From Longing to Rejoicing: Devotional Readings for Advent & Christmastide

Updated 2/28/2017: After some beta testing, I’ve slightly revised this devotional plan to make some of the readings shorter and more suitable for reading in a single sitting.

Twelve days from now, Christians around the world will begin taking the the four weeks leading up to Christmas to observe the season of Advent. The name “advent” comes from the Latin word for “coming” (adventus). Advent is thus traditionally a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, both as a re-enactment of the expectation of believers in the Old Testament and as an expression of our continued longing for Christ’s second and final coming.

I really love both the anticipation of Advent and the celebration of Christmastide. This year, I’ve designed a new Bible reading plan to guide our family’s observance of this special time of the year. We’ll walk through the grand gospel story of how God prepared the way for the coming of his Son, from the promises to the patriarchs to the deliverance of Israel to the visions of the prophets, culminating in the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ. Along the way we’ll be infusing the New Testament descriptions of Christ as Lion and Lamb, Prophet and Priest, Son of David and Seed of Abraham, with the richness of their original Old Testament significance.

If you’re familiar with the Jesse Tree, this is basically the same idea. The key difference is that I’ve planned these readings to reflect the historic distinction between Advent and Christmastide. As I’ve already mentioned, Advent is traditionally a advent-1430862time of preparation, while Christmas is a time of celebration. But this doesn’t mean that we need to cram the whole party into December 25. Christmas Day is actually just the beginning of the season of Christmastide, which runs for a full twelve days (yes, that’s where the song comes from) leading up to the feast of Epiphany on January 6, which is usually associated with the visit of the Wise Men. (In some cultures, Epiphany is known as “Three Kings’ Day.”)

Advent is about longing; Christmastide is about fulfillment. During Advent, our family chants, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” every evening when we light our advent wreath. In Christmastide, we give each other gifts and sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!”

I find this distinction really helpful for keeping my focus on Christ during the holiday season. While all the world around is caught up in a frenzy of sentimentality leading up to a big crash on December 26,  we get to experience the rising anticipation of Advent culminating in a full twelve days of feasting to savor and celebrate the good news that the Promised One has finally come to save us and reconcile us to God.

In this new Bible reading plan, the weekdays of Advent are spent tracing the high points of the Old Testament story, while the Sundays highlight visions of the final coming of Christ. Then we spend Christmastide soaking in the first few chapters of Matthew, Luke, and John. Because Advent begins on the fourth Sunday preceding Christmas, it varies in length from 22 to 28 days, so I’ve designed this plan to be able to expand and contract by including several optional readings. As it happens, this year we get the longest possible Advent, so we’ll get to do all 28 readings!

In my last post, I noted the importance of gaining an understanding of the main storyline of the Bible. This reading plan can be one way of building and reinforcing that foundational perspective on the overarching message of Scripture. That’s a big part of why I’m looking forward to leading my family through these readings year after year. Because the Bible is God’s word, I take seriously my calling to feed my kids on it directly every day. We read a chapter of the Bible together every evening after dinner; if we keep it up, each of our kids will have been through the whole Bible three or four times before they leave the house. But, while I love getting my kids into direct contact with all of Scripture, I don’t want them to lose the forest for the trees. Taking a break every year to review the big picture should help us all keep our bearings as we dig into God’s word together.

If you’d like to join us on this journey, you are more than welcome. You can use this plan for either family or personal devotions, and you can even use it at other times of the year if you’re so inclined. If you’re interested in checking it out and giving it a try (or using it as a springboard for creating your own plan), you can download it here.

I hope and pray that reading these passages builds your anticipation of Christ’s coming and joy in the good news that the Lord has come. Let every heart prepare him room!

Image credit: Veronica Moore, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/advent-1430862

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Making Sense of the Bible (including the weird parts)

You need the Bible. If you’re a parent, your children need the Bible too. I’ve written before about the importance of personal and family devotions.

