We are in Hebrews chapter 11 this morning, please turn there in your Bibles.
In the summer of 1998 I had the privilege of traveling with a group of friends to Torino, Italy to support the beginnings of a new church plant. It was a wonderful trip. We met some wonderful people, ate some terrific food and saw some beautiful sights. At the end of our time in Italy, we took a day trip to the coastal village Portofino.
As I walked through a castle on a clifftop overlooking the Mediterranean, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. And in the midst of that beauty, I felt a profound ache and a feeling of isolation. I was just a momentary visitor in that place.
There’s a fascinating word in the Welsh language that has no English counterpart. The word is hiraeth.
n. a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.
Pamela Petro, a writer who had spent time in Wales, described hiraeth as “a protest. If it must be called homesickness, it’s a sickness come on because home isn’t the place it should have been. It’s an unattainable longing for a place, a person, a figure, even a national history that may never have actually existed. To feel hiraeth is to feel a deep incompleteness and recognize it as familiar.”
The Welsh aren’t the only ones who have precise words for different experiences of homesickness. The Portuguese world speaks of saudade – a sad state of longing for someone or something that is absent. The Germans talk of fernweh – far-sickness, or a longing for far off places.
There is a universal sense of longing, or sickness, in the human soul. A sense of life as alienation or exile.
The naturalists and existentialists in the 20th century describe that experience as a curious byproduct of our evolutionary development.
In my opinion, the Biblical explanation is more powerful.
The Bible tells us that humanity had its origins in paradise, at home with one another and with God.
That paradise was lost when sin entered the world and we entered into a state of exile and alienation.
In response to our state, the Son of God left his home to enter ours and make a way for us to come home to God.
Those who respond in faith to the gospel begin a pilgrimage through the world of exile into an eternal home.
The homesickness we feel is a guide that points us to our only true home in God. It’s a constant companion for God’s people who long for heaven. And it’s a requirement for anyone who wants to finish the race of faith.
Let’s read Hebrews 11:13-16.
This chapter is called the catalog of faith.
Remember, faith is not the opposite of reason.
You don’t have to leave your mind at the door when you come to church. The message of the gospel is a message to the mind – it is an enlightenment and many highly intelligent people have reported that they began to really think for the first time when they began to consider the message of Christianity.
Faith is the opposite of sight.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith begins by looking out at the cosmos and recognizing in the extraordinary combination of complexity and order an invisible hand, faith reaches out to find the invisible.
By faith Noah who could not see a coming storm, built a great structure on the word of God who spoke to him.
By faith in the word of God Abraham packed up his family and left his hometown not knowing where he was going.
By faith Moses who saw himself as a washed up and stammering old man, claimed leadership over a tribe of a million people and confronted the most powerful man in the world.
Faith is a decision of the will which chooses to act despite a lack of visible security.
The first thing we see about faith in Hebrews 11, is that you won’t ever outgrow your need of it, in this life.
The people of faith in Hebrews 11 never arrived on this side of death.
You will always require faith.
You have faith now, but will you persevere? Will you be in faith when you die?
The heroes of faith did not have faith for a one time event. They did not have faith for a little while, they had faith for a lifetime.
It is a challenge to have faith as a young single person. But that is only the beginning. You must be prepared to have faith on that night when you and your spouse have had a terrible round of fights at home and feel that you have made a mistake.
You must have faith at the doctor’s office when the ultrasound reveals that you have miscarried again.
You must have faith when your baby is born and you find out she is disabled.
You must have faith when your children are teenagers making their own in the world and driving your car with their new provisional license.
You must have faith when your parent passes away when you still have too much life left to figure out and not enough wisdom.
You must have faith when your daughter is swept off her feet and engaged to a man you hardly know.
You must have faith when your child experiences their first miscarriage.
You must have faith when your spouse develops the first signs of alzheimers.
You must have faith when your friends begin to die of old age.
You must have faith when your children place you in a nursing home and your mind and body begin to falter.
It’s hard to have faith this year, but you may need to hold to faith for another 60 years.
Do you have a faith that holds on and will hold out? Will you join the faith-ful of Hebrews 11?
How do you hold on for that long?
To do that, you have to remember that you are a “stranger and an exile on the earth”. (Verse 13)
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
When we remember that this world is not our true home and that someday soon we will find that true home, we find strength. We experience a blessedness.
When we keep our desires in a better country, the anticipation of that country takes the edge off of our grief. It loosens the hold of anxiety and lightens the load of our burdens.
To endure in faith to death, you have to remember that this world is not your home.
This morning we are going to close with a longer reading from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. In the section on hope, Lewis guides us in our longing for heaven.
“Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more – food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.
Most of us find it very difficult to want ‘Heaven’ at all-except in so far as ‘Heaven’ means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognise it. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best .possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us. Now there are two wrong ways of dealing with this fact, and one right one.
(I) The Fool’s Way – He puts the blame on the things themselves. He goes on all his life thinking that if only he tried another woman, or went for a more expensive holiday, or whatever it is, then, this time, he really would catch the mysterious something we are all after. Most of the bored, discontented, rich people in the world are of this type. They spend their whole lives trotting from woman to woman (through the divorce courts), from continent to continent, from hobby to hobby, always thinking that the latest is ‘the Real Thing’ at last, and always disappointed.
(2) The Way of the Disillusioned ‘Sensible Man’ -He soon decides that the whole thing was moonshine. ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘one feels like that when one’s young. But by the time you get to my age you’ve given up chasing the rainbow’s end.’ And so he settles down and learns not to expect too much and represses the part of himself which used, as he would say, ‘to cry for the moon’. This is, of course, a much better way than the first, and makes a man much happier, and less of a nuisance to society. It tends to make him a prig (he is apt to be rather superior towards what he calls ‘adolescents’), but, on the whole, he rubs along fairly comfortably. It would be the best line we could take if man did not live for ever. But supposing infinite happiness really is there, waiting for us? Supposing one really can reach the rainbow’s end? In that case it would be a pity to find out too late (a moment after death) that by our supposed ‘common sense’ we had stifled in ourselves the faculty of enjoying it.
(3) The Christian Way – The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, then; is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.’
There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown