Have you ever gone to or lived in a place where you felt entirely out of step with everyone around you? I had some culture shocks at times when I lived in Texas for a few years, but I never felt completely lost and alienated.
When I was a pastor in northern New Jersey, I remember feeling just horribly for this very sweet young couple who had come to live and work in my hometown area and attend my church. They were from Iowa – where I am told that life is slow and easy, and everyone is kind, friendly and non-combative. None of those terms describe Jersey! The fast-paced, aggressive, loud, in-your-face culture was totally traumatizing for these folks. Simply driving and getting yelled at was a daily horror for them.
The finale for this couple was coming home from vacation to their rural house and fortunately noticing the curtains on the inside move as they came up the driveway. Pulling back from the home, they called the police. When the authorities came, a man ran out of the house shooting at the police who in response shot him. He was a drifter, who found an empty home and simply lived there while they were on vacation. But that was the final straw for this couple! Back to Iowa they moved!
Do you feel out of step with the rest of the world around you? I’m speaking of the idea of living for Christ and being identified with Him in a world that is increasingly hostile to faith and objective truth. If you feel like you are out of step with the much larger majority, it is probably because you are seeking to walk in the opposite direction than what the crowd is travelling.
This is how the readers of Hebrews felt. Maybe they should just stop swimming upstream … just turn around and take the easy route of going with the flow!
So the writer tells them that such an about-face would not please God. If they desired God’s commendation, they needed to live by faith and trust in Him, even in a crazy-pants world. And doing this was nothing new. Even the great patriarch Abraham had to do the same and live in a way that had him fully at odds with his world.
Think about what he did, even late in life, in obedience to God …
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
At the peak of his life, while living in the most prosperous place on earth at the time, Abraham was called to leave Ur and go to a place that God would later identify … just some place somewhere far away – a place he could receive as his inheritance. And when he got to the Promised Land, he didn’t really inherit the place. He basically lived as a nomad, wandering from place to place in tents. The only actual property he ever owned was a cave he purchased in order to bury his wife and family.
But it was okay. It was sufficient. He did not complain, because it says he was looking for a city (a place of permanence) who was designed by and built by God. So that means it was not of this world. This tells us of his focus: It was not on this world and its comforts, rewards or lack thereof. His gaze was beyond the temporary.
Beyond the material element of his sojourning, what good was a promise that he would inherit a great land and have offspring that would become a great nation … when there was no sight of such a reality? He was childless. He was too old to have children, and he had no prescription for Viagra! And beyond that, Sarah was WAY BEYOND childbearing years. This is a big problem. But he had a promise. And he trusted in that, and God blessed.
Taking some verses out of order, let’s finish off talking about Abraham specifically before reading the application paragraph in the text …
17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
The well-known story is one of the great displays of obedience and faith. God had said that Abraham’s blessing would come through his one son Isaac, but then God said to offer that one and only son as a sacrifice. We read of his total obedience in Genesis, but his full thought process is actually revealed here in Hebrews. He was willing to kill his son of promise, believing so strongly in that promise, that God would raise Isaac back up from the dead. That is impressive faith!
Hey Hebrews – do you guys still think you have some life challenges while living for Christ? So, how are your difficulties compared to these faced by Abraham? Here is the application (about Abraham and the others of faith mentioned to this point in the narrative) …
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
If anyone should have justly received the blessings of fulfillment and earthly ease and successful reward, it would be these heroes of the faith. But instead, none of them did. They died without the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise. Through the eye of faith, they could see the realities of these things from a distance – that the fulfillment would be in some measure in the lives of others to come after them, or not really until eternity. And that final place is the “country” they longed for … not an earthly place of comfort, or else they would have gone back to that comfort zone. Instead they pressed forward toward what the Apostle Paul would term the “high calling in Christ Jesus.”
Having eyes for eternity resulted in the approval of God – as he said he was not ashamed to be called their God and was preparing a place for them.
So, I am going to guess that some of you reading today struggle with these thoughts and truths as do I. This passage eats my lunch … not gonna lie. I am so often disappointed and discontented that there is not more visible reward for laboring for Christ and investing my life as I have. I’m not talking about material gain, because I don’t honestly care that terribly much about that. I’m more talking about visible and measurable ministry success. Yet honestly, I’ve had an easy calling in all the places I have been. They have all been bigger and better by standards of measurement than the average calling to service in the body of Christ, as so many who have given all of life to building the church have had to labor in smaller and more difficult pastures of ministry.
The challenge for us all is to get our eyes up and away from our feet and the immediate surroundings, rather to cast our gaze ever more toward the horizon of earth and heaven – toward the goal at the end of it all. We need to stop expecting pleasure and fulfillment in this world, that while serving faithfully to the tasks at hand for today, to do so also with the appropriate understanding that we are aliens and strangers in this world. And that viewpoint changes everything.