Monday, January 22, 2007

“Promises to Keep”

Psalm 25; Jeremiah 33:14-16[1]

It seems to me that we are a people for whom promises don’t mean much. There may have been a time when your word was your bond, but these days their lawyers want to talk to our lawyers and everybody else’s lawyers to make sure none of lawyers are pulling a fast one!

If you’re like me, you may feel a bit jaded by too many promises broken. Political campaigns have become comical for the outlandish promises candidates will make just to get your vote—of course, with no intention of ever fulfilling them. The sad thing isn’t that we know they have no intention of ever fulfilling all their promises; it’s that they know we know, and they make the promises anyway!

Biblical faith is a faith that is very much defined by promise.[2] From the days of ancient Israel to today, there have been prophets who promised that better things were in store for those who wait in faith. Was this just manipulation? In some cases, I’m sure that has been a factor

For some, the divine promises in Scripture become a tangible key that unlocks not only the mysteries of the Christian life, but also the details of the future. About 20 years ago, a man named Edgar Whisenant wrote a booklet called “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Come in 1988.” He sent it to pastors of various denominations. In it, he claimed not only to be able to predict the return of Christ, but also all of the events that would occur over the next 1,000 years! I would say placing one’s faith in that kind of thing is just about as foolish as believing the promises most politicians make these days!

What basis do we have for believing that the biblical promises are more than just religious campaign promises? In the first place, we view them from the perspective of God’s character. The idea that God is faithful is one that echoes throughout Scripture. The first true “revelation” of who God is comes to Moses in the cleft of the rock: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). That refrain echoes again and again throughout the Psalms and prophets. Our Psalm text for today puts it this way: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 25:10).[3]

Even in the presence of the Babylonian siege, Jeremiah obeys God’s command to buy his cousin’s field. The field stands as a tangible reminder that “Fields shall be bought in this land,” because God promised he would bring the people back and restore their fortunes (Jeremiah 32:43-45). God promised: “I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah” and make a branch from the house of David arise to bring new justice to the people (Jer. 33:14-16)

Why would Jeremiah or anyone else believe this? It was the experience of God’s faithfulness in the midst of the hardships of life that gave them confidence. It was the assurance that: “See, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?” (Jer. 32:27). It was the same assurance that enable Paul, at the end of a ministry that encompassed countless sufferings, to say, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Tim. 1:12).

The conviction of God’s faithfulness emerges from the experience of God’s steadfast love in the midst of all the changes of life.[4] That’s what leads the biblical prophets to affirm that the essence of God’s being is fidelity. That’s why biblical faith cannot fathom a God who breaks promises. Rather, biblical faith views God’s promises from the stand point of Isaiah 55: “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose” (Isa. 55:10-11).

The other reason for believing biblical promises like this is that they point toward a future with hope and meaning.[5] One contemporary prophet has called it “God’s particular future.”[6] It consists of promises like “I will wipe away every tear,” and “they will all know me, from the greatest to the least,” and “they will beat their swords into ploughshares,” and “I am making the whole of creation new.”

Christian faith is at heart the hope that the coming God will redeem this world, and that God has begun to do just that through Jesus Christ.[7] But the very act of speaking those words calls our attention to the fact that those promises have not been fulfilled. And so there is a tension to biblical faith in the promise of God.[8] It is like the Jewish messianic hope that recognizes that this world and those of us in it are still in a very real sense fundamentally unredeemed. The Christian faith is one that “must often be expressed against all outward evidence.”[9]

This season of Advent is a time not only for looking backward joyfully to the birth of the Christ child, but also looking forward longingly to the coming of the Risen Lord. We are still a people who wait for promises to be kept.

[1] A sermon preached 12/3/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 16, 20, 30-32, 40-44, 85-89, 102-229.

[3] Moltmann, 115: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment.”

[4] Moltmann, 106, 117, 119.

[5] Moltmann, 24-25.

[6] Peter Gomes, Strength for the Journey, 182.

[7] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.

[8] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 104.

[9] William Dyrness, “In Distress” The Christian Century ( Nov 16, 1994), accessed at; cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 118.

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