“Promises”

“Promises”
A Message on Hebrews 6:13-20
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Dec. 31, 2017
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Hebrews 6:13-20 (NRSV)

13 When God made a promise to Abraham, because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “I will surely bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise. 16 Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute. 17 In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath, 18 so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us. 19 We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever made a “pinky promise.” You know, that kind of promise that is beyond just a promise. It’s much more serious, much bigger than just a promise. It’s a pinky promise.

It’s a way of saying that no matter what happens, the promise will not be broken. It’s like a legal contract, except that it isn’t legal, of course. But making a pinky promise, instead of just a regular promise, indicates the seriousness in which both parties take the commitment to uphold both ends of the promise.

Okay, so all of us who have made pinky promises, how many ever broken one? Come on now, tell the truth and shame the devil. I think all of us have, at one time or another.

I did a little research into the pinky promise and found something that is… Well… Uncomfortable to me. I found out that the idea actually originated in Japan. In that culture and at that time it meant that if one of the parties broke the promise the punishment would be to cut off the pinky finger of the offender.

So, now knowing this, please raise your hand if you’ve broken a pinky promise and our ushers will come by… No, don’t worry, we’re not going to start cutting off pinkie fingers.

As human beings isn’t it interesting the lengths we will go to in declaring a promise that we say we won’t break, but we end up doing anyway? In addition to the pinky promise when I was growing up we would also say something like,

“Cross my heart and hope to die,
Stick a thousands needles in my eye…”

When you think about it, that’s pretty serious stuff, especially for kids!

Ironically the reason we go to such extreme lengths to validate promises is that we’re really not very good at keeping them.

It could be argued that it all started in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. God tells them, “Hey, you have access to everything here and can eat anything except for this one tree.” I can just hear Adam or Eve turn their head quickly and say, “Which tree?”

And of course that is exactly the tree they eat from.

Throughout the Bible we find again and again covenants made between God and humans, and in every instance it is the humans that break the promise made. God never breaks the promise. Not one time. But humans? Well, that’s a different story.

There is a cycle that occurs in the Old Testament. Here’s how it goes. God says to obey his words and laws and worship only him and the people will have things go their way and everything will be great. And the people say, “Sure, we promise to do that.” And then it isn’t long before they are breaking that promise as they worship foreign gods, and ignore the laws. Well then the consequences of those actions start taking place and God allows foreign forces to come in and take over and kill a bunch of people and sending the survivors off to exile. Then, after they’ve lost everything and are desperate, they call out to God to deliver them, and God has compassion on them and does so. And then the cycle repeats itself.

I think breaking promises is just part of the sinful nature of humans. Sometimes greed wins out, or lust for power, or some desire that puts one’s needs above others.

Most of you know I was sick the past couple of weeks. (Boy, was I sick.) I got on Netflix and watch 10 episodes in a row of World War II in Color. As part of that program I was fascinated at how Hitler signed a pact with Russia about how he promised he wouldn’t attack Russia and they would split up the land between the two countries.

Hitler starts taking over all these countries around Germany and is having great success. But then after just two years he breaks that agreement with Russia and goes to war against them, all because he wanted more land than what the agreement gave him. Of course the Russians didn’t take to kindly to that and fought back, forcing Germany to fight wars on two fronts, and then three as Hitler came to the aid of Mussolini in Northern Africa and Italy.

And what really boggles my mind is how many millions of people, not just soldiers but civilians as well, died as a result. Russian losses alone are estimated at 20,000,000 people. That’s not a typo. Twenty million people.

Breaking a promise can have consequences. Tax time is coming up. When we sign at the bottom of our tax returns we are promising that the information we have given on the forms is accurate and true. If we knowingly break that promise, if we give information that isn’t true, and the IRS figures it out, then there are consequences we will have to deal with.

While humans are bad about not keeping promises we can take comfort as Christians in knowing that God always keeps his promises.

I think that’s what the writer of Hebrews is telling us in the scripture we read today.

Listen to The Message paraphrase: “When God made his promise to Abraham, he backed it to the hilt, putting his own reputation on the line. He said, “I promise that I’ll bless you with everything I have—bless and bless and bless!” Abraham stuck it out and got everything that had been promised to him.”

Remember the story of Abraham? God said “Trust me and leave everything behind and go to a foreign land and I will bless you.” And Abraham does. Now it’s not a trouble-free journey, but God keeps his end of the promise.

The writer of Hebrews continues: “When people make promises, they guarantee them by appeal to some authority above them so that if there is any question that they’ll make good on the promise, the authority will back them up. When God wanted to guarantee his promises, he gave his word, a rock-solid guarantee—God can’t break his word. And because his word cannot change, the promise is likewise unchangeable.”

We still appeal to higher authority when we make promises. Another program I watched a lot of when I was sick was “Cops.” (Yes, I know I need to work on my program selections…) When I watch those episodes I am fascinated by the promises people make to convince the officers of their innocence. “I swear to God those drugs aren’t mine.” I swear to God I didn’t (do whatever they are accused of, even though it’s all on videotape). “I swear to God I haven’t been drinking.”

And even when the evidence is overwhelming against them they still promise using God’s name they are innocent.

The writer of Hebrews continues: “We who have run for our very lives to God have every reason to grab the promised hope with both hands and never let go. It’s an unbreakable spiritual lifeline, reaching past all appearances right to the very presence of God where Jesus, running on ahead of us, has taken up his permanent post as high priest for us, in the order of Melchizedek.”

Now we need to know the significance of that name “Melchizedek.” If we go back to the 14th chapter of Genesis we find kings and nations at war with each other. Abram (who is later renamed Abraham) has a nephew named Lot who lived in Sodom, and the city is overrun and captured. Lot is marched off into captivity but word gets back to Abram. So he talks about 300 men and goes and attacks the army and frees Lot and other captives and gets back all the possessions the army had taken.

The kings of the area are glad of Abram’s success. One of the kings is named Melchizedek, who is King of Salem. He is also the high priest, which is the top of the Jewish religious life of the day. There is no human higher than him in religious terms. And King Melchizedek comes and blesses Abram.

“And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Exodus 14:18-20)

Now Abram goes on to become Abraham, one of the holiest figures of the Old Testament. Melchizedek as the priest is the one who intercedes for the people before God. Later on with Moses when the tabernacle is created it is the high priest, and the high priest only, who can go into the “Holiest of Holies” in the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was and where it was believed that God resided on earth.

So the writer of Hebrews is telling us that Jesus Christ is our high priest, the one who intercedes before God on our behalf. Jesus stands before God representing us.

Jesus’ blood overcomes the sins of all of our broken promises.

Now just because that is the case doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make promises or try to keep them. Just because our sins are forgiven doesn’t give us license to go and sin all we want to.

No. But it should make us more aware of the promises we make to God and do everything we can to keep those.

We make a promise, a covenant oath, when we are baptized and becomes members of the body of Christ. We publicly proclaim that we promise to follow Christ, that our words and out actions will fulfill the great commandment to love God and love others.

Back in 1755 John Wesley led a group of believers in a renewal service at what was known as the “French Church” at Spitalfield in London. The service was designed for those in attendance to remember the covenant, or promise, they made when they made the decision to become a Christian.

As part of that service the people recited a prayer. Now there is some debate as to who should be credited with the prayer. Wesley credited it to and English Puritan named Richard Alleine, but other scholars believe that it was also influenced by the German Pietist movement.

Anyway, I think it’s a great prayer. You will find it printed in your bulletin and I hope that you will clip it out and put it somewhere prominent so that you can recite it every day.

We are going to stand and say it now, on New Year’s Eve, as a reminder of the promises we made to God:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified i
n heaven.
Amen.

So my challenge to you this week, as we turn the page on the calendar and begin a new year, is for us to remember our promises to God. God is always faithful and always keeps his promises. Let us do our best to keep ours as well.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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