Sinkholes. That’s what I want to write about this month.
They’re scary things, these sinkholes. You don’t really see them until it’s too late and the ground gives way beneath you.
There’s nothing on the surface that will give the game away. What lies beneath (to borrow from the title of the horror film) – what lies beneath is where the trouble is.
Back in 1605 it was the same, as every November we duly remember. Guy Fawkes was the fall guy in that devilish conspiracy to bring about radical regime change. There weren’t any tell-tale signs of impending destruction in the parliament buildings themselves: the floors had been cleaned, the seats had been dusted, the throne was prepared for the king. If you’d popped your head round the door of the parliament chamber the night before, it was all looking spick and span. No hint at all on the surface of anything remotely amiss.
But what lay beneath was where the trouble was. The undercroft. Out of sight, and largely out of mind, but right beneath the building where a nation’s life was ruled. And in that rented undercroft just piles and piles of harmless-looking firewood – and tucked beneath the firewood was the gunpowder Guy was to guard and then light.
Then BANG! The floor of the house would give way and collapse. The king and his court would be buried and gone. The end, indeed, of an era.
What lies beneath is where the trouble lies. Invariably.
Sinkholes are a case in point. Years and years in the forming, as often as not. A void that’s slowly, silently forming in the strata which is out of sight, but on which the surface rests. A void that can sometimes be huge. Massively wide. Dreadfully deep. And then BOOM! Without any warning, and to the shock of an unsuspecting public, the ground gives way, collapses, implodes – call it what you will – devouring simply everything and anything located there.
What lies beneath is where the trouble lies.
The building in front of your eyes may well look impressive and strong. But what about its foundations? What if far beneath the structure which you see, the out-of-sight foundations of the building have been compromised? What if those foundations have been slowly and subtly eroded over time – and no one knew? What if far beneath the surface those foundations have been bit by bit destroyed? Until one day – BOOM! The building in an instant just implodes. The whole impressive edifice collapsing in upon itself, swallowed up in the void which the crumbled foundations have left.
What if we’re witnessing now a sinkhole in our national life?
What if the ‘three wise men’ of ages past, with their ‘avant-garde’ agenda, have reared their heads again? What if the modern-day equivalents of Korah and his cronies, whose ‘we-now-know-much-better-than-the-Bible’ line of thinking (with its frightening, sinkhole consequence) is flagged up for us in Numbers – what if these new counterparts of Korah, with their crazy, rat-like appetite, have for years and years been nibbling at the Bible-based foundations of our national life .. until there’s only a void?
What if society here is now sitting on a sinkhole?
Remember what happened to Korah and his cronies? This Guy Fawkes-esque conspirator in Moses’ time had networked in the ‘undercroft’ of Israel’s life to feed into the mindset of the people at the time his up-to-date, ‘revisionist’ philosophy: more secular than Scriptural by far (for all that it was argued in the terms of populist piety) this erudite, ‘republican’ philosophy of ‘power-to-the-people-please’ was toxic and corrosive, and intent on undermining what the Lord Himself had laid as the foundations of this people’s life.
Yes, indeed. Mining away, underneath. Eroding, as much as it was ever clearly erudite.
What lies beneath is where the trouble lies. A sinkhole in the making. And a sinkhole as the outcome.
“The ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their households and all Korah’s men and all their possessions. They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned: the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community” (Nu.16.31-33).
Sinkholes are like that. There’s no way back from sinkholes such as that. The earth closed over them. They perished. They were gone. It was sudden. Stark. Sobering. And singularly salutary, you’d have thought.
And when that happened, the Lord through Moses declared – “then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt” (Nu.16.30). There was nothing random about this specific sinkhole. Coincidence didn’t come into it.
Such sinkholes begin with sin – and the sin in particular of those who should have known better. Like Korah. Korah was a Levite. A man who knew great privilege. A man to whom much had been given – and of whom, therefore, much (or certainly more) was required. This wasn’t any waywardness on his part: this was wickedness. Not ignorance so much as insurrection. It wasn’t a man being deviant: it was open, arrogant defiance.
Take that sombre narrative and roll it out across the contours of contemporary western life; and see if it doesn’t send a solemn, scary message to society today. Might we not be starting now to witness such a sinkhole in our national life?
Because we could certainly understand why. “These men have treated the Lord with contempt.”
Well, yes. This nation of Scotland has known ‘Levitical’ privilege more than most. A good deal more than Korah and co ever did. A rich and lengthy, vibrant Christian heritage, stretching almost 16 centuries back in time. A history which is simply littered with the gracious, striking, oft-repeated mighty interventions of the living God across our nation’s life – through which, again and again and again, the Word of God was brought and taught with Holy Spirit power, and ingrained into our people’s inner psyche. A way of life, whose every institution was informed and shaped by what the Scriptures taught. An influence on the world at large, out of all proportion to the nation’s size and population, through the pioneering labours in so many different fields of countless men and women, whose heart-felt and deepest longing was that Christ might be exalted and made known. A land renowned throughout the world as simply ‘the land of the Book.’
