Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Unknown Country

 Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-10         (NRSV)

11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.


There are very few characters in the Bible as consistently and faithfully obedient as Abraham.  One day a god he didn’t really know very well said to him, “Gather up your family and belongings.  Leave your home and everything that is familiar to you. I’ll tell you when to stop.”  Abraham said ok, and headed out.   It’s not like Abram - as he was known at the time - was a kid, who could just pick up and leave.  Genesis tells us he was 75 years old when he left Haran.  He had responsibilities - a wife, an extended family, servants, and flocks.  He had to gather all of those up and shepherd them along the way until he was told to stop in the land where the Canaanites lived, about 600 miles.  On foot.  With tents and sheep and children.  He never argued, he never complained.  He just went.  And the Lord promised him this land would be his, for his descendants, and that his name would be a blessing to all nations.  

I am always blown away by this story, by Abraham’s faithfulness.  We all know the other stories about him.  How he believed that God would give him children, even though he was quite old and his wife Sarah was apparently barren.  (Sarah wasn’t so sure.) How whatever God told him to do, he did, without fuss or question.  He even took his son Isaac to the high places and prepared to sacrifice him, because God told him to.  He didn’t ask for details.  He didn’t want to know what plan God had for him.  He just obeyed.

I find that totally amazing.  When I heard God’s voice telling me I was to be a minister, I’m afraid I was not nearly as accepting as Abraham.  I looked up and said, “What are you, crazy?  Seriously God, do you not know who I am and what I’ve done?  I am not minister material!”  I mean, obviously I did what I was told to do, because here I am.  By that time in my life I had learned that arguing with God brings much more pain and aggravation than just doing what God wants me to do in the first place.  But I wasn’t happy about it.  Don’t get me wrong.  I loved the going to school part.  But the idea that I would be responsible for guiding people in their spiritual journeys, as Abraham was responsible for guiding his people to the unknown country they had been promised . . . that just seemed to me like a poor choice on God’s part.  It wasn’t until about two years into my Master’s program that I finally accepted that maybe, just maybe, this was the right path for me.  

Hebrews was written at a time when Christians in the Roman Empire were facing persecution, probably around the year 65 ce.  It was written as a sermon of encouragement, intended to comfort and strengthen frightened people.  It makes sense, under those circumstances, that Abraham’s example should be lifted up for them.  No matter what, Abraham remained faithful.  No matter how reality seemed to point to the impossibility of what God had promised him, Abraham continued to believe what he had been promised.  “… faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”   Faith is what makes people who are faced with major difficulties - a diagnosis of life threatening illness, or the loss of a job, or some other life changing event - say things like, “No matter what happens, I will be ok,” and mean it.  Faith is what gets us through every sort of crisis and problem.   We may not know what’s coming in the future, but we know we will be ok.

I have been a fan of Star Trek for a very long time.   I loved the opening statement, “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  I even loved it more when they made it non-gender specific for The Next Generation.   In a 1991 Star Trek movie titled, “The Undiscovered Country,” Captain James Tiberius Kirk  speaks of the future as the undiscovered country, and of our lives as a journey into that place.  And surely, the episodes of Star Trek showed us over and over again that faith in the captain and crew and even the technology of the day would always bring them through.  In the episode “The Carbomite Maneuver,” when destruction seems imminent, Captain Kirk speaks to the crew saying, “You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown — only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”  

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”   We have faith that God is in our lives, that God loves us and cares for us, that God watches over us always, grieving when we grieve, laughing when we are filled with joy, forgiving us whenever we come confessing our wrongs, embracing us when we are in pain.  We believe that one day we will be with God and with all the others who have gone before.  We don’t know exactly how that works, but we have faith that it does.  We have faith that, no matter what, God will take care of us.  We are blessed.  It wasn’t always that way.

In the 4th Century people had come to believe, for I have no idea what reason because it isn’t at all Biblical, that once they were baptized they must live perfect lives.  That baptism would wash away all sins up until that point, but that any sins, no matter how small, committed after baptism could not be forgiven.  As a result many believers, including Emperor Constantine, put off baptism until they were pretty sure they were going to die and no longer at risk of sinning.  For those who might not know this - Emperor Constantine is said to have seen a cross in the sky before a great battle and swore that if he won he would convert.  He did win, and he did convert, and he made it legal to practice Christianity in the Roman Empire.  But he refused to be baptized until the very end of his life.  This practice was pretty much in direct opposition to what Jesus had preached,  for he said, 
35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  (Luke 12:35-40 NRSV)

“If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.”  If that’s not the motto for every security company ever, I’m sure I don’t know why not.  

But it’s clearly about much more important things than keeping one’s possession safe.  It is about keeping our hearts and souls prepared.  “Blessed are those who are alert when the Master comes.”  And there’s no way to know when that will be.  We can’t decide to dedicate ourselves to a Christian life when we retire, or after the kids are grown, or when we aren’t working quite so hard any more.  We can’t put off being the best people we can be just because we think we have plenty of time.  We can’t decide that we will do things the world’s way until it makes sense to do things the faithful way.  Imagine what might have happened with Abraham if he had thought that way.   We need to always be faithful, always trust that God will walk us through our difficulties, always do what we know God has called us to do.  Because we have no idea what will come next.  Our lives are a journey to an unknown country, and like Abraham, we must leave behind the things we are accustomed to - our fears and worries and concerns - and gather ourselves for a journey that leads we know not where and ends we know not when.  

Faith is not logical.  Belief in God is not logical.  Following Jesus’ teachings, living in a Christian way - loving even those who hate us, helping those the world thinks don’t deserve help, caring for those in need no matter what their circumstance, serving others instead of seeking power - is not logical.  None of that makes sense to the world.  And yet these are the things we are called to do if we truly follow Jesus.  

My sisters and brothers, let us always be as faithful as Abraham.  
Let us always be prepared, as servants waiting for their master to return.
Let us keep our faith in those things that Jesus has assured us of, God’s steadfast and unconditional love, and forgiveness and not in the ways of the world. 

Let us continue our journey into the unknown country that is life, trusting God to guide us along the way.   

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