“Longing for a better country…” (Hebrews 11)

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“All 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, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, 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.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

It sounds a tad anthropomorphic to think of God as being “ashamed,” but the idea also crops up in Luke 9:26: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Both usages refer to God’s judgement on us and the prospect of our future life in what C.S.Lewis called “The High Country.” Some people treat “The Judgement Seat of Christ” as if it’s one of those times when you shrink in your seat so that the teacher won’t notice you. But the word “judgement” refers to a comprehensive weighing-up process when the “secrets of your heart” are sifted and analysed.

Just now, I had occasion to root through my wife’s handbag in search of some Rennies. I won’t bore you (or embarass her) with all the details, but I was struck with how much the contents of the bag reflected the contents of her mind, and how those contents revealed the enormous care she takes for other people -a whole bag-full of helpfulness- like children’s toys, a nappy (!) and yes, pills for acid reflux. I knew they would be there! I examined her heart and judged her to be kind. I came seeking the fruit of her character and was not disappointed.

And God searches through us in much the same way, hunting for clues as to what we’re like. Matthew 7:21-23 is terrifying in this regard:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ “

Do you see it? God demands that personal, relational connection and prizes it above any show-off religious  razzmatazz.  “I knew about the miracles,” (he sort of says), “but I wanted to know you.”

And this is the rationale behind these verses from Hebrews 11. “God is not ashamed to be called their God.” It’s an acknowledgement of relationship, as if you’re sitting in a theatre at the end of the play, and the folk around you are admiring one of the actors, and you say, a little blushingly, “Actually, that’s my son.” You’re acknowledging your relationship. You’re proud to know that person.

But of course, the key word is “admiring.” And that’s what God is doing in Hebrews 11. He is applauding the efforts of his children, and acknowledging his parenthood! “God is not ashamed to be called their God.” And why? 

Because of their faith. They believed. They pushed forward. They committed themselves to an adventure even though they never saw things exactly work out.

I’ve often visited Ely Cathedral in the east of England. It’s an amazing structure which stands tall and visible for miles around. According to the guidebook, it was in continuous construction for over three hundred years. That means that there were whole generations of local craftsmen who never saw the finished thing, but spent their entire lives committed to the excellent production of a tiny part. They died without seeing just how their work fitted in to a grander whole, a Big Picture. They worked by faith in an architect’s plan.

“All 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, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.”

And we too are medieval craftsmen. We are the journeyman builders of something far bigger than we can properly understand. We see in part, but one day we will see the full picture. But for now we glimpse “through a glass darkly” and are called to welcome that full picture at a distance.

We don’t put our roots down here, or expect to find fulfilment here in a “country of our own.” We are looking up ahead and “longing for a better country – a heavenly one.”

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

And “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him…” (1 Cor 2:9)

 

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