But let’s be honest: the Bible can sometimes be hard to understand. I mean, if you stick to easier parts (most of the New Testament), it’s not so bad. But try making sense of the dietary laws, genealogies, obscure prophecies, and ancient battle records that make up a significant chunk of the Old Testament.

bible-1417720Many Christians, of course, simply avoid those parts of the Bible. They have their favorite books (or maybe just their favorite verses) that they return to again and again. But in this way, they effectively deny that the hard parts are really God’s word. Others, convinced that they really ought to read every part of the Bible, dutifully grit their teeth and force their way through the Leviticus part of their read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, thankful that they can mostly just pay attention to the New Testament and Psalms as they do so.

This isn’t how it is supposed to be. After all, Paul was talking about the Old Testament when he said that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, correcting, reproving, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). All Scripture – not just the parts modern, western Christians find interesting – is not only inspired, but directly beneficial for our daily living. Even Leviticus.

The key to profiting from the reading of each part of Scripture is learning to see how it all connects to the whole. As we see the big picture – the central point and main themes – we can begin to work out how particular details that seem strange and irrelevant connect to the gospel, and thus to our own lives.

Because, as it turns out, the gospel of Jesus is the unifying center of the Bible. He is the goal of every passage from Genesis to Revelation. In fact, he says so himself: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).

Too, often, we approach the Bible as if it were centered on us. This not surprisingly makes much of the Old Testament seem irrelevant and out of place. But when we approach Scripture as the story of Jesus, we begin to see how things fit together. We see how the events and people of the Old Testament are part of the process of how God brought us salvation through Christ. We see how particular elements of the biblical story foreshadow and reflect the great story at their center. We see why the authors of the New Testament keep bringing in the imagery and categories of the Old Testament to explain the Christ who has finally come.

This switch doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, reading the whole Bible as one great story centered on Jesus is a skill that cannot be mastered in a lifetime. But there are some good tools to help you get started on your way. For adults, God’s Big Picture by Vaughn Roberts is an excellent and approachable road map that charts the major thoroughfares of the Bible’s message. For children and their parents, David Helm’s Big Picture Story Bible is the best guide I know.

But, of course, these are supplementary tools. There is no substitute for sitting down day after day with God’s great story about Jesus.

Image Credit: zizzy0104, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/bible-1417720

VOTE FOR JESUS

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Unfortunately, Jesus Christ will not be on the ballot in my state. Or yours. But that shouldn’t stop us from voting for him.

Let me clarify: I’m not advocating writing in “Jesus Christ” on your ballot for President of the United States. For one thing, Jesus definitely wasn’t born as an American citizen, so he doesn’t meet the constitutional requirements. Far more importantly, it would be an insult to offer such a comparatively paltry and insignificant position to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

No, when I say that we should vote for Jesus, I mean it in the same sense as when someone says that we should work for Jesus or use our free time for Jesus or steward our resources for Jesus or do everything we do for Jesus. Because Jesus is Lord, we are called to devote every activity and all our energies to serve and honor him. Our political activities are no exception.

If you are a Christian, your first loyalty is not to an earthly nation, but to Christ and his kingdom. “But our citizenship is in heaven, from where we eagerly await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). This does not mean that we should renounce all loyalty to the nation in which God has placed us; rather, we should promote and pray for the peace of this earthly city (Jeremiah 29:7), even as we recognize that it is not our ultimate home (Hebrews 13:14). After all, the apostle Paul was quite willing to submit to civil authorities and exercise his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29; 25:10-11). But his goal in doing so was to advance the kingdom of Christ. In the same way, we should utilize the rights we have as citizens of a democratic republic to speak and vote for the glory of Christ, not ultimately to advance our own interests or the interests or any other party or group.

I’m not going to tell you which candidate you should vote for this November. While few practicing Christians are thrilled with the options available to us this year, serious arguments have been put forward for a number of different voting strategies. While I have my own ideas about what is the best and wisest course, my concern is that, whoever you vote for, you vote for Jesus.

Here are a few suggestions on how we might do that.

