Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 19
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God; for he hath prepared for them a city.
When we listen to Jesus speaking to the crowds in the Gospels, it is easy to assume that He isnít speaking directly to us. After all, His examples and stories do not reach into our modern daily lives. Most of us do not know anything about agriculture, we donít understand their way of life. We have a much different point of view in our world, much different problems, and many different expectations. Our economic world is different. Our political world is different. Even our social world is different. How can Jesus expect us to fulfill the expectations He gives to the people in a different time and a different place?
Yet, the scriptures have been given for us as much as for them. When Jesus said, ďDo thisĒ He meant it also for us. His expectations are sometimes outrageous. Take, for example, how Jesus interpreted the Ten Commandments. It was not enough to keep from committing murder. He said it was a sin to be angry. Now, most of us can accept that murder is a bad thing, but how many of us can really live without being angry once in awhile? He said adultery is bad, but that lust is also. Is there anyone who can honestly say they have never had lustful thoughts when looking at the body of an attractive person?
How can we possibly live up to the expectations of Jesus, particularly in this passage? How can we possibly sell our possessions and give everything as alms to the poor? We have responsibilities. We have bills to pay and children to feed. Our homes require a great deal of commitment, not only financially but also in time and labor. We have to pay for our electricity, water, telephone and insurance. We have taxes to pay to local, state and national governments. It is a different world than the one in which Jesus lived. Though they had their own responsibilities, it surely must have been easier to live with less. They did not need a car just to get to work every day. They didnít need a wardrobe filled with suits for business meetings. They didnít have to buy back-to-school supplies for their children. We have so much more to worry about: Jesus could not have meant this passage for us in our day and age, could He?
So, we make excuses. We decide that Jesus was speaking to a specific time and place and that He would have something different to say to us. We find loopholes to the directive, certain that Jesus did not expect us to be able to do the same things as they did in His day. However, Jesus did not give us these expectations so that we could find loopholes. Jesus raises the bar on our behavior. We think that because we are Christian we are called to be moral or righteous or just plain Ďgood.í Yet, Jesus calls us to be more Ė to be Christ-like. He has called us to be like Him, to turn away from the life of this world to live the life of faith in His. We do have to live in this world, to live our lives in the culture into which we have been borne. Yet, Godís grace has transformed us into something new. It is that new person, the person of faith, to whom Jesus is speaking.
Is it easy to follow Jesusí directives? Can we, by our own power and might sell all our possessions and give it to the poor? Do we stop working at earning a living, chasing after the things of this world? No. The bar at which Jesus has set His expectations is so high that we do not do very well achieving it. We fail, miserably. We fail, daily. We fail, desperately. So, we often look at those expectations as something that isnít meant for us. We justify our failure with an understanding that we live in this different world, a world in which Jesus canít expect so much for us. We decide that if the bar is that high, then Jesus meant for us to walk under it.
Jesus taught us to strive to be like Him Ė Christ-like. He knows we will fail. He knows we will make mistakes daily. He knows that we will never make it to the top of the heap. But that is alright. Jesus doesnít give us these commands to strive to be better or more moral than others. He doesnít base our righteousness on our ability to meet His expectations or reward us for our goodness. Unfortunately, thatís often how we see our lives of faith. We think that if we are faithful enough, Jesus will grant us the blessings we seek. We think that if we are righteous enough, then we will have that relationship with God that we desire.
In our Old Testament lesson we learn that our relationship with God is not dependant on our faithfulness but on our faith. There is a difference. Faithfulness indicates a willingness and ability to do everything right according to a set of expectations. Faith is believing and trusting in another to keep their promises. Abram wanted to believe God, but he was beginning to lose hope. He was prepared to legally establish a slave born in his household as heir to his estate because he had no children, despite the fact that God had once told him that heíd have many offspring.
I can understand his disappointment; Iíve had my own disappointments in this life. People have made promises that have not been kept, expectations were left unfulfilled. It is easy to lose hope when things donít seem to be going as we expect. Abram was rather elderly at this point, well beyond the age of procreation. It would be foolish to expect the old and barren bodies of Abram and Sarai to be able to produce children. Even more so, it would be foolish of such elderly people to bring a child into the world knowing that they would probably not live long enough to ensure his or her well-being. I was exhausted by the antics of my toddlers when I was young enough to keep up. How would Abram and Sarai be able to deal with a child at that late age?
God answered Abramís doubt with a word, ďDo not be afraid.Ē Jesus said the same thing to His small community of followers. Fear and worry are two emotions that drive much of our lives. We work hard because we worry that we wonít have enough for today or tomorrow. We chase after the things we think will make our lives better and happier because we are afraid that we will miss out on some blessing that we think we deserve. Fear and worry causes us to jump into action when none is necessary or into situations that are not for the best. Like Abram, we look too far ahead, thinking that we have to make the promises happen instead of trusting God and waiting for Him to be faithful.
