Abraham - Longing for a Better Country

Original Date: 
Sunday, July 7, 2013

Hebrews 11:8-19 Hall of Faith: Abraham—Longing for a Better Country

College Cafeteria Fun
College cafeterias are noisy places filled with a lot of private conversations. There’s a lot going on in a college cafeteria—people moving to the salad bar, to the drink station, to the tray return—and yet each table is its own private little retreat. You see all types of students at the various tables. The really studious ones get a table to themselves, and have their books open as they eat. The ones in serious dating relationships find tables in the corner and sit with just the two of them. And most of the other tables are filled with groups of friends.

The unwritten rule in a college cafeteria is that each table keeps to itself. Talk about what you want at your table, but don’t bother anybody else.

I didn’t go much for that rule.

You may not have noticed, but I rather enjoy being the center of attention. So one of my favorite things to do during lunch at college was to embarrass the people who were eating with me. If I could get my tablemates to turn red with embarrassment or hide their faces in their hands, then I figured that was a good lunch.

For example, there’s the day that my friend Kyle and I decided to hold an impromptu karaoke contest during a crowded lunch at the Commons. Neither of us could sing a lick, but that didn’t stop us from singing the falsetto part of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” as loudly as we could. As all other conversation in the dining hall died down and our friends quietly tried to move their trays as far away from us as possible, Kyle and I were in our glory.

Or, my favorite thing to do, whenever a new friend joined our group for lunch, was to ask him: “How do you sell a duck to a deaf person?” When he said he didn’t know, I’d give the answer: “WANNA BUY A DUCK!?!” That’ll usually stop all conversation in a crowded room for a moment, and will definitely embarrass your friend.

My friends in college quickly figured out, just like my friends now know, that they could be ashamed to be seen in public with me.

“Ashamed.” That’s the word I want us to think about for a few minutes. What I was doing, of course, was harmless fun. I was trying to make my friends ashamed, for just a bit, of being seated next to the really loud guy.

But I really don’t want people to be ashamed of me. What that word means is that you have done something disgraceful or dishonorable. It means you have really let somebody down. If someone is truly ashamed of you, it means that they have been made to look bad by their association with you. I would never truly want to bring shame to my family or my friends.

God is Not Ashamed
Nor would I want to bring shame to my God.

There’s a remarkable verse in our text for today. Hebrews 11, verse 16. It talks about God and it uses that word “ashamed.” Here’s what it says:

Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

God is not ashamed! Isn’t that striking? This verse implies that God might be ashamed of something, but with this particular group of people He is not.

I really want God to be able to say this of me: “I am not ashamed to be called Russell Muilenburg’s God.” I want Him to be glad to look at me and say: “Yep, He’s one of mine!” I don’t mind occasionally embarrassing my friends or family when we’re out in public, but I don’t want to embarrass my God.

So here we are, in the middle of the Bible’s Hall of Fame of Faith, where we’re learning about some of the Big Names of the Old Testament, and it says that God is not ashamed to be called their God. He doesn’t mind being identified as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He’s comfortable being known as Noah’s God, or the God of Moses.

The question is: what leads to God being pleased to be our God? What needs to happen for God to say: “I’m not ashamed to be called Hope Church’s God?”

Well, given the chapter we’re in, it might not surprise you to learn that the key is faith. We are in the Bible’s great Faith Chapter. God is looking for those who will put their faith in Him. As I said when we started this series, He’s looking for those who will allow Him to be the hero in the story.

But if we back up a few verses from verse 16 we can learn some more about what this faith looks like. As we will see, the faith that God wants in us involves looking and longing. Faith that God is not ashamed of is faith that looks to the future God promises, and longs for it.

I’ll Wait For Her
So, let’s consider those two key words: looking and longing. First, looking.

Verses 13 and 14:

13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.

These verses represent a brief digression in the flow of Hebrews 11. This chapter, as we’ve seen the last few weeks, is a listing of the heroes of faith. Each new section begins the same way: “By faith…” “By faith Abel…” “By faith Noah…” “By faith Abraham…” and so on.

But this section, verses 13-16, breaks that pattern. It talks about “All these people.” And I take that to mean that the author of Hebrews is talking about all the people he profiles in this chapter. From Abel to Samson and the prophets.

And this digression is here because the author has an important point to make about all these people: they were all living by faith when they died, but they did not receive everything that was promised. They received some, but not all. They were still looking to the future when they died.

And this is an important point, because we have to see that the promises of God are not mainly for this world. Some are, but not all. There is always an element of faith that is looking for something that has not yet come.

The image is that of waiting for a great friend or lover coming to meet you.

Imagine that we all take a trip to Disneyland together. But, for some reason, we have to travel in two separate groups, and I’m in one group but Beth is in the other. And let’s say my group gets there first, and we are standing at the gate, ready to go in. But Beth’s group has just arrived, and they are way in the back of the parking lot, and they are just beginning the long walk to the gate.

