Strangers and Pilgrims




Hebrews 11:13-14

13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

14 For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.


Are you worried about the price of gas? Perhaps you should be but before you push the panic button, you might remember that back in 2008 gas rose to over $4 a gallon. During that summer, airfares went through the roof and nearly every airline came close to bankruptcy. Food prices shot up as well. Famine and food riots spread throughout the globe. That seems like a distant memory, but during the 2008 presidential campaign, all anyone talked about was the price of gas. John McCain and Hillary Clinton went so far to advocate for a temporary repeal of the gas tax.

Who was to blame then? Who is to blame now? Fairy tales have villains, so do movies and spy novels. Villains offer a simple explanation for all that goes wrong in the world. The temptation is to believe that bad people cause bad things, but in real life, things often do not work that way. In real life, oil prices are rising for definite reasons. Global demand has risen more quickly than global supply, and as a result, there is not much cushion in the system. If a country such as Libya stops producing, everyone is afraid there will not be enough, panic sets, and panic drives up price.

Gas is a necessity of modern life; demand for gas is pretty inelastic. You can raise the price of gas by 10 percent, 20 percent, even 30 percent, and you really do not change the demand much. Working people with long commutes have to buy the same amount of gas no matter what the price is. That is pretty frightening. People ask what am I going to do. Can I survive in this kind of economy? These are valid concerns, but a Christian has concerns that are more important.

Some folks worry about the USA. Where are we going? Can the nation survive? We live in what sociologists call “post-Christian America.” There is debate about how Christian American used to be; there is no debate on whether America is now a Christian nation.

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon wrote a book titled Resident Aliens (published by Abingdon Press, 1989). The book begins, “Sometime between 1960 and 1980, an old, inadequately conceived world ended and a new world began.” “When and how did we change? Although it may sound trivial, one of us is tempted to date the shift sometime on a Sunday evening in 1963. Then, in Greenville, South Carolina, in defiance of the state’s time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sunday. Seven of us—regular attenders of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Buncombe Street Church—made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, then quietly slip out the back door and join John Wayne at the Fox.”

That evening has come to represent a watershed in the history of Christendom, South Carolina style. On that night, Greenville, South Carolina—the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western world—served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the church. There would be no more free passes for the church, no more free rides. The Fox Theater went head to head with the church over who would provide the world view for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish.”

The authors continue, “You see, our parents never worried about whether we would grow up Christian. The church was the only show in town.” “Church, home and state formed a national consortium that worked together to instill 'Christian values.' People grew up Christian simply by being lucky enough to be born in places like Greenville, South Carolina, or Pleasant Grove, Texas.”

But Hauerwas and Willimon conclude, “A few years ago, the two of us awoke and realized that, whether or not our parents were justified in believing this about the world and the Christian faith, nobody believed it today.”

All sorts of Christians are waking up and realizing that it is no longer “our world”—if it ever was.

I would argue that it never was. There never was a Christian nation. There never was a Christian culture. Jesus came down decisively on this issue when Pontius Pilate asked him if he was the king of the Jews. Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world.” He said, I do not belong to this world, and we who follow Jesus do not belong to this world either. We are living in this world right now, but this is not our home. We are as Hauerwas and Willimon said “Resident Aliens.”

Hollywood has made a number of movies about aliens living among us on earth. My wife says I quote from movies too much, but bear with me on this I remember the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers directed by Don Siegel. In the movie, local doctor Kevin McCarthy finds that the residents of the sleepy town of Santa Mira, California, are changing. They are pod people. Aliens have taken over our bodies. In the closing moments of the film, McCarthy yells directly into the camera, "They're here already! You're next!" The movie was so badly done, and it was kind of funny, but we can make a spiritual application. Christians are aliens living among normal earthlings. We are only visitors on this planet. We do not think like ordinary earthlings. They dwell on earthly pleasures; Heavenly people think of heavenly things. We do not act like ordinary earthlings. The Holy Spirit leads us to obey the way of our Savior. We are indeed strangers and pilgrims.

I should tell you that Jonathan Edwards wrote of sermon with this same theme, using this same scripture from Hebrews. Jonathan Edwards was probably America's greatest preacher-theologian, born 1703, died 1758. In September 1733, he wrote a sermon called “The Christian Pilgrim,” and I intend to plagiarize his sermon. Just joking. I will quote extensively from his sermon.

Edwards says, “In confessing that they were strangers, they plainly declared that this is not their country; that this is not the place where they are at home. And in confessing themselves to be pilgrims, they declared plainly that this is not their settled abode, but that they have respect to some other country, which they seek, and to which they are traveling.”

