The Pilgrims

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Hebrews 11:13-16

Have you ever thought of how embarrassed God must be by the actions of some people who claim to know him? Yet the Bible says there are those of whom “God is not ashamed to be called their God.” Wouldn’t you like to be one of them?

Writing of the great host of believers from Old Testament times, the writer to the book of Hebrews paid this tribute to them:

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. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, 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, for he has prepared for them a city.

(vv. 13-16, rsv)

PEOPLE WHO DON’T EMBARRASS GOD

What a phrase! Listen to it again: “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God.” I wonder if you have ever been embarrassed by the behavior of someone close to you. It happens all the time with parents and children. If you are a parent, you either know already (or you’ll soon discover) that it simply isn’t possible to raise a child from the age of three to the age of thirteen without being embarrassed by something he or she says or does. On the other hand, it’s not possible for your child to go from thirteen to twenty without you embarrassing her or him by what you say and do. So it all evens out.

But have you ever thought about the fact that something similar holds true for God? He is often embarrassed by the actions of those who are supposed to be part of his family. During the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s, a terrible massacre took place in several Muslim refugee camps. When the first relief columns reached the camps, they were greeted by the cry, “It was the Christians; the Christians did it!” More recently, recall the genocidal attacks of the Hutus and the Tutsis – most of whom were baptized Christians – in Rwanda and Burundi, or of the Orthodox Serbs against Albanian Muslims in Kosovo. Are these examples too extreme? The people who did such things could not have been real Christians, you say? Well, then, let’s come a bit closer to home. I’m a Christian; what about all the things I did and thought last month, last week, yesterday, that reflect poorly upon the name of Jesus Christ?

How ashamed of us God must often be! The British novelist Dorothy Sayers once defined what she called God’s three great humiliations: the incarnation, the cross, and the church. God humbled himself to come into the world as a man in Jesus Christ, and he lowered himself even further to endure the shame of crucifixion at the hands of sinful people. But he is humiliated every day by the behavior of men and women who bear his name but don’t live in his way. Whenever people who are called Christians do things that are not Christlike, shame is reflected upon God himself.

The good news, though, is that there are believers who live in such a way as to reflect honor upon God. Hebrews says of them that “God is not ashamed to be called their God” (Heb. 11:16). What a wonderful thing to say of someone, and what a splendid thing to be – a person of whom God himself is proud, as we could put it! I wonder: what are the characteristics of people like that? How do you become that sort of person?

PEOPLE WHO DIE IN FAITH

Well, listen to the Hebrews passage again. It says, “Therefore God is not ashamed” of these people. That word “therefore” indicates a conclusion based upon what has just been stated. The writer says earlier, “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised but having seen it and greeted it from afar . . . therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God” (Heb. 11:13,16, rsv). So the first characteristic of the people of whom God is not ashamed is that they are people who die in faith. Now the point here is not how they died exactly but rather how they were living when they died. They “were still living by faith when they died” (niv), that phrase could be translated. They lived by faith in the Lord right up to the end. They continued faithful even unto death, whenever and however and wherever death came. Nothing deterred them from walking with God; nothing dissuaded them from believing in God. They stayed the course.

Some folks claim that faith in God is the secret to getting what you want out of life. If you have enough faith or know how to pray in just the right way, then you can get whatever you desire. You can have everything you are looking for. According to this view, faith is a sort of magic key that unlocks God’s treasure chest of blessings.

But do you know what? It simply isn’t true. Faith does not mean getting all you want. Faith means trusting God even when you do not get what you want. Every faithful saint in the Old Testament was looking forward expectantly to the coming of the promised Savior, the Messiah. It was the one thing each of them wanted more than anything else, and yet every one of them died without having received the promise. Still they went on looking, they went on hoping, they went on believing, they went on working, obeying and suffering. They did not waver in their faith or turn back from following the Lord, even when the hoped for blessing never arrived.

The Bible says these men and women of faith saw the things God promised “and welcomed them from a distance” (v. 13, niv). They “greeted [the promise] from afar.” Just as dying in faith means continuing to the very end to look forward to the things God has promised his people (even if you don’t receive them), so it also means continuing to the very end to trust and obey God even when he seems far away. People who don’t embarrass God are people who keep believing and following him when it is not easy to do.

