[Note: This series of messages has been delivered at three different locations, and each time, without any planning on my part, this first message was shared either immediately before or immediately after our American Independence Day.]
This is the first of a series of messages on being “aliens” in this world. And I'm not talking about the science-fiction sort of alien -- green, bug-eyed Martians or blob-like creatures from the far reaches of the galaxy.
According to one dictionary, an alien is “a foreigner, especially one who is not a naturalized citizen of the country where they are living.”
One Bible dictionary says: “A person living out of his own country”
I like this definition – it reminds me of something my mother often says. Whenever conversations about the mess of our political system come up, she will eventually shrug her shoulders, smile, and say, “It’s not my kingdom.”
Another Bible dictionary says: “A temporary inhabitant, a newcomer lacking inherited rights.”
This describes us as believers; we are living, breathing examples of aliens. Not because we come from another galaxy or planet, but because we belong to a different land, and serve a different king.
In this, and the coming sessions, we'll be exploring what it means to live as aliens in this world.
Depending on the Bible translation you use, in some of the verses we look at you might not see the word “alien”; instead, you may see the words “stranger,” “sojourner,” or “exile.”
Today, to begin looking at the idea of what it means to be an alien, I want to begin by looking at one of the oldest examples in the Bible of an alien: Abraham.
As we begin talking about Abraham, I want to remind you that Abraham went by two names -- Abram and Abraham. Depending on where we're reading in the Bible, you'll see one name or the other, but it's the same person.
The name Abram means “exalted father” (or, perhaps more likely, in an exceedingly patriarchal society: “my father is exalted”). The name Abraham (which is what God changed Abram's name to) means “father of many.”
We will be looking primarily at the book of Genesis, chapter 12, and Hebrews 11 and 12.
Here's what we know about Abram: before the call of God on his life, he was a resident of Ur of the Chaldees. Abram’s father, Terah, was an idolater (Joshua 24:2). This isn't surprising; in Ur and the surrounding region there were more than two thousand gods. Every family had its own idol, selected by the patriarch of the family.
There were more than two thousand gods, yet Abram heard from one (Genesis 12:1-3).
Abram, because of God’s call to him, packed up and left his homeland. In the past, when I’ve taught about Abraham leaving Ur, I’ve taught it as “Oh, look at what a courageous, difficult and painful thing Abraham did, leaving his home town behind.”
When I’ve taught it that way, I’ve taught it incorrectly. There’s no indication anywhere that leaving Ur was challenging, difficult, or painful for Abraham.
In fact, once you compare these verses with Hebrews 11, you get a very different picture of his departure.
Abraham didn’t even look back. He wasn’t even thinking about the land he left!
How great Abraham’s trust was that God had someplace better for him! And compare that with what we know of Lot's wife a few chapters later in Genesis -- how vastly different was Abram's mentality from hers! She couldn’t resist the temptation to look back at the city she left behind.
What is the difference? Abraham knew in his heart that he didn’t belong in Ur. Lot’s wife, on the other hand, in her heart, belonged in Sodom.
It reminds me a bit of something Jesus said:
Abraham’s heart was not in Ur, because that’s not where his treasure was. Lot’s wife, on the other hand, had her heart firmly planted in Sodom.
So that's (in a nutshell) the story of the "leaving" – now let’s look at the arriving!
Our vision of the land is based on the accounts of Moses and Joshua. You remember the story of the twelve spies, right? They came back from looking over the land carrying giant clusters of grapes, and reporting that the land was flowing with milk and honey.
These things are true, but they are a description of conditions some four hundred years later, and they can cloud our perception of Abraham’s experience.
Here's what we see in the series of events after Abram arrives in the promised land:
When you consider all this, you might not be surprised to learn that Abraham never felt like he belonged in this land. Even though God promised it to him, even though it was the land he'd been looking forward to, he still felt like an alien in it:
When I read all of this, it surprised me; it didn't exactly jive with the mental picture I'd always had of Abraham reaching the promised land and settling in comfortably and happily, as though he'd been waiting his whole life for such a place to call his own.
To see that Abram never did really feel like he fit in, let's take a look at Genesis 23. In this chapter, Sarah dies, and Abraham has to bury her. You would think that he'd have a plot of land where he could bury her, but look at what he says to the people of the land in this chapter:
Imagine that -- even as he is nearing the end of his life, after he has been in this promised land for so long, he still considers himself an alien, a non-citizen!
As you continue reading in this chapter, you will see that his neighbors consider him to be a prince of God, and they want to give him a tomb. He has great honor among the neighboring people, yet he refuses to take advantage of that, because he is an alien.
How does this work? This is the promised land, yet even here, in the land that was his inheritance, Abraham feels like he doesn’t belong.
The answer is in Hebrews 11. You see, where Abraham truly belonged is the same place where we truly belong. Take a look at Hebrews 11:10:
Why was Abraham not satisfied with the earthly kingdom he had received? Because he was waiting for and anticipating an even better country!
Let's make this clear. It's not that he was hoping that the country he was in would become better; he was hoping for and desiring a better country – the heavenly one.