I heard a story about two missionaries returning home after many years on the mission field. This is an old story from back when everyone traveled by train. The two missionaries arrived at their hometown train station. Banners were hung everywhere; a band was playing; city dignitaries were waiting on the platform. The two missionaries thought, “Wow, this is really great. People are acknowledging our work for the Lord.” Then they realized that the welcome was for some politician. It was not for them. For a moment, they were downcast, but they said to each other, “It does not matter; we are not ‘home’ yet.” Like other Christian pilgrims they had another home, As Hebrews 11:10 says, they were “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”

Jonathan Edwards says, “This life ought to be so spent by us, as to be only a journey or pilgrimage towards heaven.” This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with this world. This is a beautiful planet, but it is still not our home. In other words, admire the view as you are passing through, but remember you are only passing through. You are not settling here. The things you see here are not yours. On a journey, you might stop for a night at a motel or hotel. It might be a very plush establishment. You might admire the furnishings. But you know you are moving on the next day. Even so, this is the attitude we should cultivate with regard to the world.

Speaking of the things of the world, Edwards says, “Our hearts ought to be loose to these things, as that of a man on a journey, that we may as cheerfully part with them whenever God calls.” We should be willing when our time comes to let go of the things of the earth and go on to a greater inheritance. But to go on we must follow the path that God has laid out. We go in God's way, not our way. To quote Jonathan Edwards again, “We should take up our cross and follow him, in meekness and lowliness of heart, obedience and charity, diligence to do good, and patience under afflictions.” We should live now like we are going to live in heaven, loving, adoring, and serving God.

Hebrews 12:1, “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” Do not be discouraged. Keep on keeping on and keep the faith, and realize that this is what it is all about. This is the meaning of life. This is why you are here. You are here to get to heaven. The point of the journey is the end of the journey. All other aims in life, all other ambitions, should be subordinate to that end. Money, for example, can be good—if it helps you toward the end of your journey. If it hinders your journey, throw it away, get rid of it. Again to quote Edwards,

Thus we should eat, and drink, and clothe ourselves, and improve the conversation and enjoyment of friends. And whatever business we are setting about, whatever design we are engaging in, we should inquire with ourselves, whether this business or undertaking will forward us in our way to heaven? And if not, we should quit our design.”

Why should we think that way? Because this world is not our abiding place. This body is obviously a temporary affair. You should take care of it; Do the best you can with it; However, in the end, it falls apart.

In 1846, former president John Quincy Adams suffered a stroke. Although he returned to Congress the following year, his health was clearly failing. Daniel Webster described his last meeting with Adams: "Someone, a friend of his, came in and made particular inquiry of his health. Adams answered, ’I inhabit a weak, frail, decayed tenement; battered by the winds and broken in upon by the storms, and from all I can learn, the landlord does not intend to repair it.’"

I am sure that is how some people feel. "I’m falling apart and nobody can do anything about it." As human beings, we worry greatly about our life spans. We all want to live a long healthy life here on earth. That is a human viewpoint. I have often thought that from God's viewpoint human life spans might seem too short to be concerned about. Whether we live 10 years or a 100 years, from God's viewpoint, is probably insignificant. The important point is not how long is your journey, but did you get to your destination. Our time here is short, our days are numbered, but do not worry about it, this is not our home.

Now most people do not get this at all. Most people do not really believe that they are going to die. They think that somehow they are going to enjoy the things of this life forever. They are living in a “fool's paradise.” Death will blow up all their hopes and put an end to all their dreams.

We are destined for better things. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God. Our present existence is short and transitory, but our existence in God's Kingdom is everlasting. Therefore, that kingdom is where we place all our hopes.

Now you might say that is all well and good for the future, but what effect does it have on my life right now. Life is a journey toward heaven. What does that mean for me right now?

For one thing, it alters our view of death. Family, friends who pass on have finished their journey. They are with God. We will see them no more on this earth, but we do not mourn as those who have no hope. They lived their lives as a journey and they got to journey's end. That is not an occasion for sadness. While we are in this body, we look upon death as a calamity. We think of the darkness of the grave with horror. We do not want to talk about corruption and worms. However, this is our earthly, fleshly way of thinking. In fact, the dead are inconceivably blessed. They are singing with joy, they are celebrating.

And add to that we are traveling on in our journey toward that same destination. We are following them and when we get to our journey's end we will be with them again, and we will be with them in a far better place than we have here.

But you are probably thinking that not all people, not even most people, live their lives as a journey toward heaven. That is not their destination. They spend their lives traveling the other way. They prefer the broad way that leads to destruction. They are working diligently to get on to hell. Edwards, “This is the employment of every day, with all wicked men, and the whole day is spent in it. As soon as ever they awake in the morning, they set out anew in the way to hell and spend every waking moment in it.”

They have chosen their way, but for some of us, it is not our way. We believe on the gentle Lord Jesus, take up his way, and walk toward the home he has prepared for us. Some think that when we first come to know Jesus, when we are “saved,” that is all there is to being a Christian. Not so. That is the beginning of the journey.

Our concern then is to go in the way that leads to heaven--obeying the commands of God, following the example of Jesus. After all, we are talking about heaven. Is there a more worthy goal? What better destination can we have for our journey? We are placed in this world with a choice given to us. We can travel which way we please. Toward hell or toward heaven. But it is no choice at all. Who would not choose heaven? You need to be traveling along the road that leads to the New Jerusalem. You are a transient here. You are a resident alien. You have a better home.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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Last Modified: 05/02/13