not just a game. We play games to learn how to live. Those splendid athletes at the Clemson-LSU game the other night.
When Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence fumbled the ball with about two minutes left, crushing what remaining hope Clemson clutched onto for the national championship, he went to the sidelines crestfallen and destroyed, and Dabo Swinney instantly runs over there to encourage him. That move was precognitive. He did not even think that move; he just did it. When you are anchored to the rock you do not need to think; you just know what to do.
I couldn’t hear what Dabo said to Trevor, but I’ll bet it was something like, “Young man: head up, pride unbroken. You have never lost a game in Clemson Orange. In high school you won 41 straight games. We are 25–0 when you are our captain.”
Those guys learned how to live on the football field and at church. My guess is that they are anchored in God.
Joe Burrow too. The LSU quarterback? His precision on the football field is almost miraculous and his witness to God and his hometown of Athens, Ohio, is unshakeable.
In his Heisman Trophy speech he mentioned the poor people from his home town, where the brick plants, and iron works, and coal mines are long shuttered, and the hills stripped of timber, and the rivers dying from chemicals, and his neighbors dying from opiates.
Joe Burrow spoke for six minutes total, 30 seconds about his hometown. In the next month, a Facebook page raised $500,000 for the local food pantry, five times the annual budget.
Joe’s mother Robin is the principal at Eastern Elementary School, Kindergarten–fourth grade. She calls her students “My kiddos.” They almost never close the schools for bad winter weather in Meigs County, except under the most extreme conditions, because the students are safer at school. At least at school they’ll stay warm and get one decent meal for the day.
They keep closets-full of winter coats and mittens and extra backpacks for kids who might not have those necessities. Robin Burrow keeps a case of macaroni and cheese under her desk. When a reporter asks her, “How often do you hand them out?” she says, “Every day.” Those people are anchored to the Ground of Being, they are fixed fast to God the Monolith, the Rock of Their Salvation.
Isn’t it interesting how the most hated man in America somehow, fifty years later, became by common consent the greatest American of the twentieth century?
Within hours of Dr. King’s death, Strom Thurmond, Dixiecrat Senator from South Carolina, was loudly resenting the tributes that were pouring out from the Senate for Dr. King and excoriating his character. For years, the FBI had been encouraging him to commit suicide. Many white Americans celebrated his assassination. “Thank God they finally got him” was a common chorus.
The state of Arizona resisted a Martin Luther King holiday until 1993 and only capitulated when the NFL threatened to move the 1993 Super Bowl out of Tempe. They called it “The Mississippi of the West.”
New Hampshire held out till 2000. They called it “The Mississippi of the North.”
But over the decades, the record has been rectified. The Sanitation Workers he’d gone to Memphis to march with held a meeting on April 5, 1968, the day after he was killed. James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference spoke.
He said, “There’s a false rumor around that our leader is dead. But our leader is not dead. Martin Luther King is not our leader. Our leader is the One who led Moses out of Egypt. Our leader is the One who walked out of the grave on Easter morning. Our leader never slumbers or sleeps. Our leader can never be put in jail. Our leader is still on the case.”
If your house is built on the Monolith, it doesn’t matter what they do. If you are fixed fast to the Rock of Your Salvation, your life might end, but your destiny will be triumphant. “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.”
Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans), p. 333.
George A. Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 59.
Facts about the Burrows and Athens are from Billy Witz, “As Joe Burrow Spoke of Hunger, His Hometown Felt the Lift,” The New York Times, January 13, 2020.
Quoted by Jason Sokol, The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Basic Books, 2018), p. 25. Facts in the last four paragraphs also come from this book.