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SERMON: God's Promises
(silent) May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my soul be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
What is the benefit of a promise? Where in your life has a promise been of ultimate importance to you?
When we’re children we make promises to each other all the time. As adults we make promises in all facets of our public and private lives. You make a promise every time you sign a contract. You make a promise when you marry. You make a promise when you bring a child for baptism. Other people in our lives make a variety of promises to us.
And for most of us, those promises are held sacred. But as you all know, many times promises are broken. We all know that certain promises are suspect—promises made in campaign speeches are a perfect example of that. And that’s a real problem, because a promise is a contract—an agreement—or to use a theological term, a promise is a Covenant. But when we’re talking about a Covenant, we’re talking about a two-way promise—you promise to do something and in return someone else promises something to you.
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Now, when we read the Old Testament—or the Jewish Scriptures as those books are more accurately described—we read about Covenants that God makes with God’s people. There’s the Covenant that God makes with Noah after the flood; a Covenant in which God promises that the earth will never again be destroyed by a flood. And then there’s the Covenant that God makes with Abram—who becomes known as Abraham. It’s that covenant that becomes known as THE PROMISE. And when I say THE PROMISE, try to imagine those words bold faced and in all capital letters.
THE PROMISE is one of people, land, and faithfulness. God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation. God promises that nation that they will inhabit a land granted specifically to them. And God promises to be faithful to the descendents of Abraham. In return, all God asks is that Abraham and his descendents worship only God—YHWH.
In today’s first lesson we read about one aspect of the fulfillment of THE PROMISE. This lesson takes place well into the book of Joshua. The people of Israel had escaped from slavery in Egypt; under the leadership of Moses, they had been wandering for 40 years in the wilderness. But now Moses is dead, having never crossed into the Promised Land himself and leadership has passed to Joshua. Having crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land much has already happened to the descendents of Abraham.
But what’s really interesting as you read through first the book of Exodus, then the Book of Joshua, and then through the other books of THE PROMISE in the Old Testament is how God never falters from striving toward fulfilling God’s end of THE PROMISE. God is always there holding up that end of the Covenant. The same cannot be said for God’s people. Time and time again, the Israelites fail in keeping their end of the agreement. In the wilderness they worship the golden calf, they question the faithfulness of God despite being provided for with water pouring from solid rock and food miraculously appearing each morning—basically, they whine and complain their way through much of the Exodus.
Through it all, God holds up his part of the Covenant; he fulfills THE PROMISE; the people cross into the Promised Land. And in today’s lesson, we’re told that they eat of the crops of Canaan. God has come through for them, and if you continue to read through Joshua and through the rest of the Old Testament, you’ll discover that God will continue to come through for them, even when they continue to fail God.
As I read the story of the Israelites and I take note of THE PROMISE; I’m struck by some incredible similarities between then . . . . and now. In many ways this land we live in—these United States—this land is a Promised Land. A little more than 500 years ago, people started coming to this land. They called this land the new world, but they could just as easily have called it the Promised Land.
People came here for all sorts of reasons. Some came for religious freedom—after all, the Protestant Reformation was less than 100 years old at the time and bitter religious persecutions were still raging through Europe. Others came here for political freedom. For others, though, coming here was not the result of promised freedom, but rather the result of captivity and slavery—and that is our shame.
However, for some reason God blessed this land. God made the land fertile and provided resources beyond belief; resources that have made this nation the richest in the world. It hasn’t always been so, and there are some who would claim that it no longer is so. But the evidence is difficult to ignore. What the people of this country consume in a single day, would provide for a similar number of people in much of the rest of the world for a week—perhaps even a month or more.
I believe that just as God made a Covenant with the descendents of Abraham, so too did God make a Covenant with the descendents of the founders of this nation. It is a Covenant that has granted us God’s blessings throughout our short history, but it also requires that we share those blessings with the less fortunate of the world. And for most part, the people of this nation are a generous and caring people. Whenever disaster strikes, we are among the first—if not the first—to respond with aid.
However, we are in a time in this nation when our response to our Covenant with God is being sorely tested.
• Financially, our country—and the world—have only very narrowly avoided a complete financial catastrophe that is absolutely and without any doubt the result of unbridled greed and a complete abrogation of any ethical concern for others on the part of a relatively small group of people.
• Militarily we are involved in two wars—one of which was almost certainly politically motivated; both of which are chewing up human and material resources at an alarming rate.
• Politically, those who govern are involved in pure partisan politics that has, to a large extent, brought our congress to a grid-locked standstill.
My brothers and sisters, it would be very easy for us to collectively throw up our hands in despair and bemoan the present state of affairs in our country. But you know what? It would also be easy to throw up our hands in despair and bemoan the present state of affairs in God’s church. How many of us—and I mean all of us—have at one time or another wished for the “Good old days” in church? How many of us wish for the days when attendance at worship was overflowing and the Sunday School was bursting at the seams? We’ve all had those thoughts. I know I have. Haven’t you?
Just as God made a covenant with the Israelites; God has made a covenant with us. As a nation, God has granted us great wealth and great resources. In return, God wants us to use those resources for the benefit of all his children. As his children, God has granted us his love and his salvation. In return, God has commanded us to go into the world to spread his love. God didn’t command us to go into the world or our community to change it so that it becomes like us. God wants us to embrace our brothers and sisters so that we might all work together to better this world and bring it to peace.
When I first began speaking with the Call Committee and then the Council of St. Paul’s, one of the things I heard that so impressed me, was the expressed desire for this congregation to become more involved within the community. That involvement is part of the Covenant we have with God. God has provided this congregation with an ideal opportunity to be an example of how his church can work—not to change this community—but to become one with this community.
We here at St. Paul’s might consider ourselves to be like the Israelites spoken of in the Book of Joshua. Just as God planted them in the Promised Land and fulfilled his part of the Covenant by giving them land and faithfulness, so too has God planted this congregation in this community with faithfulness and love. I have seen evidence of the love this congregation has for the greater community of Bethlehem. As we begin our ministry together, I pray that we will continue to work together to find new ways to fulfill God’s covenant with us as we explore new ways to serve this community. I believe God has brought us together to do just that.
Let us pray.
May the love of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus who will guide our hearts as we strive to fulfill our covenant with God. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible
Copyright 2010, Daniel W. Brettell. Used by permission.