It was May of 1541. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado was exploring the vast expanse of the American southwest. Coronado and his men found themselves on a vast expanse, a desolate wilderness stretching for thirty thousand square miles. This is the famed Llano Escatado, a mind-numbingly flat piece of earth that covers west Texas and parts of New Mexico. Under a big sky, unhindered by hills, or trees, Coronado did his best to navigate the endless landscape.
The land was so unbroken, so desolate, so devoid of landmarks, that Coronado was forced to use a sea compass to chart a course for the expedition. After wandering through the yawning grasslands around Lubbock for nearly two years, the expedition finally decided to return to Mexico. They had not found anything of value. No shimmering cities of gold. No springs of eternal youth. Just grass, and flat tabletop earth. Two years of wandering, and all they returned with were tales of big sky and ceaseless plain.
Not so with Abraham. After all of God’s promises and all of God’s faithfulness to Abraham, God had one more grisly task for him. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” With these words ringing in his ears, Abraham gathers up wood, fire, knife, and his son whom he is to slaughter.
Then comes to pass one of the tenderest passages in all of holy scripture. Isaac says to his father Abraham, “Father! The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” We can imagine the pain and the distress, but also the trust it takes for Abraham to say, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Then God shows Abraham the mountain where he is sacrifice his son. He prepares the fire, an altar, and finally binds his son. As Abraham is reaching for his knife, the tool of Isaac’s demise, his hand is stayed. An angel of the Lord bids him to stop his gruesome task. And the Lord provides a ram for the burnt offering.
Abraham set his sight on that mountain that God had showed him. He was called to do this thing that no father would ever delight in doing. Nevertheless, he went to that mountain that he did not want to ascend. Abraham went with a purpose, with a vision, but also with trust.
“The Lord will provide.”
Thousands of years later, in a small village in Roman occupied England, another man ascended another hill of agony. His name was Alban. Alban harbored a Christian priest who was fleeing the Romans during one of their persecutions of Christianity. Though at first he was not a Christian himself, Alban felt compassion for this godly man. Alban protected him, gave him food, clothing. The priest shared with him the good news of Jesus Christ. As the Romans were searching for this priest who had fled, they came knocking on Alban’s door. Alban,realizing that the priest could share the good news with so many more, bravely put on a holy masquerade. He switched clothes with the priest.
When Alban opened the door, the Romans saw him as the priest and arrested him. Alban knew what he was doing. He was giving his own life, so that another might live. He was acting just as Jesus Christ acted for you and me.
Alban was brought before the Roman officials. He refused to pay homage to the emperor, he spat on their idols. In return, he was sentenced to death on a hill just outside the city. With a calling from God, with a holy purpose, Alban climbed that hill of execution without shame or regret. In fact, he was so filled with the Holy Spirit, that he could not bridle his tongue from ceaseless prayer. He knew that his end was approaching. That he was to die alone for his Lord.
But, just as with Abraham, the Lord provided. He provided a companion. As Alban was approaching the place of execution, praying and giving thanks to God, the Holy Spirit began to move among the people who were there. The executioner, the man with a sword in one hand and orders to kill Alban in the other, saw Alban and believed. He threw down his sword, fell at Alban’s feet, and proclaimed that he too believed in Jesus as Lord. For that holy man Alban who was climbing the hill did not fear death, he did not fear that hill of agony to which God had called him. And the executioner wanted a faith like that too. So when the time came, and the swords fell, they died together. They died as martyrs, Alban and his nameless companion, two men who professed Christ as their Lord in order to die.
Alban, of course, was not forgotten. In the annals of Christian history, Alban is remembered as the first martyr in Great Britain. He was a man who was called to a grisly task, who climbed a hill of pain, but is now remembered around the world. This church, and hundreds of others like it around the globe join together on this day to celebrate this faith that sometimes calls us to what we do not want. But even if we do not want it, the Lord will provide.
In light of Abraham’s story and of Alban’s story, the story of Coronado and his men may seem more appealing. Little was required of them. And though the big plains of West Texas can be mind-numbing, at least he wasn’t called to die, or to deal death. But as Christians, as followers of a Lord who died on a hill outside of Jerusalem, our calling is not like Coronado’s. Our calling is that of Abraham, is that of Alban.
Each one of us knows that hill, that mountain very well. All around it is a vast plain through which we can wander ceaselessly. But that mountain, the one that God is calling us to, is always looming. Compared to the vast plains, it may seem that the mountain is too high, the path is too treacherous, the final terminus too frightening.
That mountain that looms in our lives, that steady landmark, has many names. It is the mountain of owning up to some fault of our own. It is the mountain of speaking truth to power and sacrificing our privilege. It is the mountain of following God’s call, wherever it may lead, even to death itself. It’s not an easy decision, but there’s good news.
Even though choosing the mountain road is the harder one, the Lord will provide. The Lord provided Abraham with a lamb, Alban with a companion. The Lord will provide the church with the gifts to feed the hungry and heal the broken-hearted. The Lord will provide you with the strength and the courage to be a disciple in this confusing and messy world. We cannot live scared to follow our Lord because we may not have what it takes. Because we don’t have what it takes. Only Jesus does. When we are need, when we are following God’s call, the Lord refuses to abandon us.