And so, now we come nearly to the end of our affirmation of faith: we’ve talked about the action of God as Creator, Christ and Spirit; we’ve lifted up the pattern and intention for human life that God has set forth; we’ve discussed what it means that we’re a people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, and we’ve recognized that there is both a cost and joy in being so. Everything we’ve talked about up till this point has been about God’s on-going presence and activity in and through our lives and the world, and underlying that, our response to it. And what becomes clear is that the best response is one of faith; that is, trusting God with the whole of our lives and living, knowing that God provides for us in every situation.
But there is one more assertion that needs to be made: and that’s that there are promises made to all those who would give their faith and trust to God. Forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace? Courage in struggle, God’s presence in trial and rejoicing, a life both abundant in this realm and eternal in the one to come? Friends, these are the cornerstones of divine blessing on which our very lives are built, the promises of God on which we stand as Christians!
Of course, I realize that even to say something like that in this day and age points up a challenge to our traditional ways of thinking; for to say the very least, these are not times that lend themselves to trusting in promises!
Let’s face it: by and large in this world, the promises we make are bolstered by legal contracts signed, witnessed, notarized, and enforceable in a court of law; and yet a so-called “breach of contract” often occurs with nary a thought of the consequences! From the over-abundance of empty promises made by politicians to the assurances we’re constantly given in regard to our on-going security and well-being, we know all-too-well in this culture how very fleeting a promise can be. And what’s true on a corporate level certainly applies on a personal level: promises are the very fragile building blocks of trust; and frankly, that’s exactly how we treat them! We are the people of “trust but verify;” not unlike “doubting” Thomas we want to see evidence that provides the guarantees; even when we know full well there are no guarantees!
One of the handful of movies that I will sit down and watch just about every time it comes on TV is “Apollo 13,” the Ron Howard film about the ill-fated moon flight of the early 1970’s. What always gets me about that story is not only what was going on with the three astronauts in space in the midst of that crisis, but also with the crew on the ground who were constantly running real-life simulations as to what was happening in space: doing everything they could, at least theoretically, to bring spacecraft safely home – in the process crashing, exploding and dying over and over again – all so they could understand exactly what to do when the real moment of truth arrived. Of course, for all their simulations, they could never be sure what they were doing would work; but that didn’t stop them from seeking confirmation right up until the last moment. That Apollo 13 came home safely was a triumph of human determination; but it was also, I think, an example of how it’s our human nature to need confirmation, understanding and proof to trust the promises that have been made!
So given this, friends, what do we do about a God who makes promises? Because the Bible is filled from beginning to end with God’s promises: promises made to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses and the people of Israel; promises conveyed through prophets and apostles; promises given to his followers by Jesus himself. And what we read again and again in scripture is that these promises are real and true, and that God never, ever lies; an incredible but admittedly difficult truth for us “trust but verify” folk to grasp!
Well, we can take heart in knowing that it probably was for them, too! Roger Schinn writes that we may well “wonder how men and women of the Bible knew and verified” God’s promises. After all, they didn’t have the scientific picture of things, “but surely they reflected upon their experience as intensely as we do on ours. [But] when they talked of God’s promises, they were less inhibited in their imagination than we… they took their visions and dreams more seriously than we.” Yes, they too had to sort out truth from illusion, but you see, in the end it was the experiences they had with God; their relationship with God from generation upon generation in good times and bad: this is what gave them the assurance to say that God was faithful and reliable and worthy of trust.
And it’s the same for us, friends: the evidence of what God does in the here and now is what gives us confidence in what God promises for the future. That’s how in our text this morning Paul could write most emphatically to the Corinthians not only that “God is faithful,” but also that “every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’”
Actually, what prompts Paul to say this is quite interesting: seems that he was engaged in a bit of damage control! The backstory is that apparently, Paul did not visit the Corinthians as he’d promised he would, and now he’s being accused by them of waffling on decisions, of being unreliable, two-faced, and someone who can’t be counted on to keep his promises. Paul, of course, defends himself by grounding his behavior in the character of God; but it turns out that what Paul really wants to talk about is God’s faithfulness rather than his own: “As surely as God is faithful,” he says, “our word to you has not been ‘Yes and No.’” for in Jesus Christ “it is always ‘Yes’… it is through him that we say the ‘Amen,’ to the glory of God… it is God who establishes us with you in Christ.” It is God who has put his seal on us and who has given “us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.”
