We build our lives around promises. The promises we make to each other are the building blocks of our relationships. Without promises, we wouldn’t know how to relate to each other. Promises are what allow us to make plans, to count on the future, to have control over our lives.
I invite a friend to lunch, and he promises to meet me at twelve. Because of his promise, I arrange my morning so I’ll be at the restaurant at noon.
When you take a job, your employer promises to pay you a certain wage, and based on that promise you make other promises: to the bank that you’ll pay the mortgage, to the insurance company that you’ll cover the premiums, to the church that you’ll meet your pledge.
Two people fall in love and get married, and they promise that they will be faithful to each other in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, till death do they part.
Sometimes, in spite of their best efforts and most heartfelt intentions, people make promises they just can’t keep. It began to dawn on me that my father wasn’t perfect when I was small and he promised me we would do something fun together – play ball or go to the zoo or something like that. A business engagement came up that he couldn’t get out of, so we couldn’t do what we had planned. There weren’t many promises he didn’t keep, but when I realized he was human, and like the rest of us didn’t have complete control over his life, I could forgive him for the promises he couldn’t keep.
The Bible is the book of God’s promises, promises that tell us a lot about God. One of the promises God made was to Abram. God promised Abram that he would be the father of a great nation and that God would bless the whole earth through Abram’s children. Now, God made that promise when Abram was 75 years old. Years later, when Abram was still childless and his wife Sarai was long past the age when she could conceive a child, God spoke to Abram one night and said, “Don’t forget my promise, Abram.”
“Sure, right,” Abram replied. “The biological clock has run down, God.”
God replied, “Go outside and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you’ll have. You’ll have so many that they’ll fill this whole land you see before you. Trust me.”
“How can I trust you?” Abram asked. “How will I know you’ll keep your promise?”
Now, when you and I make promises, we sometimes seal them as a way of showing we intend to keep them. We do something to show we mean what we say, something that holds us accountable for the promise we’ve made. Most promises are sealed with our word. I say I’ll meet you at noon, and you trust my word that I’ll be there. Some promises we seal with a signature. You sign a contract, maybe get it sealed by a notary, and it’s a promise that’s enforceable in a court of law. Some promises we seal with symbols: a couple makes promises to each other in a wedding that they’ll do the best they can to make their marriage work, and they exchange rings as a sign of their promise.
In the time of Abram the most solemn promises were sealed with a ceremony. You would kill some of your best livestock, cut them in pieces, and lay the pieces out in two parallel columns. Then each party in the contract would walk between the pieces of the animals as a way of saying, “If I break my promise, then may what happened to these animals happen to me.” You backed up your most solemn promises with your life.
That’s how God sealed the promise to Abram. When daylight came, God told Abram to get his best livestock and a couple of birds, kill them, cut them up, and lay them out in two parallel lines. Abram did, then he spent the rest of the day shooing away the hawks and the vultures. When night came, Abram fell into a deep sleep, a dark and terrifying sleep. Then he saw a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch – God passing between the pieces – and the voice of God said to him, “Abram, your descendants will fill this land, from the river of Egypt in the west to the Euphrates in the east, the breadth of the world as you know it.” God sealed the promise with a ceremony that said, “As surely as I live, I will do this.”
And what was Abram to do in response, this old man who gave up hope of having children years ago? Abram was to believe. His side of the promise was to believe God would do as God said. That’s what was required on his part, to believe.
Abram never saw the great nation he was promised. He was never surrounded by dozens of grandchildren. But he and Sarai did have a son, one son named Isaac. And Isaac had a son named Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. And Israel had twelve sons and a daughter who had more children, until centuries later the descendants of Abram ruled the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates, just as God promised, and spread around the world carrying with them the promises God had made to Abram and his children. Abram didn’t live to see it, but he believed, and God kept the promise.
One of Abram’s
descendants brought another promise from God.
Jesus came with the promise that God hasn’t forgotten about this world
God made. Jesus promised that death and
evil and greed aren’t going to win, that God is preparing the earth to be the
kind of place it was created to be, a place of love and peace and gentleness
and justice. But, like Abram, we need
some kind of sign, something to seal such an incredible promise. Like Abram who was aware of his age every
time he moved too fast, we have lots of evidence stacked up against the promise
Jesus makes, evidence that convinces us of our weakness and our frailty. Where is this God of love who is supposed to
be in control of the universe? When the
doctor tells you you’ve got cancer, when a relationship you’ve nurtured for
years falls apart, when children go hungry in a world that has more than enough
food to feed every person on the planet, you have to ask God the same question
Abram asked, “OK, show me. How am I
supposed to believe your promise?”
We believe because God sealed the promise to us. God sealed it with the blood of Jesus Christ who died on the cross. And there’s only one thing required on our part to receive that promise, to have a place in the new creation God has promised. That is to believe, to believe that Jesus is the one who brings in this new world order, who died to make it happen, and who rose from the dead to conquer every death-dealing power in the universe.
What we do with that promise tells us a lot about ourselves. Not everyone who heard Jesus’ promise believed it. The Pharisees who warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him didn’t believe him. It wasn’t because they were bad people that they didn’t believe. They were fine, upstanding folk. But they thought that if good were going to triumph, it depended on them. They believed that if you said the right prayers, made the right sacrifices, performed the right rituals, you might convince God to hurry up and make the world better. They found Jesus irritating because he said all that’s required of you to have a part in the kingdom of God is to believe. You can’t earn your way into it. The Pharisees, who worked so hard at earning their way into heaven, didn’t like to hear that. They would just as soon Jesus left them alone, so they tried to get him to go away by telling him his life was in danger. But Jesus didn’t say thank you and run away. He said, “Go tell that fox Herod he can’t control what I’m doing. God will do what God will do in God’s own time.” Herod couldn’t silence Jesus with threats, and the Pharisees couldn’t earn God’s favor with their religion. To people who want to be in control, who want something more than a promise, Jesus can be something of a nuisance.
The people of Jerusalem didn’t believe either. In fact, they didn’t really see the point of the promise. They didn’t think things were all that bad. Life was comfortable, and whenever crackpots came along and told them they were making God angry, they ran them out of town. They were too busy looking out for themselves to worry about anybody else. They weren’t interested in Jesus’ promise because they already had what they wanted. Jesus weeps over those who reject his promise.
But God’s promise doesn’t depend on what we do with it. God promised to change this world, and God is going to do it whether the Pharisees or the people of Jerusalem, whether you or I, believe it or not. God made a promise, God sealed it on the cross, and it’s going to happen.
In Jesus God has promised to make the world a place of peace and plenty, of joy and love. We live trusting that the promise is true. When death looms before us like a great empty void, we know that God has promised us eternal life through Christ. When it seems wickedness has the upper hand and that honesty, integrity and compassion are foolish, we know that God has promised a new creation where good is rewarded and evil gets what it deserves. When our prayers don’t seem to go any higher than the ceiling and it’s hard to believe in anything beyond what we can touch and see, we know that God’s promise is more reliable than our good sense.
We know about God by the promises God
makes. God has promised life, a full,
satisfying life, where there is no pain or sadness, where there is no death or
crying, life that is not tortured by greed or selfishness or evil. God has made
a promise and sealed it with the blood of Christ. God keeps promises. Believe it.