August 9: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

August 4, 2015

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he 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. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. –Hebrews 11:8-12

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but one of my most powerful memories is being on the “Million Dollar Highway” between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado, at night. At one of the highest elevations of this awe-inspiring road, we stopped and got out of the car. Without any artificial light even at the horizon, and in that dry, mountain air, I could see what looked like an entirely different sky than anything I’d ever seen before. As a boy, I enjoyed lying on the grass in rural Pontotoc County looking up at the stars, but this was a whole new experience in Colorado. I couldn’t help but feel confused that anyone would look up at that vast expanse and doubt that only someone as great as God could do such a thing.

In the passage above we’re told that the descendants of Abraham, i.e., the descendants of the eternal covenant of grace, would be as many as those uncountable stars above. The Bible doesn’t spend much of its space trying to prove God’s existence on the basis of the extraordinary things of creation. It certainly says that the creation is evidence of God—even to the point of being condemning!  But creation is more of an illustration of what God does and is capable of doing than proof of His existence.

Abraham and Sarah have a faith that is celebrated in this passage. It’s not simply that they thought they heard an alien being speaking to them and decided to go with it. Rather, it is that the Creator God is the absolutely trustworthy one who can give life where there is none, and keeps His promises, and they believed it. Part of that promise was about land. Imagine the contrast: Abraham was promised a homeland even though he was a nomad with no fixed home, and remained that way until they died. The closest thing they had to an abode in the Promised Land was a grave!

And the writer to the Hebrews tells us that what got them through was a forward-looking to a city with foundations, founded not by people, but by God. This is the first mention of the city in Hebrews, but it will be a major theme until the end. When the original audience hears about an important city, they obviously think of Jerusalem. David’s ancient capital with Mount Zion, the Kidron Valley and the temple has been a focal point for them. But this was an Old Covenant shadow of the New Covenant reality, and somehow Abraham and Sarah knew that. From Abraham to the Messiah, people of faith had that mindset. We have the benefit of Revelation 21 and 22 to understand that the New Heavens and the New Earth are what Abraham and all the faithful had as their goal. The original audience of the book of Hebrews doesn’t have Revelation, but they do have a great deal of evidence for this mindset.

They must learn—we must learn—that the faithful today, those pleasing to God, are only those who look to the One who has guaranteed a land that is fairer than day. Faith enables this standing. It is a righteousness that comes by faith alone that all God has promised is true. And it is true in Jesus Christ. And that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the Supper this Sunday!

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