If you have ever been frustrated by problems, then these words are for you. The temptation in our life is to look back, but Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 helps us develop a whole new outlook so that we are always “looking forward.” August 11, 2019.
How often do you think about heaven? That’s probably a tough question to answer because we don’t normally keep stats on our thought patterns. We wouldn’t expect someone to say, “I think about heaven eight times a week, once each day and twice on Sundays.” But I’m afraid we’ve got a problem on the other end of the spectrum. If we are honest, most of us would have to admit that we don’t think about heaven at all. “I’ve got so many things on my mind, what with all the taxes and bills, terrorists and war, work deadlines, vacation plans, health risks and home repairs, starting a new semester, planning a wedding. I don’t have time to think about heaven.”
The Christians who received this letter, this Bible book, known as the letter to the Hebrews, had a similar problem. They had a lot on their minds. They were getting picked on just for being Christians. Apostles like Peter and Paul had been executed. Emperor Nero passed a law which made the Jewish religion legal but Christianity illegal. Some thought, “Maybe we should go back to the Old Testament way of life and follow those Sinai laws of our ancestors. We can make God and the government happy at the same time.” But this Bible writer said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold on there! Don’t go backward. You’re losing sight of your heavenly goal. What you need to do is go forward. Hang on to your Savior and his promise of a better home in heaven.”
If you have ever been frustrated by problems, if you have ever been sick or short of money or at odds in your relationship with someone close to you, then these words are for you. The temptation in our life is to look back, but the Bible writer helps us develop a whole new outlook so that we are always looking forward.
To a heavenly country
The sand ground between his teeth. Blichh! He could shield it with his hand, cover it with his helmet, but hardly a day went by without the wind blowing grit into his MRE (meal, ready-to-eat). It was tough enough keeping his weapon clean, oiled and ready, but his food! Then there were the nights on patrol and upside-down sleep patterns. The day he stepped off the troop transport at the end of his tour of duty and planted his boot on the tarmac in the good old USA, it was, “Ahhh!” Have you traveled to a foreign country or spent time in a foreign land for business or study? Foreign countries may be interesting with different cultures, historic sights, and interesting people, but the rules and regulations, passports and police, strange language and possibly even stranger food often lead people to long to be home.
We enjoy many advantages as citizens of this great nation. Think of it! God could have put us on earth as citizens of France in 1799 (a revolution) or in Cambodia in 1975 (cultural genocide) or in Chernobyl in 1986 (nuclear disaster). But he chose to allow us to live here in America in 2019. We have every reason to thank God and burst with patriotic fervor. But we don’t want to lose sight of our ultimate goal. To do that, we take a cue from this Bible writer and remind ourselves that our country is not a perfect home. Captain Obvious, right? What a horrible situation it would be if we had to be pestered by sin forever, always struggling to earn a living, always worried about leaky roofs, rising health insurance rates, and mud-slinging politicians to say nothing about the senseless shootings like in El Paso and Dayton, the two hundred fifty-fifth mass shooting in the U.S. this year, and to say nothing of the messes we make and the hurt we cause because of our own turned-in-on-self nature!
Abraham knew what it meant to live in a foreign land and long to be “home.” By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country. After several decades in the land, Abraham still did not own one square inch of it except for the cave he bought for his wife’s tomb. He trusted God’s promise to give the land to his descendants, but he himself was a wandering shepherd with no legal claim to any property. You get the feeling that he might have said, “That’s it! I’ve had it! I want a better place to call my own, raise my children, and tend my sheep. I’m going back to the old country.”
But he didn’t say that, and he didn’t do it. All these people ... admitted that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Every day Abraham could step out of his tent, survey the landscape of Canaan, and say, “This is a nice place, but it is not perfect. I can think of the time my shepherds got into it with my nephew’s shepherds over a well. And then down the road there’s sinful Sodom and gross Gomorrah. I can also think of my own laziness, letting my faith get out of shape, relying on my own schemes instead of trusting God. I know I don’t deserve it, but so I’m glad that God has something better in mind for me. I’m looking forward to a heavenly country.”
Like Abraham the people who first received this letter had plenty of reminders that this earth was not perfect, and neither were they. Every day they had to deal with persecution and pressure just because they believed in Jesus. Every day that had reminders of their own failings and sin. What comfort for them to hear the Bible writer say, “Yes, you don’t deserve it, but God is so gracious to make you a glorious promise. You are heading to a heavenly country. It is perfect and already prepared by Jesus for you. Heaven is your home.”