We knew the score. But we’ve torn up the script. With a speed and resolve the like of which has not been matched by any other nation’s fall from grace. Open, arrogant defiance.
And I sometimes wonder now if what we’re starting to see is an up-to-the-moment equivalent of what took place in Korah’s case – the ground beneath us starting to ‘split apart’, the earth beginning to open its mouth and ‘swallow us up’ as a nation, so that we find ourselves now going ‘down alive into the grave’. It sometimes certainly feels like that. The people, all of them – the people and their possessions sucked in an instant of time down the sinkhole of their sinfulness.
Are we not watching on today as all of our spiritual prized and precious possessions are sucked into a wretched void and disappear so rapidly and finally, straight down the sinkhole of a militantly secular agenda? Isn’t that the case? The Book now binned. Conversion banned. The Lord Jesus Christ now despised and dismissed – derided, discounted, demeaned. How quickly did that all happen?
Sinkholes don’t do ‘slow-mo’. You can lose it all overnight. All of that rich, renowned and often greatly envied spiritual heritage disappearing in an instant down the tubes.
And what about those inestimable moral possessions which not long back we prized so much? Those values which for centuries pervaded every aspect of society. Values which were rooted in the Scripture truths our forebears were so careful to embrace: the three core values of God’s kingdom which informed the way we lived – submission, service, sacrifice. Great, and priceless possessions. But each of them now simply turned on its head, replaced by its very antonym.
However valid the cause and concern they espouse may be, when protesters now glue themselves to the road, or damage others’ property, or target politicians with their Guy Fawkes-esque destructiveness, to have their say and make their point and get their way – causing in the process widespread chaos and disruption to society at large: well, we’re pretty much back in the day of the Judges when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Submission thrown out of the window, authority disdained. The service of others no longer as key as the need for indulging, advancing and pandering always to self. And sacrifice viewed now not as a mark of a moral and generous strength, but perceived as the fate of a loser, the mark of an unhealthy weakness. The values of the kingdom, a rich and treasured moral wealth bequeathed across the ages to our land by God’s good grace – the values of the kingdom sucked down the sinkhole and sunk out of sight overnight.
Or you might think, too, about our great constitutional possessions. A kingdom, once united, now beginning to fall apart at the seams, so it seems – and perhaps it’s already too late to be sewing its seams back together!
What’s going to happen across the Irish Sea when three huge ‘non-negotiables’ are wholly incompatible? The Good Friday agreement. EU legislation. The North being a part of the Union and the mutual commitments each has. A Rubik’s cube seems child’s-play by comparison.
What’s going to happen if (and, far more likely, when) a second Indy Ref takes place?
What’s going to happen when our ever-present monarch finally dies? What’s going to happen to the peoples whom she rules? What’s going to happen to the very institution of the monarchy itself, when far too many fracture-lines within the royal family have already become so visible?
A sinkhole is no respecter of persons. Or possessions. When the ground splits apart and the earth then opens its mouth, it swallows the lot. ‘All their possessions.’ The constitutional as much as the spiritual.
And the material as much as the moral. Brexit. Covid. Climate change. A health system bursting apart. Supply unable to meet the demands of an energy-hungry economy. Not enough drivers to meet the massive distribution needs the country has. Not enough staff and beds and equipment to cope with all the all-age queues requiring medical help. The national debt going right through the roof. The mental health of so many going through the floor and plumbing the depths of despair. Floods destroying businesses and homes. Fires devouring vast swathes of land. The sudden, shocking dissipation of a nation’s wealth. Sinkholes. They swallow the lot. And do so with alarming speed and unexpectedness.
But if we as a nation now are standing at the edges of a sinkhole, what then? May we not cry out for revival? May we not expect our God once more to come to the rescue again in great reviving grace? He’s done it before. Repeatedly, here in our lands. Do it again, Lord, we cry – and please God, it may in His mercy be so. Were not things as bad back then in those seasons of wonderful grace, when the Lord came charging across the horizon by His gracious Holy Spirit to restore and revive and renew?
Well, yes, in very many ways they were. Except for this. There was back then in all those former days of God’s reviving grace – there was back then, at least in name, acceptance of the claims of God upon our nation’s life. But now not so. Korah and his cronies have appeared and rule the roost: defiantly dismissive of the Word of God; brazen in the ease with which His presence is ignored, His rule despised, His Son contemptuously blasphemed. They have treated the Lord with contempt. A sinkhole is as likely now as any fresh revival.
You’re maybe thinking, ‘Well, this is cheery, isn’t it? (Not)’. But it’s not my business to cheer you up: my business is to point you up. To help you see the mess down here in such a way you see both the reality itself for what it is – and what the reason is behind that sad reality. To see ‘what lies beneath.’ So that you’ll soon find yourself constrained once again to lift up your eyes to the heavens and to see what lies beyond. A Father who can sort things out: and a future which will see things put to right. Your kingdom come, O Lord!
Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,