A Promise Kept

2 Corinthians 1:17-22 

In a letter to the IRS, a conscience stricken man sent $150 with this explanation:

Dear Sirs: I cannot sleep. Last year, when I filed my income tax return, I deliberately misrepresented my income. Now I cannot sleep. Enclosed you will find $150. If I still cannot sleep, I will send you the rest.

There is actually an official fund called the Government Conscience Fund that began in 1811 with $6 sent in by a man in NY who wrote that he was "suffering the most painful pangs of conscience” and was returning the money he had stolen from the govt. That fund has accumulated over $3 million dollars since its inception.

I have always loved the story of Joseph in the house of Potiphar – he is confronted by a seductive woman – not just any woman, but the wife of Potiphar his master. And when she makes him an offer she thinks he can’t refuse, but he refused and said, “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:8-9)

God loves promises and covenants and faithfulness. They define his very nature. Look through the pages of the Bible and you find him making promises and entering into covenants at every moment in his relationship with people. [Picture – Joshua] I love what Joshua said near the conclusion of his life: “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.” (Josh. 23:14)

It ought not to surprise us then that God values faithfulness in his people. He wants men and women of integrity. He wants us to make promises and enter into covenants that we intend to keep. He rewards our faithfulness to our promises.

Paul wrote of his own identity and ministry: So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. (1 Cor. 4:1-2)

When Jesus told the story of three men who had been entrusted with sums of money by their master, two of them were faithful to their trust and to each of those, the master had these words of praise: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.” (Matt. 25:21,23)

I always love my kids – there is never a moment when I do not love them. But there is a special pleasure I experience when I see them doing something I have taught them to do, or imitating something I myself love to do.

In fact, isn’t that when we seem to sense God’s pleasure the most – when we are imitating him? That we feel his presence most intensely when we are placing our feet in the footprints he leaves for us to walk in? God wants us to be faithful in our commitments. But what does that mean? What does that look like?

Wives, how would you react if your husband told you he would be home at 5:30 every day after work? But instead, he shows up 7:00, 9:00, some nights not at all. He says he is working to support his family. But instead of bringing home his paycheck, he spends it on himself – a boat, a camper, season tickets, some months he just can’t say where it went. Some months you don’t have enough to pay the utilities, your kids have to do without. Weekends, your husband spends with his buddies while you try to keep your family from falling apart. He doesn’t beat you; he doesn’t run around with other women, he doesn’t do anything. But home isn’t much more than an occasional filling station for him. Would you call him faithful?

What if you had a fellow worker where you’re employed who showed up 4 days a week, comes in late, leaves early, always seems to have an excuse for why she doesn’t do more work, and you always seem to get stuck doing the work she’s supposed to do. She always complains about how she doesn’t get paid what she’s worth – but she never earns what she is paid. Would you call her faithful?

What about the Christian who comes to worship once or twice a month, doesn’t get involved in any kind of work, doesn’t participate in any fellowship, doesn’t support any of the ministries, throws an occasional $10 in the collection plate, always has an excuse for why he isn’t more involved, always complains that he doesn’t get anything out of church, and the church never does anything for him. Would you call him faithful?

God wants us to be faithful to our marriage covenants. 39 years ago Diana and I said, “I do” – for richer, poorer, sickness, health … all of it… We have a wonderful marriage, but there are times when I’m sure Diana wonders, “what did I get myself into?” But we hang in there because we said, “I do” – not just to each other but to God.

In Thornton Wilder's play The Skin of Our Teeth the character Mrs. Antrobus says to her husband, "I didn't marry you because you were perfect. I married you because you gave me a promise." She takes off her ring and looks at it. "That promise made up for your faults and the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage."

Marriage puts us into the most demanding relationship imaginable. It is a relationship of rigorous, exclusive intimacy – it is a relationship of absolute honesty and trust – it is a relationship of shared responsibilities, and yielding personal desires to family goals.

More than any other relationship, it demands sacrifice and commitment and selflessness. Our marriages demand faithfulness; our husbands and wives deserve our faithfulness. We expect that when our partner says, “I do” that they will. God insists on it.