1. Distinguish between proximate and ultimate goals. Though political action can and should be a means of serving Christ, our ultimate purpose and calling is not to politics, but to Christ. We must never mistake the means for the end. All too often Christians have acted as if Jesus had taught that the greatest commandment was to overturn Roe v. Wade, or as if his great commission to his disciples was to go into all the world and end violence against women. These surely are worthy and important goals, but they are not identical with loving God and neighbor and winning disciples for Christ. Whenever we treat such secondary ends as our ultimate purpose, we are guilty of idolatry. And in service to our idol, we may find ourselves sacrificing all other worthy goals, including our first order goals of worshiping God, loving our neighbor, and bearing witness to the gospel. No political power or legislative victory – not even gaining the whole world – is worth losing our souls (Mark 8:36).

2. Be honest about the weaknesses and sins of your own side. Admitting that your chosen candidate has major character flaws is not necessarily the best strategy for winning an election. But no election is worth sacrificing our integrity and undermining our moral credibility. We may honestly believe that a candidate is the least bad choice without condoning or minimizing the heinousness of their behavior. While this applies to every candidate – for all have sinned – the recent revelations of Donald Trump’s boasts of having sexually assaulted women with impunity are a particularly stark test of his supporters’ willingness to maintain moral credibility at the expense of political expedience. A few have managed both to support their candidate and to condemn his behavior. Many have not.

3. Treat those who disagree – especially other Christians – with love and respect. It is all too easy to condemn and despise people who express support for a candidate whom we regard as a danger to our society. But we should recognize that those who choose differently from us may not be ill-intentioned, even if they are sorely mistaken. It may be short-sighted to support a boastful and abusive demagogue because he has promised to appoint pro-life judges. It may be foolish to support a politician with a profoundly secularist agenda because at least she is wrong “within normal parameters.” It may be unrealistic to expend one’s vote on an independent candidate who has almost no chance of winning. It may be irresponsible to abstain from voting altogether. But, fraught as this particular election is, we must remember that voting is always a prudential choice between imperfect options. We should give those who choose differently from ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Even when it seems clear that a Facebook friend or public figure is acting out of idolatry or dishonesty, we should deal gently with their errors and hope and pray for their repentance (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Let us not wait until after the election to begin the work of healing and reconciliation in our fractured society.

4. Remember that we have other tools in our toolbox. While preserving and increasing the good in our society is a worthy and godly goal, choosing a president is not the only means we have for effecting social change. Take the pro-life movement. Overturning Roe v. Wade is an important goal, but there is so much more we can do to protect the unborn beyond the political arena. Indeed, unless we reduce the demand for abortion by fostering a culture of life (and making having a baby less of a social and financial burden), there will still be abortions, regardless of their legality. Whoever occupies the White House, we can support crisis pregnancy ministries, encourage generous benefits for new mothers, and seriously consider letting our own lives be disrupted by adopting or fostering children whose biological parents have been unable or unwilling to care for them. Similarly, there is so much we can do in our own churches and communities to welcome refugees, foster racial reconciliation, and prevent violence against women, no matter what policies our elected officials enact. Our votes are only one means for pursuing these goals for the glory of God.

5. Rejoice in hope. If you’re like me, you’ve experienced your fair share of anxiety surrounding the outcome of this election. The likelihood of a good outcome seems so remote that it is all too easy to slip into discouragement and despair. Our nation and society seem to be spiraling out of control, and there is so little we can do to stop its destructive course.

In times like these, I need to remember that Jesus is not worried. Our nation is not out of his control; he’s got the whole world in his hands. His kingdom is not shaken, and his throne is secure. Unlike the presidential candidates who fawn and flatter, he does not depend on our vote. We may offer it to him, then, as an act of love and trust, rejoicing to know that he is still working all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Image Credit: By VigilancePrime at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9017276

Who is this “God” person, anyway?

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If you asked the average American on the street (or perhaps on the couch, the more natural habitat of the American) what God looks like, they would probably say a dude with a white robe, a white beard, and long white hair. It’s the stock image of God found in every corner of our culture, from The Simpsons to Existential Comics to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (pictured).

Unfortunately, this picture is profoundly misleading.

Now, granted, there is some biblical basis for this imagery; the prophet Daniel, for instance, said that the “Ancient of days” of his vision was dressed in “clothing … as white as snow,” and that “the hair of his head was white like wool” (Daniel 7:9). On the other hand, the Bible consistently warns against taking such imagery literally and forbids making any images of God (e.g. Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 4:15-20). This is because making a physical object to represent God presents him as finite, local, comprehensible, controllable. And God is none of those things. The problem is not so much an inaccurate view of God’s hairstyle as a fundamental category error about the kind of entity God is.

We tend to imagine God as a kind of superhero – basically like us, but with superpowers. This Superhero God can do all kinds of amazing, miraculous things, altering the physical world at will. But Superhero God’s powers, however great, are not essential to his being in any way. He can interfere with the world or not, as he chooses, or even, as in the movie Bruce Almighty, hand them over to someone else – a familiar superhero trope. In this view, being “God” is more of a job than an identity. Sure, it’s a really important job; as Jim Carrey’s character discovered, someone with unlimited power needs unlimited wisdom to know how to use his power for the good of everyone. (As Peter Parker might say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”) But the most this does is make Superhero God the caretaker of the universe. He is not its Sovereign or Lord, and we naturally rebel against the notion that must obey such a being just because he is more powerful than we are.

It needs to be said that this notion of God is very different from the one taught by historic, biblical Christianity. The God of the Bible is not merely the most powerful being in the universe; he is the foundation on which the universe depends for its existence. This does not merely mean that God existed before the universe and got it going; rather, it is only by the will and power of God that any particle of the universe continues to exist.

This version of God appears throughout the Christian Bible. So we find the prophet Isaiah declaring that it is God’s power that keeps the stars appearing night after night after night (Isaiah 40:26). In the final heavenly vision of Revelation, God is declared worthy of worship because he both created and sustains “all things” (Revelation 4:11). And then there is the Apostle Paul, who defines God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” in a speech to the religious police in Greece (Acts 17:28) and as the one who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” in a letter to believers in Asia Minor (Ephesians 1:11). Even more emphatically, he declares that “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). This is paralleled by the statement in Hebrews 1:3 that God’s Son “upholds the universe by the word of his power.”

The God of the Bible does not stand apart from the world, observing and occasionally interfering. He upholds it, sustains it, contains it. If he were to step aside or let go or allow his mind to wander, the universe would cease to exist. We need God for each moment of our continued existence. But God does not need us. He existed in eternal joy before creating the world, and he will one day bring this world to an end.

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you will remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,

but you are the same, and your years have no end. (Psalm 102:25-27)

Classic Christian theology thus includes in the definition of God the fact that he is “necessary,” while all other being is contingent upon him. This is not pantheism; creation is real and distinct from God. But it cannot exist apart from him, any more than a shadow can exist without something solid.

Set against this biblical backdrop, the Superhero God flexing his muscles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a ridiculously inadequate caricature. God is not like a man. He has no limitations, no weaknesses, no needs. He is the foundation on which all our contingent existence rests. The idea of God taking a break or handing over the management of the universe to someone else has all the absurdity of Elmer Fudd picking up the planks of the bridge he is walking across until he realizes his unsupported predicament and plummets to his doom.

Every moment is a gift from God. He not only planned it and created the laws and processes that would lead to it, but his direct action sustains and continues what his direct action began. Every move you make, every breath you take, every particle of your being is the outflow of the gracious power of a merciful and unfathomable Sustainer.

This is the answer to our objections to the biblical picture of God’s commands and judgments. When we think of God as just a more powerful version of ourselves, it is only natural that we would view his attempts to tell us what to do as arrogant bullying. Who does he think he is? Why doesn’t he mind his own business? But when we recognize the true nature of God, we cannot escape the conclusion that we are and must be his business if we are to be anything at all.

Asking God to leave us alone is like complaining that the air keeps pushing its way into our lungs or that the earth keeps holding us up. If God left us to our own devices, he would consign us to instant annihilation. And the miracle is that he does not. Even as we ignore him, deny him, reject his commands, misuse his gifts, abuse and harm his good creations, and mock his love, it is his long-suffering and merciful will that makes it possible for us to do so.

