(Genesis 12:1-9; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16) Many there may be who think of Great Britain as ‘our’ country, and resent the arrival of migrants from overseas - but the movement of peoples has been a feature of human civilisation in every age. Indeed, I read just this week that the early population of Britain was descended from a race of people who moved here from the steppes of eastern Europe around 4,500 years ago. And they in turn took over from the existing inhabitants, who were themselves a people who had migrated north from the western Mediterranean.
It is possible that Abraham also belonged to a migrant people, coming from the north into the fertile lands of the Canaanites. More likely, he was a nomad, leading his flocks and his family to wherever pasture and provisions could be found. Either way, from a religious point of view, he comes to represent the perspective of faith as something which is always on the move - looking forward, grasping after that which lies before.
Faith is not something that is static – a possession, as it were, such as a set of beliefs. It is grounded in the notion, however vague, that there is more to life than we yet see. That there is something, or someone, behind it all. Which breeds the hope that there is something better that might yet come into being, and call us onwards.
Hebrew talks of this in terms of the patriarchs being sojourners in the land. Strangers and foreigners, feeling they didn’t quite belong. Like T.S.Eliot’s magi returning home from visiting the Christ-child and finding themselves no longer at home in the old dispensation, amid “an alien people clutching their gods.” This is how the writer to the Hebrews conceives of the Christian experience, that of feeling ourselves discontent with life as it is, because we have glimpsed, however dimly, something of the goodness of God and what life might be in the domain of his justice, mercy and love. Or back in the language of Hebrews, we view ourselves as something like strangers on the earth, because we look forward to the city that is to come whose architect and builder is God.
We are a pilgrim people, then - never quite settled; always seeking that which is to come. It is not where we’ve come from and what we’ve achieved that defines who we are, but by where we’re going, what we can be, what we will be.
This is problematic, however. Sometimes, like refugees or economic migrants, we are forced into making a move by an unwelcome turn of events. On the other hand, once we’ve found a comfortable spot and settled down, moving on may seem an unnecessary and unwelcome thing to do.
Not only that but moving forward in faith is (almost by definition) an uncertain business; to be taken on trust. So Abraham received the promises of God – and great promises they were – that he would be the ancestor of a great nation, that he would receive a land as an inheritance, that God would bless him and make him a blessing to others. But he was given no idea how and when these things might come to pass. Indeed, the text of Genesis implies, and Hebrew makes it explicit, that Abraham set out not knowing where he was going.
In a similar way you could say that in the person of Jesus we have been given a foretaste and an assured promise of that which is to come, but that doesn’t mean that we know exactly what we have to do, or what tomorrow will bring.
But then again, it is the not-knowing, as it were, that creates the space for faith. If it was all laid down and crystal clear, there would be no need for faith, just obedience. Abraham does, in one sense, obey, because he takes God at his word. And that is why he becomes in the Old and New Testaments (and indeed within Islam as well) the great exemplar of faithfulness. But the nature of Abraham’s faith is not unproblematic either.
In fact the whole development of the Genesis narrative turns around the way in which Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph make choices, act in ways, or get involved in situations, that seem to put God’s plans and promises at risk. Because..... they are ordinary fallible human beings and God doesn’t tell them exactly what to do, or control them like puppets.
Distant though, in many ways, these folk seem from us, they are, in the messes and fractured relationships in which they find themselves, not that different to us. And it is this, and even more so, the creativity and wonderfulness and faithfulness of God as he works with and in and through these problematic people and situations to bring about, slowly and through various dead ends, that which he desires, that makes the scripture relevant, realistic, faith-encouraging and hope-filled.
In the end, the story of our forefathers in the faith is not about the human beings, but about the extraordinary perseverant and unfailing God we have. And we read this narrative, their history, these scriptures, not nostalgically, as something to be clung to or replicated, but as lessons to learn from, and especially as revelations of the reliability and goodness of God. In whom we are roused to begin to place our trust. And in so doing learn first-hand that such trust is always vindicated, always honoured, always turned to the greatest good by the God who keeps faith with us, and is ever true to his word. The God who works with us as we are, and yet also calls us on to something more. To be travellers and pilgrims. On migration, you might say, to the promised land, the better world, the heavenly country.
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived’ - all that God has prepared for those who love him.
So God, help us to listen for your leading and to travel with you in faith,that in the pattern of our forefathers, we may know your blessing and enter the fullness of your promises, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.