I came across a striking quotation recently from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” That strikes me as being true, not just of individuals, but of a nation as well. We are in the process right now here in America of finding out if we still have what it takes to overcome adversity: to fight the good fight, to make the demanded sacrifices, to pay the price of protecting freedom and winning peace. But more than that, it’s true of a church; adversity introduces believers to themselves. Adversity reveals the quality of our faith. You know, it’s not so hard to believe in God when he seems very real to you and feels very close, when your prayers are being wonderfully answered, and you can see continual evidence of God’s blessing and presence in your life. But it takes great faith to believe in God and to go on serving God when he seems to be absent, when your prayers go unheard and unheeded or so it seems, and when it looks for all the world as though the skeptics are right after all and the idea that there is a loving heavenly Father watching over you and caring for you is just a fantasy. God is proud to be the God of people with that kind of persevering faith.

PEOPLE WHO LIVE AS PILGRIMS

A second quality that describes those of whom God is not ashamed is that they live their lives as pilgrims. These saints of God, says Hebrews, “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth”; in the words of the King James Bible, they “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Say the word pilgrim to an American audience and it conjures up pictures of old New England and Thanksgiving day. When Americans think of pilgrims, we think of women dressed in long black dresses with white caps on their heads, and men wearing tall hats with buckles on them, carrying blunderbusses, and hunting for turkeys in the woods for a Thanksgiving dinner. But pilgrim is a great Bible word, and it is an even greater thing to be. A pilgrim is a traveler, someone on a spiritual journey, a person whose faith has made him or her turn their back on the world and set out on their way to a new homeland in heaven (Heb.11:14-16). Pilgrims are those who don’t settle here and make this world their permanent home. Rather, like the believers in Hebrews 11, they “make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. . . . they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Actually, that’s how our American pilgrims lived too. They understood themselves to be living by faith just like the men and women in Hebrews 11. William Bradford, the leader of the Pilgrims and governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote this about the English settlers who left their homes and families and moved to the wilderness of New England in order to worship God freely:

“They knew they were but pilgrims, and looked not much on those things: but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country.”

A History of Plymouth Plantation (1630)

God loves people who see themselves as pilgrims passing through this world. Pilgrims maintain an attitude of detachment toward the world’s goods and values. Biblical Christians will never turn their backs on the needs and problems of people. There’s a big difference between being a pilgrim and being a hermit. We don’t opt out of the world. On the contrary, we do everything in our power to help the suffering, the lonely, the oppressed, the poor and the needy. But without turning away from involvement in the world, we Christians also confess that we do not belong to the world. This world is not our home. We’re only traveling through on our way to the place where we really belong. Because of this, we refuse to define our lives according to the world’s wisdom, or measure our achievements by the world’s standards, or set our hearts on the world’s products, or seek our success according to the world’s goals, or define our worth by the world’s admiration. We never settle down here to permanent residence. Instead, we live our lives as pilgrims, sojourners; like refugees dwelling in temporary camps. We try not to get bogged down by all the things, all the stuff, that collects in our lives.

Here’s a good question: could you walk away from your house and everything in it without looking back? Could you give up all your possessions without undue remorse? (You will have to someday, you know.) I have a friend who once had to evacuate his beautiful coastal home because of an approaching hurricane. They had half an hour to leave, and could only take what their car would hold. “What did you choose?” I asked him. “Only the pictures,” he replied. If you live life as a pilgrim, you can always carry what’s most important with you: your relationships and memories. How often instead don’t we allow ourselves to become mired in the accumulation of what the world calls goods! The great missionary to China Hudson Taylor urged Christians to make sure their lives and possessions matched what they claimed to believe.

We tell people the world is vain; let our lives manifest that it is so. We tell them that our home is above and that all these things are transitory. Does our dwelling look like it? O to live consistent lives!

George MacDonald, a great Christian writer of a century ago, said that “No indulgence of passion destroys the spiritual nature so much as respectable selfishness.” Yes, there’s the greatest danger to living the life of a pilgrim: respectable selfishness.

Here is what it means to have a pilgrim’s faith. It means never being completely at home even in the place you were born and raised. It means never being fully satisfied even with the best things earth can offer. It means never settling down, never being entirely comfortable but always on the move, headed for the city of God. Faith means living with a perpetual longing for what you still don’t have and won’t possess until you are at home with the Lord.

So the big question is this: are we people with that kind of faith? Do we go on trusting God and obeying God no matter what, through every sort of blessing and testing, in happiness or in sorrow? Are we pilgrims, traveling light along the road to heaven? Is our real home there, or have we settled down here? Are our lives something of a spiritual embarrassment, or could God look at us and decide that he would not be ashamed to be called our God?