[Note: This is the text for the (brief) sermon message I gave on December 10, 2011, at the Mae Surin Refugee Camp.]
Do you know what today is? Here in Thailand, December 10th is Constitution Day, a day where Thai celebrate the end of absolute monarchial rule and establishment of a constitutional monarchy where citizens are free to vote and participate in the political process, however often that process is interrupted by coups. This is ironic, I suppose, because neither I nor most of you, except for my translators here, are citizens of Thailand and are able to vote. The rest of us here are sojourners and foreigners in Thailand, and so the meaning of Constitution Day is not for us. This is my first time visiting a refugee camp, and I would like to thank you all for your hospitality on this Sabbath day.
Today I am speaking to a small group of refugees here in the Mae Surin Refugee Camp. To be a refugee is to be away from your homeland seeking a home, to be in a land, sometimes for many years, without being a citizen. You all here are not the first believers to be refugees, and you will not be the last, but there is something in the refugee experience that relates to our experience as believers in God that has been true for 4,000 years, since the time of Abraham. And today I would like to talk about how your experiences and the experiences of Abraham, the father of the faithful, relate to the experience of all believers regardless of our circumstances.
Get Out Of Your Country
When Abraham was seventy-five years old, he had to leave his family and his adopted city to live the life of a resident alien in the promised land. Let us read what the Bible has to say about this difficult calling from God in Genesis 12:1-9. Genesis 12:1-9 reads as follows: “Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. And Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Then Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan. Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, as far as the terebinth tree of Moreh. And the Canaanites were then in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, To your descendants I will give this land.” And there he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. And he moved from there to the mountain east of Bethel, and he pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he build an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord. So Abram journeyed, going on still toward the South.”
So, let’s understand what is going on here. Abraham was a wealthy man, with a large household of servants. But instead of being able to live comfortably in Haran, God told him to take his household and all of his belongings and become a sojourner, a foreigner, without a place to call home. He lived in tents with his family for the rest of his life, never a citizen of the land his descendants had been promised by God. Until recently, that is something I found hard to understand. Though I have visited many places around the world, it was always as a tourist. Until a few months ago I had always lived in the country of my birth, the United States, of which I am a proud and patriotic citizen. There are subtle differences between being a citizen and being a sojourner, which you all understand well being refugees. You have to obey laws you do not understand, nor have any part in voting for. You must show respect to leaders you did not choose, and around you there are customs that you find alien and unfamiliar, and even languages you cannot understand well. All of that was something that Abraham had to face. In Haran he was part of the ruling family of a city built and governed by his relatives. In Canaan he was a wandering Hebrew, a resident alien without a single piece of land that he owned or could call home. For the last 100 years of Abraham’s life he lived in tents, going from place to place, without a home on this earth. Is that something you can understand, dwelling here in a refugee camp, wondering if you will ever find a settled place?
He Waited For The City
Many people, especially in the West, misunderstand what it means to be a sojourner on this earth. They want to take advantage of all of the benefits of being citizens of a nation, of holding a passport of the United States, driver’s licenses, business permits and buying homes, but wish to avoid the responsibilities of citizenship like voting or jury duty. They like the privileges of citizenship, but then when it is time for them to contribute to society at large they say, “No, I’m not a citizen. I’m a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven,” even as they enjoy all of the fruits of citizenship that others take responsibility for. Here, as a foreigner, I must leave the country every 90 days, to cross into Burma and then return with another stamp on my visa. For you all, as refugees, you are generally stuck here in this area, usually in this refugee camp, unless you can pay the guards to get out and have someone sponsor you so that you can travel elsewhere without being hassled by the local police. Here in Thailand, to own a business or own property you must be a citizen, or have that property held in the name of a citizen. That is life as a foreigner, as a sojourner, wondering how the laws of your adopted country will change and wondering what fees and responsibilities you will be faced with every change of government, and wondering if you will ever find a home.
That was the experience of Abraham, as we read in the book of Hebrews. Hebrews 11:8-16 tells us not only of the faith of Abraham, but of the faith of all of us who are believers. Let us therefore read Hebrews 11:8-16 in this light: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore. These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”
Is what was true for Abraham true of all of us also? Yes, absolutely. We too dwell in tents, our physical bodies, which are temporary. We too, just like Abraham, if we are converted into the body of Christ through conversion and baptism, are citizens of the New Jerusalem that is above and that will come down in the new heavens and new earth. Therefore, if we are citizens of the heavenly city, we too seek a homeland. We look around the earth realizing that we are strangers here. We are not strangers because I am an American and you are Karen here in Thailand. It is not our blood that makes us strangers, for I am a stranger when I am in the United States around my neighbors and family, and if you are converted you are strangers even among your own people. We are strangers because we have been called by God to enter into His family. It is our ways that make us a stranger, in our worship of God as He commands rather than according to the corrupt traditions of mankind, in our refusal to follow after the sins and immorality of our corrupt and wicked societies, in our refusal to live by the selfish and materialistic and greedy ways of our own peoples. It is being godly and obedient to the laws of the Kingdom of Heaven that sets us apart from our neighbors, our coworkers, our family members, and that causes them to see us as different even though they cannot explain why. For even if we are citizens of a country, whether it is Thailand or Burma or the United States or anywhere else, we are still ultimately obedient to God’s laws even where they conflict with the laws of men. Even though we owe loyalty to the King of Thailand, whether we are citizens here or not, our ultimate loyalty is to the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, our elder brother Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father above. It is this ultimate loyalty that makes us strangers here, because we are loyal to a realm and to a Kingdom that the world rebels against.
And as it was for Abraham, it would be easy for us to fit in with the world if we really wanted to. We could get drunk and party like our neighbors, curse and use foul language like others around us, engage in the sexually immoral and greedy and materialistic behavior of those around us, and not feel like strangers or aliens on this earth, if we wanted. Abraham could have behaved like the corrupt Canaanites around him if he had wanted to, but he instead was obedient to God’s commandments, statutes, and judgments. Abraham could have gone back home to his idol-worshipping family, but he decided to remain a sojourner in the promised land and follow God’s way. And so, if we wish, like him, to enter God’s Kingdom as citizens of the Jerusalem that is above, we too will have to choose like he did to stand out in wicked times and places by following God’s ways, by confessing like he did that we are strangers and aliens in our place and time. Because all of us here, if we are converted and part of God’s family, seek a heavenly homeland. We do not seek merely a physical land where we may belong, but a heavenly kingdom where we may dwell for all time with our Father and our brothers and sisters, an eternal inheritance and city that will never perish and never be corrupted. And as long as we long to belong with God and Jesus Christ and our brethren for all time, we will be strangers and aliens here and now, different from those around us. Are you all willing to wait for the city of God as Abraham waited for the city? If you are, then let us truly understand how being foreigners and strangers here and now will help us to enter God’s Kingdom in the future, as God wills.