Today’s passages: Isaiah, chapters 19-21; Hebrews, chapter 11
Scripture: Hebrews 11:1-3, 13-16 (NRSV) – 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…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.
Observations: The explanation of what faith is in verse 1 follows this statement at the end of chapter 10: “But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.” It’s almost as if the writer of Hebrews was imagining that those who were reading were asking, “What is this faith that you’re talking about?”
Often, when we read Hebrews 11, we focus on the individual stories of the “heroes of the faith” that are contained in it. Today, though, God drew my attention to verses 13-16, which sets forth some basic truths about all of those who have faith. First, the faith that is the basis of our salvation leads us to recognize that we are strangers and foreigners on earth. When we start to get too comfortable here, we can lose our focus on God’s Kingdom and the fact that his principles and values are not those of this world. It’s interesting that the writer uses the phrase “strangers and foreigners,” because the Old Testament commands God’s people time and again to welcome those who are “strangers and foreigners” because they once were strangers and foreigners in Egypt – and we are strangers and foreigners on earth.
Becoming too attached to anything of this world puts us at risk of losing sight of God’s promises and “settling” for this world instead of moving toward our real homeland. Remember this: no matter how “good” we think this world is, or how “good” we think we can make it, it will all be replaced by “a new heaven and a new earth” when God’s Kingdom comes in is fullness (Revelation 21:1). We are called to be like the faith heroes of the past, of whom the writer of Hebrews says, “If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.” Jesus taught us to pray each day that God’s Kingdom would come and his will be done on earth as in heaven. We can be sure that for that to happen, things need to take place on earth that change the way things are here. If God were completely satisfied with how things are on earth, his Kingdom would already be here as it is in heaven. Faith means that we hear God’s call, and we act to move further into God’s will, understanding that this means that everything in our lives is subject to change at his direction. Abraham left the city where he was living and the people he knew and set out across the desert in search of a country that he had never seen, because God had promised him an inheritance. And God has promised us an inheritance – but we have to be willing to leave behind “our country” and “seek first God’s Kingdom.”
That’s what it takes for us to really see God’s Kingdom come. Because the people of old believed and acted as they did, “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God.” The reason that he is not ashamed is because they believed and acted, because they recognized that this world was not their home. When our primary focus is this world, we are unable to fully appreciate and realize God’s call to our real home; when we recognize that we are just “strangers and foreigners” here, our priorities are changed to align with God’s priorities.
Applications: Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how God would have me set my priorities and use my time. Like everyone, there are plenty of calls for me to do things that others think are important. It would be easy to accept the idea that it’s my “duty” to take part in this rally or that protest, to boycott this or speak against that. It would be easy to assume that God wants me to do everything that someone suggests, because otherwise he wouldn’t have put that “opportunity” in front of me. But God has reinforced for me this week that his call is for me to focus not on “the land that I left behind” (this world), but to focus instead on “a better country, a heavenly one.” There are only two questions that God has set before me at this time in my ministry: how am I helping people to come to faith? and, how am I helping people to grow in their faith? Every decision that I make about what I do is to be filtered through those questions.
Prayer: Father, I confess that it is easy to get drawn into different causes and activities that other people think are important. Those things may be important for them – you may have laid those things on their hearts, and you don’t want me to disparage them. But you have made it clear to me where my focus should be. Help me to stay focused on you, and on the things that you have called me to do. Help me to do this with a humble spirit; guard me from any sense of spiritual pride. Help me to remember that I am only your servant, seeking to do what you have called me to do. You haven’t called me to be “important” or “successful,” only faithful. Help me today to walk in the faith that is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Amen.