Promises Made. Promises Kept?

Thursday of Advent 2 – December 13, 2012

Isaiah 41.13-20 (RSV)
13 For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I will help you.”
14 Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you, says the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
15 Behold, I will make of you a threshing sledge, new, sharp, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff;
16 You shall winnow them and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them. And you shall rejoice in the LORD; in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.
17 When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the LORD will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
18 I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.
19 I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together;
20 that men may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.

Psalm 145 (KJV)
1 I will extol thee, my God, O king; and I will bless thy name for ever and ever.
2 Every day will I bless thee; and I will praise thy name for ever and ever.
3 Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable.
4 One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts.
5 I will speak of the glorious honour of thy majesty, and of thy wondrous works.
6 And men shall speak of the might of thy terrible acts: and I will declare thy greatness.
7 They shall abundantly utter the memory of thy great goodness, and shall sing of thy righteousness.
8 The LORD is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.
9 The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.
10 All thy works shall praise thee, O LORD; and thy saints shall bless thee.
11 They shall speak of the glory of thy kingdom, and talk of thy power;
12 To make known to the sons of men his mighty acts, and the glorious majesty of his kingdom.
13 Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.
14 The LORD upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.
15 The eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their meat in due season.
16 Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.
17 The LORD is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works.
18 The LORD is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth.
19 He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him: he also will hear their cry, and will save them.
20 The LORD preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy.
21 My mouth shall speak the praise of the LORD: and let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever.

Matthew 11.7-15
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind?
8 Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses.
9 Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
10 This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’
11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.
13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John;
14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Eli’jah who is to come.
15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

St. Augustine on God as Promise Keeper
God had a time for making his promises and a time for fulfilling them. His time for making promises was from the days of the prophets until the coming of John the Baptist. His time for fulfilling them was from then until the end of the world.

God is faithful and he has put himself in our debt, not by receiving anything from us but by promising so much. Nor was a promise sufficient for him; he even bound himself in writing, giving us as it were a pledge in his own hand. He wanted us to see from Scripture, when the time for fulfilment came, how he was carrying out his promises one by one.

God promised us eternal salvation, everlasting bliss with the angels, an incorruptible inheritance, endless glory, the joyful vision of his face, his holy dwelling in heaven, and after the resurrection from the dead no further fear of dying. This is what he holds out to us at the end as the goal of all our striving. When we reach it we shall ask for nothing more. But as to how we are to reach our final goal, he revealed this too by promises and prophecies.

God promised men divinity, mortals immortality, sinners justification, outcasts glory. But because his promise that we who are mortal, corruptible, weak and of low estate, mere dust and ashes, were to be equal to the angels seemed incredible, God not only made a written covenant with us to win our faith, but he also gave us a mediator of his pledge. This mediator was not a prince, an angel, or an archangel, but his only Son; through his own Son he meant both to show us and give us the way by which he would lead us to the promised goal. He was not satisfied with sending his Son to show us the way. He made him the way itself.

God’s only Son, then, was to come among us, take our human nature, and in this nature be born as a man. He was to die, to rise again, to ascend into heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Father, and to fulfil his promises among the nations. After that he was also to fulfil his promise to come again, to demand what he had previously requested, to separate those deserving his anger from those deserving his mercy, to give the wicked what he had threatened and the just what he had promised.

All this had to be prophesied, foretold, and impressed on us as an event in the future so that we should not be terrified by its happening unexpectedly, but wait for it with faith. (St Augustine, In ps. 109, 1-3 (CCL 40, 1601-1603), from Word in Season 1, found in TWO YEAR LECTIONARY, PATRISTIC VIGILS READINGS, ADVENT & CHRISTMASTIDE, YEAR 1)

St. Cyprian on Patience
Patience is a precept for salvation given us by our Lord our teacher: Whoever endures to the end will be saved. And again: If you persevere in my word, you will truly be my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Dear brethren, we must endure and persevere if we are to attain the truth and freedom we have been allowed to hope for; faith and hope are the very meaning of our being Christians, but if faith and hope are to bear their fruit, patience is necessary.

We do not seek glory now, in the present, but we look for future glory, as Saint Paul instructs us when he says: By hope we were saved. Now hope which is seen is not hope; how can a man hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it in patience. Patient waiting is necessary if we are to be perfected in what we have begun to be, and if we are to receive from God what we hope for and believe.

