What keeps us going?
A sermon on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 by Nathan Nettleton, 13 August 1995
Our life of faith is a journey motivated by the vision God gives us of what lies ahead.
I've felt really tired this week. I don't think I've been sleeping any less than normal, I think it is just the stage of the journey. The last six months, we've put a lot of work into thinking through who we are and how we are travelling, and the last few weeks, leading up to last Sunday, have been the climax of that. I think I have perhaps had so much invested in that stage of the journey, that having arrived, I'm just collapsing in a bit of a heap and I need a good lie down to get my breath back.
I'm sure Abraham and Sarah must have felt like that many times. I have the advantage of youth on my side, Abraham didn't, and that makes a difference. I get exhausted watching the way Sal lives, you know, party to exam to party. But I know I used to be much the same, out til 5 in the morning and then in class at 8:30 and not to much the worse for wear. I'm now ten years older, and I couldn't sustain it for more than a day or two. Ten years has slowed me down that much, but Abraham was apparently 44 years older than me when God told him to start travelling.
Well Abraham and Sarah trusted God and set out, but I would reckon that there were plenty of days when he reckoned that if the promised land wasn't just over the next rise then he was done for and he'd never make it. Those of you who've done any serious bush walking will know the feeling. But they didn't quit. And our reading from the letter to the Hebrews says that they died without having seen the realization of the promises they had believed, but that they glimpsed enough of them to die assured that they had not travelled in vain.
What is it that keeps us going? What is it that is going to enable me and any of the rest of us who feel like me after last weeks meeting, to get up and forge ahead? I'm not complaining about feeling tired. I reckon we deserve a bit of a rest, because it was a tough six month's work and we achieved what we were aiming for. But the reality of it is that this is really the beginning now. If we use the journey image of our bible passage, what we have done is spend six months preparing and loading the car. We have had the car serviced and tuned. We have faced up to a lot of tough decisions about what we can and can't take, about what's going on the roof rack and what's going in the boot, about who's going to sit where and about where our first petrol stop might be. But we haven't actually gone anywhere yet. We may even have an image of our destination in mind and a far idea which direction it is in, but none of us have actually been there, so we'll have to find out what it is like as we go. But right now we are still parked in the driveway.
The thing that is going to get us moving and keep us moving is the vision that God gives us of what we are heading towards and the strength of faith that God gives us to hold on to that vision through thick and thin. The Hebrews reading said that by faith Abraham and Sarah obeyed when they were called to set out for the place that they were to receive as an inheritance. But let me point out a common misconception about what faith is.
Sometimes people get faith confused with certainty. It says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for. It does not say that faith is a clear as day certainty. We get confused between our faith in the vision and our faith in the God who gives the vision. God offers us so many promises if we will respond in discipleship, salvation, resurrection, eternal life, fulfillment, wholeness, reconciliation, etc. But it is God that we need to grow to know, not the details of the promises. It says that Abraham and Sarah set out, not knowing where they were going. They did not travel in the strength of a certainty about what the promised land was like. They travelled because they trusted God and they knew that God was faithful to take care of the details so long as they obeyed.
I get bored out of my wits by people who want to argue about what heaven is like, or about what life after death will be like, or even about what the new creation will be like. Because most of it doesn't matter. What matters is that we trust God, and follow the signposts God puts before us. You see I don't believe in God because he promises me good things, I believe there will be good things because I trust in God. Therefore a signpost that says "go that way" is enough. If we trust God we will follow it. Abraham and Sarah did not need a sign that said "land of Israel, seated between a river and the sea, bordered by mountains with fertile valleys, 1348 km's that way, see pictures in travel brochure below." God just said "set out" and they trusted God so they set out. Faith is not the certainty abut what we will find at the end of the journey, it is the belief in the goodness of God that assures us that the journey will be worthwhile.
A new stage of our journey as a community of faith in this place is just beginning. We have vision of a people who worship together and pray together and work together to bring Christ's love and healing to those who need it. We have a bigger vision of a world where God's will is done on earth as in heaven and our society and the whole world are characterized by love and mercy and peace and justice. I for one would not be willing to put any money down on the chances of any of us living to see that vision fulfilled, but I reckon it can still see us through. Like Abrahan and Sarah we will live like strangers in the world because we will always be looking for the world to come. We will be restless straining to see the coming reign of Christ, the city designed by God. But like Abraham and Sarah we will probably only see it from a distance, but that will be enough to assure us that we have not journeyed together in vain.
Although I feel like I need a rest at the moment, the car is now loaded and we are ready to travel. God has given us a sense of direction, but only a vague sense of destination. Our faith is shown in our willingness to now embark on a journey in that direction. The concept of worship groups and mission groups and all the other things we have discussed and decided about is all very well on paper, now we need to take the step of faith that starts living them. Much will change along the way. For example, you may have no idea what sort of mission group you want to belong to, or you may have a clear idea but there is no one else wanting to travel that way at present, and if so, you still need to begin to travel and be ready for change down the road. Maybe you can get involved with a group in which you are only passingly interested and then change down the line a little when the time is right. That's what I'm doing. I don't have a long term passion for youth work, but when we commission the Youth Outreach Mission Group in a little while, I'll be among them. But the time will come when I will pull out and join another.
What is constant is the God we serve, made known to us in Christ, and experienced among us in the Spirit. It is in God that we put our faith, not in any promise or any structures or any short term vision. For no matter how clear a vision may seem to us now, a bit further down the road we will see that we only had part of it, or maybe we weren't even seeing straight. But our faith is in God and God leads us on.
I read the passage through dozens of times before I really noticed the last verse. It said that because we keep travelling forward in faith, because we keep searching and hoping for the fulfillment of the vision of what is to come, therefore God is not ashamed to be called our God. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called our God. That is what it meant back at the start of the passage when it said that by faith our ancestors received approval.
It was not because of the acuracy of their understanding of God's plans or the details of their theology. It was not because the could explain the concept of the atonement or get their minds around the theory of the trinity. It was not because they spoke in tongues or understood the signs of the last days. It was because when God said "go that way" they went that way believing that God would be faithful to them that way.
We to receive God's approval as we take each faltering step in obedience to the Spirit's leading and in pursuit of the glimpses of the vision that God has given us. Christian faith is not about taking Jesus into your heart, or about opening the door to let Jesus in. It is about openning the door and going out and letting Jesus take you places. In this community that is something we do together. That's why we are about to celebrate the fact that some of our felloew travellers are with us and welcome them into the membership of our little travelling band. There are quite a few people ready to take this step, but we'll do it a few at a time so that we don't lose them in the crowd.
Being a member of this church is not a goal or a destination. At best it is taking a seat in the car as we set out down the road. These are people of whom God is not ashamed because they hunger and thirst for God's love and peace and justice in the world and they follow Christ in seeking its fulfillment.