FAITH IN A TIME OF THE PLAGUE Meditation 5 JOURNEY INTO THE UNKNOWN

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“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called…and set out for a place not knowing where he was going.”

When will the lockdown end?  We know it won’t be any time soon. But even when it does, it will not be business as usual.  We are be travelling into largely unchartered territory without google road maps if not up a creek without a paddle.  The truth is, we really do not know how the world or South Africa will shape up going forward, though the consensus is that it will be different. But, then, we never do know what the future holds. When we were born our parents did not know what would become of us, neither did we when we left school. Even if we trained for a career there was no certainty that we would end up pursuing it, and that is even more true today.  Futurists and fortunetellers seldom get it right.  We know that certain consequences will follow today’s actions, and we may be able to make accurate predictions about the weather, but we do cannot anticipate all the variables that will shape the future, like a virus erupting in Wuhan. 

When Bernhard and Barry established Volmoed thirty-four years ago they had a vision but did not know exactly know how things would develop. Over the years the Volmoed community has learnt to trust that God is involved in the process. Just when we are not sure of the next step, or when things look particularly bleak, something surprising has happened to show us the way forward. Right now, the corona virus pandemic and lockdown has raised serious questions about how we can survive and fulfil our purpose if no guests and visitors can come to Volmoed.  But we believe God is leading us step by step.  We have to learn to live with uncertainty, as all of us have to, and how to journey into the unknown. This is, in fact, central to the biblical story and to Christian faith.

Genesis chapter twelve represents a decisive turning point in the biblical narrative.  Up until then we are in the realm of primordial saga sketched with bold strokes on a cosmic canvas: the story of Creation, the Fall, the Flood and the destruction of the Tower of Babel, all events in the prehistorical mists of time when, Genesis tells us, there were super-human giants (Nephilim) in the land, and divine beings cohabitated with human women. (ch. 6).  Then, without warning, the story enters familiar territory even though it is still ancient history.  We hear about countries and cities that can be located on the map, and we hear about people and nations that are part of the known history of the Middle Eastern.  A man called Abraham enters the story; a man who believes he is called by God to go into the unknown.

We know very little about Abraham until the day God called him.  We know that he was the son of Terah who came from Ur of the Chaldeans, that he had a brother named Nahor, was married to Sarah who was childless, and that they lived in Haran, an ancient Canaanite city near the river Euphrates in Mesopotamia.  That’s it!  So how and why did God call this man to become the founding patriarch of the people of God, and eventually of the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? And why did Matthew begin his gospel by telling us that Jesus was the son of David who was the son of Abraham! (1:1) 

We can only surmise that Abraham, like Moses later in the biblical story, must have had a “burning bush” experience, an encounter with Yahweh, the God who was totally different from all other gods, including those of Chaldea and Mesopotamia.  In all likelihood, he had arrived at the point in his life, a mid-life crisis if you like, when he was beginning to question the meaning and purpose of his life, and was increasingly disillusioned with the available answers and the life-style of affluent Haran.  There must be more to life than raising a family and making money!  Abraham was ready for a change of direction, a new way of life informed by his growing belief in a God who was greater than the gods of the nations, a God who could not be conceived let alone reduced to a statue in the market square.  This God was the only living God, the creator of the cosmos, the One who determined human destiny, not blind fate or subject to changing moods like the weather, but trustworthy, and committed to the well-being of the world.  Abraham was ready to obey the call of this God to leave the known behind and travel into the unknown, to turn his back on the city and his former life, and set off into the wilderness to discover God’s purpose for him and his family.

As the letter to the Hebrews (11:8) puts it, “Abraham went out not knowing where he was going.”  But one thing is certain. As St. Paul would write centuries later (Romans 4:3), Abraham’s obedient faith brought him into a personal relationship with God, and God’s purpose for him. In Eugene Peterson’s translation: “Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point.” And that is the experience of countless people ever since who are the spiritual descendants of Abraham

Even though the journey into the future is always unknown, people of faith, the descendants of Abraham, continue to believe that God is involved in the unfolding drama of history.  A drama, as both the Bible and Shakespeare tell us, is full of tragedy but also of hope. For Christians, this drama finds its epicentre in Jesus, the son of Abraham who was tested in the Wilderness, died on a Cross, and was raised to new life in order to give birth to a new hope for humanity.  This is the hope that saves and directs us as we journey into the unknown, travel through our own wildernesses, suffering and tragedies, but striving like Abraham to trust in the promises of God.

As we struggle through these days of the pandemic, which are for so many people, days of disaster, devastation and death, people of faith continue to discern signs of hope in the face of tragedy, and trust in the God who leads us through the uncertainties of the unknown. In doing so, we take heart from Bonhoeffer’s words written shortly before his arrest and imprisonment

I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil. For that to happen, God needs human beings who let everything work out for the best. I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to resist as we need. But it is not given to us in advance, lest we rely on ourselves and not on God alone. In such faith all fear of the future should be overcome.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 23 April 2020

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