In another place the same Apostle instructs and teaches the just, and those active in good works, and those who store up for themselves treasures in heaven through the reward God gives them. They are to be patient also, for he says: Therefore while we have time, let us do good to all, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith. But let us not grow weary in doing good, for we shall reap our reward in due season.

Paul warns us not to grow weary in good works through impatience, not to be distracted or overcome by temptations and so give up in the midst of our pilgrimage of praise and glory, and allow our past good deeds to count for nothing because what was begun falls short of completion.

Finally the Apostle, speaking of charity, unites it with endurance and patience. Charity, he says, is always patient and kind; it is not jealous, is not boastful, is not given to anger, does not think evil, loves all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. He shows that charity can be steadfast and persevering because it has learned how to endure all things.

And in another place he says: Bear with one another lovingly, striving to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. He shows that neither unity nor peace can be maintained unless the brethren cherish each other with mutual forbearance and preserve the bond of harmony by means of patience. (from Celebrating the Seasons)

Reflection:
The story of salvation is one of a promise made and a promise kept. Can we see that in the season of Advent and Christmas? God and real people (forefathers, foremothers, fathers, mothersm, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous spirit made perfect in faith) in concert with God keeping promises…

“Promises, Promises!” Those words have some history in the lives of each and every one of us. We make promises but do not keep them. Promises are made to us and never kept. That is the tragic reality of a fallen world and our collusion with that fallen state. I remember, back in the early 90’s, the birth and meteoric popularity of the “Promise Keepers” movement in the United States. It was, and is, a legitimate response to the lack of responsibility shown by men in relationships. The mission statement of the movement says,

The promises are being:

  • committed to honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer and obedience to God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit
  • committed to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.
  • committed to practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity
  • committed to building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values
  • committed to supporting the mission of his church by honoring and praying for his pastor, and by actively giving his time and resources
  • committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.
  • committed to influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (see Mark 12:30-31) and the Great Commission.

Hard to argue with such a list. I have nothing but deep respect for the efforts of the leaders of the movement over the last 22 years. I bless the name of God for the restoring, healing, and preventative work of the Holy Spirit in and through it. But that is OK if the tried and true soldiers of the effort stand firm and stay the course. Regardless of the fact that like many other truly life-changing efforts of the Church keep the center stage for only so long and then are upstaged by the “next big thing,” they have, evidently, shown themselves to be good Promise Keepers by staying the course and learning that, at the core of a lack of the ability to be a promise keeper is the passion of “restlessness” and an addiction to “the next big thing.” And, what is it that makes Promise Keepers or any other effort of the Church effective? Let me offer a couple of educated guesses…

It takes patience and perseverance. The making of legitimate promises and co-operating with the Holy Spirit in working toward the actualization of the shape of life those promises portray is hard work. It is the work we must do. There is no way around it. It is a warfare work that focuses not on gritting our teeth and trying hard, but of confronting our broken inner life and seeking to stay the course of that warfare until the fruit of it is borne out in our outer life. Will a person keep keeping promises when people don’t notice it anymore (except those who are being blessed by the keeping) and it becomes boring and often a matter of sheer private integrity? Promise Keepers and all the other initiatives we make as Christians, be they personal or corporate, must endure “the test of time.”

Now, of course, there are outward boundaries we must set up and seek the Holy Spirit’s power to respect and keep. But, even so, it is still NOT a matter of trying hard or harder. It is, and this may sound un-manly, a matter of surrender, trust, and vulnerability. No room for the “rugged individualist” or the “self-made man.”

The bottom line whether it is the Promise Keepers movement or any other expression of Godly integrity is to recognize from the very beginning that God is THE promise keeper that makes all promise keeping possible. The work is not, primarily one of moral improvement but of relational integrity and all integrity is the fruit of God’s involvement as THE promise keeper. Integrity of life is not built on the foundation of trying hard but of trust – first and foremost, trust in God, trust in the other person(s) with whom you have a relationship, and their trust in you. Once again, we come back to patience and perseverance. Without all of the ingredients: promises, trust, patience, perseverance, growing consistency in follow through, and most of all the power of God, it is all for naught. It is just more empty promises filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing (1 Corinthians 13).

During this Advent season, let all of us make a commitment to be authentic promise keepers by allowing the Lord to keep His saving promise in and through us. Let us commit ourselves to becoming like Christ not by imitation of Him (trying hard) but by dynamic union with Him (embrace and surrender).

St. John puts is powerfully in his epistle:

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit.
14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.
15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.
16 So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
17 In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. (1 John 4.13-17)

Fr. Thomas

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