St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
+Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Trinity, September 15, 2019
“To Abraham and his seed were the promises made… And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.”
HOW does a promise make you feel? A promise is an offer yet to be fulfilled, sometime in the future, but not right now. If somebody does the thing promised the moment they offer it, it’s not a promise, but a fact. And that’s the problem with promises. They are often not facts, but intentions. Intentions change. Minds change. We think again about our previous offer to do something for another. Then they may do something that makes us relent on our promise. And all too often, we just get lazy and forget what we promised altogether. “I promise I’ll wash the car,” is a statement that holds no water. It just means, “Go away: I’m not doing what you ask right now. Maybe later.” A promise isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
There are social promises, legal promises, contracts, vows and covenants, wills and testaments, treaties and the promises we make to God. We’ve broken them all. The more serious the promise, the worse it is when we break it. Jesus warned people about making too many vows. He told people just to say, “Yes” or “No.” Done: no vows, no pledges, just simple and true. With the divorce rate up to 50% of every pair of vows made before God, after the ring and the cake and the dress and the tuxedos, the DJ and minister and flowers and limo, it’s: I said it and meant it then: “til death us do part,” but the situation has changed. I don’t feel the way I did. You’ve disappointed me. I’ve found someone who understands me. I said ‘I do’, but now I don’t.
With broken promises lives get broken too. We break wedding vows and break our consciences, break our families, our children’s lives, our parents’ hearts, our households. The cost of one broken promise might even be a war and millions of lives lost. A person gives his life to God by promise, then his heart grows cold and eyes get shifty, he breaks his own soul by leaving the Savior behind him and going it alone.
I seem to be making a case against promises, but I don’t mean to. Yet it would be better for us not to make light promises and then fail to keep them. Better to either do what we intend, or never state our intentions.
America used to trust its elected officials, especially in the executive office, up until the Nixon Watergate scandal, a relatively petty offense. Before that, we knew that the President couldn’t always tell us everything, but what he did tell us was the truth. That was 47 years ago. We don’t believe anybody in office anymore, and they know it and faintly try to sell us their sincerity today. And if we’re smart, we don’t believe a word of it. Do you see what a broken promise can cost us all?
God has promised us a great many things. Some of these are conditional promises, that is, if we respond to Him in one way, one promise will be acted out for us; if we do the other, then a second promise ensues. That’s how a covenant works. Much of the promise lies in our future, so it takes faith to hold onto the promise of God. Today we may not be experiencing the change for the better He has indicated for us. His hesitation to fulfill His promise may feel like a betrayal.
Why didn’t God come through for me? Why did He let that happen to me? Isn’t He good for His promises? But Moses said, “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” Num 23:19 Our experience with promises is conditioned by what people have done to us, so we have a problem trusting God, or those who speak for God, and His promises offered to us. And they are offered to us, you and me. St. Peter said, “the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:39
I don’t like to hang my hat on a promise. I’ve been disappointed too many times to believe what people tell me they’ll do for me, only to find them hardening their heart against me. The one who breaks a promise often needs to hate and reject the one they’ve betrayed. It’s easier on their conscience to feel resentment than to experience the shame.
Jesus made quite a few promises, and as the Son of God He has the power to make good on His promise. Truly, before Christ came, there was no concrete promise of eternal life or even forgiveness of intentional sin. The clemency offered by God through His Son, and the rewards of faith in Jesus are astounding. Listen to the promises from the opening chapters of Revelation: “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God. To him I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And … a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it. And … power over the nations… as I also have received from My Father; and … the morning star. He shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. And I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name. I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him I will grant to sit with Me on My throne.” Rev 2:7,11,17,26-29;3:5,12,20-21 Those are mysteries, symbols perhaps, word-pictures of the unimaginable, for the life we look forward to, but the life is real and the promises were made at the greatest cost to Him. We believe His promises, if at all, because He paid the ultimate price to deliver to us the message. What could be His motive in going through all that, then merely to lie?
