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AUGUST 11, 2013

A Better Country

Genesis 23; Hebrews 11

These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth…. They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

About thirty years ago, my brother took off for Europe with a fraternity brother. They were going to spend a couple of months in Scotland and England, maybe go over to the continent, too. They were finished with college and hadn’t started working yet, so it seemed to be a good time to explore a little bit, to see the world.

About two weeks after leaving, my brother came back. It wasn’t because he got robbed or got bored. He certainly wasn’t scared; my brother is huge and he can take care of himself! No, he came home because … Europe to him was just no good. The food wasn’t as good. The accommodations weren’t as good. The weather wasn’t as good. The women weren’t as good-looking. He decided that he lived in the best country on earth already, so why did he want to spend all that time in a worse country?

I suppose you don’t have to be a world traveler to sympathize with my brother, do you? I have not really toured Europe, myself; I have been on mission trips to Central America and the Caribbean and to East Africa. And though I have no doubt of my own bias, I cannot imagine living anywhere else in the world. I cannot imagine a better country.

And so I confess a certain challenge in proclaiming for you today this word about the faith of the saints who have gone before us: “They desired a better country.” Okay, you might say, they didn’t live in the United States of America; they lived in Israel, and a long time before it enjoyed any development. Of course they desired a better country. If they had lived a few centuries later, they would have been blessed by running water and indoor plumbing and maybe even air conditioning. I even saw a picture from last year’s trip to Jerusalem: they had a Starbuck’s imitator right in the old city! Lattes in the Holy Land: talk about a better country!

But… I guess we have to get honest here. Hebrews is not talking about such things. The saints who desired a better country weren’t thinking about the cost of living or the cuisine; they weren’t thinking about the prime rate or political stability. They weren’t even thinking about a nation with a constitution. No, when Hebrews uses the word “country,” it’s a metaphor. It’s a way of “saying one thing and meaning another.” That is why in one sentence Hebrews can say “they desire a better country” and in another it can say that God has prepared for them a city. Hebrews is saying one thing and meaning another.

Maybe we can identify with Abraham in his desire for a better country. Can you imagine burying the love of your life, the one who was your co-traveler, your confidant, your companion, in a foreign land, on a piece of property you had to buy from a stranger because you had made no plans? Surely, when Abram took Sarai’s hand in marriage, he didn’t tell her father that he would take her off to God-only-knows-where, and one day bury her in a place that her relatives might never be able to find. Surely, as he watched them roll the stone in front of the cave, he could have winced that it didn’t end exactly as they had dreamed. But life is like that, isn’t it? Who ever planned to be buried by the beaches of Normandy? Who ever dreamed of spending her last days surrounded by strangers under harsh lights, barely alert to her surroundings? Who, in planning for retirement, anticipated a swoon in the stock market? Who made their vows expecting them to be broken? Life is like that, isn’t it? And in the lives of the saints, it isn’t just when things go wrong. It’s when things go right; when they go not as we planned, but as God planned.

Maybe Presbyterians are known for predestination not because of our views about salvation, but because of our views on God’s providence. John Calvin, after all, had no intention whatsoever to become a pastor. He was minding his own business, on his way to a quiet life of study and teaching in France, when William Farel implored him by the bowels of God, and threatened the wrath of God, if he did not remain in Geneva and lead the church there. The rest is history.

Actually, I had my own moment of reckoning on that count. When I finally answered God’s call to ministry, a high school teacher told me that years before, after I had burned some of her class time pontificating about something unimportant, she said, “Stuart, you’re going to be a minister someday.” And apparently I went home furious, stubborn. My mother immediately called the teacher and said, “Don’t ever say that again, or he might not answer the call.”

Things rarely go as we plan, especially when it comes to following God. Abraham obeyed when God called him to go out to a place that would be his inheritance; he had no clue where he was going. Sarah was way past menopause when she trusted the ridiculous promise of God that she would conceive a son. And they died, as Hebrews says, not having received what was promised. A son, yes, but not descendants as numerous as the stars. And the promised land: that would be someone else’s privilege to enter and own. Things don’t go as we plan, and things never seem to be fully completed. Reinhold Niebuhr said that anything worth spending a lifetime doing takes more than a lifetime to complete.

And Hebrews says that God is not ashamed of those who desire a better country. God does not consider us ungrateful if we acknowledge the imperfection of this world, the incompleteness of it. It is no shame to cry out to God in grief; it is no offense to deplore the world’s injustice; it is no failure to ask God, “why?”

