Cost of the Promise

SJF • Lent 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.+

Well here we are on the last Sunday in March, the fifth Sunday in Lent. How many of us can remember back to Ash Wednesday and the days following, and recall the promises we might have made to ourselves concerning our Lenten disciplines, what we were going to give up for Lent? Have we kept those promises to ourselves? Or go back even further to New Year’s Day: how many new year’s resolutions have evaporated more quickly than the champagne stains left on the coffee table?

The sad thing is, we find it hard to keep promises, even promises we make to ourselves. There’s always an out-clause, a mitigating circumstance that we feel lets us off the hook. Either we made the promise in haste, or without realizing what we were doing, or, in the case of a promise made to someone else, we may convince ourselves that the other party hasn’t kept his or her part of the bargain, and so it’s quite all right for us not to keep our part in return.

If we are honest with ourselves and each other, it seems that many of what pass for promises in our world today are not commitments, far from binding contracts, and really not much more than good intentions. And we all know, as the old saying goes, what to the road to hell is paved with.

But the road to heaven — now that’s another thing. Thanks be to God that the road to heaven doesn’t rely on our good intentions, our failed promises, our neglected responsibilities. No, thanks be to God that the road to heaven does not rely on us at all — we didn’t build the road! It doesn’t rely on our failed promises or our broken covenants. No, thanks be to God that the road to heaven relies upon God, and upon none other. Thanks be to God that the road to heaven relies upon God and God’s promises, who is faithful and true and who keeps his promises to us even when we fail in keeping our promises to him.

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And yet the promises God makes to us do involve us, they do affect us. And thanks be to God that they do, for if it were not for the power of God working in us to help us we would be truly lost. Yet the fulfillment of these promises is not about our keeping the promise to God, but about God making the promise real in us. This promise of God is not the casual promise of a new year’s resolution, nor even the more piously considered promise to take up a Lenten discipline. This is the promise of grace: the costly promise of God, a promise not carved in stone but on human hearts, the human hearts upon which God wrote his promise, a promise made because God so loved the world. Neither was this costly promise of God made with merely spoken words, but in the word made flesh, the human flesh that Jesus took upon him when he shared our human nature, with all its pains, with all its struggles, and finally with its death.

Jesus tells his disciples that this promise, this costly promise, requires death before new life can come. This promise of new growth is the costly promise that every farmer knows of and trusts in, when he casts the grains of wheat upon the earth. If he keeps the grains of wheat in burlap bags in the storehouse, they will never grow. Each grain will just remain a single grain.

But if he takes that risk, if he rips open those burlap bags, dumps out the grain, and scatters it upon the earth, where he must trust and risk the promise of the rain and of the sunlight God will send, only then, only trusting in that promise, that costly promise, can the farmer hope his grain will bear much fruit.

In your imagination, for a moment, go back to the early days of human history when someone first got the idea to plant grain instead of eating it. Up until then people lived as hunters and gatherers, almost like the grazing creatures of the field, just moving from place to place as food sources were gradually exhausted. But then one day, perhaps some unknown woman — and I say woman because usually among people who hunt and gather for their living, the men hunt and the women gather — some unknown woman, noticing that food plants grow from the seed they bear, decides to take a chance. Say she has gathered a few handfuls of grain in a little wallet made from skins, and is ready to go back to the camp and grind it up to make porridge. And on the way she gets this amazing idea, as she passes those other growing plants. Instead of eating the grain, she is going to put it in the ground. She picks up a sharp stick and starts to make shallow furrows in the ground. The other women look at her as if she’s lost her mind and popped a gasket. They are even more outraged when they see her place the grain, a few seeds at a time, in those rows, and gently cover them with earth. “What are you doing?” they ask. And the woman can’t really explain — there are no words yet in her language for ideas like “plant” and “harvest” — and so she points to the other growing plants and says, “I think this is where they come from.” That was a turning point in human history — the beginning of civilization — because once you can grow your own food you don’t have to move around from place to place hunting and gathering. That was the beginning of civilization, and we don’t know the name of the woman to whom we owe it.

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But at the other great turning point in human history, we do know the one who took the action, who in a sense planted himself in the earth of our human condition knowing that only thus could humanity itself be redeemed, and come to new birth. Jesus embraced the human condition, learning obedience through what he suffered, embracing the costly promise of his Lord and God, the promise his Father made to him, when he begot him before all worlds; the promise his Father made to him when he called out in thunder on the mountain, reminding him that God’s name would be glorified through what the Son of God suffered; the promise that his Father made to him when Christ was lifted from the earth upon the cross, the signal of salvation hoisted for our good and at his cost, drawing the whole world to himself; and finally the promise his Father confirmed once and for all in raising him from the bonds of death, in freeing him from bondage to mortality so that we too might be free, free not just for a season or a time, but free for ever.

Such is the promise of God, the costly promise of God, the promise he made to us, confirmed and realized in his Son. For after all is said and done, it is not our ability to keep the promise that saves us — given our performance, we would be in a sorry state if it depended on us. It is rather upon God’s promise to us, God’s rock-solid promise to us, upon which our sure and certain hope is set. So for centuries people have gone forth trusting in God’s promise; so for generations have farmers cast their grain upon the ground; so for ages have servants followed him, trusting him and him alone, not knowing where they go, but knowing that where he is, so too there is where they choose to be.

The worldly-wise may scoff at this trust and call it “blind faith” — but blind faith sees and knows things worldly wisdom can never behold or understand. Blind faith is the wisest response to one whose promises are certain and sure.

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Some years ago, there was a terrible fire in an old two-storey wood-frame house. We hear of such tragedies every year here in the Bronx during the winter, as people knock over illegal kerosene heaters, and whole families perish as the flames devour their humble dwellings. Well in this case, the family managed to escape the house — or thought they had, until the father did a quick count of the children on the sidewalk, and then heard that most horrible sound: one of his children, his little boy calling to him from the second floor window, as the smoke billowed around the boy, blinding him so that he could see nothing. His father rushed over and stood beneath the window, calling up to his little son, telling him to jump, assuring him that he would catch him. The terrified child, his arms stretched out before him, his eyes clenched tight shut against the stinging smoke, yelled out, “But Daddy, I can’t see you; I can’t jump.” And his father shouted back, “It’s all right, son, it’s all right. I can see you!”

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God can see us, even when we do not have the strength or the skill to see him. God speaks to us, calls out to us, again and again, giving us yet another opportunity to hear and understand, even when we swear that all we hear is thunder. Still he speaks, still he calls us, calling us each by name to leap into his loving, waiting arms.

And God will keep his promise to us even when we have broken ours to him. God will catch us and save us when we take the leap of faith, as he redeemed his own son from the bonds of death in our sinful flesh, when he raised him from the dead. God has kept his promise and he will keep it again. God will keep his costly promise to us, without counting the cost. God has already paid the price, has planted the seed of his love in the earth of our human nature, and the Son of God has paid the price in his own flesh and blood. And having paid the price, we had better believe that God will keep his promise. +