Living in Tents, Looking to the City with Foundations
“By faith [Abraham] went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:15-16).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Next weekend, my family and I will go camping near the Missouri River. We’re going to bring our tents, sleeping bags, fishing rods, coolers, camp stoves, lanterns, and all the things that it takes to “rough it in the great outdoors.” Hopefully the weather will be as nice as we’ve had this week. But just in case, we have a backup plan. Logan and Samantha have a big 5th wheel camper with air conditioning and shower parked in their back yard, all hooked up and ready to go.
Two or three days in a tent… that’s about enough for me before my sense of adventure is satisfied. The threshold for my wife is much lower. But Abraham lived in a tent for 100 years, from age 75 when God called him out of Ur of the Chaldeans to the day he died at age 175, Abraham lived in a tent in the land of Canaan. Though God promised Abraham and his descendants an inheritance that would stretch all the way from the Nile River to the Euphrates, Abraham lived as a pilgrim and stranger in the land of his inheritance, and died with the only plot of ground in his name being the cave of Machpelah in which he had buried his wife, Sarah, and in which his own mortal remains would be also placed.
What would enable Abraham to live like that? To leave your father’s land to travel to some unknown destination at God’s Word? To live in the land of promise as a foreigner and alien? To live as a nomad in tents rather than settle down to a house made of stone foundations and wood? One word…faith! A total complete surrender to a promise from God!
In our society today, the concept of faith as a total surrender to a promise from God seems alien, strange. Indeed, a life today seems to be made up of many choices that cater to free will. Marketing specialists package their companies’ products and services to appeal to the idea of individual choice. One example is home entertainment: We’re no longer limited to two or three channels on broadcast television, but hundreds with cable and satellite. And even they are struggling due to the robust growth of streaming services that allow you view on demand.
Now, it is certainly true that we have many choices in certain areas of our life, but we’ve also taken it into areas of morality and ethics, matters of which God has clearly revealed His will or at least given us some guidelines. Consider, for an example, how many people today have the idea that having children is simply a matter of choice: whether or not to have children (or a particular child), when to have children, how many children to have, all such questions are addressed with little regard for the will and Word of God (or even simple biology), but based upon the “choice” of the prospective parents.
This view of life being made up of free will and choices is only amplified with the way we raise our children. We are told that in order to build their self-esteem, we should focus them on making “good choices” or “bad choices” rather than teaching them “right” and “wrong.” It’s no wonder we have so many young people that have such a high opinion of themselves, but little regard for authority or the needs of others. We’re teaching out little ones to follow their own sinful inclination to selfishness, instead of training them in self-discipline.
That’s bad enough, but there’s an even more insidious way in which this illusion of choices inserts itself into our spiritual lives. A life based on choices and free will often conveys to people that their spiritual welfare also rests on their decision for the Lord, a prevalent view found with a significant portion of modern American Christianity. Michael Horton correctly observes:
When our churches assume the gospel, reduce it to slogans, or confuse it with moralism and hype, it is not surprising that the type of spirituality we fall back on is “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” In a therapeutic worldview, the self is always sovereign. The great questions of life do not concern what an external authority has determined to be good, true, and beautiful, but one’s own sense of well-being and fulfillment. God is there to be used as needed, but does not surprise, contradict, judge, or disrupt our lust to control our own lives and destinies. Accommodating this false religion is not love—either of God or neighbor—but sloth, depriving God of the glory that is His due. The self must be dethroned. That’s the only way out.[i]
Such faith is actually freeing, not restraining. If only people knew that, in fact, a total reliance upon God rather than one’s self removes much anxiety and worry about life! When the Gospel speaks clearly, then fear and worry are replaced by comfort, peace, and consolation.
But such faith doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t for Abraham. Though you couldn’t tell it simply from our Old Testament lesson and Epistle for today, Abraham stumbled more than a time or two as he followed God’s leading. He put his lovely wife’s honor (not to mention Messianic line!) at risk on a couple occasions in order to save his own neck. He accepted Sarah’s plan to use Hagar as a surrogate mother when it didn’t appear that God was coming through on His promise quick enough. But God’s Word had its way with Abraham and the patriarch grew in faith.
Time and again, we see Abraham trusting God, taking Him at His Word and following His direction even when there was nothing to see and even when what could be seen pointed only to the seemingly impossible. Not knowing the direction, trusting God’s directive, he left his homeland. With no map in hand but with God’s call in his heart, Abraham went out into the unknown.
How could Abraham do it? The author of Hebrews has one answer: “By faith.” By faith Abraham saw the invisible. In fact, it is amazing just how far Abraham’s faith saw. He looked beyond this mortal life and body to the resurrection. He even looked beyond the earthly Canaan to the eternal city in heaven. In this city, belonging wholly to God because He was its architect and actual builder, Abraham saw his real home. This was “the city with foundations.” Tents have only pegs, which are pulled up and moved. Earthly cities have walls that stand longer and yet crumble. But this city stands forever. “The city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” is how the author describes it in 12:22 so that we cannot misunderstand. To this heavenly home Abraham “was looking forward,” ever living and finally dying in expectation of it.
What is also admirable about Abraham’s faith is how he passed it on to his descendants. Our Epistle emphasizes some of the common qualities found not only in Abraham’s faith, but in the faith of the other patriarchs as well. All of them died without receiving the things promised. Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, never saw God’s promises fulfilled. Though Abraham lived to see Isaac’s birth, he never saw the great nation that was to come from him. Though Jacob and Joseph saw this nation begin to grow, they never saw the Messiah who was to come from it. Yet they believed! Like Moses on Mount Nebo, viewing the Promised Land from a distance, they saw God’s promises from afar and believed them.
