Ten days ago a TIME headline reported ‘Toddler Fleeing Syria Found Crossing Desert Alone.’ Beneath was a colour photo by CNN’s Nick Gorani depicting the dramatic scene. UN staff found four-year-old Marwan carrying his wordly possessions in a plastic bag in the desolate Jordanian desert. The tiny boy, dwarfed by the desert and the officials, was fleeing the violence in Syria and somehow got separated from his relatives. No more details were given in the report, except that ‘Marwan and the family were later reunited.’ I was deeply moved by the picture and the story (I have grandsons more or less Marwan’s age).
Over the same period I had been re-reading the ‘desert-crossing stories’ of the pioneers of our faith, detailed in Heb.11. The writer (Barnabas? Apollos? A.N. Other?) is expounding the theme of faith in the face of the unseen and the unknown. He lists the trail-blazers of faith, from Abel to Enoch, Noah to Abraham, and many others. I particularly love the story of Abraham who “said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations – the City designed and built by God’ (v. 8-10/MSG). I love this story because it was through this passage that the Lord called my wife and I out of the institutional church some seven years ago, to venture into the totally unknown in terms of material provision and life direction. The road less travelled has certainly made all the difference (Scott Peck). Heb. 11 starts like this, ‘The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we cannot see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd’ (v. 1-2).
Through such acts of faith Abraham and his company “toppled kingdoms, made justice work, took the promises for themselves. They were protected from lions, fires, and sword thrusts… won battles, routed alien armies… we have stories of those who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless, powerless – the world didn’t deserve them! – making their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world” (v. 33-38). It’s still happening today in places like N. Korea and Libya: yesterday the bodies of seven Egyptian Christians were found dead with gunshot wounds to the head on a beach near Benghazi (Reuters). They had been abducted from the building they lived in by unidentified gunmen who went door to door asking residents if they were Christian or Muslim.
What an advantage you and I and the Church at large have over the trail-blazers of Heb. 11: “Not one of these people, even though their lives were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours’ (v. 39-40). It’s about God’s great plan in Christ, God’s overall view of his mission for man’s salvation and his Son’s glorification. Donald Guthrie comments, Heb. 11 points us to the time of consummation when the sum total of God’s people will be complete. He emphasises here the superiority of God’s self-revelation in Christ which provides for a development of a faith to match its object. The word ‘better’ is a recurring theme in Hebrews – even though the exalted heroes of Jewish history had demonstrated great faith, they were still imperfect (personal comment: think of Rahab and Samson – that’s really encouraging for you and me), and needed to be ‘complemented’ by believers in Christ. The key-phrase in v. 39-40 is ‘teleiothosin,’ lit. ‘made perfect.’ Here it is used in a corporate sense with the idea of completeness. ‘There is a strong element of solidarity behind this idea (cf. the reference to the ‘assembly of the first-born’ in 12:23), which is also evident in some of the New Testament metaphors for the church, like body or building.’
We, as followers of Jesus Christ, are all making our way through ‘desert places’ of one kind or another – sometimes of our own making, sometimes not. We exist and live and serve amid many challenges: ill-health, chronic pain, unemployment, broken relationships, misunderstanding, slander, rejection, the indifference of many to the gospel, trials, temptations, subtle and outright persecution for Christ’s sake, etc. On the other hand, we have inherited everything ‘in Christ’ and in his body (cf. Eph. 1 & 2) [on the matter of ‘our inheritance in Christ and his body,’ please see David Bolton’s latest blog – he blogs under Christ-Centered Christianity]. The question is, will we, from this heavenly position of our gracious inheritance in Christ and all that he is in us and we are in him, live and serve as faithful ‘Desert Trail Blazers?’
Let me give a simple, everyday example that we can all relate to. I think of another child, this time a seven-year-old little girl, coming from a broken home in the sprawling, poverty-stricken township of Motherwell on the fringes of our metro. Siphokazi, a single mom in her early forties facilitates a little centre in a tiny house where children and teens can come after school with their problems and challenges – educational, social, moral and spiritual. Miraculously God made my paths cross with Siphokazi’s a year or two ago, and I now act as something of a mentor to her and assist her as she mentors and assists her young friends. A few weeks ago, the little girl together with others (at least one was sexually abused from a tender age) came to Siphokazi’s ‘ministry house’ for help with homework, discipling, and something to eat. Siphokazi (herself unemployed) bought about five loaves of bread, and served the un-buttered slices (township people prefer it that way) on her best crockery. She mixed some Oros with water to quench their thirst. On this occasion, this little girl left a slice of bread on her plate – unusual under the circumstances. When Siphokazi enquired about this last slice, she replied she was taking it home for her ‘gogo’ (grandmother) who was looking after her, to enjoy. It’s one of my greatest joys to be, in a small way, involved with Siphokazi and her youth caught in such need, ‘making their way as best they can on the cruel edges of the world” (v.38). [a passing but vital observation: in your love of God and neighbour, look for folk on ‘the fringes’ of society, accept them and love them and serve them in simple and ordinary ways; you will never regret it, in fact you will always receive more than you are able to give]. It’s a case of walking in the footsteps of Jesus, ‘the orginator and Perfecter of our faith!’ (Heb. 12:2/NIV). All of us can be a ‘donkey for Jesus,’ carrying the Messiah into the world.
So where do we go from here, my fellow ‘desert trail blazers?’ Heb.12:1-4 answers [although I suspect my ‘hyper-grace’ and ‘libertine’ friends won’t like it]: “Do you see what this means – all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running – and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God (my emphasis: we don’t follow Jesus’s example so much as we live out his divine life deposited within us, according to Col. 1:27) – he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourself flagging in your faith, go over that story again… that long litany of sorrow he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls! In this all-out match against sin, others have suffered far worse than you, to say nothing of what Jesus went through – all that bloodshed! So don’t feel sorry for yourselves. Or have you forgotten how good parents treat their children, and that God regards you as his children?”