Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 7, 2022
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 Commentary
We sometimes assume that we can recognize an alien when we see him (he’s green and has antennae) or at least see her citizenship papers (they say citizen of Canada, or Mexico, the United States, or some other country of origin). Yet when Hebrews’ author speaks of people like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and others as “aliens” (13), he’s not talking about people who were green and carried foreign identification papers. No, he’s speaking of people who lived and died by faith in the living God.
To him, Hebrews’ author, to be a faithful alien is to be at least somewhat uncomfortable in whatever place one finds oneself. An alien is always looking beyond his current “country” to another. An alien never forgets that she is always on the move toward a “better country.”
Yet gospel proclaimers who have a working knowledge of Jewish theology perceive some irony in Hebrews’ characterization of Abraham as an alien. Jewish people, after all, link salvation closely to the gift of the land. To be “saved” was and remains for observant Jews the reception of God’s gift of land.
So, faithful Jews would probably say, Abraham was an “alien” when he was living with his family in Haran. He, after all, was not yet living in the land God promised to give to his descendants and him. God, in fact, called him to leave Haran and his family behind to go to the land God would show him.
But, of course, Abraham eventually settles in Haran, in the land of Canaan. God even tells him in Genesis 13:15 that “All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.” While famine eventually chased Abraham’s descendants out of that land of promise, they eventually settled in Canaan. It was, after all, the home God had promised their ancestors and them.
But was it? The Jews that I know well would be shocked to hear Hebrews’ author insist that “by faith” Abraham “made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country” (9). After all, everything suggests that Abraham was no longer alien because he was finally “home.”
Yet, says Hebrews’ inspired author, he lived in the land of promise “like a stranger.” In fact, adds verse 13, not just Abel, Enoch and Noah who died outside of Canaan, but even Abraham who died in that land promise “admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.”
“Alien” is a status that I imagine relatively few proclaimers or hearers of Hebrews 11 would naturally claim for ourselves. After all, we assume the language we speak is not most aliens’ first language. Their religion and customs often seem strange to us. They are, quite simply, aliens among us. And, lest we or they forget that, they bear the status (or lack of status) that keeps them in their place as strangers.
Yet Hebrews’ author insists that not just Abel, Enoch, and Noah, but also Abraham “admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.” They admitted that their home wasn’t in the land of promise or, in fact, anywhere on earth. So no matter where they went or settled, those faithful folks never felt fully at home.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might explore with our hearers how the concept of 21st century Christians being “strangers and aliens” is alien to us. We might ask what makes this world, including wherever we travel and settle, naturally feel to some Christians not like a foreign country, but home? Hebrews 11’s proclaimers might find it helpful to ask what is it that pulls our thoughts and loyalties toward any “country” (15) in which we dwell or have left behind?
This might lead into a fruitful exploration of the dangers of feeling too settled in this world and its culture. After all, those whose hearts feel at home somewhere on this earth are vulnerable to adopting our adopted homes’ perspectives and behaviors. Our plot of ground, neighborhood, community or even country easily become the place where our loyalties and priorities lie.
However, it’s important that proclaimers first examine their own feelings of being at home here before we look at others’ comfort levels with this world. I naturally see others’ being too comfortable with this world and its ways far more readily than I see my own level of comfort with them.
Hebrews’ author explores what made Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham feel like strangers wherever they lived. He notes that Abraham, for example, “was looking forward to a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (10). Though Abraham eventually migrated to, settled in, and even died in the land of promise, he died looking beyond that land to that land God has designed and constructed.
Hebrews’ author goes on to say of not just Abraham, but also faithful Abel, Enoch, and Noah, that “they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one,” the city God had prepared for them (16). It’s language of looking beyond current arrangements to something better. Hebrews 11 communicates a longing for something better that what those people of faith already had. His writing gives his readers a sense that Hebrews’ author shares some of his faithful ancestors’ deep longing for a permanent homeland.
But, of course, as Hebrews’ writer notes and Tom Long (Hebrews, John Knox Westminster Press, 2012) observes, neither Abraham nor any of his ancestors or descendants arrived there in this life. They were, in fact, “still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance” (13). As Long writes, “They could see their destination in the distance; they could almost taste it, but they died along the way.”
Hebrews 11’s proclaimers will want to note that, unless Christ returns first, we too will die before we arrive at “the city with foundations,” “a better country – a heavenly one.” So Jesus’ friends are aliens and strangers no matter where we live or wander for as long as we live. We too can see where God is leading us off in the distance. But we’re not yet there.
Hebrews 11 invites God’s dearly beloved people to keep our eyes and hearts on the lasting home toward which God is drawing us. We, in the words of the Spiritual that was among America’s civil rights workers’ favorite songs, keep our “eyes on the prize.”
Those who follow Jesus toward the heavenly city are, in some basic but important ways, heavenly minded. But as the unlikely duo of Oliver Wendell Homes and Johnny Cash reminded us, it’s always at least a bit tempting to be “so heavenly minded that” we “are of no earthly good.” God’s adopted children are moving toward and longing for the “better country” that is the new creation. However, we never forget that God has put us in our various “countries” in order to both lovingly serve God above all and our neighbors as ourselves.
Hebrews says that Abraham showed that he was a stranger even in the land of promise by living in tents (9). So this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might explore how God’s adopted children might signal that we too are only strangers and aliens in whatever place we live.
Among other things it means that we never too tightly hold this world’s things and arrangements. Christians keep a loose grasp on the kinds of material things in which so many of our contemporaries invest so much and cling to so tightly.
At the same time, however, Christian aliens and strangers deeply invest in people whom God creates in God’s image. God’s dearly beloved people let our goal that is the new earth and heaven shape the way live on this earth. We invest ourselves in the lives of our “fellow travelers,” especially those whom others marginalize, as well as this earth on which we travel.
In that way, Jesus’ friends follow the Jesus who has already completed the journey home. He was like us in every way. Jesus too was a stranger and alien as he made his way to the better country. He also ended his journey in that city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. Jesus now summons those he’s not ashamed to call his brothers and sisters to follow him to the city God has graciously provided for us.
Long (ibid) notes that James Michener’s book Iberia describes the medieval pilgrims who traveled from France to Spain’s Cathedral of Saint John. As they neared the end of their demanding trip, they strained to see their destination on the horizon. The first one to see it, says Michener, would shout “My joy!”
Long says that in a similar way, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and their fellow faithful travelers strained to see the “tower of heaven” on the horizon. They too, says Hebrews 11:13, welcomed the sight of it. Those travelers, however, died before they reached the end of their pilgrimage. However, someday soon they, as well as God’s people, by God’s amazing, will reach their destination that is God’s glorious new creation.
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