God answers Abramís fear and worry with the promise. ďLook now toward heaven, and number the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.Ē Can you imagine what Abram was seeing that day? The sky above his head was not dimmed by the lights of a city. When we look at the sky, most of us see a few dozen or a few hundred stars. We can almost imagine the day when our great-great-great-grandchildren are having their own children, born into this world. Abram, an elderly man with no offspring, was looking at a sky with more stars than he could possibly count. Go into a desert or the top of a mountain, far from a city, to see what he might have seen. The number of offspring God has promised is beyond count. ďSo shall they seed be.Ē Abram would never see it. It was a promise beyond his imagination and one that he would never see fulfilled in his own lifetime. Yet, Abram believed the LORD. He trusted Godís word. He had faith that God would be faithful. This was counted to Abram as righteousness.
What does this mean? What does it mean that his faith was credited to him as righteousness? What is righteousness? It is a right relationship with God. Righteousness is often defined as doing what is right, right living, holy living. There is certainly reason to believe there is a connection, since a right relationship with God means that weíll live according to His Word and expectations. If we love God, then we will do what He says. However, it is so easy for us to turn this around. Thatís what had happened by the time Jesus came to do His work Ė righteousness was defined as living according to the set of expectations set by God and interpreted by the leaders. In other words, to be righteous one had to live according to the laws as they were understood in that time and place.
However, Abram was not counted as righteous because of any ability or behavior of his own. He was righteous because he believed God. The right relationship between God and Abram was founded on Godís faithfulness, not Abramís. Our human flesh fails. It will always fail. We will never be good enough. We can never be strong enough. We will never be in a right relationship on our own. Thatís why Jesus came. He came to be a bridge between God and His people, to make things right again. He came to bring faith, to give it freely to those who hear His word and believe.
The subject of all our lessons is faith. This is not faith that the earth turns around or that the sun will rise. It is not faith that our next door neighbor will remember to pick up our newspaper when we are out of town. It is not faith that our kids will do what is right or that our spouses will remain true to our vows. It is faith that trusts in God and His faithfulness. We can believe the earth turns and the sun rises because we see it happen. We can believe our neighbor is helpful and our families are true because they have proven by their actions that they will do what is right. Yet, people fail. Even the sun and the earth will perish some day. But God is faithful. He keeps His promises. Though we can not see Him, or hear Him, or touch Him in the ways we can see, hear and touch the creation, we can believe in God and have hope in His promises. That is faith, believing in that which we canít see, hoping in that which is beyond our grasp.
As I look out my window at my neighborhood, I realize without a doubt how truly blessed I am. And my neighborhood flows out into a city, a state and a country that is truly blessed. With all our blessings, we might think that the first verse of our Psalm is meant for us. Many people do, believing that our blessings are God-given rewards for our good deeds and right living. There are even those who might take this as a guarantee that we will succeed at everything we do as a nation, blessed as we are because we are specially chosen by God. It is this haughty attitude that actually makes us trust in the wrong things, in our own abilities and strengths.
The psalmist writes, ďBlessed is the nation whose God is Jehovah.Ē While I do believe that a majority of Americans have some sort of belief in a higher power or a Creator, Iím not so sure we trust in God. We trust in so many things. We trust in our talents. We trust in our politicians. We trust in our strength and our big guns. We trust in our financial institutions. We even trust in our generosity. Even within the churches of America, the trust is not necessarily in God. It is in the pastor, the leadership, the programs and even in the property. We are reminded that a king is not saved by an army or man by great strength. Man is saved by Godís grace, and God has no favorites. He sees all mankind, He watches all people of the earth. So, we are called in this passage to be patient and to trust in God. He is our help and our shield. We must be careful that we do not allow our actions to become our god, that we do not trust in ourselves or let others trust in us to be blessed. Blessed is the man whose God is Jehovah. Happy are they who trust in His holy name.
Faith is not really faith if it is about things that we can see, feel, hear and touch. Faith, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, is the assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen. Faith is believing in something we canít touch, see or hear with our senses. It is believing in something that is beyond this world. Faith is believing in the better, heavenly country which was promised to our forefathers. They believed and it was not even within their reach. They believed and it was a distant promise, one that was given to their descendents. It was given to us.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the people who came before, the faithful from every generation who believed in Godís promises even though they would not receive it during their lifetime. We have been given that which they desired Ė we dwell with the One to whom they committed their lives. We have received the promise. Is it something we can grasp? No, eternal life is not something we can touch or see or hear. However, we can be assured that it is true. We are convicted by Godís Spirit and His grace of that which is real though unseen. We have faith not because we do all the right things or meet all the expectations. Faith is a gift from God, given through and by and for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. By faith we have that right relationship with God Ė righteousness Ė that brings us into a new relationship even with the world. By faith we strive to be like Christ, to strive to live up to His expectations. In faith we know that when we do fail, He is there to forgive and to transform and to make our life new.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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