Genesis 12: 1-5; Hebrews 11:1-13, 12: 1-2
June 17, 2012
I’ve said it before, folks – I’m a fan of airports. I know it sounds strange to some, as airports are loathe to those who travel for a living. But for me, flying remains a novelty, and I enjoy every minute of it. Well, once I get pass security, that is. That’s always a pain. But on the other side, I soak it up. I love flying and even cramming into undersized coach seats, and the takeoff and landing and free soft drinks. I love the people movers and random bookstores and overpriced merchandise I’ll never buy.
But you know what I really love, most of all? I love strolling the length of the concourse, as for some reason my gate is always at the other end. And I’m not in a hurry, I take my time, unlike the majority of my fellow travelers. All variations of speed from a heightened walk to a full-blown sprint. Dragging suitcases with wheels or small children, or both. People I feel certain I’ll never brush by again, in this lifetime at least.
And I’m always fascinated by all the destinations at the various gates along the way: Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville. New York City, Buffalo, St. Louis, Phoenix. Seattle, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Charlotte, Detroit, Louisville, Houston, Sioux Falls. It’s wild, thinking that one little enclosed strip of metal and glass and carpet can be the launching pad to so many different places. At each of these gates, people standing in line, handing off boarding passes, strolling down tarmacs with an agenda and a plan. They know their final destination. They know exactly where they’re going.
In that respect, at least, they have the upper hand on one particular traveler; the one we happen upon in our scriptures today. The 11th chapter of Hebrews is one of the more heralded parts of the New Testament; a “Who’s Who” of the Bible greats and how they followed God “by faith.” A cloud of witnesses, it’s called. And the one who gets the most press time is none other than Abraham, the guy who started it all way back in the Genesis passage Elaine read earlier. It was Abraham whom God appeared to out of nowhere one night, taking him outside and showing him a star-studded sky that would number his descendants. That was the promise. It was Abraham whom God called to lead his chosen people. And it was Abraham whom God gave, at the ripe old age of 100, a son – Isaac, who would begin the storied family lineage and all those descendants God had promised.
But the thing we should note here is how Abraham began that journey: a very, very curious beginning; as the writer of Hebrews tells us:
By faith Abraham obeyed
when he was called to set out for a place
that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out…
…and catch this last part…
… and he set out not knowing where he was going.
Now let’s just chew on that for a minute, shall we? Let’s think about that long and hard, y’all; because so often these stories in the Bible become so routine, so second-hand to us, that we often fail to see their full dimension. Let’s ponder the fact that the foundation of the Israelite nation, the Jewish faith and Christianity, this foundation begins with God appearing to an unsuspecting 75-year old man, and essentially saying: Abraham, I want you to pack everything up, all your family and all your belongings; and I want you to go on a trip from which you will never return. Oh, and I’m not going to tell you where you’re going, either.
You know what that’s like? That’s like standing at the starting line of a 10K race one Saturday morning, and having no idea where the race finishes up – you’re just going to run until you think it’s over. Or it’s like piling into the family car for the summer vacation trip with all the preparations made – the newspaper stopped for a week, the pet sitter lined up, the car packed. Every detail is completed, except one: you have absolutely no idea where it is you are going. No room reservations, no address to plug into the GPS. You literally don’t know, as you prepare to pull out of your driveway, whether you’re going to turn right or left.
Now I don’t know about you, but I find it amazing that, over the years, we’ve actually applauded Abraham for this. I mean, who gets a pat on the back for running a race without a finish line, or leaving on vacation with no destination? Going through life without an agenda in mind, without any goals? We characterize that behavior as reckless, irresponsible, even selfish, don’t we?
I mean, we tell our children from day one, do we not, to do their best in school and get involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities. And why? Because it’ll look good on a college application and help us get into a good college. And when we get into that college? We make the best grades and apply for the best internships, because a solid transcript coupled with a strong resume will help us land a good job. And when we land that job? We put in overtime and go above and beyond the call of duty so we can make partner, or get the big salary, or put ourselves in a position to buy into the business. So much of our lives in the first world is driven by the desire to take the necessary steps to get to a particular destination, a goal, a finish line. Achieving to succeed. Forward-focused. That’s a huge part of what drives so much of the Western mindset.
