“By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations—the City designed and built by God.” (Hebrews 11:8-10)
How do you keep your eye on the unseen city? By faith. “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” But there is a powerful principle here. It affects the entire way that we do life.
It’s interesting to note that God promised Canaan to Abraham, and yet Abraham never inherited Canaan. He was a wanderer to the very end and could stake no real claim on the land. Even the tomb for his dead had to be bought. This is what the text states quite candidly: “By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents.” He dwelt there in tents-in changeful, movable tabernacles-not permanent habitations; he had no home there. A Campervan, not a Castle.
The point recurs in Acts 7:5 “He immigrated to this country where you now live, but God gave him nothing, not so much as a foothold. He did promise to give the country to him and his son later on, even though Abraham had no son at the time.”
It’s astonishing that Abraham never complained about all this! In fact, I think, he seems even grateful for the non-fulfilment of the promise. He doesn’t seem to have expected its fulfilment: he did not look for Canaan, but for “a city which had foundations;” in fact, his faith appears to have consisted in disbelieving the letter, almost as much as in believing the spirit of the promise.
And here’s the point, which, if you think carefully about it, creates quite a powerful insight to the way we live. God’s promises are never fulfilled in the sense in which they seem to have been given. Life is a deception; its anticipations, which are God’s promises to the imagination, are never realized. They who know life best, and have trusted God most to fill it with blessings, are always the first to say that life can seem a series of disappointments. And in the spirit of this text you have to admit that it is a wise and merciful arrangement which orders it this way.
Those who think most clearly and deeply would not wish it otherwise! Remember, we are here to live and die; in a few years it will be all over; meanwhile, what we have to do is to try to understand, and to help one another to understand, what it all means-what this strange and contradictory thing, which we call life, contains within it.
We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes. We’re homesick for a home we’ve never known.
We bear the passport of a country that we’ve never visited.
The alternative is dire indeed. It is the present earthly fulfilment of all our “hopes and dreams.” It’s as if the best way that God can think of to bless you is with “fancy cars and caviar.” But the “kingdom of God is not meat and drink,” – how could it be? -“For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”
That is to say, the life of faith which Abraham exemplified, reaches into the life of God himself. It walks the earth and attempts to count the stars. It dwells in tents and understands that the whole of life is “living in tents,” so to speak. And so the life of faith keeps “his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations—the City designed and built by God.”
Mary Oliver’s lovely poem expresses something of this. And today, I want to reflect on the last two lines:
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?