It is amazing how many people can remember who has broken a promise to them. Most can tell you the exact circumstances and the moment they knew they were going to be let down. I hear their stories. I can feel the hurt these seemingly endless streams of broken promises have on their lives. They find it progressively harder to trust anyone. For many who have lived lives of broken promises, it seems almost impossible to trust God.
This word, “promise,” carries weight. When we hear that word we assume that there is something special, more substantive to this commitment. For some in the room, it reminds us of a time when a handshake was as good as a contract and when a person’s word was their bond. For others in the room it reflects those moments when parents or friends made a commitment to us that we could count on – that we could plan around – that we simply knew would be true. This is probably why it impacts us so profoundly when a promise is broken. This kind of emotion is not unique to our time. The Apostle Paul found the same kind of emotion in the people in Corinth. He wanted them to understand that regardless of their history, they could trust God’s promises. Hear how he speaks to them in 2 Corinthians 1:19-20. 19For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas[a] and Timothy, was not "Yes" and "No," but in him it has always been "Yes." 20For 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.
Every time I read this scripture I think about one of my college professors. His name was Dr. Dean Martin and I took him for classes like: Introduction to Philosophy; Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and Theology; and the like. They were classes when you asked big questions and found dramatically different answers depending on which philosopher or theologian you were talking about. There was this remarkable predictable moment that occurred again and again in Dr. Martin’s class. A student would raise their hand and ask a question. Dr. Martin would smile a devilish smile and walk to one side of the room and put his hand on his chin and stroke it a few times and pronounce an unequivocal “Yes!” And would then wander slowly to the other side of the room and pronounce with equal fervor, “and No!” We would spend the next half hour working through the both sides of the answer. It was an educational – but a very frustrating experience. This stands in sharp contrast to what Paul wanted the church in Corinth to experience. He wanted them to understand that 19For 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." 20For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. YES! Paul wanted them – and by extension us – to claim the absolute certainty of the fulfillment of God’s promises found in and through Jesus. When we come to a promise of God it is not a “maybe,” or “possibly,” and “with some reasonable possibility.” When we hear a promise that God makes to us the answer is an absolute, unequivocal, rock hard, steel strong, unshakeable “YES!”
There is no season in the year when the certainty of God’s promises is more important. As we move toward Christmas we come celebrating the grand fulfillment of God’s promise of a Messiah, the one who would save the people from their sins. We proclaim with boldness that the babe in a manger in Bethlehem is the Son of God, the savior of the world. This proclamation is born in the Old Testament prophecies of promise of the one who is to come. The Prophet Isaiah voices an essential part of the promise. He tells the story of the coming suffering servant – the one the Hebrews understood to be the coming one from God. We heard he promise read earlier in our service. We now look here it again and consider what this promise means to us.
We start in the book of Isaiah, found about three fourths the way through the Old Testament. Our passage is in Chapter 53, beginning at verse 4. The poetry of Scripture can be moving and melodic. But sometimes in hearing the poetry we miss the heart of the message. Earlier in our service we heard a traditional reading of our focal passage. Now hear it in a simplified English form from the New Living Translation. The promise reads 4 Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! 5 But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. 6 All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.
7 He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. 8 Unjustly condemned, he was led away. No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream. But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. 9 He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave.
10 But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands. 11 When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.
I like Isaiah 9:6 better. It is a happier promise. It pronounces; 6For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Or maybe Isaiah 9:10 that reads; 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious. These are happy promises. These call me toward the Christmas manger with joy and excitement. They fit the mood to this season of expectation. But, the prophet paints are much darker image in Chapter 53. It brings the babe in the manger together with the Good Friday cross. It moves us from For God so love the world to 5 But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. 6 All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all. It tells me that the Christmas story of God come to earth is a personal story. My story is tied to The Story. It is for me he comes. And it is for me he will die. And it is for me Jesus will raise again. This is one of those places we hear the divine “YES!”
Cultural anthropologist and missionaries serving across the globe will tell of how tribes in the Amazon, in the Pacific Islands, and in the heart of Africa have found ways to try to deal with the idea of reconciliation – of finding peace with God and each other. ” Missionary historian Ruth A. Tucker tells of the story of Don Richardson: As he learned the language and lived with the people, he became more aware of the gulf that separated his Christian worldview from the worldview of the Sawi: "In their eyes, Judas, not Jesus, was the hero of the Gospels, Jesus was just the dupe to be laughed at." Eventually Richardson discovered what he referred to as a Redemptive Analogy that pointed to the Incarnate Christ far more clearly than any biblical passage alone could have done. What he discovered was the Sawi concept of the Peace Child. Three tribal villages were in constant battle at this time. The Richardsons were considering leaving the area, so to keep them there, the Sawi people in the embattled villages came together and decided that they would make peace with their hated enemies. Ceremonies commenced that saw young children being exchanged between opposing villages. One man in particular ran toward his enemy's camp and literally gave his son to his hated foe. Observing this, Richardson wrote: "if a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted!" From this rare picture came the analogy of God's sacrifice of his own Son.[i]
This same kind of understanding had a long history with the Hebrew people. They brought to their hearing of this passage a cultural tradition of the scapegoat. A scapegoat is a goat let loose in the wilderness on Yom Kippur after the high priest symbolically laid the sins of the people on its head. We find its foundation in Leviticus 16:8, 10, and 26. What makes the promise of God in Isaiah 53 so remarkable is that it is not a symbolic act of a village or a cultural tradition designed to let the people feel better about themselves, but is instead an act of God that makes the way for the forgiveness of sins. It makes it possible for us to become Children of God. The great Methodist preacher, John Wesley proclaims; “For it is God alone that is able to fulfill these promises.”[ii]
So now, as we begin our Advent journey toward Christmas, let us come in the full assurance that with God’s promises there is no “maybe yes” and “maybe no.” There is only “YES!” God is making a way. Come with hope and expectation. We come to remember and to celebrate that the long promised Messiah was born in Bethlehem. We come to remember and celebrate that those who had gone their own way have a way back home. We come to remember and to celebrate that when we were yet sinners – separated from God because of who we were – and how we acted toward God and one another – that God loved us first and made the way for us to be forgiven and to claim our place in real relationship with God. God promised. God’s answer was “YES!” Let us go into the Advent season as the people of the promise – loved and claimed by God. Amen.
[i] Tucker, Ruth (1983). From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan
[ii] Wesley, John, “Wesley’s Notes on the Bible: 2 Corinthians” available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.i.ix.ii.html%20on%20November%2025, 2009.