The Keeper of Promises
Sunday, October 8, 2017
I have a very vivid memory from my childhood connected to Little League Baseball. I must have been about 9 or 10 years of age at the time. As I recall, our coach that year had a job that allowed him to be available for our team to practice right after school. So, generally speaking, we would all walk from the school to the ball field and get started with our afternoon’s workout. This usually allowed for us to finish practice as our parents were getting off of work and thus most of our moms and dads simply picked us up on their way home. Our parents where quite grateful for this schedule. We were occupied for the couple of hours after school and their evenings were not consumed with a practice after the dinner hour.
The particular day that I have such a fresh memory of is the day that I thought my dad had forgotten to pick me up. My dad work in a town about 25 miles away. So, even though practice ended at 5 or 5:30 it was still a push for him to get there on time. This meant that he was often one of the last parents to arrive. Likewise, we lived in a small town in a time when everyone knew each other and where everyone felt safe. The coach and other parents knew my dad’s schedule, the ball field where we practiced was in a nice residential area of town and so no one really thought about or worried about me sitting and waiting by myself. I was safe and my dad would be along shortly. And, so, there I was alone, waiting.
My time waiting that afternoon probably lasted no more than 10 or 15 minutes. But, that was an eternity for a 9 or 10 year old and I convinced myself that my dad had forgotten and that I had no way to get home. In those days, dad drove a silver, diesel Volkswagen. It had a unmistakable sound and you knew it when you heard it. To this day, I can remember how good I began to feel as my heart slowed down, my tears ceased and a smile returned to my face as I heard that Volkswagen rounding the bend and knew, without question that my father had not forgotten me after all.
There is a universal, human feeling that we have all had at least once. Truth be told, most of us have probably had it more than once. It is the feeling of being forgotten. It happens when someone makes a promise that they don’t keep. It happens when someone says something that they don’t do. It happens when we are assured that things will turn out in a certain way and then they don’t.
We know what it feels like to be forgotten or to be the recipient of an unkept promise. In fact, the compilation of these experiences over the years often lead to our being suspicious of commitments that are made to us today. When someone promises us that we will be taken care of or when they guarantee that certain things will happen, we are often less than certain and sometimes unconvinced. We have been down this road before. We have been burned once or twice in our past and we don’t want to live through that feeling again.
The other result is that we are prone to project our skepticism of others onto God. If we can’t trust others to keep their promises, can we trust God to keep God’s promises?
Thus we understand how Abraham felt in this story that we hear today from Genesis 15. Abraham, on two different levels, felt that God had not kept God’s promise. Abraham felt forgotten.
On the one hand, Abraham felt forgotten in this new land of Canaan. After all this time, other people still lived in the land. God had not said that Abraham would live in Canaan as a resident. God had said that Canaan would belong to Abraham and to his children. God had forgotten. It was a broken promise.
On the other hand, Abraham felt that the promise of a child for he and Sarah had not been kept either. They were not getting younger. Time had continued to march on. Eventually, Abraham’s frustration with God came to the surface as he pointed out that as things stood, his closest heir was a slave boy named Eliezer who was born in his house.
Abraham was upset, frustrated, disappointed. Here he had left his homeland to follow this wild calling of God. He had sacrificed everything to obey and even then God had not lived up to God’s end of the bargain.
Yet, when Abraham has gotten his feelings all out in the open and off his chest, God responds. God certainly seemed to understand how Abraham feels and God does not seem one bit bothered by Abraham’s raw honesty.
But, at the same time, God gives Abraham a pep talk and reiterates the promises already made. In fact, God takes it a step further. In the midst of Abraham’s growing doubt, God re-signs the covenant and promises made. It is a strange part of the passage where in verses 9-18, God invites Abraham to cut animals in half and then we read that a smoking pot and flaming torch pass between the severed carcasses. In essence, this was a reenactment of an ancient covenant ceremony of that time. Two parties making a promise to each other would walk between two halves of a sacrificed animal. As they did so, what they were saying was “may what happened to this animal happen to me if I fail to keep this promise I am making today”. When the smoking pot later passes through the carcass, it is a sign that God has walking through renewing the promises to Abraham.
Thus, even though there are no signs yet, Abraham needs to continue to believe. Canaan will be his and will belong to his descendants – this is a certainty. Further, he and Sarah will have a child just as promised. Abraham must not doubt, God is a keeper of promises.
In fact, of all of the things that could be said about God, this is one of the best things that we can say – God is faithful. What God says will happen is what will happen. Amazingly, according to the text, God’s reaffirmation of the promise is enough and at least for the moment Abraham’s faith is restored.
Abraham’s struggle to believe and to keep faith is our own struggle. Yet, what Abraham will learn and what we must continue to believe is that there are two basic truths about God as a promise keeper that must never be forgotten. One is the fact that God’s timetable for promise keeping is not our timetable. The other fact is that God doesn’t always keep the promise in the exact way we had expected.
Both of these aspects emerge in Abraham’s story. First, in this very chapter, Abraham is told by God that in truth it will be generations before his offsprings fully and completely have Canaan as their own. It will not happen quickly. Second, in upcoming chapters, Abraham and Sarah will continue to try to figure out how they will have a child in light of their age and Sarah’s physical limitations. If you know the story, you know this gets them into all sorts of issues with the woman Hagar and her son Ismael. In other words, they figure out how God will answer the promise of a son and are thus shocked by how God actually does it.
Again, here is what Abraham and Sarah learn. God is faithful. God does keep promises. But, God doesn’t always keep them on our timetable. And, God doesn’t always keep promises in the ways we expect.
I read recently a story about a mother named Whitney Williams who lives in the suburbs of Baltimore and a promise that she made years ago to herself and to her daughter. Her daughter was three at the time and they loved to read together. Her daughter’s favorite thing at the time was unicorns and they never could find many books with those imaginary creatures as the main subject. Thus, the promise of this mom to herself and to her daughter was that she one day she would write a book for her daughter about a unicorn.
That little promise took 18 years for Whitney to keep. Life got in the way and there wasn’t a lot of interest in her idea or writing from the publishers of children’s books either. With the passage of time, however, and the evolution of technology and resources available on the internet, Williams learned that she could self publish. She didn’t have to go through a regular venue, she didn’t have to find a normal publishing house to make her promise a reality. Further, by the time the book moved toward production, Whitney Williams had a niece who enjoyed graphic design and who was willing to help with the project by providing the art work.
In the end, Whitney’s simply promise of the book came to pass. But, it took 18 years and it came about by publishing it herself and through the help of her niece which was far different than the plan she had in mind all of those years before when she made the promise in the first place. (A Mother’s Promise is Kept with the Launch of a New Children’s Book, Monica Resa, severnaparkvoice.com, May 4, 2016).
The famous American Indian leader Chief Joseph once said, “it makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and the broken promises.”
Many of us have been heart sick in this way too in our experiences with other. Yet, while this feeling might be true of what we have experienced in others it is not true of what we will experience in God. God is faithful – perhaps not as quickly as we would like or in the exact way we would want. But, God is the Keeper of Promises for us just as God was to Abraham. Amen.