15 December 2017

Where Do I Belong?

raThere has never been a time in history when global migration has been so widespread as it is today. All kinds of factors from ease of travel right through to economic necessity have meant that more people than ever before have uprooted their lives from the place where they were born and raised and have relocated to other parts of the country, or even to other parts of the world. Sooner or later, for them and for their children, this raises the question, ‘Where do I belong?’

It is a question that has much deeper roots than many people imagine. Far from being just an issue that has to do with where we happen to live, or even with our ethnic or cultural identity, it has to do with who we really are and where we really belong in the deepest possible sense. So it is hardly surprising that it is something the Bible addresses in a number of places.

The most striking of these is towards the end of the book of Hebrews where the author catalogues a long list of men and women – some named, others not – who faced their journey through life with their faith firmly fixed in God and His promise of salvation. They are cited because collectively they become what the author calls, ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ to encourage us to do what they did: keep their eyes fixed on Jesus and His promise and persevere through all the challenges that come our way in life. What is so interesting is the recurring theme that crops up again and again throughout this list of heroes of the faith which points to where their deepest roots in life were found.

The letter to the Hebrews was addressed, as its title suggests, to people of Jewish extraction who had come to believe in Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. But they were Jews with a difference. They belonged to that significant body of Hebrew people who had been scattered throughout the Greek and Roman world after successive invasions and persecutions, but who had never returned to their homeland. They had become ‘Hellenized’, trying as far as possible to integrate into the Greek culture that continued to dominate life even in the Roman Empire.

That meant they were already struggling with the ‘Where do I belong?’ question, because even though they lived outside the land of Judah, the roots of their spiritual and ethnic identity lay very much in that little nation. But the more they were moulded by the culture of their day, the more those roots were shaken. However, when they came to faith in Christ, those roots were shaken even further, because Christ had fulfilled so much of what their old faith had symbolised about God’s promise of salvation. There was no longer any need for daily sacrifices, or priests or ritual. Jesus had become the ‘new and living way’ through whom people could come to know God directly. So their attachment to very tangible figures, ceremonies and rituals had now also been dissolved as they looked instead by faith to Jesus for their hope of redemption.

Their newfound faith in Christ had started well, but all too quickly had plunged them into all kinds of difficulties and was leading to a very real crisis of confidence in which they were tempted to retreat back into their old Jewish way of life. At least there they felt they would be more ‘at home’. But it was precisely at that point that the writer reminds them about their great Jewish heroes of the faith and the challenges they faced in their own day. In particular, he highlights where their sense of ‘belonging’ really lay. He points to Abraham and speaks of him at some length, reminding his readers of how God called him out of the place he in one sense belonged: the city of Ur where he had been born and raised and had already begun to carve out a life for himself. Even though God promised him a land of his own, Abraham and his wife were to spend their lifetime as nomads living in tents. Far from becoming disillusioned by such an existence, Abraham did not waver in his trust in God because, as the writer says, ‘he was looking forward to the city with foundations whose architect and builder is God.’ He actually knew in his heart of hearts that God’s promise of salvation points to a place that offers far more security than anywhere in this world or life.

That same thought is echoed a little further on and in a more general way in this letter when, speaking not only of Abraham, but others like him, it says, ‘they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.’ In other words, even though the idea of national security is a major factor in where people think they need to belong; even the best of countries this world has ever seen can only go so far in the safety they provide.

The same thought surfaces once more near the end of the letter when the author says this: ‘here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ The accent this time is on a home that will last.

It is perhaps this final reference that most strikes a chord with people today. Even for those who are born and raised, live, work and die in the same place, that place can never remain the same. Even if the outward appearance of the places we associate with ‘home’ may survive the ravages of time, the communities that inhabit them do not. Generations grow old and pass away and sooner or later we find ourselves next in line among those waiting for departure.

All of this is intensified as never before in an age when nothing stays the same for long. The words of the hymn, ‘change and decay in all around I see’ have taken on an altogether new meaning for our generation. How much more then do we need the kind of peace of mind about where we truly belong, that will enable us to face the future with confidence. The whole thrust of the message of Hebrews is to point people back to Jesus. It may well have been that its author is thinking especially of the words he spoke to his disciples in the Upper Room before His crucifixion when He said, ‘I go to prepare a place for you that where I am, there you may also be.’ He wanted his disciples to know that they could only face the present as much as the future when they were sure about where they really belonged and were equally sure about how they would get there. And in answer to that Jesus said, ‘I am the way!’

So for our generation – globally as much as locally – which is becoming so unsettled in so many ways, how good it is to know that there is a place where we really can belong in this world and as we look forward, also in the next. It’s called heaven and it is found through faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour.

WORDS Mark G. Johnston Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania