Every Sunday we read all 4 of the appointed lectionary texts for the day: OT lesson, Psalm, NT Epistle and NT Gospel. Some weeks the connections are inscrutable and other weeks they are obvious. This is an obvious week: God keeps His promises. Why do we need 4 separate passages to make this point? Wouldn’t one of them do just fine, along with a short homily to explain it? Sometimes, yes. Other times, as in today’s readings, each passage illumines the next in a way that seems too wonderfully interconnected to be truncated.
If the point is that God keeps His promises, then the lessons we learn from watching God at work in the history of His people are absolutely necessary for our understanding of the relationship between how He has acted in the past and how we should expect Him to be working in the future. In fact, our confidence in God’s providential actions is rooted in our observations regarding His consistent action in history. This is precisely why so much of Scripture is history, the history of God’s people, Israel, the story of Jesus’ life and teaching and the story of the early Church. It’s also why in the glorious service we call the Great Vigil of Easter we rehearse the entire account of redemptive history from creation to the flood to Abraham and Isaac to the Exodus to two passages from Isaiah to two passages from Ezekiel to the prophecy of Zephaniah about the gathering of God’s people. Each reading is accompanied by its own Psalm and Collect. And all of that is before we even get to the story of the Resurrection! God has acted in a certain way, He will act that way again and He will keep His promises.
For the Jewish people and, as St. Paul explains clearly in Galatians and Romans, for Christians as well, many of God’s promises start with Abraham. Yes, they already were in place with Adam and Eve and Noah and others, but Abraham becomes the father of those who are put in right relationship with God through faith. According to Genesis 15:6, Abraham “believed the Lord, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” This is what St. Paul is quoting in his writings, and this is the entire basis on which Paul explains the relationship of all Jews and Gentiles to God. Abraham “believed the Lord, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
We tend to give Sarah a hard time for not believing God’s promise of a son in her old age, and we make a lot out of the fact that she laughed. But Abraham was guilty of exactly the same response. In Genesis 17:17 we read, “Abraham fell face down; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man who is 100 years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of 90?’”
Our human nature generally has us falling far short of believing God’s promises. It’s a product of our fallen nature. Like Abraham, we fall down and laugh. We try to play God in our lives and we tend to dismiss His revelations about Himself as being so unlike us. God makes His promises and then He keeps them! We may not know the timeframe and, in fact, we may not like the timeframe. But, as the hymn writer says, “God has promised, be it must.” God’s promises will not fail. Did Abraham and Sarah have a son? Did their son Isaac become the propagator of the Jewish people through Jacob and his 12 sons? Did God accomplish this miracle according to His promise?
What did God’s promise include? A friend used to write in every email the anonymous proverb, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” The lines for the people of Israel were crooked indeed. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. He ended up in Egypt. He rose from imprisonment to the highest position of prominence in Egypt, but his successors ended up in abject bondage to another Pharaoh. The Israelites had to escape by the miraculous deliverance God provided on the first Passover. Moses, who was miraculously preserved in his childhood, was charged with leading the people out of Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, only to spend the next 40 years wandering through the desert. Yet the people ultimately were able to enter and possess the land promised centuries earlier to Abraham, who “believed the Lord, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
What a story! But it’s not a “story,” it’s an account of precisely how God writes straight with crooked lines and, in the end, how God keeps His promises to His people. It’s just how God is, as remarkably different as that may be from how we are. Yes, we were created in His image. But that image was so marred by the fall that our own promise-keeping now bears only the vaguest resemblance to His. We try; we may make our pledges and say our vows with the best of intentions. But we fail, again and again, whether inadvertently or intentionally, whether circumstantially or deceitfully. It’s the way we are.
But it’s not the way God is. God promised Abraham in our OT reading today, “To your descendants I have given this land, from the Brook of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” And in the reigns of David and Solomon, these were in fact the approximate boundaries of Israel. Imagine if they were again today! Perhaps that still is in God’s plan. We shall see! Meanwhile we say with King David, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” “For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle; in the secret place of His tent of meeting will He hide me; He will lift me up on a rock.” How could David possibly expect such wondrous things? Simply because he believed in a God Who keeps His promises. He wrote, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
David’s faith was in a God Who keeps His promises, and he had a lot of history and personal experience to back up his expectations of precisely how God would act. His conclusion? “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord.” The assumption is that God will act, and His action will be in accordance with His promises.
It was on this basis that Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, could say the words we now know as the Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, Who has come to His people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of His servant David. Through His holy prophets God promised of old to save us from our enemies, from the hands of all that hate us, to show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember His holy covenant. This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship Him without fear, holy and righteous in His sight all the days of our life” (Luke 1:67ff).
So what does St. Paul have to say when writing to the church at Philippi? “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; Who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”
Really? On what ground could we expect such a promise to be fulfilled? Easy: God keeps His promises. And Paul adds one of his poignant “therefores:” “Therefore, my beloved brethren, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.” It’s Paul’s equivalent to David’s final lines in Psalm 27: “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord.” For Paul, it’s “stand firm in the Lord.”
When it comes to sermons on the return of Christ, rare as they are in the church today, we expect the Scripture passage to be from one of 3 or 4 places: Revelation, Thessalonians, the Olivet Discourse of Jesus, or maybe from I Corinthians 15. But today our prophetic word comes from Philippians and from an ad hoc conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Just before our passage from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells His hearers that there will be a time when they will “see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God,” but they themselves will be “thrown out” into a place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Why? Because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob believed God’s promises, believed that their God was One Who keeps His promises, whereas the people in Jesus’ own time were like the people of old who had closed their ears to the message of God Himself and no longer believed the promises. Now Jesus has to say, “Your house is left to you desolate; and I say to you, you will not see Me until the time comes when you will say, ‘Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord.’”
This reference is not to what we call “Palm Sunday” or the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem. Jesus is referring to His coming again in power and great glory to establish His kingdom on earth, that great event that we call the “Second Coming” or the Parousia, and to which we look forward despite the passage of what seems to us to be a very long time. With the saints and martyrs in Revelation 6 we may cry out, “How long, O Sovereign Lord?” How do we know that this is still forthcoming, that it is still part of God’s plan, that Jesus really will come again to reign forever and ever? Simply because God has given us His Holy Word, and in it we see again and again the great truth that is before us this morning: God keeps His promises.
God promised descendants and land to Abraham, and He kept His word. God promised to send His Messiah, and He kept His word. God has promised that Christ will return for His people, and once again God will keep His promise. It’s what God does, whether or not it’s what we do. God’s perfections guarantee it; God’s character guarantees it; it’s Who He is; it’s how He works. It’s how He relates to His people. Whenever His people hear His promises, even if at first they fall down and laugh with Abraham, when in the end they believe the Lord, it is reckoned to them as righteousness.
That is God’s promise to us, and He will keep it.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.