The problem with promises

May 22nd, 2017

The problem with promises is that you have to trust them. You have to believe that they will be fulfilled, and live as if you believe that they will be fulfilled, before they can do you any good. We don’t like to do that. We are cautious people. We want something to be thoroughly proven before we will believe that it is true. We want to investigate an enterprise thoroughly before we will invest in it.

But that doesn’t really work with believing in God. There is a limit to what we can know about God without making a commitment. Much of what we need to know about God can only be experienced from the inside of a relationship with God. We have to take the risk of believing and trusting and venturing out in relationship with God before we can know for sure that the one whom we are trusting is real. That kind of venturing out in trust is what the Bible calls “faith.”

Paul, who is the Bible writer who has the most to say about faith, wrote “... since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have access to the grace in which we stand; and we boast of our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).

Lots of people have much too small an idea of what that means. For one thing, they confine its meaning to one carefully defined little part of their lives called “religion,” which they keep carefully separated from the rest of their lives so that it won’t get in the way. Then they make it into a single transaction by which a person claims the forgiveness of sins and a place in heaven after death. Faith is something much bigger than that. It is something that has to do with a person’s whole way of relating to all of life and to the God who is present and at work in all of life.

God made God’s self known to us through Jesus, so that we can know who that awesome other is that is out there on the other end of the seesaw from us. Jesus has shown us that God is someone who loves us and wants what is good for us. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). That is really what we need to know. That awesome invisible other who gives us life and relates to us through all of our relationships with life is someone who loves us. To venture out into life believing that, trusting God’s love and loving God and life in return, is a whole way of life. It will shape what we think and feel and do and who we are every day of our lives and in all of the relationships of our lives.

As if to emphasize that point, the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews, who also had a lot to say about faith, said, “Do you really want to know what faith is? If you do, look at the people in the Old Testament who lived trusting the invisible God; look at Abraham who ventured out trusting God” (Hebrews 11:8-19, abbreviated and paraphrased). We are going to look at Abraham, or Abram as he was first called. We read part of his story last week and some more today. We will read some more about Abraham and his descendants for the next several weeks.

You will recall that Abram was the man who lived in ancient Mesopotamia and who somehow became aware of a greater reality out beyond the things that were shaping the lives of the other people among whom he lived, out beyond all of the things that can be seen or touched, yet present in them all. This was a great invisible other who could not be fully known or managed. This was one before whom one could only bow in reverent silence and listen. Abram listened and heard that God calling him to leave behind everything he had known and to venture out into an unknown life in an unknown land that God would show him. And God gave Abram some promises, the promise that God would make of his descendants a great nation that would play an important role in the history of humankind, the promise that God would give Abram’s descendants a land of their own, the promise that Abram’s life could be really significant. And, in faith, Abram believed the promise and did what God called him to do. He ventured out in trust in that great invisible other who is God.

At first, the promise must have been really exciting. Abram and Sarai must have greeted every day with eagerness. They must have expected something new and exciting to happen just around each bend in every road. They traveled, and they traveled, and they traveled up and down the length of the land of Canaan, living toward the fulfillment of God’s promise.

But eventually the excitement faded away. The one thing that would need to happen in order for the promise of God to be fulfilled had not happened. They never had any children. God kept appearing to them and renewing the promise. But when they both became too old to have children, they began to lose their ability to trust.

Eventually, their faith failed. They gave up on God’s intention to give them descendants and they decided to take matters into their own hands. That is really almost a definition of temptation, the loss of faith that causes us to stop trusting God and to try to fix things by ourselves in our own way. Their failure was not in their decision to act decisively. It is a good thing to act decisively in response to the call of God. It is quite another thing to act decisively in despair of God. Sarah gave her Egyptian maid to Abraham as a concubine and she bore a child to Abraham for them. In those days, that was an acceptable thing to do morally. But it soon proved to have been a mistake.

In this story, faith was failing. Cynicism must have completely replaced expectancy by the time the three strangers stopped at the tent of Abraham and Sarah. They promised that, within a year, Sarah would have a baby. Sarah heard from inside the tent — and she laughed. It must have seemed ridiculous to her. They were far too old to have children. She must have been thinking that they had been very foolish to spend their whole lives trusting the promise of an invisible God for the fulfillment of their lives. It must have seemed cruel for the travelers to ask, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Faith is not always easy. Sometimes it is hard to keep trusting. But that is what faith is all about.

Is that story a little hard for you to grasp? Then let’s tell it another way. This is a fictional story, but try to imagine whether or not something like this could happen.

Once upon a time there was a young man named Abe. Abe had grown up with all of the advantages. Abe’s father and two partners had built up a very successful business that had made them quite rich. Abe and his brother never wanted for anything. He was smart, too. His dad sent him to the best schools in the not too secret hope that he would come into business with him and his partners.