This is the first step in living as an alien in this world – understanding that we don’t belong in it.
If you think that Abraham’s condition of not belonging here doesn’t apply to us, consider Hebrews 12:28 – we are receiving this same kingdom that Abraham was looking forward to:
And that kingdom is not the United States of America – not this little corner of the world in this little corner of human history – a kingdom that spans the entire globe, and all of human history.
As a citizen of heaven, I have more in common with a Sudanese believer than with a non-believer who lives in my neighborhood, right here in the good old USA.
Remember what I told you earlier: “It’s not my kingdom.”
I have to say, it feels weird to be standing up here on July 4th weekend, when everyone expects patriotic hymns, and instead be saying, “Uh, you don’t actually belong to this country.”
It feels weird, and I didn't plan it this way, but that doesn't mean no one planned it, so I’m here, and I’m saying, “You don’t belong here. You belong to a country that is far greater, far more glorious, far more beautiful than this little corner of the globe.”
You are receiving a kingdom!
Don’t be like Lot’s wife, continually turning back to what you’ve left behind; be like Abraham who celebrated his alienness, because he had a better place to call home.
You are an alien, a foreigner here. It’s great that this country permits you to live here, and even to vote here, but this is not where your true citizenship is.
I struggle with the notion of singing patriotic hymns in church, honestly, because of the fact that my true citizenship is elsewhere. Our churches do not exist to celebrate and honor the earthly kingdoms of this world (no matter how great they might be) but to celebrate and honor the King of our heavenly kingdom, and to learn the ways of that kingdom.
I wonder how I would react if I was in a church in Germany, and they started singing a song about the glories of the Fatherland. Or if I was in Russia, and the Christians devoted their worship time to singing about their love for Mother Russia. And then I wonder how a Christian from Sudan, or Rwanda, or Turkey, or Syria, would feel if they came here expecting to join with us singing songs of worship and praise to God, and instead found us singing, “I sing praise to America.”
If you don’t think you have ever sung that in church, look closely at the awkward grammatical construction of My Country 'Tis of Thee and you’ll realize that’s exactly what you’re saying: “My country, you’re the one I sing about.”
No! Jesus is the one I sing about! As the hymn Crown Him with Many Crowns says, “The heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own!”
Hymns like My Country 'Tis of Thee, make me cringe, even though I do love some of their tunes. Some of the words are boderline blasphemous in their elevation of an earthly kingdom to heavenly status.
In verse two, I can't bring myself to sing, “My heart with rapture thrills like that above.” What audacity on the part of the songwriter to suggest that my heart will be filled with rapture over America just like it is over heaven!
And in the third verse, we have, “Let rocks their silence break.” This seems very troublesome when you consider that we’ve taken Biblical imagery of Christ (Luke 19:37-40) and applied it to an earthly kingdom!
But then comes verse four -- this is the kind of song a citizen of the heavenly kingdom can sing with gusto -- it expresses praise solely to God, and offers prayer for the land in which we live.
I don’t pick apart this song just for the sake of picking it apart; it’s a reminder to me of how easily we lose track of where we really belong.
And patriotic hymns are not primarily the problem – I don’t want you to leave here thinking that Doug preached a sermon against patriotic hymns – I bring them up because they are a symptom of a greater problem within the church, that we have become far too comfortable with being American, to the point that even though we pay lip service to God’s kingdom, it is the politics, the policies, the culture of this land that we maintain our allegiance to.
We often pay more attention to the political commentators of this land than we do to the word of God, and our worldview is often shaped more by a political party than by words of our Savior. The truth is, if you are a believer, there is no media outlet, and no political party that represents you.
We have many responsibilities to this land, and to the world which contains it, and we’ll explore those responsibilities in the weeks to come, but just because we have responsibilities within this world does not mean that we owe our allegiance to this world, or to any of the kingdoms within it.
So I invite you to leave here this morning with my mother’s words on your lips: “It’s not my kingdom.” When the appalling rivalries between political candidates and political parties hits an all-time low, say, “It’s not my kingdom.” When the laws of the land don’t line up with the laws of the kingdom of God, remind yourself, “It’s not my kingdom.” When anger, and fear, and hatred seem to overwhelm this nation, remind yourself, “It’s not my kingdom.” And, on the other hand, perhaps even more importantly, when you start to feel comfortable and at home here, remind yourself, “It’s not my kingdom.”
Don’t say it with condescension or smugness, say it with deep gratitude to God that he has prepared for you a land that is fairer than day.
And this week, when you’re celebrating Independence Day, remember Abraham and say, “This world is not my home – I’m just an alien in it – but I do have a home, and by faith I can see it afar!”
Finally, as you celebrate, consider these words from John Piper, who expresses it far more eloquently said than what I could say: “Whatever form your patriotism takes, let it be a deep sense that we are more closely bound to brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries, other cultures than we are to our closest unbelieving compatriot or family member in the fatherland or in the neighborhood…Otherwise, I think our patriotism is drifting over into idolatry.”