Again last night it happened—I couldn’t sleep. So I did what I’ve not done in a few days, I read the news. I came to my La-Z-Boy chair, opened my MacBook, and perused the headlines. More of the same: $400 million U.S. dollars given to Iran as ransom; Obama allows upwards of 10,000 Muslims into America; president commutes prisoners’ sentences, releasing convicted felons into the American population; and of course, Donald and Hillary continue their antics. If we’re at all similar, I get one recurring attitude after reading it all: weariness. Weary of it all. Perhaps that’s part of the goal—to wear down the public so much that they (those vying for political power) accumulate yet more power.
After reading the headlining muck, I returned to writing out my to-do list for the next few days. Then I laid my journal down beside my chair and returned to reading where I’d left off yesterday: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). No lasting city.
Context is crucial. To whom was the letter of Hebrews written? Most likely it was written to Jewish Christians in the 1st century, probably before A.D. 70, when Roman forces in particular, destroyed much of Jerusalem, Israel, and the Jerusalem temple. The author of Hebrews had one main thesis: to remind Christians that Christ is superior to anyone else, superior to any competing leader, superior to any politics, superior to any other covenant.
Why is Christ superior? Because here—in this world—Christians have no lasting city. Yes, we are to tend this world. Yes, we are to live godly lives in this present darkness. Yes, we are to be salt and light in a world that is rotting in depravity and spiritually dark. The body of Christ is to be marked by its difference, its set-apartness. Why? Because in this world system, we have no lasting city.
We all have our quirks, I suppose. I enjoy being in the yard, cutting grass, watering trees, and digging in the dirt. Without a doubt, one of my favorite smells is of freshly cut grass. Especially during the summer months in the South, we can smell the thunderstorms moving in during hot afternoons. When lawns have been mowed recently, the chemical interactions between the humidity and the winds from the storm fronts create rich smells in the air. I drink them in.
I have a fellow teacher friend who scintillates when she speaks of the smells of freshly dug peanuts. (Urbanites, forgive us if you don’t understand.) As much as I delight in those simple pleasures, I know that in this world, I still have no lasting city. Therefore, wisdom calls me in the Scriptures to look to Christ, to be found in him, because he’s superior to anything in his creation. We so easily settle for too little.
Psalm 49 says what I’m trying to remind myself of—namely, that here we have no lasting city; that politics and government officials will go on being characterized by evil; that those with seared consciences will go on erecting idols of self-worship; that my words will last no longer than the summer-saturated smells I imbibe when I celebrate the simple beauties of country life, so much so that it almost embarrasses to speak of such things. But just ask yourself, do you not remember the power of smells of, say, a farm, or of the first time you rubbed a sweaty horse and felt his nostrils’ heat upon your forearms and face, or sat upon a tractor where soil is being plowed and held arrowheads between your fingertips? And yet, no lasting city.
Psalm 49 contains this motif:
This is the path of those who have foolish confidence;
yet after them people approve of their boasts.
Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
Death shall be their shepherd;
And the upright shall rule over them in the morning.
Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
for he will receive me (vv.13-15).
Those words are so clear I don’t understand how much explanation is even necessary. If our confidence is in ourselves, in this world system, the grave is our home, and all these pleasures are entertainments on a tragic journey that came from nothing and is going nowhere. No purpose, no overarching metanarrative, just a “tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.”
But the Scriptures give very different news for believers in Christ and his gospel. The writer of Hebrews reminds believers that, though in this world we have no lasting city “we seek the city that is to come” (v.14b).
I plan to go outside again today, to cut grass, to imbibe the rich smells of the hot August days, to swat at the gnats that buzz around my sweaty brow, but I will remind myself, too, that this is no lasting city, that there is a city that is to come, where righteousness dwells. And I’m confident that the God who does all things well will finally reveal to me how his beauties of country life shaped this pilgrim soul.