Now, if you’re with me, you’re going to be saying: “C’mon, let’s go. Let’s get in there. Let’s get started on the rides.” But I’m going to say: “No, I’m going to wait for Beth. That’s what I want. This trip will mean less if I don’t experience it with her. I don’t really belong in this group, I belong with her.”

That, however imperfectly and on a very small scale, is what verse 13 is getting at: “They did not receive the things promised: they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance…” There is an element of faith that is always looking ahead, and even if it does not experience all of God’s promises in this life, it is still focused on them.

The writer of Hebrews wants us to see that the heroes of faith were sojourners, exiles. That is, they never fully lived in this world. They never fully belonged here. They always had an eye cast towards a country yet to come.

And the same should be true of us. Even though we know Jesus, not all of God’s promises have been fully realized. There is still a day coming when His kingdom will be fully consummated and all evil and brokenness will be made right. And, until that day, we live as people who are not quite at home. We live as people who see God’s promises on the horizon and welcome them from a distance.

Desiring God
Which leads to our second key word: longing. Not only does faith look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises; it also longs for it.

Verses 15 and 16:

15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Longing is an important word here. It tells us what was going on inside the hearts of these saints. It tells us just how important God’s promises were to them. They didn’t just see a better country off in the distance, they desired that country more than anything else.

This is the point of my Disneyland illustration. The reason I’m going to wait for Beth is—no offense to any of you—I’d rather experience something like that with her. In that sense, she’s more important to me than the rest of you. She has a bigger piece of my heart.

And that’s an important part of faith. Faith is seeing the promises of God from a distance and experiencing a change of heart so that you long for the promises above anything else the world has to offer. Faith is a glad greeting of those promises from a distance and a desire to know them and cherish them and be satisfied by them in such a way that a new kind of life emerges that is out of sync with the world. A life of faith that builds an ark in a desert or leaves the securities of home or builds a crib at the age of 90 or even lifts a knife over your most cherished earthly possession.

This is so important, this is such a key to having the kind of faith that pleases God, that I want to make sure we get it: Faith considers this world and what it offers, then faith considers the promises of God and what they offer - and faith longs for the one over the other.

Faith looks to the promised future that God offers--some now, mostly later--and faith longs for it. More than simply a decision to “believe” a set of facts about Jesus, true faith is a changing of heart so that we have new desires and priorities.

Now think about this for a moment. Do you want God to be unashamed of being your God? Then what must you do? Some great exploit that He can be proud of? Some high moral achievement that impresses Him?

No, the simple, stunning answer is this: long for Him. Long for the city He has made for you. Desire the city of God over the city of man. Desire heaven over earth. Desire God over everything but God.

This is what faith does in the heart of a believer. Faith desires God and the city God makes for His people more than it desires what the world can give. Faith in God means looking to the future God promises and longing for it.

The great battle for faith is not at the level of behavior, it's at the level of desire. What do you desire?

Now, Abraham. This sermon is supposed to be about Abraham and I’ve barely mentioned him so far. But the author of Hebrews has a special wing reserved in the Hall of Faith for Abraham. In many ways, Abraham is the Bible’s exhibit number one when it comes to faith. And this paragraph that we’ve just looked at, which defines faith as looking and longing for the future God promises, is bracketed on both sides with stories from Abraham’s life.

So if we want to know what this kind of faith looks like in practice, all we need to do is look at the example of Abraham. There are three stories.

The first is the story of Abraham leaving home. Verses 8-10:

8By 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. 9By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

The story of Abraham begins with God’s command to go. In Genesis 12:1 God comes to Abraham (then known as Abram) and says: “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”

Abraham starts out in the Fertile Crescent, modern day Iraq, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates often called the birthplace of civilization. It was a known world. A place Abraham was familiar with. And God comes to Him and tells him to leave. He doesn’t tell Abraham where he’s going at first (He calls it “the land I will show you”) but we know that the eventual destination will be Canaan, anywhere from 400 to 500 miles away.

Now, 500 miles doesn’t seem all that far in our modern world. That’s about the distance from Spencer to Chicago. With a car and interstates, that will take about 8 hours of travel time.

But, of course, Abraham lived a couple thousand years before Jesus, not in 21st Century America. He didn’t have cars or interstates. All he had were his feet and some pack animals. So for Abraham, 400 to 500 miles away could have just as well been moving to the moon.

And yet, God comes and tells him to move.

God tells him to leave behind his country—the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of civilization, the cities. Whatever conveniences the world might have known at this point, they were likely to be found there, not in Canaan.

God tells him to leave behind his people—his friends. This is what would have been familiar to Abraham. A whole culture, a religion of worshipping idols, a way of life.

And God tells him leave behind his father’s household—his family. In that culture, family was the hub around which all else revolved. To go someplace where you had no family was to voluntarily make yourself an orphan.

