We all want solid ground in life, particularly when things feel unsure. It’s human to want solid ground. We can handle the shakiness momentarily, but the storms of life will come and knock us off our footing if we haven’t found ourselves planted on the solid rock. That’s the basis of Jesus’ parable that closes his most famous teaching—the Sermon on the Mount. It’s the parable of the wise and foolish builders. The fool builds his house on sand, and the storms come; the worries of life threaten; and the house buckles under the stress. But the wise builder’s house is built on the solid rock. Now, this isn’t an architectural lesson coming from Jesus as much as it is his way of describing that life in God’s world is at its best when we stand firmly in the promises of God.
We’re in the second week of our series called “Songs of the Faith.” Last week I covered a hymn that is cherished by so many; this week I’m going to focus on a song that was published only ten years ago called “Cornerstone.” But before I get into that song, I need to rewind to a time even earlier than the writing of last week’s hymn because “Cornerstone” uses the verses of a familiar hymn that was written in 1834 called “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.” It was written by Edward Mote with the chorus “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand,” a chorus that reflects back to Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish builders.
Edward Mote was born in London, England, in 1797. His parents ran a pub, which meant he was often left to manage himself even as a young child. At 18 Mote first the gospel and became a Christian. He then worked as a cabinet maker for 37 years. In his mid-50s he entered the ministry and became the pastor of Rehoboth Baptist Church in Horsham, England, where he served for 26 years. So, Mote was writing hymns long before he became a pastor.
While walking to his shop in 1834, Mote decided he wanted to write a hymn about the “gracious experience of a Christian.” The chorus of the hymn was complete by the time he arrived at work. By the end of the day he had his four verses written out and tucked away in his pocket. Later that week he went to visit the wife of a friend who was home with a serious illness. They wanted to sing but had no hymnal, so Mote pulled out his new composition and they sang it together. So moved was Mote by the experience that he had 1000 copies of the lyrics printed for distribution. Mote originally titled this hymn “The Immutable Basis for a Sinner’s Hope,” so I join you in being thankful that it was later renamed. My goodness—a terrible if accurate title.
Sometimes when we sing these older hymns we can be mystified by the language. This hymn has that old language. The first verse goes like this:
My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
The sweetest frame? What is that? I’ve never trusted a frame in my life, or have I? No, we all have. We’ve trusted that the builder of our homes has framed the house so it is solid and stable. Remember Mote was a cabinet maker. We take for granted the framing of the cabinet that is essential in holding our dishes, but its trustworthiness is essential.
In the second verse, Mote plays with the word “veil.” Darkness “veils” Jesus’ face sometimes; that is, when things are hard, we can feel far from God. The verse ends “my anchor holds within the veil,” which begs the question, “Why would I need an anchor in a veil?” Well, Mote is playing with the first line that Christ is the anchor—the solid rock—even in the storms, and he’s alluding to Hebrews 6:19-20, “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered.”
But today is not really about Mote’s hymn. It’s about a version of that hymn written only ten years ago. It comes from the Hillsong community of churches that had its start outside of Sydney, Australia, in the 1970s. Hillsong has connections to the Assemblies of God churches, which is a Pentecostal denomination. Their growth was notable, particularly among younger people who loved their music. Over the last few decades, Hillsong churches and their music have spread around the world.
Reuben Morgan was a professional songwriter who became Hillsong’s worship pastor in 2008. In 2011 Morgan was in Norway shortly after a gunman there had invaded a summer youth camp on an island northwest of Oslo, murdering 69 people. He found a nation reeling from this horrific violence. Morgan wrote about his experience, “It had left them at the intersection of fear, doubt, and sorrow. Just walking down the street was enough to know that people had been shaken to their very foundations…as the city closed in, I met with some friends. We shared in the sense of shock, felt some of the pain and fear and listened as melody and words began to rise.”
Mote’s hymn came to mind for Morgan, and he awakened to the reality that the instability of the world was ever-present. “We only just have the time to forget the face of the gunman when another chorus of sirens wail. We have barely cleaned up after the flood when an earthquake strikes,” he writes. “When things start to fall apart, we wonder whether what we have built our life upon is capable of sustaining us.”
From that experience, Morgan took Mote’s verses and changed the chorus to this: “Christ alone, Cornerstone. Weak made strong in the Savior’s love. Through the storm he is Lord, Lord of all.” It’s a new chorus and tune that affirms the timeless truth that Christ is the solid rock on which we stand, but his revision of the chorus gives us another metaphor for who Christ is to us. He’s our cornerstone.
We heard about cornerstones from our passages this morning. In Acts 4, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, boldly stands before the highest religious authorities in Jerusalem. Keep in mind that this is only weeks after Jesus was crucified in that very city, weeks after Peter denied Jesus three times to save his own skin. Now Peter and others are living boldly in the way of Jesus. They are teaching with authority. They are healing. They are making good trouble. The authorities want to know who has authorized this, and Peter points back to Psalm 118, which he reinterprets. “Jesus, the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; [he] has become the cornerstone.”
Now, I’m not an architect or a builder, so I had do research on what exactly a cornerstone is. While today the cornerstone is more symbolic than essential, then the cornerstone was “the principal stone around which construction in antiquity was achieved.” The cornerstone was the first stone laid for a building, and all other stones were oriented around the placement of that first one. Like the solid rock on which we are to build our homes, the cornerstone’s placement and integrity are essential to a solid building.
Now, today cornerstones still have meaning even if they’re not used in the same way. Cornerstones often mark the year a building was constructed, and sometimes they are filled with items that are symbolic to the purpose of that building. A church, for example, might fill a cornerstone with a Bible, a songbook, and the names of the original members of the congregation. First Pres has a cornerstone that is located just south of the chapel that marks significant dates in the life of this church.
So, when we sing, “Christ alone, Cornerstone,” we are making the claim that it is Christ on whom we build our faith. It is reliance upon the orientation of who Jesus is that we can withstand the storms of life. It is Christ who makes us strong through his love. Jesus is Lord of all, and he is the cornerstone of all that we build out of our lives.
Let’s be real. Life is filled with storms. Literally, that just happened across Florida where lives have been upended by Hurricane Ian, and I know many of us have connections there and are shaken by what has occurred. But we have plenty that can shake us to the core—a pandemic, a bad diagnosis, trouble with our children, job loss, a car accident. It storms all the time in life. That’s a given, and there is nothing about being a Christian that exempts us from the storms. But! We have a solid rock on which we stand. We have a cornerstone that gives our lives direction and stability. That stone is Jesus. Build your life upon Jesus. He’s not the icing on the cake. He’s the foundation of everything, and if we want strength in life and hope when the storms come, we need to build our lives upon this Jesus, who loves us and shows us the way to life.