Gen 15.1-6; Ps 33.12-22; Heb 11.1-3,8-16; Lk 12.32-40
+ In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
One of my favourite books when I was a young teenager was Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel On the Road, a tale about his search for truth and self, set against the backdrop of hitchhiking adventures, poetry, jazz and madness. The endless movement, the constant quest for the elusive, the disquiet of the prose all resonated with my adolescent restlessness, and, long before we could even drive, my boarding school friends and I poured over atlases and road maps of the States, planning the road trips we would take across the country, dreaming of camping out under the immense starry skies of the flat heartlands of America.
I didn’t see it then for what it actually is: ‘a book of broken dreams and failed plans’ (Ted Gioia, The Weekly Standard).
We are all well-acquainted with that sense of longing that sadly doesn’t go away even after we reach adulthood. The feeling remains through much of our lives that who we are, where we are, what we have, what we do is not enough. Searching for a way out of discontent is so much a part of the human condition that Western literature is full of epic journeys in which the protagonists ‘find themselves’ through their quest and in the process discover (or sometimes fail to discover) the place of safety they can at last call home.
The Christian narrative is itself a series of journeys. Journeys of Abraham to Canaan; Moses out of Egypt towards the Promised Land; the Israelites into exile and back again; Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem; the Magi to the stable; Jesus to Jerusalem; Paul and the apostles throughout the Roman Empire.
So it’s unsurprising therefore that we often use the language of journey when talk about our lives of faith. We talk about our ‘faith journey’. Our journey ‘to faith’. Our journey ‘deeper into faith’. But so often, we speak about faith as though it is the acceptance of a set of propositions, as if what God is really demanding of us is that we, like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, believe six impossible things before breakfast. Our ‘journey’ then charts our movement from disbelief to belief, from doubt to certainty.
But the writer of the letter to the Hebrews presents a different picture of faith: ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’, he writes. And placed alongside example after example of those who have responded to God in faith are Abraham and Sarah.
Abraham and Sarah set out for the land which God would show them, not knowing where they were going. Yet along the way, God makes promises – that they will have a son, that they will arrive in the Promised Land, that their descendants will be as uncountable as grains of sand. And as they continue their journey, God begins to fullfill them.
It is not a journey of faith. Faith is the journey itself.
Like Abraham and Sarah, God calls us into the unknown, and at times this journey takes us too across the desert. As we travel towards the place God is leading us, we have times of feeling exposed and vulnerable. We look around us and see the landscape changing every time the wind blows. We feel the heat of the sand searing our feet. Our souls thirst.
The desert is a dangerous place. But it is also a place of night time visions and encounters with God whose promises are as numerous as the stars in the night sky.
And so we journey onward because like Abraham and Sarah and all their other descendants we long for a homeland. We feel the impatient desire for something beyond us, for something more than this world can give. We feel the restlessness that can’t be assuaged.
That longing, that desire, that restlessness are faith.
The Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe writes: ‘Faith is not something we possess. It is something by which we are possessed. … It is the inkling that we are meant to be divine, that our journey will go beyond any horizon at all into the limitlessness of the Godhead. Faith is not our power to set out on this journey into the future. It is our future laying hold on us. It is the crucified and risen Christ gathering us toward himself.’
When we talk about our journeys, we often do so in a very individualistic way. Each of us has very personal stories to tell of the time we have spent wandering like Abraham and Sarah. Yet we are not alone. We follow in the footsteps of those who came before. We draw our strength from the stories told of the matriarchs and patriarchs, and our journey becomes a part of theirs as we carry on towards the land God will show us. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock’, Jesus says. ‘For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’
As we know, many stories of epic journeys are, like On the Road, tales of broken dreams and failed plans.
But despite the frailties of humankind, our protests and complaints, our wrong turnings and mistakes, our misdirected desires and misplaced hopes, God’s promises are continually unfolding. We are always loved. Faith is our journey ever deeper into that love.
Frederick Buechner writes: ‘Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp’. By that hand, we will be guided on our journey to our true homeland in the heart of God.