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?

In reading through the roll call of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, we come to a break at verse 13. The writer has just been talking about Abraham and his wife Sarah, the most important examples of faith in the Old Testament. He reminds his readers that by faith Abraham and Sarah put their trust in God’s promises and staked their lives on obedience to his word. By faith they left their home and went out to a new country, as God commanded them. By faith they believed God’s promise that they would have a son, even when it seemed impossible of fulfillment. And so they became the parents of numberless descendants. Thinking of those descendants, together with all the believers he has already named – all the Old Testament saints – our writer pauses to pay 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

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 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!” How ashamed of us God must be! The British novelist Dorothy Sayers describe’s God’s three great humiliations as: 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 is another kind of Christian. There are believers, people of faith, 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, and what a splendid thing to be – someone of whom God himself is proud! Who are the people who don’t embarrass God?

PEOPLE WHO DIE IN FAITH

The first thing we’re told about them is that they are people who die in faith. “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). The point here is not how these people died but how they were living when they died. They “were still living by faith when they died” (niv). 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. The ancient Greeks had a saying, “A life cannot be judged happy until it is ended.” You could say the same thing about faith. A life cannot be judged to be faithful until it has ended in faith.

People who die in faith are still walking obediently with God and still looking forward expectantly to God, right to the very end. “And all these though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Heb. 11:39, rsv). Some people say 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 is not true. Biblical faith is not like that at all. 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. 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. It seemed as though time ran out on them before they could enjoy the blessings God had promised, but that didn’t cause these believers to waver in their faith or turn back from following the Lord.

The Bible also says of these men and women of faith that they saw the things God promised “and welcomed them from a distance” (v. 13, niv). Just as dying in faith means continuing to the very end to look forward expectantly to all the good things God has promised his people (even if you don’t receive them), so it also means continuing to the very end to trust God even when he seems far away from you. People who don’t embarrass God are people who keep believing and following him when it is not easy. You know, it is not so hard to believe in God when he seems very real to you and feels very close to you: when, for example, your prayers are always answered, and you can see continual evidence of God’s presence and power in your life. But it takes great faith to believe in God when he seems to be absent, when your prayers seem to go unheard and unheeded, and when his hoped for promises are so far from you that you can hardly see them at all. God is proud to be the God of people with that kind of faith, and he has prepared a place for them, a city not belonging to this world, where they will finally receive all they could ever wish for and much more.

PEOPLE WHO LIVE AS PILGRIMS

Another thing we are told about those of whom God is not ashamed is that they live their lives as pilgrims. They die in faith, but before that they live as pilgrims. 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. 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 confess that they are, in the Bible’s words, “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:13, rsv). Three hundred years ago John Bunyan wrote a book about the Christian life that he called The Pilgrim’s Progress. In the preface to this great work he wrote these words, “This book will make a traveler of thee, if by its counsel thou wilt ruled be.” Exactly the same could be said of the Bible.

One of the characteristics of a true Christian is the realization that he or she is a pilgrim. Pilgrims maintain an attitude of detachment toward the world. Biblical Christians will never turn their backs on the needs and problems of people. 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 passing 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 values or seek our success in the world’s goals and admiration. We never settle down here to permanent residence. Instead, we live our lives as pilgrims, sojourners, like refugees dwelling in temporary camps.

This truth about believers is wonderfully expressed in a passage from an ancient Christian writing called The Epistle to Diognetus.

“The distinction between Christians and other men is neither in country nor language nor customs, for they do not dwell in cities in some place of their own, nor do they use any strange variety of dialect . . . Yet while living in Greek or Barbarian cities and following the local customs they show forth the wonderful and strange character of their own citizenship. They dwell in their own fatherlands but as if strangers in them. Every foreign country is their fatherland and yet every fatherland is a foreign country.”

This is more true today than it was two thousand years ago. Christians live in every country on earth, but only as resident aliens. Even in our own native lands we remain strangers and exiles, for our real home is heaven. Our citizenship is not in this world or any place in it. It’s in a different country altogether. We are travelers on the way to a heavenly city that God has prepared for those who love him.

This is what it means to have faith. Faith means never being completely at home even in the place you were born and raised. Faith means never being fully satisfied even with the best things earth can offer. Faith means never settling down, never being entirely comfortable but always on the move, headed for God’s kingdom. 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.

How about you? Are you a traveler? Are you looking? Are you not satisfied with the things around you? Are you longing for something more? Are you at home here, or is your home in heaven? Is your life an embarrassment to God, or would he not be ashamed to be called your God?