Texts: Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
When Abram arrived at the place where God had blindly led him, do you know what he found? It wasn’t a land flowing with milk and honey. It wasn’t a gleaming city on a hill. He found a land full of strange people in the middle of a famine. “This,” God said, “is going to belong to you and to your descendants forever.” Whoopty-freakin’-doo.
As a sign of this promise, God changed Abram’s name. The name ‘Abram’ was kind of a sick joke, a hope that was never fulfilled. In Hebrew, “Abram” means “exalted father.” Although he was exalted (for he was quite wealthy and successful), he was never a father; his heir was a slave named Eliezer. And so God gave him a new name, one that wouldn’t remind him of the cruel fate that had robbed him of a heritage, but one that would instead remind him of the promise God’s coming future. God named him “Abraham,” which means “father of multitudes.” And again, Abraham trusted.
We know that Abraham’s trust was warranted because we know where his story went from there. What is incredible is that, without the benefit of that hindsight, Abraham also knew where his story would go. All he had to go on was the promise of a God he barely knew; but nevertheless, he trusted. Perhaps even more incredible is that in spite of Abraham’s bumbling half-obedience, in spite of his constantly hedging his bets in case God’s plan didn’t work, God promised all this to him anyway. Before Abraham did a single thing to prove his dedication, God had already given him the moon.
The author of Hebrews imagines Abraham looking out over the empty plains of Canaan and seeing something else. His faith allowed him to look beyond the grass and dust, beyond the parched fields and the hungry farmers and herders to see shimmering under the summer sun a city: a city with great buildings and bustling markets and children playing in the streets, a city with a temple dedicated to the Maker of the Promise.
The book of Hebrews is a sermon delivered to Jewish believers sometime after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The preacher of that sermon told his congregation that right now, they were standing where Abraham once stood: looking out over the famine-stricken plains of Canaan. They, too, had a promise from God, one that seemed as far away as the promise made to Abraham, but one no less real. With the eyes of faith, the Preacher said, they might be able to see the reality of that promise just like Abraham, who looked beyond the famine and the emptiness and saw the gleaming city.
That is where we now stand. Looking out at everything around us, sometimes it seems all we can see is death: mass shootings, climate change, systemic racism, xenophobia, opulent wealth juxtaposed with crippling poverty. We are standing with Abraham looking out over the plains of Canaan, looking for a promise that is still a long way off. What the Preacher hopes to help us to see is that, as far off as it may be, that promise is as real as the literal, actual city of Jerusalem: a city that right now has streets and buildings, power lines and water mains; a city that is made of stone and mortar and generations of blood, sweat and tears.
The promise of God for us is no less grandiose than the promise made to Abraham and Sarah. God promised two elderly and childless nomads that they would have a son, and that through that son they would be the ancestors of a great nation. Abraham laughed when he heard that promise. So did Sarah. And when the promised child came, they named him Isaac, which means “laughter:” as ridiculous as the promise was, it was also real.
The good news for us is that even now, when we have done nothing but squander and destroy the good gifts God has already given us, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us this promised kingdom of heaven. There is nothing that we can do (or could do) to earn it, and there is nothing we can do to bring it about by our own power. Instead, it is God’s gift to give to us, coming in God’s own time, but as surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, it is coming. It is coming here, and it is coming to us.
In light of this good news, the message of Scripture is that we can begin preparing for this coming promise even now. Like Abraham, we are free to step out in faith, to follow the still, small, beckoning voice of God as it calls us away from what is safe and familiar toward what is unknown and dangerous, but to where we might find a reward greater than we can possibly imagine.
Of course, we are also completely free to hedge our bets; to look after ourselves and our own, wrapping ourselves in the security blanket afforded by our wealth, entrusting our well-being and our comfort to the marvels of modern convenience and the culture of consumption that makes them possible. We can build bigger barns an say to ourselves, “Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” We can do that, and we can be horribly disappointed when those barns fail us—and it will still be God’s good pleasure to give us the promised kingdom of heaven.
When Abraham heard God’s promise, instead of trusting in what was safe and sure, he took his whole life—his family, his household, and his herds—and invested them in that promise. That act of faith transformed him: it allowed him to be able to see the reality of the promise that God had made to him and encouraged him to keep going; to truly be the “father of multitudes” before he ever had a single child. He entrusted his treasure to that promise, and his heart followed.
That is part of the reason we make offerings to God as a part of our worship. Giving our money to God isn’t just a symbolic action or a contribution to a budget, it is a realization that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. Our offerings are a declaration that we don’t want our hearts to be kept IRAs or banks, we don’t want to trust in the strength of our economy for deliverance. We are announcing with the Preacher that we are strangers and foreigners in this world of death, people seeking a homeland.
We saying that are not looking to go back where we came from, and we are not comfortable staying where we are. We do not belong in a world where strangers are hated and feared, where bullets rip through innocent bodies and end innocent lives, where creation itself is groaning in pain. This world, as it is, is not our home. We desire a better country, a heavenly one, that is found at the table upon which we place these treasures. In our true homeland—the place where we really belong—all are fed; in our true homeland, we are gathered with a community that transcends time and space; in our true homeland, God’s love takes on flesh and blood and is broken to give life to the whole world.
Now, there are lots of ways to give our treasure to God: we may volunteer our time helping others, we may give to charities that do good work, we may dedicate ourselves to a cause. We can give to God inside or outside the Church. However, when we give our treasure to God as this community in an act of worship, we are proclaiming where we want the heart of this community to be. It is a declaration that this is not just another nonprofit or charity, but a community guided by faith in the promise of God’s kingdom coming to earth.
In that act of faith, God transforms us, just as God transformed Abram into Abraham. Like the bread that we bring to this table, God takes our hearts and, gives them back to us changed. We are sent out from this table with God’s incarnate love sitting in our bellies empowered to be the homeland we seek, encouraged to live as citizens of God’s coming city here and now.
Fed with this promise, we may even be able to look out across the famine in this land, across the pain and death and fear, and see the foundations of that great city whose builder and architect is God—the home God has prepared for all humanity. We can only see that promise from a great distance, but we greet it, knowing that it is coming. It is as real as Jerusalem. And as we look, even through the pain and sorrow, we may even be able to see the children already playing in its streets.