And God tells him to do all of this without even telling him precisely where he is going. God just says “Go! I’ll tell you to stop when you get there.” The great reformer John Calvin paraphrased God’s instructions as: “I command thee to go forth with closed eyes…” (Waltke, 205).

And Abraham goes. Why? Faith. Because he was able to look ahead and see God’s promises as something to welcome. Because he longed for what God promised as being better than what he knew. He was willing to live in tents, as a stranger in a foreign country, because he was looking forward to the city designed and built by God.

Or, again, the second story is about Abraham becoming a father. Verses 11-12:

11By faith Abraham, even though he was past age--and Sarah herself was barren--was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

The great promise of God to Abraham was that he would become the father of a great nation. God promised that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through the nation that would arise from Abraham’s bloodlines.

And yet, the cruel joke of Abraham’s life was the he and his wife were childless. Already 75 when God called on him to move, it seemed impossible that he would have a son in the natural way. In fact, when God came to reiterate the promise when Abraham was 99, Abraham’s first response was to laugh (Gen. 17:17). And again, when God sent messengers to say the birth was less than a year away, Sarah hid behind the tent flap and laughed (Gen. 18:12). It seemed so far-fetched that such a thing could happen.

And yet, for all their doubt and their attempts to create shortcuts to God’s promises, Abraham and Sarah never stopped looking and longing for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Though it seemed a cruel joke, they stayed loyal to God. Genesis 15 says that when God promised offspring as numberless as the stars in the sky, Abraham “believed the Lord” and it was “credited to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6)

And so it was, at long last, when Abraham became a father at the age of 100 and Sarah a mother at the age of 90, they named their son Isaac, which means laughter. Because He who had made the promise had proven Himself faithful and turned their cruel joke into their great joy.

And then, the third illustration of faith from Abraham’s life: the offering of Isaac. Verses 17-19:

17By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son,18even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." 19Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.

Here is the most astonishing episode from Abraham’s life. After all those years of waiting for a child, God comes to Him and commands that He sacrifice that same son on an altar.

The command, in Genesis 22:2, tugs at the heartstrings of any and every parent. God says: “Take your son, you only son, Isaac, whom you love…” This is Abraham’s son. His only son. The son that he loves. And Abraham is supposed to climb a mountain with a bundle of sticks strapped to this boy’s back and then lay him down upon those same sticks and plunge a knife into his heart? He’s supposed to light a fire and burn his son’s body to ashes?

More than that, as the author of Hebrews points out, this is the child of promise. This is the one through whom all of God’s promises of a nation and blessing are supposed to flow, and now Abraham is supposed to strike him down?

If this boy dies, everything in human experience says the promises of God will not come to pass.

Of course, we know that Isaac’s life was never really in danger. God has never approved of human sacrifice and that didn’t change in this story. It was a test of Abraham’s faith. A question: did Abraham look to and long for the promises of God more than anything else in the world, even his own son? Did he believe that God could do what He said, no matter how impossible it looked?

And, of course, Abraham passed the test. Reckoning that God could even raise the dead back to life if need be, he laid Isaac down and raised his knife before the angel of the Lord intervened.

This is faith that God is not ashamed of. Faith that looks for and longs for the promises of God more than anything else in this world.

Living For God
So, what about us? I said in the first week of this series that faith is what gives us the power to risk and love joyfully for the cause of Christ. The reason faith is important is because faith is the difference between taking the easy, comfortable, selfish way of living for ourselves or taking the hard, bold, selfless way of living for Jesus. It is faith—looking to and longing for the things of God—that helps us to say yes to God even when the world says no.

So, right now, God may be calling you to do something that looks miserable. You are faced with a choice, and you know what God would want you to do, but from a human perspective it doesn’t look like there could possibly be a good ending.

Maybe you are married, and right now your marriage feels like it is in tatters, but you know God wants you to stick it out. Or, maybe you are single, and everything in you is crying out for a relationship, but God is telling you to stay single for a while. Or maybe God is calling you to stay in a job that is tough. Or maybe He is calling you to leave a job. Maybe He is calling you to speak up about Christ to friend, or to take a stand for honesty and integrity, or to confront a person in sin. Maybe He’s calling you to downsize your life, or follow Him into the mission field.

From a worldly point of view, maybe what God is calling you to do looks terrible—it’s like moving your family without knowing where you are going. You’ve considered every human angle, and you can’t see how it will work out.

Now you know what it was like for Abraham. And this passage of scripture is here for you. Do you look to and long for God more than anything, and do you believe that He can and will honor your faith and obedience by being unashamed to call Himself your God? Do you believe that He will use all His wisdom and power and love to turn your act of faith into a path of life and joy?

Do you look to and long for Him? Will you trust Him? The word of God to you is: God is worthy and God is able.