The second reading this morning is a passage from the letter to the Hebrews and begins with the travels of Abraham:
“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, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old– and Sarah herself was barren– because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore, from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them”. (Hebrews 11:8-16)
“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, not knowing where he was going”. This restlessness for traveling and journeying to an unknown land did not begin with Abraham. The Bible, in both the First Testament and the Second Testament, points to a theme of spiritual journeying. It begins with Adam and Eve walking with God in the cool of the day, and continues with the first family and their offspring traveling through a maze of new, difficult and unexpected journeys. Noah and his family enter into this journey via the ark narrative. Tarah journeyed from the land of Ur with his son Abraham and grandson (Lot), son of Haran. Abraham continued his journey from his father’s new country to the land of Canaan.
“By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old– and Sarah herself was barren– because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore, from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
This theme of journey is continued through his son Isaac, and especially Isaac’s son Jacob, and from Jacob (also known as Israel), and the travels of the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses takes up his role as he leads Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, and Joshua leads them into the journeys of Canaan Land. Then there is a period known as Judges where everybody did sort of whatever they wanted, with repercussions of course. During this time when all Israel seemed to be doing whatever they wanted to do, we see the prominence of prophets and their journey narratives. This leads us to King Saul and eventually to King David and his travels. Then we journey through an assorted list of kings of Northern Israel and Judah, and the stories of corresponding prophets during the reigns of the dominating monarchies of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome.
Naomi and I have been watching a series on Netflix, The West produced by Ken Burns. The series chronicles the turbulent history of the United States of America as it expands from the East Coast to the West Coast. It’s a story of pioneers, explorers and pilgrims traveling into unto unfamiliar territory with visions for the future. Burns recounts some of the extraordinary achievements like the railroads built through and over the Sahara Mountains along with the brutality and dishonesty shown to Native American Indians and native Mexicans populations. The series depicts the tragedies and triumphs of the Civil War, the madness of the goldrushes, most specifically the gold rush into the San Francisco California area in 1849, popularly known as the Forty Niners.
The history of the making of America is full of travelers leaving familiar homes and cultures, on a journey into the unknown with the hopes and visions of a new beginning in the promised land. As followers of Christ, we are also on a journey and are expected to treat fellow travelers fairly and justly along the way. Recall the first lesson from Deuteronomy: “The LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-21)
Jesus confirms this message in the gospel reading. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48)
The theme of journeying was prominent in Jewish thought and culture during the years of domination of the Greeks and the later Roman Empire and through Jesus’ entrancer into the Biblical narrative. During this time in Israel’s history (160-167 BCE) known as “Maccabean revolts against Rome,” Jewish dissidents rebeled against decrees forbidding Jewish religious practice. Some of the revolts were successful, but the majority ended in martyrdom.
This period was also a turbulent time of itinerant teachers traveling the roads with their disciples, and prophets stirring up allegiances to free Israel from outside domination, taxes and religious control. It was in this atmosphere that Jesus came to journey among us and with us. The disciples followed him on his long journey to Jerusalem, and he asks us to do the same. His mission did not end in Jerusalem of Judea. His journey ended in the Holy City, Heavenly Jerusalem, a city whose architect and builder is God. Our journey will end there too.
“We shall see the river, the river, the river of God, coming from the throne of God and the throne of the Lamb. We shall see His face, His face. His name will be our joy! There will be no night there, neither the need of a light. For Jesus will be our light, he’ll reign and he’ll shine ever bright. He’ll reign and he’ll shine ever bright”. (Taken from Revelation 22)
Travelers and sojourners, just passing through. Enjoy the journey!
The Reverend Dr. David Madsen