Retirement is a big unknown

Göttingen sermons

Göttingen Sermons on the Internet ed. by U. Nembach

Sermon on Hebrews 11: 8-10, written by Dietz Lange


Dear Congregation! If we want to go on a hike, we plan it very carefully. We check the weather forecast and we take a tent with us or book a place to stay if it is to go over several days. We plan a change to satisfy the grumbling children. Or we make sure that the inclines are not too big so that it doesn't become too strenuous for the old parents. And of course we have a good map with us so we don't get lost.

Completely different to Abraham. He is supposed to move with family and bag and baggage to an unknown country, without a map, without any advance planning. It reminds me a little of the refugees from East Prussia or Silesia who fled their homeland to the west towards the end of the war before the advancing Russian army. This West was also an unknown country to them, and it was by no means certain that the company would do well. Abraham was not in acute danger, but neither did he have any safeguards. He was to go on the hike at the mere marching orders that God gave him. He should inherit a promised land for it. But why should he believe that? In human terms, he set out for blue haze.

Perhaps at first glance that seems strange to us. But we have to know that for Abraham this was the decisive path of his life. So the story about it has become a symbol for human life in general. That is what is meant by the sentences on which the sermon is based today. Our life, the life of each and every one of us, is something like a wandering into an unknown land. Similar to a hike in the Alps, we also try to prevent any possible incidents. We take out insurance. We pay into the pension fund. We go to the medical check-up. We write a living will and much more. That's not wrong either. Nevertheless, tomorrow we could have an accident or a stroke, and then suddenly everything will be different.

Of course, we don't think about such terrible things all the time. That doesn't have to be the case. It would ruin any joy in life. But it is true that we do not know the future that awaits us. Horoscopes and fortune telling are of no use. For some things, such as the course of the disease, there are certain probabilities, but even there things can turn out very differently, for the worse or for the better. We wander to an unknown land. There are all sorts of surprises along the way, joyful and also terrifying, a new friendship or even a deep disappointment. All of this is not always in front of our eyes. But when something like this happens, we suddenly realize how thin ice we have been walking on all along. How do we deal with that?

There is certainly no one answer that fits all of us. Some tend to always expect the worst. Perhaps they have had bad experiences with loved ones who have abused their trust. You will then become overly cautious and suspicious of anyone, not taking any chances. Sometimes you can understand that quite well. But such a person also makes it difficult for himself. He will not get ahead on his way, and some will turn away from him. Others suppress the risk. You have an entirely positive outlook on life. They also take hair-raising dangers with the confidence that it will be all right. If they are unlucky, they get up again like buffets. Such people often achieve a great deal in life. You can admire that. But how long will the power last?

We do not know how it was with Abraham. Maybe he had a bit of both: sometimes worried about how things will go on with himself and with the people for whom he was responsible. Another time he just marched on, although he was still a long way from reaching his destination. Everyone has such changing moods. But it's not about them. It depends on what can carry you through your entire life, despite all disappointments and misfortunes.

We are told that with Abraham this was the land that God had promised him. For him, that was a major goal in life that was well worth the effort. Something like 40 or 50 years of hard work at work and then a nice, well-deserved retirement, sleeping in every day, only doing what is fun. One can also think of someone who is lucky enough to be in good health and approaching their 80th birthday, which will then be celebrated in a big way. This is what the promised land looks like to many of us. But that makes it a strange thing. Then retirement is suddenly boring and empty: no longer a real task. And the 80th birthday, for which someone has lived so intensely, turns out to be the end of the joy of life a few weeks later. The promised land obviously cannot be held tightly, it slips through your fingers all too easily if you think you have taken it.

The letter to the Hebrews suggests this for Abraham as well. Although he arrived in the promised land, in Canaan, he lived there as a stranger, only lived in a tent and not in a permanent house. So he was still on the move, even though, humanly speaking, he had achieved the goal that had been set for him. Another way of putting it is: The promised land was a parable for something else that lies behind it. This other we call heaven.

Then are all the great goals in life worthless? Do you only have to concentrate on the sky from the start and on nothing else? There have always been Christians who mean that. Jesus was also sometimes understood in this way: He had proclaimed the nearness of God's rulership and everything else did not interest him. But that's not how it is. Jesus did enjoy the beauty of nature, just think of the picture of the lilies in the field. And he thought a lot of good human relationships. This is particularly evident in his parables. Such a parable is like a foretaste of heaven, or like a signpost. And the signpost is important.

The foretaste, or the guide, comes from God himself. If we perceive God's love in it, then the disappointments of our lives no longer overturn us. We no longer fall into the illusion that everything will always go well. Rather, we have a hold that goes deeper than the interactions we deal with every day. Heaven is not a place somewhere beyond the Milky Way. Heaven is nothing other than being with God, being lifted up with God. Heaven does not begin where the earth ends, or sometime after we die. He already meets us in faith. That is the star, one might say, that guided Abraham. He has given him the courage to venture on his journey at God's promise. And in this Abraham should be an example to us.

Of course, the sky is still far away for us at the same time. Because no human life is pure bliss. Last but not least, the Passion time in which we are now reminds us of this. Jesus suffered terribly for our sake, both physically and especially mentally, when he had the feeling that his entire life's work had been in vain. He even felt abandoned by God. Even if things don't go just as badly for us: we too have to go through suffering, also through suffering for other people's sake. But Jesus takes us with him. He is mysteriously close to us in faith, as he said: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them". We are gathered as people who are still on the way. On the way to an unknown person Country that we already have in our hearts to begin with and to which signposts draw our attention again and again. That creates new confidence every time, even if we just don't see the hand in front of our eyes. "Faith is a firm confidence in what one hopes and one does not doubt what one does not see ", it says at the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews. Heaven is exactly that. And this heaven is more certain and reliable than anything the earth has to offer us.