Making Promises – January 9, 2011

Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:1-17

January 9, 2011

“A promise is a promise!” Do you remember saying those words as a kid? From very early on, we knew promises were important things. We said, “Cross my heart and hope to die. Stick a needle in my eye!” We said some horrible things as kids, didn’t we? But promises were that important to us! By the way, that reference to the cross in “Cross my heart,” is Christian in origin, or so I’m told. (I’m not sure about that needle in the eye part, though!)

Promises, and keeping promises, were important to us, weren’t they? They were all about being able to trust someone. The were about loyalty, and security. Sometimes these days I see the initials “BFF.” Do you know what that stands for? It means “Best Friends Forever”? Again, doesn’t that speak of dependability, loyalty, security? And we always need those things, don’t we? Our Marine Corps friends would say “Semper Fidelis.” “Always Faithful.”

There’s something about making a promise that’s very significant to us as humans, and we’ve known that from the time we were kids! That security, that confidence, that trust, are as important to us as the security of knowing our family is always there for us. We need to know in this life that there is something we can count on. So we make promises.

235 years ago, 56 men made a promise. They were gathered in a place not far from here, and they were in the process of committing high treason against the government. And as they did so, they used these words. “…With firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” (Those words give me goosebumps every time!) That was a promise! And it is that promise that we celebrate as the beginning of this country. It’s not the writing of the Constitution, not the election of the first president, not even the winning of the war for independence, but that pledge – that promise to one another, in support of “so bold a declaration” – that is our beginning, our foundation as a nation!

In ancient Israel, they believed their trust was in the Lord. God made promises to them, and that was very important to them. They made that trust in God an integral part of their faith. They had a special word for it. It was the Hebrew word “Hesed.” You may remember me telling you that before. That word “Hesed,” meant “Steadfast Love.” So often in the Old Testament we read, “The “steadfast love – the Hesed – of God endures for ever.” “And his faithfulness is to all generations.” In other words, “forever.” There again is that trust and security we’ve been talking about. We find it in the promises God made to his people!

The other thing we knew about promises as kids was that it was bad to break them! You didn’t dare do that! That meant breaking a sacred trust. That was a betrayal at the highest level. (And it wasn’t just that “needle in the eye” thing!) Maybe that’s why the word “lie” is such a caustic word to us. People never just say that word, you know. They say it with venom on their lips. “He lied!” There’s that deep disgust in that phrase! “He’s a liar!!” Those words speak of betrayal, and the “despicable behavior” of violating promises. A lie isn’t just an untruth. It’s a breaking of that sacred trust. And that’s abhorrent to us, isn’t it? “A promise is a promise!”

We all make promises. They’re an important part of our lives. Promises, and evidences of promises, are around us every day. We have many documents which are promises. Things like Mortgages and loans are “promises to pay.” And they’re not on quite on the same terms as “cross my heart and hope to die.” Though sometimes they might feel like a “needle in the eye!”

We make promises and vows at significant times of our lives. We make them at weddings. Leaders make them when they are “sworn into” office. We may also have made them in the “rites of initiation” for some organization or covenant group. We used to “pledge allegiance” to the flag every day. That’s a promise, too. Do kids ever do that any more? I know when we were young, we didn’t know what we were saying. But we knew it was important! It was a promise – made with our hands over our hearts!

That trust is that important to us. It is deep seated within us. We seek that security in many ways. Perhaps most significantly we seek it in relationships. Think about the people in your life in whom you place your trust. Think about how important that trust is to you, and how devastating it would be to lose that trust, or worse, to have it betrayed. Trust is so easily broken, so difficult to repair.

So making promises – and keeping promises – is a very important part of our lives! And I’d like you to think about that as we consider this liturgical day we celebrate – the Baptism of Jesus. This is an important event. As I often say, this is a “four gospel event,” meaning that it’s told or mentioned by all four Gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As I said again last week, each of them had a different emphasis in their writing, and each chose to include certain stories as they saw fit. And when a story appears in all four of their accounts, we’d better take that as a significant story!

This story of Jesus’ Baptism is one such story. At the very least, this is proof that Jesus was someone special to God! “This is my beloved son!” But it’s also the story of a theophany – an appearance of God. And that was very important to those people. This scene is reminiscent of the time in the Old Testament when God met his people on the mountaintop, and they heard his voice and saw his presence in the thunder and lightning. (The Ten Commandments story!)

So we celebrate this event today. And in the past few years, I’ve used this Sunday as a time to remember our own baptism, and the promises we made at that time. I want to do so again today, too! And I think this is a great tradition. As we start a New Year, what better time to think of this spiritual milestone, and renew those vows?

We don’t think about our baptism very much, do we? It’s way back there in our lives somewhere, and we may have been so young we don’t have any recollection of it at all. I know I don’t. We also may have had a similar time of making similar vows – the time of our confirmation. But how many of us even remember that? I don’t. I know I did it, but I have no memory.

So I’d like us to continue that tradition today. I’d like us to use this time, this celebration, to remember our own promises, and to renew those baptismal vows. And I’d like us to think of this as a time of recommitment to God’s kingdom, at the start of a new year. This is a time of resolutions and new beginnings. It’s a time to take stock of our lives and to see where to improve. It’s a time to remember our promises and vows and be determined to make good on them.

So let’s think about the promises of faith. Let’s remember the “Hesed,” the steadfast love of God, and pledge ourselves to be steadfast to him. I’d like us now to stand, and to turn to those words in the bulletin. Let us renew those vows together, and then be re-introduced to the waters of baptism. Then, with joy and in celebration of the promise and security found at this table, let us share this sacrament together.