You see, the world, as sturdy as it is, has arrangements that are forever temporary, like furniture. Governments come and go. Nations come and go. Ask the Pharaoh; ask the Emperor. Ask the Whig party. We have a tendency to fall in love with things as they are, to imagine that what we see is permanent. But faith is the conviction of things not seen. And the saints who have gone before us have shown us that the most sure things are not those that we can see; they are what we cannot see. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.

God brings into existence the things that do not exist. God is able to do more than we could ask or imagine. The saints know this. And so the saints do not fall in love with things as they are. Rather, they follow the God who is preparing for them a city.

Last week, Reinerio Arce told us about the history of our partner church in Varadero, Cuba. Times were hard for the churches after the Cuban revolution. Christians were ostracized by the new government, so much so that most men ceased to associate with the church, especially if they hoped to have any employment. Our partner Joel Dopico says that he still doesn’t understand how he ended up in church as a teenage boy. There were no men around, he said, just old ladies. But he did end up in church, and those old ladies taught him the faith, and now he is a pastor. Reinerio says that at the worst of times, the Dora E. Valentin Church was down to one member, and the presbytery decided that the church should be closed. But the one woman left let the elders know that they would close that church over her dead body! It was her church and she still would pray there. The elders saw no future in that church. She simply kept praying. And today? Today Dopico is the pastor of that once-nearly-dead church, which is packed on Sunday mornings with women, men, and children.

God makes things happen from things that cannot be seen, like prayer. God takes prayers and makes peace between enemies. It was a privilege for me to travel to Rwanda with the Mwizerwa family, and to see not only the depth of the violence that was done there, but the depth of mercy that Rwandan Christians have shown to those who acted so brutally. God makes a way out of no way.

I’m sure you could tell a story or two about God bringing into existence things that no one could have foreseen. This is what the saints have always known, and what you and I sometimes struggle to believe, and what God promises is true. God’s creative power is more sure than anything we can see or touch. A relationship that we thought was lost somehow was saved; or a broken heart was somehow healed; what we thought was the end was just the beginning. The parable we heard last week – the tragedy of Mr. Bigger Barns – is about our faith failing us, our thinking that the things we can see and touch and store away are the surest things of all. They are not. The surest thing is God, whom we cannot see; and the better country that God is preparing. It’s why you can both love the world as it is, and love it so much that you desire something better for it.

I went searching on the internet, of course, for a few quotations about faith, and found some comments about Taoism. I do not know if the sources are authoritative, but they sound reasonable. One source on Taoism said, “Faith implies an element of trust. In Christianity, it is a trust not unlike the trust you will have in a friend … in Taoism, this trust is more like … the trust you will have in … the law of gravity.” In other words, a Taoist believes that there are moral laws to the universe that are analogous to the physical laws. You know that if you miss a step on a ladder, you won’t remain suspended in the air; you will fall. Likewise, you know that if you cheat someone, what goes around comes around. That’s one way of looking at faith.

That is not the way that Hebrews describes faith. Faith in God, the Father of Jesus, is trust in a providential, personal God who calls us by name and confronts our sin and covers our guilt, and completes our creation in the life to come. Abraham believed the word of this personal God. Sarah believed the word of this personal God. Cuban Christians and Rwandan Christians have believed the word of this personal God. They know that his will for us is good and his power for us is great. Christian faith, you see, is in someone. Abraham’s faith was in God, not an idea or a philosophy. It was in God.

Now, all of us run the risk of placing our faith in something other than God. Some of us run the risk of having faith not in God, but in the past and its traditions. “We’ve always done things this way; this is who we are.”

Others of us run the risk of having faith not in God, but in the future and its innovations. “This is the latest and greatest; it’s the result of thorough research. It will reach people today.”

Neither represents true faith. Because in truth, tradition is something you can see and touch. And innovation also is something you can see and touch; it’s just shinier.

But God is something you cannot see or touch. God does connect us to the past; and God does make all things new. But faith in tradition isn’t true faith and faith in innovation isn’t true faith, either; faith in God, who speaks into existence things that do not exist, is true faith.

Maybe this is why Jesus teaches us to pray “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” Just as Jesus took on human flesh to live among us, leaving the comforts of heaven for this earthly struggle, so God has in store for us a fully human life. It has its share of love and joys; and many are bittersweet. It has its share of costly obedience, of times when we must choose faithfulness to God over our convenience or desire. I am sure that Abraham hated to bury his beloved in a foreign land. I’m sure that every one of us can look back on life and see mistakes we wish we had not made, and choices that we wish we could have made, but which were made for us. When you and I rest from our labors, and our works follow us, there will remain unfinished business. It is unavoidable. But anything worth spending a lifetime doing takes more than a lifetime to finish. And the good work that God is doing in us and through us will not be completed this side of eternity.

God is not ashamed of anyone who desires a better country. And you need not be ashamed of praying for one.

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