Text: Jeremiah 33:14-16
When was the last time you said to someone, “I promise?” When was the first or last time you broke a promise? What promises have you made that you have kept—to yourself or someone else? Today, on this first Sunday of Advent—Hope Sunday—I want to talk about promises: promises made, promises broken and promises kept. And I want to think with you for just a moment about the concept of promise from two different perspectives: first, a promise as a spoken covenant or a vow; and second, a promise as a hope, a potential, an aspiration.
I have a friend who lives by the philosophy, “Under promise and over deliver.” Her wisdom is not bad, and I can only imagine that it comes from life experiences of being disappointed by empty promises or knowing what it feels like to be the one who has had to break a promise. In many ways, “I promise” has become a phrase that is often spoken glibly in passing: “I promise to call you tomorrow.” But it is also a phrase that is often spoken with deep intention and commitment: “I promise to love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health until death do us part.” So many of our promises are born in our hearts, out of love, with every intention of honoring them forever. And yet, who among us has not spoken a promise that we were unable to keep?
When I think of my own story, I can think of promises that I have made to myself over the years that I have not been able to keep. Promises that span the spectrum from taking better care of myself through diet, exercise and rest to self-promises about being a better parent and partner and friend. I can also think of promises that I have made to others that I have not been able to honor. Some of them to some of you. And while I can visit and be honest about the broken promises in my life, I can also recall promises that I have made and kept—promises to myself and others. Like the promise I made to myself and God nearly twenty-five years ago to be fully who God created me to be. Or the promise I made to Nora almost seventeen years ago when I adopted her to always provide a safe and loving home for her. Yes, we are a people of promises made, promises broken, and promises kept. And so is the story of our faith.
I started thinking about promises when I read Jeremiah’s words that inaugurate this Advent season: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David: and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” It was those words, “I will fulfill the promise I made” that stuck with me, and that is when I began wondering about promises—promises made, promises broken and promises kept.
But before I go further with offering two different perspectives on how we might understand promise, especially this promise in Jeremiah, I want to introduce you to the prophet Jeremiah.
Most scholars agree that Jeremiah came from a priestly household. Based on his hometown, it’s possible he was descended from a priest who served King Solomon. So Jeremiah had what you might call a priestly pedigree. He became a prophet of doom. His message from God was so bleak that the Lord commanded Jeremiah not to marry and raise children since the impending divine judgment on Judah would sweep away the next generation. As you can imagine, Jeremiah did not have a lot of friends. In fact, his closest companion was his faithful secretary, Baruch, who wrote down Jeremiah’s words as the prophet dictated them.
Given to self-analysis and self-criticism, Jeremiah has revealed a great deal about himself. Although timid by nature, he received the Lord’s assurance that he would become strong and courageous. In his “confessions” he laid bare the deep struggles of his inmost being, sometimes making startling statements about his feelings toward God. On occasion, he engaged in calling for redress against his personal enemies—a practice that explains the origin of the English word “jeremiad.” Jeremiah, so often expressing his anguish of spirit, has justly been called the “weeping prophet.” But it is also true that the memory of his divine call and the Lord’s frequent reaffirmations of his commissioning as a prophet made Jeremiah fearless and faithful in the service of his God.
Jeremiah began prophesying in Judah halfway through the reign of Josiah around 640–609 B.C. and continued throughout the reigns of the next four kings. It was a period of storm and stress when the doom of entire nations—including Judah itself—was being sealed. The smaller states of western Asia were often pawns in the power plays of such imperial giants as Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, and the time of Jeremiah’s ministry was no exception. Were we to replace the phrase “imperial giants” with “world superpowers,” it is clear that Jeremiah’s political context was not unlike our current day landscape.
As for the themes in the book of Jeremiah, judgment is one of the all-pervasive themes in his writings, though he was careful to point out that repentance, if sincere, would postpone the otherwise inevitable. For Jeremiah, God was ultimate. The prophet’s theology conceived of God as the Creator of all that exists, as all-powerful, as everywhere present. Jeremiah ascribed the most elevated attributes to the God whom he served, viewing him as the Lord not only of Judah but also of the nations. At the same time, God, in Jeremiah’s theological construct is very much concerned about individual people and their accountability to God. Jeremiah’s emphasis in this regard is similar to that of the prophet Ezekiel, and the two men have become known as the “prophets of individual responsibility.” The undeniable relationship between sin and its consequences, so visible to Jeremiah as he watched his beloved Judah in her death throes, made him—in the pursuit of his divine vocation—a fiery preacher of righteousness, and his oracles have lost none of their power with the passing of the centuries. For it is Jeremiah that gives us some of the most quoted scriptures in the bible.
It is from this prophet that we hear these words, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made…In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” As we move into this Advent season, I wonder how we are to hear this promise. Are we to hear it as covenant or vow that is predestined, automatic, a done deal? Or might we hear it as a promise of a potential, of a hope, of an aspiration of what could be? Do you hear the subtle differences in promise as a noun and promise as a verb?
If we think about the prophet who penned these words, it might be best to hear this promise of God’s justice and righteousness springing forth as a hope, or as a potential, or an aspiration. Furthermore, we might best understand “the promise” if we hear and understand it as a verb, an action, and that each of us is to take individual responsibility for this justice and righteousness springing forth in our world. Could it be that the fulfillment of God’s promise with each generation is a bridge built with our actions over which we pass from what is to what we hope to be?
While I understand the desire to hear the themes of Advent—hope, peace, joy and love—as “feel good” feelings, as vows that are promised to us without having to shape and form them with our very own lives, the bible’s use and meaning of hope and peace and joy and love often creates more discomfort for us than comfort. Hope is a word that is meant break into our world and disturb the status quo, the empires of greed and power and privilege. Hope, in the context of the prophets like Jeremiah, is a promise that demands justice-love and right and mutual relationships. Hope is a promise that calls for action. And the fulfillment of the words hope, peace, joy and love—God’s promises to us—is, as the prophet Jeremiah would remind us, dependent on us putting these words into action. The fulfillment of God’s promise is still dependent on a new branch springing forth—and today, we are those branches. The fulfillment of God’s promise is each of us acting on hope, peace, joy and love in our lives and in the world. God’s promise of justice-love and righteousness saving and redeeming us is our willingness and courage to be, as Jesus was, the incarnation of God’s love.
The Dalai Lama said more directly what I am trying to say to you this morning in his response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Following the deadly attacks, the Tibetan spiritual leader said that people should not expect God to resolve man-made problems, and that a systematic approach is needed to foster humanistic values. If that sounds a bit radical, it’s because it is. We have been taught that God—all powerful and all present—does not need us to fulfill God’s promises. And yet, the very birth of Jesus is a clear affirmation of God’s need and desire to become real in our world through humanity—you and me. And not just through humanity but through all creation. We are being called to be the fulfillment of God’s promise with our very lives. To have hope—a hope that is alive—is to believe that we are a part of the fulfillment of God’s promise of a just world where right and mutual relationships are the way we honor each of us being created in the image of God.
If we think of the word promise as a verb, a promise is any movement on our part toward the fulfillment of God’s promise—a promise of a world that exists on justice-love and morally mutual relationships. For Jeremiah, a promise is more than a statement of commitment. It is more than a spoken vow. A promise is a hope acted on, a potential not left undiscovered or unexplored, an aspiration put into action that builds the bridge over which we pass from what is to what we hope to be. Dare we put such hope into action and discover all of God’s promises for us.