The language of Revelation isn’t simply “live forever,” but a rich tapestry of images, white stones, new names, being seated as royalty with Jesus. The closing words of St. John’s book shows the happy couple, Jesus and His bride, saying, “Come! And let him who hears say, Come! And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.” Rev 22:17-21 It sounds like epic poetry, visions set before the dreaming eye of Odysseus before setting sail to the island of the Cyclops; Jason piloting the Argo to fetch the Golden Fleece. I know. It’s astounding. Such promises are truly rich for our blood. We live lives that are too prosaic. Life slogs along making sense enough to draw a paycheck and buy the groceries. Our fantasies are football teams and baseball pennants, vacations on Central American islands, hammocks and palm trees. Nuts! Even those dreams fail to come true, or if they do, we get Montezuma’s revenge and can’t go out deep sea fishing after all. Grand imagery is for special effects films and computer animated remakes of aging stop action classics. Go ahead and release the Kraken: see if I care.
So, I will have to insist that you listen to God’s promises and that you consider their source, not with the plausibility of such visions and future glories that are based on our experience. None of us has experienced the true glory of God. I think it’s time for that experience. I’m up for it.
Abraham lived 4,000 years ago. 4 billion people on earth claim him the father of their faith in God, so the fact of his existence comes with certificates. St Paul wrote the Galatians that Abraham and his seed were given promises. The Apostle makes the point this was not to seeds, that is, all his offspring in general, but to one very specific descendant, Jesus. This covenant with Abraham was followed 430 years later by the Jewish Law, but while the Law set parameters on behavior, the covenant remains, the promise is still to be fulfilled. In a modern translation, “Before Christ came, Moses' laws served as our guardian. Christ came so that we could receive God's approval by faith. But now that this faith has come, we are no longer under the control of a guardian. You are all God's children by believing in Christ Jesus. Clearly, all of you who were baptized in Christ's name have clothed yourselves with Christ… If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants and heirs, as God promised.” Gal 3:24-29 (GW)
Heirs are those who receive the inheritance of someone who has died. Abraham died and made us his heirs, by faith in his seed, his descendant Jesus. If we’ve inherited Abraham’s portion, what is it? For one thing, a great treasure is that God looked at Abraham’s faith in the astounding promises that were made to him: and God counted him righteous.
This is not a small thing. Do you count yourself righteous? Think again. ‘Righteous’ means exactly the way God intends someone to be, in every way. We can’t even imagine such a person, and only might see it in Jesus. Our eyes are too poor to take it all in. Jesus veiled it most of the time, in order that people could perceive His righteousness by faith, not by His always shining on a mountaintop. Faith sees what eyes do not. If you take Jesus as your Savior, and believe Him to be God’s Son and His promises to be true, then you have eternal life and God counts you righteous—by His definition of the term. His promises of many mansions and shared glory and new names and a rich banquet: heaven’s best for you, are all verifiably true. Do you trust it?
I ask God to confirm these promises to you, today. It’s His business how this confirmation is made, but if you have the promise in your heart, and if you truly hope for all that Jesus came to deliver to mankind, at the cost of His life, then embrace it, trust it, believe it, know that it’s true.
When you come up to this communion rail today, remember that it’s not for a cookie and juice. This is the Body of Jesus and the Blood of your Savior. Speak praises to Him as He makes your body His home. Let Him promise His promises to you again. If it breaks your heart, good. If it boggles your mind, great—your brain needs to take a back seat here, and just watch.
God promises a crown of life to those who love Him. James 1:12 Ask God for love. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” Heb 10:23 Ask for hope.
Promises, promises—we’ve heard them all and they’ve failed us. We’re cynics and pragmatists, realists and nobody’s fool. Well wise up, my poor broken hearted people. You are somebody’s fool: everybody is. The only question that remains is, who’s fool are you? Believe God and be the world’s laughing stock, but know this, with all certainty. God’s promises are in the bank, true and verified and sealed in the blood of His Son. If you can’t believe these treasured assurances, you cannot know anything for sure.
Trust the promises, believe the Savior, be healed in your heart, and live forever. We have His promise, and He will come through on it.
ALMIGHTY and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service; Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.