And then this guy Abraham comes along, and he’s embarking on some life-long journey without having a clue where he’s going, all because God told him to. Just go, and don’t worry about where you’re going, Abraham, because God will lead you there – some day. Don’t worry about the finish line, Abraham, because God will show it to you – eventually. And the writer of Hebrews takes Abraham and lifts him up, celebrates him for his non-destination, anti-finish line behavior; as a charter member in the cloud of witnesses and a paragon of excellence in the faith.
Does this sound as ludicrous to you as it does to me? Or to put it more personally: if it were you God had asked instead of Abraham, would you have gone?
As many of you know, my father works with the Olympics and is gearing up right now for some time in London later this summer. I can’t remember if it was he or someone else who shared this with me. They’d asked me if I had ever heard of the unique race that was part of the original Greek Olympics. The only thing I could think of was the fact that all the athletes competed in the nude – which was true, he told me, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. No, he told me that there was this one event categorically different from all the others. Most of the races, like today, were all about finishing first; but there was one event that had nothing to do with where one finished. It wasn’t even about a destination, really. The winner of this particular event, my friend told me, was the person who finished with their torch still lit.
A torch – flame, burning. Now think about that. If that’s the race you’re in, are you really concerned about whatever finish line is in front of you? No – your focus is all on the torch, doing whatever you can to keep it burning. Whatever to keep the flame lit.
See, I can’t help but wonder if that’s the kind of faith Abraham and all the others in this “cloud of witnesses” are celebrated for. What do you think? So much of Christian faith today is focused on the destination – be it heaven, or a blessed life. We manufacture a finish line that God has no desire for us to manufacture. We make it up! And when we get there, or think we get there, we take on a role that is not ours to take on. We convince ourselves that we’re finished, we’re complete. That the journey is over.
How crazy is that, given that the father of our faith was sent by God on a journey and didn’t even know where he was going? How can we ever say we’ve arrived if Abraham and all those others couldn’t say the same?
No, my friends; the Christian journey is not about the destination. It’s about something else – or, more precisely, someone else. As Hebrews says:
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us run with perseverance the race set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith….
Folks, you and I are on a journey – a journey of faith. But this journey isn’t always about where we’re going or what our destination is. It’s about keeping the flame on our torch lit. And that flame is none other than Jesus himself – the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” He is our goal, he is our destination, he is our finish line.
Don’t you see how dramatically this changes things? We never “arrive” – we are never “done” as sojourners in the faith. We are always works in progress, doing our little part to build a portion of God’s kingdom on earth. And the minute we think we have arrived is the minute that flame starts to go out. The minute we think “we don’t need to go to that Bible study, we already know enough about the Bible” or “we went to church last month, we can skip this Sunday,” or “I served Friends Feeding Friends three months in a row; someone else can do it this time” – the minute we start thinking stuff like that is the minute we’ve manufactured a destination that God never intended for us.
The journey of faith never ends! And isn’t that a beautiful, enriching, freeing kind of thing – even for us destination-minded Westerners? Our journey of faith keeps going, because God goes with us. And that can’t help but change the way that we take part in the journey.
It’s like an airport, but a little different than the one before. Imagine O’Hare or Hartsfield in Atlanta – one of the big ones – the day before Christmas or the day after Thanksgiving, when the place is slammed with people, frantically going here and there, trying to get to their gate so they board their plane and make their way to their pre-determined destinations…
And in the midst of all that that chaos is a family of four, sitting in a group of chairs in the corner of the concourse. They’re obviously traveling somewhere for the holidays, but unlike everyone else they don’t seem to be in a rush. Mom and Dad are looking at a Time magazine and talking about the cover issue. Brother and Sister are tossing a small ball back and forth, seeing how many times they can pass it without letting it drop. They all talk and laugh and seem perfectly at ease. They’re heading somewhere; of course. But that somewhere isn’t monopolizing all their time and energy. They’re just “being” with each other; they’re enjoying each other. They’re keeping their torch lit. And that’s the greatest journey of all.
Someone once said this:
The truth is that God’s will for us isn’t bound up in the final destination, be it heaven, a career choice or even a particular ministry. God’s will is for us to be in relationship with Jesus, to trust him with everything in our lives and to live each day in his presence.
And when you think about it, isn’t that a lot better than just getting to somewhere? In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.