But there is more. God not only endures our rebellion and continually provides us with the existence we continually use to reject him; he offers us forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with him by taking the consequences of our sin on himself, dying on the cross in our place. And, as with all of God’s actions toward us, this incredible sacrifice was prompted not by necessity, but by love. The God who does not need us still wants us. The necessity which we reject in vain invites us to embrace him willingly and find in him an eternal and unquenchable source of life and joy.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary,

and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall,

but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

 

Image Credit: Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGod2-Sistine_Chapel.png)

 

Holy Spirit, Wind of Heaven

Polska Cerekiew

A poem for Pentecost 2015

 

Holy Spirit, Wind of heaven,

breathe fresh life into my soul

Come again, Thou Gift once given,

raise these bones and make me whole

 

As at creation, Lord Life-Giver,

stir the depths within my heart

Spring in me, Thou living River;

fill and flow through every part

 

Seal, Deposit, Guarantee,

Earnest of my Savior’s love,

grant me eyes of faith to see

his face who pleads for me above

 

Then come in fire in this dark hour,

Christ’s image in our hearts restore

Revive your church, your saints empower;

make us your witnesses once more.

 

Image Credit: Church of the Assumption of Mary, Polska Cerekiew – By Ralf Lotys (Sicherlich), CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39175499

The Sight is Glorious

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Today is one of my favorite days of the year. No, I don’t mean Cinco de Mayo, important as the Battle of Puebla was in North American history. Today, with people around the world, I am celebrating a far greater triumph.

Today – forty days after Easter Sunday – is the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ. The book of Acts begins by declaring that, after Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples over a period of forty days before gathering them together to receive his final commission to be his witnesses once the Holy Spirit came upon them. Then he blessed them and visibly ascended into heaven (Acts 1:1-11).

The ascension of Jesus matters. It is the climax and completion of the rescue mission that brought the eternal Son of God to earth to share and redeem our fallen human nature. In his exaltation to the right hand of his Father, Jesus has brought the humanity he now shares with us into intimate and glorious fellowship with the Creator of the universe.

The New Testament is full of vivid illustrations of Jesus’ exaltation. In John’s gospel, Jesus declares that he is going away “to prepare a place for us” as the unique Way to the Father (John 14:1-6). Paul repeatedly celebrates Christ’s exaltation over “every rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that his named, not only in this age, but in the age to come,” an exalted status which he extends to his church, the members of his mystical body (Ephesians 1:18-23; 2:6; cf. Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 3:1-4; Romans 8:34-39). Hebrews explains Jesus’ ascension as the entrance of the eternal high priest “not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the reality, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Hebrews 9:24; cf. 6:19-20; 10:19-22). Revelation portrays him as both conquering Lion and sacrificed Lamb, who alone is worthy to approach the very throne of God to receive worship and honor from all creation, along with the authority to unseal the destiny of the world (Revelation 5).

The ascension is the moment of Jesus’ triumph, enthronement, and coronation. That makes this a day to celebrate and sing! Numerous great hymns have been written to help us do that, from “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” and “Jesus shall Reign” to “Before the Throne of God Above.” But one of my favorites is “Look, Ye Saints, the Sight is Glorious.” The words (below) were written in 1809 by the Irish preacher Thomas Kelly. Many hymnals set it to Regent Square (the same tune as “Angels from the Realms of Glory”), but I love the new tune written a few years ago by my friend David Jordan, which you can listen to here.

Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious!
See the Man of Sorrows now,
from the fight returned victorious.
Every knee to him shall bow:
Crown him! crown him! crown the Savior!
Crowns become the victor’s brow.

Crown the Savior; angels, crown him;
rich the trophies Jesus brings;
in the seat of power enthrone him,
while the vault of heaven rings:
Crown him! crown him! crown the Savior!
Crown the Savior, King of kings!

Sinners in derision crowned him,
mocking thus the Savior’s claim;
saints and angels crowd around him,
own his title, praise his name:
Crown him! crown him! crown the Savior!
Spread abroad the victor’s fame!

Hark! those bursts of acclamation,
hark! those loud triumphant chords!
Jesus takes the highest station:
O what joy the sight affords.
Crown him! crown him! crown the Savior!
King of kings and Lord of lords!

Image Credit: Giovanni vendramin, jacopo filippo argenta e fra evangelista da reggio, antifonario II, 1482 – Image by Sailko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2865976

A City that Has Foundations

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, It's_a_Wonderful_Life_old_homemany 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