Strangers in the land.
Dear Minster and Friends
We are all living in strange times, in situations which are unnerving and unfamiliar. The Old King James Bible translates this word, used of Abraham in Hebrews 11- as a ‘sojourner’ – someone who is living temporarily in a place. The father of faith was described in this way, even though he often stayed years and decades in one vicinity. A sign of this was, for the book of Hebrews, that he lived in tents and was always straining forward for the city with solid foundations.
The phrase is picked up time and again through the scriptures to describe the attitude of God’s people and the church to the world around us – we are to be strangers, sojourners, travellers, even foreigners (Heb 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11-12; Psalm 39:12; 1 Chron 29:15; Phil 3:20; Genesis 23:4; Eph 2:19; Matt 25:35; Psalm 119:19)
So as Paul tried to help the early church navigate their new and complex situation – it made sense that he would turn to this phrase again, and show that in feeling like a strangers we are in excellent company – Abraham and the people of Israel, no less. Even Jesus, in the days of the gospels, had for many years no place to truly call home. (Luke 9:58- Even foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.)
Covid has made our own nation a strange land for us all – new rules and regulations, restrictions on meeting, worship, education, the arts and shopping. Ways and patterns of life changing, businesses upended, so many things uncertain.
And as often happens to the strangers and visitors, there is a vulnerability to this foreign situation. Have we become punchdrunk from the barrage of left hooks of health concerns and panic, bruised from the upper cuts of people losing their jobs and livelihoods, and even the blows to the torso of the death of a loved one. Many of us feel, if we take this boxing analogy even further, that we need to throw ourselves into the arms of a loving God in the corner of the ring, to coach us, wipe the blood from our brow, and then we are back up for on our feet and working out how to recover our balance and see things through till the ring of the final bell.
So this is why the example of Abraham is brought to the Church in the book of Hebrews- there is hope to hold onto in uncertain times- we need to reconnect our certainty with the Word and the promise that energised Abraham, who was a spiritually restless traveller- he obeyed ‘even though he did not know where he was going’ – three generations lived in tents whilst still being ‘heirs of the same promise’ with him that there was a wonderful plan to ‘Look forward to the city with foundations whose architect is God’. The Key, says Hebrews 11: 13 is that they ‘admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth’.
What this means is, in the observations of the theologian Walter Brueggemann, that the scriptures make known to us ‘a God who may be dangerously on the move in a specific social crisis’. The persecuted churches of the world have long lived with this sense of dis-ease, or feeling like foreigners in their own land, and strangers in their own country, and they tell us that this unsettling and difficult time can lead to spiritual growth and vibrancy, for even as it also further destabilises us and causes us to run to our corner, we will find Him there, the one who was bruised for our transgressions, who sympathises with our suffering, who loves us and will work with us and for us till we finish what he has set out for us to do.