They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11.16)
People of the Promise
I hadn’t counted on politics becoming a Lenten hazard. But it has. The US Republican primaries, European financial crisis, Iranian-Israeli saber rattling, Syrian tragedy, Afghani war, and ongoing human rights issues tied to industrialized Asia persistently intrude on Lent’s silence and contemplation. The world is in a bad way. We are in a bad way. Greed and power lust have poisoned the wells of compassion and empathy. Rarely do we hear officials put forth policy based on justice and righteousness. We seldom hear anyone equate political gain with moral equity and goodness. More and more, our journey across Lent’s wilderness resembles a hike through a minefield, a survey of scorched earth. Summoning the faith to find God in the midst of this is exceedingly difficult, since God adamantly resigns participation in human strife. God is there. But since this is our show, we’ve upstaged God. For me, at least, this Lenten experience could be called, “Looking for God in Hard-to-Find Places”.
Fortuitously, this year’s lectionary leads us back to our roots—to heroic Old Testament men and women whose faith hoisted them above human indifference. Their wildernesses were very real and the impact of social, economic, and political realities intruded on every aspect of their lives. Hebrews 11, one of the most glorious chapters in all of Scripture, collects their stories into an epic narrative of faith that speaks to us today in no uncertain terms. We might title it “People of the Promise”. It gives us a virtual roll call of individuals who believed God and transformed their belief into a way of seeing the world by seeing through it. As real as their hardships and dismay were, they focused on a higher reality—a new world of justice, righteousness, and peace that can, and will, result from pursuing lives of faith.
The Hebrews writer refers to this new reality as a city, saying our hope in God’s promise of a better world goes back to Abraham, the founder of our faith. Verses 8-10 read, “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.” The author resounds this note in verse 16: “They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.”
When we revisit the sagas of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the other legends Hebrews celebrates, we’re struck by the tumultuousness of their times and yet how they seem to exist out of time. They deal with crises of conscience, family tragedies, natural and economic catastrophes, political oppression, regime change, devastating wars, enormous social shifts, and every kind of moral chaos. Through all of it, they keep looking forward, pressing their way with unyielding faith in God’s promises, desiring a better country—a heavenly one, Hebrews says, meaning a world reconciled to God’s principles and intentions. Their promised land was one of peace, justice, and equity where God could find a proper home. And their unshakable belief that this world could exist propelled them ahead. More than that, however, their faith compelled them live in the wicked world as though the promised one already existed. How did that work out for them? Verses 32-38 tell us they made tremendous strides at times; at others, they suffered great setbacks and many of them paid severely for their faith. They made “their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world,” the writer says. Yet through all of it, they held fast to God’s promises, even though, as Hebrews takes care to point out, every one of them died without seeing God’s promises come to fruition.
Will Easter Find Us Resurrected?
Lent’s call to repentance and self-examination turns our thoughts inward. We avail ourselves to its solitude and silence as a nurturing environment for inner peace and direction. But surely God brings us into the desert for more than a spiritual retuning. Surely what comes out of our experience should surpass what we gain from it personally. And it’s incumbent on us to ask, “What are we doing out here in the wilderness? What are these wilderness-wrought changes we undergo really for? Is there not a greater purpose at work here?” If we embrace the Old Testament titans’ wanderings and Jesus’s wilderness temptation as precedents, we can’t possibly accept the notion that Lent is all about us. Indeed, what happens to us during our season of consecration is meant to reshape us so that we can reshape our world. Relearning how to survive on God’s promises should, and must, rekindle our desire for a better country, a city founded on its Architect and Maker’s principles—a promised land fit for God’s presence, a new world. And thus, while we’re in Lent’s desert, we must keep looking forward, gauging our personal progress in context with how it equips us to usher in a new reality. How will we transfer the love, peace, and harmony we find to other lives and hateful, contentious, and distraught situations we enter? Will Easter find us resurrected as people of promise, even though it’s probable we won’t see the promise fulfilled in our lifetimes?
On further reflection, perhaps it’s a godsend that this Lent asks us to grapple with tensions created by pursuing faithful lives in the midst of sociopolitical strife and moral decay. Perhaps seeing a world gone wrong at every turn will return our sights to God’s promise of a righteous world, a better country—a heavenly one. Perhaps the extreme wickedness and loss of direction that surround us will galvanize our commitment to disarm minefields and replenish scorched earth. We pray this will be so, just as we pray that what the Hebrews writer says of our heroic ancestors will be said of us: God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them. Amen.
Traveling Lent’s desert makes vivid our awareness that our world has become a minefield of strife, a wasteland of scorched earth. And that begs us to ask how spiritual transformation we experience during this time will bring about a better world.
Postscript: Questions 12 & 13
When does Lent stop being about us and become something greater than us that leads to a better world?
How do we transpose our renewed faith in God’s love, peace, and acceptance into promises we bring to daily life and its struggle?