Sermon #277 St. Martin’s #35 (Big Church) 8/7/22
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 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. 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. 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. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-- and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
For 620 years the city of Rome had lived in relative peace. Of course, they sent their army throughout their vast empire to patrol key cities and roads, to quench rebellions when they flared up, and to extend their border when it was convenient.
Danger always lurked at the empire’s northern and eastern borders, but to the average citizen who went about their business amid the hustle and bustle of Rome, those concerns were the furthest thing from their mind. That was the wild frontier after all, out of sight and out of mind.
For over six long centuries, Rome had a comfortable buffer between themselves and their enemies. This was a city that didn’t need to be defended, instead it is where soldiers came to parade with their spoils of war; to sit in peace and tell of their heroic adventures in faraway lands. Citizens of Rome loved to say that their beloved home was the Eternal City.
And that is why it was so shocking when word spread that Rome had been sacked by barbarians in the year 410. Alaric, a Visigoth leader, had stormed the city, and plundered the temples and palaces within its walls. Though many lost their lives to the swords of the Germanic barbarians, none where touched who sought refuge in a church. Alaric was a Christian after all.
Refugees began pouring out of the city, in search for a new home. Some even crossed the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to find safety in North Africa. It was there, in one of those North African cities, that a local bishop spent much of his time trying to find housing and supplies for the refugees who flocked there.
While helping these strangers, he realized they were asking the same questions he was. Why had Rome fallen? Was this the end of the world? Would Christianity collapse just like the Eternal City?
In the years that followed, Aurelius Augustinus would write his answer to these questions at the behest of his good friend. It would become one of the most important Christian writings of all time. It is known as The City of God, and we know him as St. Augustine.
The thesis of the book really is this: there are two cities, the Worldly City that is bound together by the love of earthly things that will fade away (like Rome), and there is the Heavenly City, the City of God, that is eternal. One is ruled by sin while the other is ruled by the love of God. The one, true eternal city far outshines Rome or any human creation.
In his opening line of the book, Augustine says that we “sojourn as a stranger” in the midst of the perishing kingdoms of this world. Though we presently live in this Worldly City, our citizenship is of another kingdom entirely.
Augustine was putting a new spin on an old idea—one that is touched on in both the Old and New Testament that claimed that God’s people would be strangers even in their homeland.
In our letter from Hebrews, the writer looks back to the story of the patriarchs in Genesis—of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
God had promised them land, and descendants that were as numerous as the stars in the sky. But none of them actually saw this promise come to fruition. They “died in faith without having received the promises,” as the writer of Hebrews says.
Quite ironically, they lived in the land that would later become the place the Israelites settled after the Exodus. Abraham lived in the Promised Land, but as a foreigner, a wanderer, and even a stranger.
He had no claim to the land, no deed to show ownership; he only had the promise that God had given him: one day his family would possess it, one day his family would be a great nation, and one day the entire world would be blessed through them.
But as for the present moment, Abraham was a religious refugee from Mesopotamia, holding onto a promise from an unknown God.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that patriarchs in Genesis even came to the same conclusion, and “confessed they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.” They were strangers in a land that felt like home.
The Greek word for strangers is “xenoi,” and it’s where we get the word xenophobia (meaning a hate or fear of the foreigner or stranger). Both the writer of Hebrews and St. Augustine, want us to see ourselves as “the xenoi,” the strangers in the land.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” they remind us. Our home is not of this world; much of what is before us is fleeting, and the people of God are to chase after that which is eternal. We are sojourning foreigners who are awaiting repatriation.
Like Abraham, we hold onto God’s promise that there is a better country, a heavenly one, that awaits us. Many times, this may seem like a distant promise, too far out of reach to know if it is true, but our call is to have faith.
And really that is the core message in our reading from Hebrews. The only reason the writer even brings up Abraham is to show us an example of faith. “Faith,” he says, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Conversations & Funerals
Our young adult Bible study has been wrestling with this over the past few weeks. We are called to have faith, but what does that really mean? How can we have faith when there are still so many questions out there, or when we look at the state of the world?
My New Testament professor in college, Roger Green, defined faith this way, “Faith is taking everything you know about yourself and committing it to everything you know about God.”
At the most barebones level, what we know about God is that he is inherently good (and not evil). He loves his creation and has made promises to us. And because he is good, we can be confident that he will fulfill his promises.
Now we have a leg up on Abraham, because we have seen God’s promise fulfilled in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God himself, showed us in all the horrific glory of the cross that he would rather die for his creation than be separated from us. Not even death could stop God from delivering on his promise.
This has not only been a core theme of our conversations at Bible study, but in the handful of funerals I’ve done in the past few weeks. Family members who are mourning are told by well-intentioned friends to have faith. But what does that mean when things seem so final?
Our funeral service, as heartbreaking as it can be, is meant to remind us of the promises that we hold onto as Christians. Even with the stark reality of death before our eyes, we are reminded of the promise of deep, everlasting life.
We try to remind those who mourn that their loved one (and they themselves) are citizens of another country, a new creation, established and held together by the overwhelming goodness and grace of God.
As hard as it may be in that moment, we are called to commit everything we know about ourselves and commit it to everything we know about this God.
Even amid the doubts and questions, to find it within ourselves to trust that the Giver of the eternal promise is good and that he is faithful. He has delivered once and for all on the cross, and he will deliver again.
Our call in this present moment of wandering is to have faith like Abraham. We long for a better place and we’re told that God has prepared a city for us.
The Bible’s final pages close with a vision of a heavenly city coming down from heaven and establishing itself on the earth. God will restore even the creation he, at the very beginning, called good. And there, we will be with God, and he will be with us—no death, no pain, and no more wandering. We will finally be home.
Until then, we are “the xenoi,” the strangers who carry with us a promise. We hold claim to a heavenly city that we have yet to see, but we hold on with faith, knowing the Master Builder, Jesus himself, has prepared a place for wearied strangers like you and me.