God wants us to be faithful in our jobs. He wants us to be dependable, and work with excellence – to do more than is expected of us and earn what we are paid. Now some of you work for really crummy bosses – companies who don’t have any loyalty to their workers. You could justify to yourself cutting corners and giving less than your best.

Paul talked to slaves about the ethics of work, Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.  (Col. 3:22-23)

That message is just as applicable in our day and time to the relation we have with our employers. Faithfulness in our jobs isn’t dependent upon whether we feel like it or enjoy what we do. Our faithfulness isn’t ultimately to our employer but to God himself.

God wants us to be faithful to him. Faithfulness means making commitments and following through on your commitments to God: Your commitment to holy living, to following God with all your heart, to being involved in the life of the body in fellowship and serving, making worshiping God your highest priority, giving of your time and your talent and your money to the growth of the kingdom. Faithfulness on the inside is what leads to faithfulness on the outside. When we have given our heart to God, then he owns everything else including our time, our talents, our money, our energy.

Let’s be honest - some people don’t know how to keep a promise. Oh, they make them all the time, but it doesn’t mean anything. They’ve promised their wife/husband, their kids, their boss, God – they even make promises to themselves. We’ve all learned that when they say they’ll do something, be somewhere, get something done, they might have good intentions, but it won’t happen. They’ve made promises everywhere to everybody, but they don’t know what it means to keep one. They just shrug it off and blame their failure on circumstances – it wasn’t my fault, I just couldn’t make it, I lost track of time, my dog ate it.

Faithfulness is not some complicated formula. Faithfulness is simply a decision – a decision to follow through on the promises we make – a decision to imitate God in being true to our commitments. And there is a joy and a reward that comes with faithfulness. I know, some paint faithfulness as an old fashioned ball and chain. But it is not a legalistic set of rules that makes you miserable. It is not a rigid ritual that sucks the life and joy out of you. Faithfulness puts you in the center of God’s will for your life.

Just as God loves faithfulness to promises, he hates faithlessness, and judges severely those who make promises without keeping them.

The people of Israel had returned from Babylonian exile to the city of Jerusalem. They were facing a crisis of integrity. Nehemiah confronts the people and demands that they live up to their promises:

“Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, ‘In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!’ At this the whole assembly said, ‘Amen,’ and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.” (Neh. 5:12-13)

Jesus himself confronted the integrity crisis of the people of his day. They would fall all over themselves swearing this or that (on a stack of Bibles, on my mother’s grave), trying to convince others to believe them, trying to guarantee their honesty, but then not living up to their promises. And so Jesus said, “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Mt. 5:33-37)

The point is that we need to be honest. If we are trustworthy, if we are faithful – people will know that from our actions, not because we have convinced them with our words.

Paul applied the same standard of integrity to his life. He didn’t make promises he didn’t intend to keep; he didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear without following through, When I planned this, did I do it lightly? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say, “Yes, yes” and “No, no”? But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy, was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Cor. 1:17-22)

Faithfulness isn’t boiled down to keeping a schedule, but making a decision and following through on our commitments.

On the historic battlefield of Saratoga there stands a monument – a 154 foot obelisk commemorating that decisive battle where the British made their last stand over two centuries ago. About its base are four deep niches, and in each niche appears the name of one of the American generals who commanded there. Above the names stand giant bronze figures – Horatio Gates, Philip John Schuyler, Daniel Morgan. But the niche on the fourth side is empty. The name appears, but the soldier is absent – conspicuously absent.

As one reads the name of the brigadier general who once commanded West Point, the major general who distinguished himself with valor in battles along Lake Champlain, Mohawk Valley, Quebec and Saratoga – but who committed treason and died a synonym of disgrace – the infamous Benedict Arnold. The historian Clarence Mccartney wrote, “The empty niche in that monument shall ever stand for fallen manhood, power prostituted, for genius soiled, for faithlessness to a sacred trust.”

 There is another empty niche, far more famous and in sharp contrast to the one in NY. It, too, stands in memory of a battle, but not a reminder of treason and faithlessness, but of a powerful testimony to the faithfulness of God who allowed his only Son to go to the cross and die for our sins, and then raised him from death, out of the grave. And that empty tomb is a reminder that God has never made a promise he hasn’t fulfilled.