Like Abraham and the early Christians who received this letter, troubles, disappointments, and heartaches remind us that our earthly home is not perfect. Every day we look in the mirror, and there’s the problem! There’s the worst sinner! Nothing wrong with looking back and being honest about our failings and failures. But getting stuck in the past won’t help. What to do? The Bible writer says, “You can look forward to a heavenly country. It is perfect and already prepared by Jesus for you.” Doesn’t that make you want to sing with me, “I’m but a stranger here … Heaven is my home”?
To a city built by God
Six hundred twenty feet long and five hundred thirteen feet wide, the Colosseum in Rome was the largest amphitheater around when it was built. It wasn’t constructed into a hillside for support. It was a freestanding stadium with a foundation of stone that could provide seating for fifty thousand. How did they do that without cranes and heavy machinery? And that’s just one of the amazing features of the capital city of the Roman Empire. Throughout history people have built cities so people could make money by offering services related to food or clothing and for security reasons. Citizens hoped to find safety in numbers, protecting their property with thick walls.
The Lord God wants us to take care of the property and possessions he has put on loan to us. We have every reason to be thankful to God for the prosperity and security we enjoy. But we don’t want to lose sight of our ultimate goal. Cities on earth are not permanent. We don’t have to drive too far from church to realize that there are new buildings being built and streets being paved, but there are also buildings falling apart and streets crumbling.
Abraham had no city which he could call home. Some of you may be thinking, “I thought I read in my Bible that he lived at Beersheba.” But Beersheba is a Hebrew for “place of the seven wells.” It was just an oasis for his sheep. He traveled north, south, east, and west in the land but never built a town called Abramsberg or Abramapolis. He didn’t enjoy the protection of a fortress. He lived in tents.
But he didn’t say, “I’m sick of traveling. I want to put down some roots, store my wealth, and protect my investments and family. I want to build a city!” He was content with God’s promise, “I am your shield, your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1). He knew that God was training him to look forward to the city with foundations whose architect and builder is God ... He had prepared a city for them. Each day Abraham could peel back the folds of his tent and say, “This place is nice, but it’s not permanent. The ground erodes. The wells go dry. The grass turns brown and blows away. I’m looking forward to a heavenly city, a city built by God.”
Some of the people who first received this letter witnessed the shanty town section of Rome go up in flames, part of Emperor Nero’s pathetic attempt at urban renewal. Then he blamed the Christians for the fire. Not long after this letter was written the city of Jerusalem was leveled, ripped apart stone by stone and left as a heap of rubble by the Roman general Titus and his legions. What comfort for them to hear the Bible writer say, “You are heading toward a heavenly city! It is permanent, a city built by God.”
Like Abraham and the early Christians who first received this letter, a lack of wealth and a lack of safety remind us that we are looking forward to a city built by God, to a heavenly Jerusalem. That kind of forward-looking is possible for only one reason. Don’t look in your clothes closet to find it. Don’t look in your purse or wallet. Don’t even look in your own heart because all you are going to find are clothes that go out of style or won’t fit next week, money that slips through your fingers faster than a popsicle on a ninety-eight degree day, and a heart so filthy with sin that it makes a garbage dump look like a garden. \There’s only one way to get the certainty of a permanent home to come, and that’s through the life of one Man, the God-man, who walked and talked in a way that soars all the way up and beyond God’s highest expectations. He could do it because he is also God. Because Jesus did what we could never do, we have the guarantee of a permanent home in heaven, a city built by God.
You think that’s so far out there, so far in the future? “I’ve got so much on my plate. I don’t have the time or energy to think about heaven. \I’m just trying to make it to Friday.” But when the MRI shows a tumor, when you get those little reminders that you can’t do or hear or see what you used to, you get a taste of what my father-in-law went through last February with two surgeries for bleeding on the brain and the real possibility that we would see him next in a coffin. Praise God he pulled through, and last weekend at a family gathering he reminded us that not only he but we have something to look forward to, and not just something, but the only thing that brings courage and strength to endure life’s trials and pains. We are looking forward to a city built by God.
Native Americans spoke about happy hunting grounds. Norsemen had their Valhalla. Hindus want to get absorbed into the nothingness of nirvana. Muslims think they’ll attain an eternity of wine, women, and song. A Mormon has to be nice and keep all the Mormon rules in order to become a god so he can create his own universe. But none of those things even come close the beauty and bounty of a personal relationship with a very personal and loving God, and none of those ideas and dreams of an afterlife come with any certainty or assurance that what is dreamed of or hoped for will actually come true. God has given us a better plan for a better place. The plan is Jesus. The place is heaven. And he himself swears that it’s true. Count on it. Amen.
Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI on August 11, 2019