But just as Abe was about to finish his Master of Business Administration degree at an Ivy League university, he began to experience some deep restlessness. His teachers were telling him things that bothered him. They told him that the way to succeed is to forget about human values and the environment and everything else and focus only on the bottom line. A profitable business would make everything come out all right. He was hearing that American labor was too expensive and that it would be necessary to have most manufacturing done in the third world where labor is cheap. He was hearing that the way to get rich is to manipulate the value of your company’s stock in the marketplace. Abe could see that all of this was, in fact, how American business was working. He could see that his father’s company worked that way. But he couldn’t help thinking that that would not produce a really healthy company — or a really healthy business environment — long term. Abe brooded on these things.

Then one Sunday, as he was sitting in church with Sarah, his wife, the preacher made some mention of integrity and justice and the love of God all in one sentence, and Abe’s mind took leave of the sermon and went off on its own tangent. It occurred to Abe that American business is not running like God would want it to. Abe began to catch a vision of what it would mean for business to be run in the way that God would want it run. He began to visualize companies planning everything for the good of all whom they touched, the clients, the workers, the stock holders, and the whole structure of business in the world. He began to imagine what it would mean to run one company in that way. Before the sermon was over, Abe began to have the strong feeling that God wanted him to try it, and that God was promising him that he would be glad if he did.

On the way home from church, Abe shared his thoughts with Sarah. She was a girl he had met in college. She was as smart as she was pretty. She had not grown up rich and so she had always felt that whatever they had would be enough. She was up for the adventure.

Things came together remarkably easily. Abe told his dad that he would have to wait for his brother to come along to have a son in business with him. Abe wanted to try his hand as an entrepreneur. His dad understood that. Abe didn’t say anything about God. Abe wanted to go into some kind of a manufacturing operation because he believed that American business needed to recover some of that part of business from foreign markets. He did some research and discovered that there was a need for certain materials used by several industries that Abe thought served the well-being of people and that those companies sometimes needed the materials on short notice. As soon as the M.B.A. was in hand, Abe and Sarah took a small inheritance Abe had from his grandfather and moved to another part of the country where the industries that would need his product were concentrated.

Abe set up his company as he had been taught to — but with several significant variations. He hired skilled people and paid them what they were worth. He included some older managers and craftsmen and technical people who had been “out placed” by other industries who wanted to replace them with less expensive employees. He established a policy for his own salary that would be based on a multiple of the average of all of the other salaries. He established accounting procedures and full disclosure policies that were scrupulously honest. He would want to incorporate to gain expansion capital and he wanted to build investor confidence. He built a clientele by producing a high quality product and making it available on short notice. But Abe retained control. He wanted to be free to run his business like he thought God wanted a business run. He thought that would certainly be a way to have a successful enterprise. It was right.

Within a couple of years, Abe had built up a fairly successful business. Employee morale was high. So was investor confidence. Clients valued the service that Abe’s company provided. Abe felt that he was making a contribution that met human needs and doing it in a way that contributed to a healthy business environment. He got great satisfaction out of that. He felt that God’s promise was being fulfilled.

But, in time, the initial excitement wore off and the going got rough. His company had not been able to expand as rapidly as he had hoped. His success had attracted competitors into the field. Some of them were not as scrupulous as Abe. Some stockpiled less expensive products from a factory in Indonesia. Meeting their competition was a constant struggle. Abe noticed that, even though the business journals praised his business ethics, few other companies were following his example. That was something he had hoped would happen. His company was surviving but not achieving the kind of success that American business seems to demand. He began to feel that he was being patronized when he was with other business people. And back in family gatherings, it was his brother who had gone into their father’s business who was thought of as the “successful” son. Still Abe was determined to run his business like he thought God wanted a business to be run. He trusted that this would turn out to be the best way. He believed that God would make him glad he had done it.

Then the crisis came. One of Abe’s competitors sold out to a larger corporation that had a reputation for trying to take over a whole market so that they could do with it what they chose. They also had a reputation for buying healthy companies and doing things to them that turned them into unhealthy companies in the process of making the owners richer. If they could get Abe’s high quality service out of the way, they could have the market to themselves. They made Abe an offer to buy his company — and they let him know that he had better consider it very seriously.

Abe had a decision to make. The success he had hoped for really hadn’t come. He hadn’t been able to make the difference in American business that he had hoped to make. Was it time to give up on trusting God and living toward the fulfillment of a promise that everyone else thought was unrealistic? His own fortune wasn’t in danger. He would come out well if he sold out. Only his dream was in jeopardy. But, if he didn’t sell, he might lose both. Abe had a decision to make — and it had to do with whether or not he could keep on living in faith.

We will stop the story here and let you write the ending.

Now I suspect that some of you are wanting to ask: Just what does all of that have to do with religion or with faith? The answer is: It has everything to do with it. After all, a person’s real religion has to do with the important things that are going on in his or her real life. And faith has to do with whether or not you can venture out into life trusting God’s promise enough to do what you think God really wants you to do.

Now you need to use your imagination to discover how this story or one like it is being played out in your own life. Never mind that I didn’t finish the fictional story. You have to decide how you are going to finish your real story. And your decision will have a lot to do with whether or not you really can trust the promise of God enough to live by faith.

From Sermons on the First Readings, Series 1 Cycle A, Copyright © 2004 CSS Publishing

comments powered by Disqus