The patriarchs admitted “that they were strangers and exiles on earth.” This was Abraham’s confession in Genesis 23:4 when buying the burial plot for Sarah, but it was characteristic of all the heroes of the faith. They were “exiles,” people of foreign descent and culture living in another land. They were “strangers,” people residing temporarily someplace other than their real home. More than the land of Canaan was meant with this confession. The author rightly concludes, “People who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.”
It was not of Mesopotamia the patriarchs were thinking when they looked for their homeland. If Abraham had wanted to return there, all he had to do was pack his bags, pull up his tent stakes, and go. Jacob, when having served Laban for 20 years in that very land, still wasn’t satisfied. In Genesis 30:25, he begged his uncle: “Send me away, that I may go to my own home and country.”
But ultimately it was not Canaan that was on their minds and in their hearts, but “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Toward the heavenly Canaan, the new Jerusalem, prepared for them by God, they looked to with earnest longing all their days. No wonder God was not ashamed to be called their God!
To have God give us His name by bringing us to faith and into His family is great indeed. To have Him take our name because of our God-given faith makes us catch our breath in wonder at His grace. In Exodus 3:6, He called Himself “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and Jesus in Matthew 22:32 says the same. God grant that our names be added to the list of the faithful!
Abraham believed the Lord, and He counted it to Abraham as righteousness. Abraham accepted that God could and would intervene and make the impossible possible. Our faith, too, should be open to that suggestion. Even in extreme cases where medical reports describe little hope, there may still be confidence in divine intervention. God can make things possible. There is hope and there is trust. And trust is strong because it is God who provides. Abraham is a hero of the faith because his trust was total surrender to God’s promise of the Messiah.
Abraham’s faith is not a small matter. It’s saving faith because the Lord reckons it to him as righteousness. However, we should not assume that Abraham’s faith comes by his own actions or decision. God changes Abraham to become someone who, though he initially wavers in the midst of doubt and uncertainty, accepts God’s promises as true and real. For what seems impossible for Abraham to accomplish on his own will be accomplished by God Himself.
In order to understand what this means not only for Abraham, but also for all who believe, we need to approach this from the objective fact of Christ’s death on the cross. There, the righteousness of God has been won through Christ’s active and passive obedience. As the Confessions say: “out of pure grace, because of the sole merit, complete obedience, bitter suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ alone. His obedience is credited to us for righteousness” (FC SD III 9).
Since our salvation is all Christ’s doing, we cannot assume that there is anything we can contribute on our part. It is only through faith that we receive God’s righteousness, but it’s important that faith is described as a gift from God that apprehends the righteousness from God through the forgiveness of sins. Such a faith worships Christ’s merits on the cross and surrenders itself totally to Him.
As Luther says in his explanation of the Third Article, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the faith.” Faith is not something a person chooses or decides by his own strength, but a gift. Through the Word, the Holy Spirit provides us with it, and we are able to entrust ourselves to the promises of God.
Thus, the fact that we come to faith and receive, as Abraham did, the righteousness of God is attributed to all God’s doing in Christ, and all honor and glory are given to Christ. God steps into this world and does the incredible and impossible through His Son Jesus Christ. He establishes a righteousness for us in His Son that is a gift handed to us, and through faith it becomes ours.
The promises of God are certain for the sake of Jesus. For your sake, the Son of God journeyed far from home, taking on the flesh of a man when He was born of the virgin Mary. Although this world is His creation, He was a stranger in it, for His own received Him not and He was stricken and afflicted by men. He came as a pilgrim with a destination from the start—the cross, to die for the sins of the world.
At the cross, Jesus appeared no more the King than Abraham appeared the possessor of his kingdom. And His resurrection appeared no more possible than Sarah giving birth. But eyes deceive while faith believes. At the cross, Jesus dies for your sin. Three days later, He rises from the dead just as He promised.
One might liken the promises of God to a trust fund. Imagine a little girl who receives a sizeable inheritance. The last will and testament of the deceased declares that the money is hers, and that she can begin to collect it when she turns 21 years old. Legally, the money is hers even now—the documents say so, but she will not enjoy all the benefits, or even see the funds, until later on. In the meantime, however, she has confidence and security for the future. Her trust is not based upon empty hope or speculation, but upon the word that has been given.
This is you, strangers and pilgrims—the Word has been given, and the treasures of heaven are yours. In the words of the Gospel lesson, have no fear, little flock, for the Father is pleased to give you His kingdom—and His kingdom is yours even now. Christ has died for you to win forgiveness for your sins. That forgiveness is yours even now. That faith is yours even now. His presence in His Word and Sacraments are yours even now. His kingdom and all of His benefits and gifts for you are yours even now—even though they often remain unseen.
All these are yours for the sake of Jesus, who has died to cleanse you from your sin. For His sake, God is not ashamed to be called your God, having adopted you as His own heir through the water and Word of Holy Baptism. Though you live here now as a pilgrim and stranger, He provides you His Supper, His very body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine, to strengthen and preserve you in the faith unto life everlasting.
You live like Abraham, trusting God’s Word to be true despite all appearances. Looking for a heavenly city designed by God and built upon the firmest of foundations, Christ Jesus Himself, even as you live in this mortal tent now. But while these things are unseen, they are certain and sure, for the words and promises of God declare: Christ has died, He is risen; for His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.