You see? All that God has already done for us, in creation and in life, in Jesus our Savior, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; all that God continues to do for us by his very presence among us now, this is more than enough to assure us that whatever God says will be… will be! And that is a significant truth in a world that is rife with “no’s” at every turn (or, at the very least, with “if, ands and buts”); that with every new day and each new generation, our Lord gives his creation a clear and unequivocal “Yes” by his promises.
And what does God promise? Well, for one thing he promises us “forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,” the assurance that on the journey of our lives we can never be so aimless and far from God’s purposes that we can’t ever return; and that when we do return, we will surely be welcomed as joyfully and as extravagantly as the “prodigal” son was welcomed by his forgiving father. This is grace, and grace by its very definition is a gift: a gift generously and magnanimously given; an experience that gives us what John Calvin referred to as “illumination and power,” the promise of light that overcomes darkness, and of love that triumphs over sin. It’s a promise that literally turns our lives 180 degrees back around to God!
And we’re also promised courage; specifically, courage in the struggle for justice and peace: understanding that whether we’re talking peace in the global sense, or in the serenity which calms our own inner turmoil, this too is a gift of God; the patience and strength that sustains us when the harsh realities of the world become overwhelming. This is the promise that however hopeless our situation may seem to be, our God promises that spiritually and historically the day will someday come when swords will be beaten in plowshares and spears will be made into pruning hooks; and that in the meantime is yes, “to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God!” And for the courage we need to live this way, God promises us an inner peace; peace that passes human understanding; peace that the world cannot give nor take away.
Likewise, God promises us his presence in times in trial and rejoicing. In this we know that God will be with us in the roughness of life; but here we’re assured that God’s presence will also be felt in life’s utter joy: in the marriage of two souls joined in love; in the birth of a child and that child’s gift of grace received through baptism. God is to be found in all of the good and beautiful transitions of life and living that come to every household, every type of family, every kind of community; and even in the graveside remembrances of those who have passed from our sight but never from our fond memory nor God’s loving embrace. In short, writes Roger Schinn, “When we ask God’s presence, God will be there.” And the good news is that God will be there whether or not we ask; even when it is easy [for us] to forget, and convenient to ignore, God promises still to be with us in trial and rejoicing.
And most of all, God promises us life: life including, yet far beyond the flesh and blood experience we have in the here and now. This is the gift of eternity: the promise of heaven, a place in a kingdom that has no end. However we envision heaven “in the scope of our imaginations;” whether we see clouds carrying cherub angels across a bright endless sky; dwelling in a city with streets paved with gold; or as the Book of Revelations refers to it, a holy city, new Jerusalem, where “death shall be no more, [and] mourning and crying and pain will be no more;” however we see it, it’s the confident assurance that our destiny is ever and always in the hands of the eternal and steadfastly loving God, who in Jesus Christ, won a victory over sin and death; and because of that gives us the experience of life that is abundant in this life and eternal in the one to come.
So what are we to say to this, beloved? Simply, and wonderfully, that we are a people of promise! We are a people girded and blessed by the many sure and certain promises that emanate from our faith in God through Jesus Christ our Lord. How else, but for these graceful promises could we be empowered to live in these times with such dignity, integrity and joy in all things? How else could we find the courage as persons and as a people to always and ever do “the right things” with love and compassion; and how else can we live with eyes and hearts fixed on that that promised day yet to come when all the voices and heaven will say, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lords and of his messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”
As Christians, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, we are a people of promise, living joyfully between the now and the not yet, building on this strong and mighty foundation of faith on which we stand; this foundation that has been built for us and the world by the God who is the Lord of Life!
There is much for us to do; so let begin by proclaiming boldly, joyfully and prayerfully:
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you, O God!
Amen, and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry