Dear people on the Lenten pilgrimage,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Pilgrimage of Faith
God has called, and here we are on our way. There is a promised land ahead but we don’t know when we will reach it, or where it is, or which direction we should go. We can only trust that God will get us there. So it doesn’t much matter whether we decide to turn to the left or to the right, as long as God is with us. It doesn’t much matter if we decide to stay put or to move on, as long as we have faith in the one who called us and trust that He will get us there.
Abraham went out when God called, not knowing where he was going. He journeyed and kept journeying, trusting in the promises of the one who had called him: promises of a destination of rest and promises of blessing along the way. He left Haran and went to Bethel and Ai. He pitched his tent, but then moved on again (Genesis 12:4-9). Where would be the final stop? Where did he finally settle? Where is the city of Abraham on the map of the Holy Land?
Was there something wrong with his GPS? Did God not send the proper directions? Was God deceiving Abraham, tricking him into leaving his family and homeland and sending him on a wild goose chase? Is God acting that way with us? Sending us out and around in circles in some kind of holding pattern without any destination? How does He expect us to go on day after day, not knowing where we are heading or when we will arrive?
This is where the true nature of faith is revealed. Faith is not knowledge of the final destination. Faith is not boldly stepping out to follow a set of clear directions. Faith is depending upon the One who has called you, and depending on Him in circumstances where you don’t know anything, when you don’t know whether you should go right or left; move here or there; take this job or that one; stay in this university program or switch to another; marry this person or not. Faith is relying on the promises of God when you can’t see where it will end up, trusting in God to bless and keep your coming in and your going out.
Today’s psalm (121) was not written by Abraham, but it expresses the faith of Abraham and of us, who have been called by God to complete a pilgrimage when we do not know the way we are to go. It reminds us to have faith in the One who has called us through our baptism and promised to bless us along the journey of our life until we reach that unknown country of our promised rest.
Help from the Hills
Weary and disoriented, confused and lost, not sure whether to take another step or not, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2). The One who has called you is greater than all the mountains and hills that lie in your path. He is the One who created them. They are not your obstacles, rather, that is where you can find your help.
It was upon a mountain that God redeemed Abraham’s son, Isaac, from death. “Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Genesis 22:13). It was upon a mountain that God talked with Moses (Exodus 19:3). A few weeks ago we heard how Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a mountain and was transfigured before them (Matthew 17:1-2). And at the end of our Lenten pilgrimage we will commemorate Jesus on Mount Calvary, redeeming us with the sacrifice of His own body and blood upon the cross.
As the pilgrims would approach Jerusalem for the great festivals, they would see the city in the distance, built upon a series of hills, and know that the LORD was near, dwelling upon the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant in the temple. “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”
Even today many churches are built on the top of a hill, rather than at the bottom of an escarpment. I can remember driving to visit my grandparents in the bustling town of Neustadt, population 500, if you want to be generous. As the car would round the bend on County Rd. 10, my sister and I would be on the edge of the back seat (no seat belts when we were young), looking between the headrests of the front bench seat, peering through the windshield in order to be the first to shout out “I see it!” as the steeple of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church came into view above the trees, the church where we would receive the Lord’s gifts with my grandparents on Sunday morning.
Lifting our eyes to the hills is not a way of communing with God in the beauty of nature, but of having faith in where He has promised to be. As He was in a burning bush (Exodus 3:4) and in the cloud and thunder of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:9), as He was on the mercy seat in the temple of Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:11), as He was dwelling bodily in Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration as well as Mount Calvary (Colossians 1:19), so He promises to be with us in His Word and Sacrament in His church (Matthew 26:26-28; 28:20). So that is where we lift our expectant eyes in faith, knowing that our help comes from Him, and it comes to us there. We may not know exactly where we are headed in life, but faith believes that the LORD is our help, a “very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
He is the One who keeps you, who guards and protects you, who defends and treasures you. This is the God who has called you out of the homeland of this wicked world to go to a place you have never seen, not in person, not on a map, a place that the GPS doesn’t recognize. But the LORD promises to keep you. He will keep your foot from slipping. He will keep you without slumbering. He will keep you from the blazing heat of the sun or from exposure in the night. The Lord will answer the prayer that He has taught you (Matthew 6:13) and He will keep you from all evil. He will keep your life.
The Baptismal Pilgrimage
When God called you into His kingdom through the new birth of water and the Spirit (John 3:5), He did not supply you with all the answers to whatever situation might arise in your life. There is no discernible path laid out before you. Rather, “the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Nicodemas, the teacher of Israel, found out how much he did not know. And that is often the path upon which the Lord leads us. For making it to our destination is not a matter of having all of the right answers, or knowing the right way to turn at every signpost in life. Rather, the way of those who have been born again is a way of faith. It is the way that Abraham walked, and St. Paul teaches us that it was the faith of Abraham that was counted as righteousness (Romans 4:3), not his knowledge or even his heroic obedience. It was Abraham’s belief that the LORD would keep him from all evil; that the LORD would keep his life.
The letter to the Hebrews explains Abraham’s faith:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God…
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16).
In faith Abraham heard God’s call, not as a call to an earthly homeland, but as a call to everlasting life in the heavenly city. In faith Abraham believed that the way to that everlasting home was through his Offspring in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). And Abraham rejoiced to see the coming of Jesus (John 8:56), in whom he had faith throughout his life’s journey. As a ram was substituted for the sacrifice of Abraham’s son, Isaac, Jesus became the propitiatory sacrifice for us when His head was caught in a crown of thorns and they nailed Him to the cross.
As we lift our eyes to the hills, we look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). He is the one who guards and keeps us through the Word and the Sacraments that He instituted, guarding and keeping us by His Holy Spirit in the one true faith, until we reach that heavenly homeland.
Let’s face it. I don’t know what lies ahead for you. You don’t know where you are going. But we do know that our help comes from the LORD. For every wrong turn we make, His correction and forgiveness are close at hand. For every doubt that we have in His providential care, He is here to reassure us of His love. For every fear that we have in the face of any insurmountable obstacle, another hill appears to display the help of His cross.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.