A few weeks ago, our family was rocked by the news that we had sixty days to find a new place to live.
Our home is special to us. It’s kind of like the Old Granville House in It’s a Wonderful Life; it’s not necessarily in the best of shape – the windows are drafty, the floors are scuffed, and the whole living room shakes if you stomp on the floor – but it is full of charm and many, many precious memories. We’ve lived there ever since we got married, and our kids have never known any other home. It’s a part of us, and now we’re about to leave it forever.
We will miss this place deeply. But the shock of our new situation doesn’t arise primarily from that fact. By many measures, our family outgrew our current space a long time ago, and it’s not getting any smaller! So, even before we were given notice, we’d been talking about when and where and how we should move. No, the thing that makes this deadline so daunting is not knowing where home will be just a few weeks into the future. And, since we live in a pricey area, finding a place that actually fits our little family means we don’t even know what state we will live in.
It’s scary to know you have to take a step without being able to see your next foothold.
In the midst of all this, my daily Bible reading has taken me through the book of Genesis. People often think of Genesis as telling the story of the creation and the flood, which it does. But most of the book is taken up with the story of a single family which is chosen by God as his means for blessing all the families of the earth. At the center of it all is one man named Abraham, who was called by God to pack up his family and leave his home behind without knowing where he was going.
That sounds familiar. It’s relatable. In fact, it could be easy to make it a story all about me and make an easy bid for comfort: God met Abraham’s material needs, so I can trust him to meet mine as well. And that is true on one level. But if I stop there, I’m completely missing the point of the story.
You see, Abraham doesn’t get to settle down in a newly renovated prairie-style 4BR, 3BA single-family dwelling within easy walking distance of shopping, entertainment, and grazing lands in the highly coveted Hebron school district. He lives in a tent. Unlike his nephew, Lot, who moved into a house in prosperous Sodom, Abraham never settles down in one place. And lest we think that he just loved his free-wheeling nomadic lifestyle, we should note that at the end of his life – when he’s negotiating the purchase of a gravesite for his wife, because he doesn’t own an inch of land himself – he describes himself as “a stranger and an exile” on the earth (Genesis 23:4; Hebrews 11:13).
The book of Hebrew points us to the deeper meaning of Abraham’s call to leave his home. The fact that Abraham died without receiving the land God promised him means that God had a different and greater kind of land in mind. God did not fail to keep faith with Abraham; the fact that the Lord continues to reveal himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” means that their story did not end with their burial in the cave of Machpelah that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite (Exodus 3:6; Hebrews 11:16). As Jesus himself makes clear, this is not merely the dream of some ethereal, disembodied afterlife; it is the promise of a glorious resurrection (Matthew 22:32).
God promised Abraham a real, concrete land, and he meant it. But the land of his sojourning, the land that would be occupied by his descendants centuries later, was only a foretaste and a shadow of the real thing. However incompletely they may have understood it at the time, the patriarchs we meet in Genesis lived their unsettled, rootless lives in the hope of a home that this broken and unstable world could never provide. Or, as Hebrews puts it, “By faith Abraham lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:9-10).
In retelling the story of Abraham, Hebrews is presenting him as an example for us to follow. We, too, are sojourners and exiles. This world cannot be our home, because its foundations are made of shifting sand. It’s a place to pitch a tent, not a place to build. Sometimes it can be a beautiful campground, for with all its brokenness, it is full of the glory of God. But it is not and will never be home.
Living in a tent means living by faith. It’s not easy. I so want to be able to settle down here and now, to find a foundation I can build on by my own effort and will. But God calls me to put my hope not in building my own city here and now, but in the city that he has prepared for those who trust in Christ. This, after all, is the pattern of the gospel. Jesus himself was homeless, rootless, and excluded, from his birth in a stable to his death outside the gates (Luke 2:7; Hebrews 13:12-13). And the amazing thing is that he freely chose this life of exile. He chose to be humbled, to be poor, to have no place to lay his head, to endure the cross, despising its shame in the confidence of the joy set before him (Philippians 2:5-11; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Matthew 8:20; Hebrews 12:2). And all for us. He became homeless to secure us a home.
I don’t know why God wants my family in our present situation. It’s unnerving to look into the future and not see our next foothold. But maybe part of the reason we can’t see that next step is so that we will learn to look past the immediate future to the end of the journey. This world can never fully satisfy our longing for a home, a haven, a place to lay our heads. But that desire was made to be satisfied, and one day, it will be. “We have here no lasting city, but we are seeking the one that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).
Image Credit: National Telefilm Associates – Screenshot of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17630836