In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I hear about people building with wood, hay, and straw, I can’t help but think of three little pigs. You know the story: three sibling pigs who want to build houses, but two of them would rather work quickly and get things done, than do them well. So the first one builds with straw, and the wolf comes and blows it down. He runs to his brother’s house, which is made of sticks. The wolf comes and blows it down. So they both run to their brother’s house, which is built of bricks. The wolf can’t blow it down, so he tries to go down the chimney, where the pigs have built a fire under a pot, and they come out on top of the food chain. The moral of the story is clear: be like the wise pig, take your time, and do things well. The wise pig builds his house out of bricks, even if it takes a little longer.
Paul says that he, like a wise chief builder, laid a foundation in Corinth. He knows that the foundation is the most important part. You can build the best building ever, but if it has a bad foundation, the rest of it, very quickly, won’t matter. Paul laid a foundation for the church in Corinth, and it’s the only foundation that can be laid for the Church: Jesus Christ. As Jesus Himself says, “The one who hears My words and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Then, if waves or water—or wolves—come, the house will stand. The one who hears Jesus’ words and does not do them, believe them, follow them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And we’ve all seen what happens to sand castles when the waves come in. Paul, by the grace of God, has laid a foundation in Corinth, and no other foundation for the Church can be laid. Any other foundation, and you aren’t actually building the Church. In fact, in 2 Thessalonians, Paul describes the “man of lawlessness” as one who lays a foundation in place of the one that is laid. English has “oppose,” but it means to lay something down in place of or opposed to. That, instead, would be the work of the devil and anti-Christ. The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. There is no other foundation, or else the Church simply ceases to be the Church.
Paul, like a wise chief builder, laid the foundation for the Church in Corinth, because the Corinthian Christians are God’s building. Laying a good foundation is wise like the pig who builds with brick. But the foundation that Paul has laid does not appear wise to the world. He has determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. He is the wisdom of God. But to the world, that foundation looks like Paul has laid a foundation of sticks or hay. That’s about as flimsy a foundation as you can lay. If you want to start a religion, you had better start with finding out what people want and what they think they need. Then you can say and do those things and draw large crowds. Because then the people will flock to you to hear you tell them what they already know and do, so that they can think themselves wise and spiritual. Or, you start a religion with military power, because then, if someone doesn’t want to listen, you force them to join you. But those are not the Church of Jesus Christ, which can have no foundation other than the foundation of the apostles and prophets—whose word is nothing other than Jesus—and He is the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole thing holds together and apart from whom the whole thing will fall down. Jesus crucified, who has been raised from the dead, is the only foundation that will last.
And then Paul reminds everyone who preaches and teaches in the church at Corinth to be careful how he builds on that foundation. I laid the foundation, he says, but others build on it. Let each one pay close attention to how he builds, whether he is building with gold, silver, precious stones; or wood, hay, or straw. Are you building with the materials of the New Jerusalem, which will be in eternity, or are you building with things that will be burned up? When the Day of the Lord comes, and the fire of that day purifies everything, what will be left? All flesh is as grass, Isaiah says, but the Word of Yahweh remains forever. Heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus says, but My Word will never pass away. The fire is coming and everything will be tested with fire to see what remains. Perhaps we have built sometimes with wood, hay, or straw. But when the house begins to burn, and you look back, what will be left? Those who build with anything other than the Word of Jesus may indeed be saved, but it will be as someone escaping from a burning building, with the shame of knowing that what is built is destroyed. Therefore, everyone who brings something other than Christ’s Word to build upon the foundation is pretending that the Church is a house that can be built with hay or sticks. Anyone who ruins or corrupts God’s temple will be ruined or corrupted by God. So pay close attention to your doctrine, to your teaching, Paul tells Timothy. Persist in this, and by doing so you will save both yourself and your hearers. Only what is done in Christ, whether works or teaching, will remain. And the prayer of every Christian preacher and pastor is the same as Luther’s: “Only do not Thou forsake me, for if I am left to myself, I will certainly bring it all to destruction” (Luther’s Sacristy Prayer).
Frankly, it all makes everything seem a little uncertain. How can we know whether what we are doing and teaching and believing will remain on that last Day? How can we know that we are not teaching and believing sticks, hay, and straw, which the wolf will come and destroy? Isaiah tells us: when Israel was taking refuge in lies and seeking shelter in falsehoods, God said to them, “Look! In the foundations of Zion, I am laying a cornerstone, a chosen and precious stone, tested and tried so that it will last—a sure foundation. And the one believing will never be put to shame” (Isaiah 28:15-16, partly from the Septuagint). And the word for believing is actually the verb for being firm, being trustworthy, immovable. The precious living stones of Christ’s Church are built on the foundation of Christ by holding to Him regardless of what happens. To be firm, to have certainty, is to be bound to the immovable cornerstone of the foundation. The foundation of the Church cannot be moved or changed. And, therefore, everyone built upon Him cannot be moved or changed. Built on the Rock, the Church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.
When the Day of the Lord comes and everything is laid bare by fire, only what is of Christ will stand. So if what we’ve done or preached is wood or hay or straw, let it be burned up now or then, until there is nothing but Jesus, nothing but God’s holy temple—and you are that temple—in whom God and the Lamb and the Spirit dwell forever. On that day, when the purifying fire has renewed the heavens and the earth, you who have been joined immovably to Christ by His Word and forgiveness and life and body and blood, will find yourselves standing firm on the firm foundation, other than which no other can be laid in the Church. God has put the cornerstone in place, and the one who is bound to Him will never be lost.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/18/17