“Promises” – 03-16-14 – Lent 2 – Cycle A

Listen to the sermon here:

Scripture: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17

Are you able to keep your promises? Some promises are small. Some promises are huge! How important is a promise? Have you ever promised to keep a secret? Did you? Sometimes confidence is primary. Sometimes we are torn between reporting or keeping the secret. Sometimes a person’s life hangs in our decision.

We each bump into the HIPAA privacy laws sooner or later. Workers in a hospital are not allowed to so much as breathe the name of a co-worker or a friend who is using the services of that hospital. When we take a job or enroll in a program in a hospital, we promise not to reveal the presence of patients.

Should an Associate Pastor report all serious confidences to the Senior Pastor? Also, should a sister or brother report a concern of a sibling to a parent. There are so many variables here. Will the parent become upset if we don’t report something for which the parent could be praying or acting instead of being in the dark about a problem? Will the revelation affect the parent’s own health? Will the knowledge create or deepen a chasm between the siblings, between the parent and either or both children?

Have you promised to play ball with your son or daughter? Have you promised to remember your wedding anniversary? Have you remembered your promises when your child was baptized? Have you remembered your promises when you were a sponsor or god-parent at the baptism of a friend’s or relative’s child? Remembering is one thing. Acting accordingly is another matter. Have we kept our promises? Is it too late to “make good” on our promises?

Decisions. Decisions. Oh, my! Our word is so-o-o-o important! A promise is a promise. It is usually better not to promise. Did you ever hear a parent promising that mother or father will not let anything bad happen to the child? How could we ever keep that promise? We are not in control of what happens to ourselves; much less our children.

Did we ever promise to do a small or large task as part of a committee, and the next meeting rolls into the present and we either forgot our promise or it just never came to the top of our priority list? Did we ever promise ourselves to not use certain words which are displeasing to God and two minutes later there it is – flung from our mouths like so many traffic flares! Have you promised yourself to visit your parent or parents and the week disappeared somewhere? Then, there is the matter of being too rich with food and somehow we decide what we are not going to eat. How long did that promise last? If you can honestly answer that your promise is actually holding, good for you!

Does or did God make promises? Most certainly. Did God keep those promises so far as you know? Let’s check some of the promises.

God made a promise to Noah and his family. First, he would protect this family plus two of every animal. God helped Noah and his sons to build the ark. And, yes, he kept that promise. God promised that never again would he send a flood to cover the whole earth at the same time even sealing that promise with a rainbow. Yes, so far, God has kept that promise. We have had floods but never has the whole earth been covered with water at one time. Additionally, each time we find a rainbow, it is occasion to thank God for all the promises he has kept which benefitted our personal lives. Yet, we wonder where the blessings are for the third- and fourth- world people. Oh, God in your mercy, help us to promise to be your assistants in this matter. Help us to keep our promises in this direction.

God promised Abram myriads of descendants even though Abram was age 100 before a child was born. From Genesis 15: 5-6, “ ‘Look outside,’ God said to Abram, ‘Look at the sky and see if you can count the stars. That’s how many descendants you will have.’ Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord was pleased with him.” This is how it reads in the Contemporary English Version of the Bible. In the New Revised Standard Version, we read, “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Righteousness? What connection does faith have with righteousness? God reckoned that Abram’s believing was the same as righteousness. What is faith? Believing what we cannot see. Believing a promise. Yes, a promise. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish but have everlasting life.” A promise. There it is!

Way back in prehistoric times, God made a promise to Noah which carried forward to us. Way back around the 2100s B.C., God made a promise to Abram, later to be named Abraham, which came true and carried forward to us. Then God made the promise that we shall have everlasting life if we believe the promise, if we accept the promise, if we have that much faith. Will God reckon us as righteous?

Righteousness – focusing on obeying God’s commands – is a goal. Perfection of that goal is not expected. It is the attempt to reach that goal is what counts with God. Working on the goal, failing many times along the way, asking forgiveness, repenting, trying again, being forgiven, being renewed in our efforts. Why do we continue this cycle? It is because deep within us, from God, we have this seed of faith. It is amazing how resilient this seed is programmed to be.

We reach and stretch in our longing to be approved by our Maker and on-going counselor. Is this an exercise in personal will and holy approval? No, personal will is good to a point if the focus is in line with God’s will. But we are not walking this path alone. We are not struggling against temptation alone. We are not having a tug of war with Satan alone. There is this power. When we are in the canyon of despair, our own wills abandoned, there is this power. We, as Christians acknowledge this power to be God as known through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This God-power does not disappear when we walk from the path. This God-power is always available, always ready to hear us call for help. When we acknowledge that we in ourselves are helpless, this God-power moves in big time because we have admitted that our own wills have deserted us.

Let go and let God! Have you heard it? Sometimes this “letting go” introduces ourselves to the higher power. It is in desperation that we humble ourselves to an emptiness, to the feeling of failure, because there is nothing else to do. We get to a certain point and snap! In so doing, we get out of the way. Even though we do not realize it, we are giving God permission to take charge. Think how much pain we could avoid if we did this early in the game.

Our own variety of belief claims baptism to bring us into the family of God – the kingdom of God – both the earthly kingdom and the everlasting heavenly kingdom. Our United Church of Christ variety claims belief in baptizing babies as a wondrous gift from God. Thereafter, we are in an irreversible relationship with God. Through our whole life we are kept in this relationship. It is a gift. It is a gift of grace by the faith of another person who brings us to the baptismal font for this ultimate blessing.

As we read in John 3, we come upon a man named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night because he could not let the other Jewish leaders know that he was being drawn to this rebel “rabbi.” Nicodemus asked Jesus how he, Nicodemus, might become more sure about this new concept that Jesus was bringing to the Jews and which the Jews were rejecting. Jesus answered that a person needs to be “born again from above.” Nicodemus was justifiably puzzled about this “born again” business. Jesus then clarified “from above” with these words from John 3: 5: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ ”

Did you notice the words “… born of water and spirit?” This whole account with Nicodemus leads some religious groups to believe that we need to wait for baptism until we can understand what it means, such as Nicodemus came to Jesus. People come to a religious leader to learn about becoming part of God’s kingdom through the baptism of water and the Spirit. God’s word is always connected to Christian baptism. It is the natural element of water along with the word of God brought to us by the Spirit and the Spirit’s presence itself that comprises the act of baptism. So with this branch of Christianity, understanding and acceptance of this gift shall precede the act of baptism. Therefore, this baptism is called “Believer’s Baptism.”

It is a good thing that we in the United Church of Christ and other similar groups of believers also baptize adults accompanied by understanding as well as outright faith and an inner longing. “As the deer longeth for the water..” Grace as a gift is present here also.

There are some religious groups who believe in our God but believe differently. Baptism plays no role in these groups. Jesus is in the picture but not as one of the three persons of God as we believe. What will happen to these people? Is baptism a magic act? Listen to the verse that follows John 3:16: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” As I interpret this verse, salvation is not dependent on baptism. I believe that baptism is a great gift … but … Jesus was sent to earth not to condemn people but in order that these people might be saved through him. The cross is meaningful in our lives without baptism. But why would we want to miss the overwhelming blessing and assurance of the enfolding of our lives, our very souls, by God through Christ. Amen.