The land of Turkey was in the fourth century a stronghold of Christianity. Still visible from that era is a cemetery with readable headstones. On one is carved, “Here sleeps the blessed Chi-one who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much.” Not another word is known of her. But how lovely if it were known of one of us still after 16 centuries that we found Jerusalem because we prayed much.
So what would you want on your headstone? I’ve instructed my family to make a simple message on mine, just a very few words as follows: “I told you I was not well.”
Would you want something about finding Jerusalem because you prayed much, and lived with faith and trust in God? Abraham is held up as an example of faith and trust. He believed God had promised an unfamiliar land for him and his heirs. Let’s update his story like this: When Abe got home from work he told Sara that he’d worked his last day with the company.
He had a dream last night, he said. God told him to chuck everything, hitch up their camping trailer and hit the road going west. God hadn’t told him where to stop or what to do. That would come later. So in some unfathomable way, God promised him not only that his descendants would own that land, but they would be as numerous as the stars of heaven.
They set out. He and Sarah knew they were past the usual time to have children, but they did what they believed God had told Abraham to do. They gave up control, put themselves in God’s hands, and faced the unknown with confidence in God’s generosity. How many of us wonder about God — his oversight, his generosity and his fatherly care? We look at the storms of life around us, and we wonder, “Where is the promised land? Where are we headed? Do we believe we are doing whatever God wants us to do?”
Our answer comes from Jesus. He said, “Fear not, little flock. For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Nowadays, it’s hard not to be afraid, personally or nationally. We fear for our families. We fear for our congregation. We fear for our nation – terrorists, bomb threats? Police killings? Lord, how long? Is God with us? We have hopes, dreams, plans we are certain would make life better and happier, all within the parameters of goodness and righteousness.
Dreams disintegrate. Hopes vanish. Lifetime plans are eroded while we watch, helpless. Forces we cannot control steal our faith bit by bit. How many of us wonder whether there is a saving power that will overcome the general brutality and hostility that seems to run rampant in the world, near or far? Mean little deeds, cruel decisions in high places, hateful words are all thrown against us – and our sense of well-being is seriously assaulted.
Where can we find the kingdom when the bottom drops out and we seem to be suspended, clawing the air like the Saturday morning cartoon cat just before he crashes with a thud? We cannot look to our successes or triumphs as witnesses to faith in the promises of God. Our fear of failure is greater than we admit.
My view of life after 62 years since ordination and looking over congregations and seeing the wreckage of so many hopes and dreams — my view of life is informed by Moses on Mt. Nebo. Abraham’s descendants had taken refuge in Egypt to escape famine. Now they were called children of Israel, but they were slaves. Moses had become their leader and they were almost back to the Promised Land.
Moses went up Mt. Nebo from where he could see the Promised Land, even though he was denied the privilege of taking those last few steps. Seeing was enough. He knew there was a reality to God’s leadership these 40 years in the wilderness. There are many people in this old world who must content themselves with only knowing the land toward which they have struggled is out there. Seeing it from afar is enough.
Our own successes or triumphs may give scant witness to our faith. But our standing before God is not determined by our merits or achievements. Rather, God’s free and gracious love saves the wreckage that comes upon us. God cares and loves us through the faith which he alone puts in us and then draws from us. It is not the clever, or the powerful, or the successful people whose arrogance gains the kingdom for them.
In the ultimate reckoning, and at the deepest level of our being, the fundamental character of life is that of gift. For what we are and what we have it in us to become are not of our own contriving, but everything is grounded in the mysterious love of God. It is in the acceptance of that love which we call faith that our lives find their true meaning. If we want proof of what happens when we try to exercise control of God instead of accepting God’s will for us, look only to the cross. There, all the meanness and brutality of a world gone wrong reached its climax of human control.
Jesus, sent to be our Messiah, the final fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, Jesus was the man whom the New Testament calls the very word of God himself. But he was crucified, and our actions, time and again, suggest that if he were to appear in our midst, we would crucify him again. Yet the heart of the Christian message is that Jesus Christ has overcome death and he lives resurrected in our midst. Death has been conquered and a new ruler who has no limits comes to live in our hearts. Since in him God gives us the kingdom day by day, then we live as in the eye of the storm of life. Resurrection demonstrates his promise that we also shall be delivered from this body of death. His victory over death becomes our hope that we too shall live with God.
As William Merrill wrote in his hymn, “Standing in the living present, memory and hope between, Lord, we would with great thanksgiving, praise thee most for things unseen.” In this meantime – between memory and hope – we live comforted by things unseen. We live by faith. Instead of facing life with fear, we who know God’s generosity are ready to receive all that God offers and we pass his gifts on to others in our deeds as well as in our words. In the midst of a troubled and hurting world, our coming together in the presence of God says that we, like Moses on Nebo, are looking ahead to that great and promised feast when all people will come in peace, healing, harmony, and love for each other.
In this worship, all the brokenness of life fades away as God gathers us into his arms with the word, “Fear not, little flock. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Like Abraham and that cloud of witnesses who have gone before but who did not receive what was promised and yet greeted it from afar, so it is with us in this life, day by day. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.
“He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” The first sign of the kingdom is that we have been made alive, reborn, in Jesus Christ. We have shared in his death and we are being raised in his likeness.
We are buried with him in our baptism, and now we are raised with him in newness of life. We live as witnesses to the resurrection. The era of the kingdom of God has dawned. In spite of the sound and fury made by kings and causes whose followers think themselves important in this world, we know that our father in heaven is giving us the kingdom.
Our eyes are set on the homeland, the city of God.
Let us greet with faith whatever comes to us every day, knowing that we are more than conquerors. We have no fear, little flock.
We are the children, the family of God in this place, free to be of service to others. It is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. By faith we receive that treasure. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
And then, we, too, will find our own Jerusalem.