HEBREWS 11:1-3, 8-16
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.
3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
11 By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
“Jump! I’ll catch you. I promise.” I can make that promise to my kids, Issy and Lute, and they believe me because I can keep that promise. They can jump off a couch, table, counter, or bed and I will catch them. But if I make that promise 10 years, or even 5 years from now, I’m not so sure. And full disclosure, I have dropped them before, but little kids are tough.
Four years ago we heard this: “London is my last Olympics. I promise. This is my last ever gold medal,” said Michael Phelps, the world’s greatest swimmer ever. Well, then he hit a rough patch in 2014. He was arrested for a second DUI. He checked into rehab. He reconnected with his estranged father. He met a woman. He got back into the pool. And now, in Rio, the guy who promised he was retired is swimming for Olympic gold again. And let’s not get started on the most recent inductee to Pro Football’s Hall of Fame, Brett Favre. Somehow he ended up playing for the Jets and some other team.
Promises are easy to make, but some are harder to keep than others. I can promise my children to catch them, and with almost perfect regularity I can keep that promise. And so, my kids still trust me now, but in the future, I’m not so sure. An athlete can promise that they are retiring, but then sometimes they realize that the skill and the competitive drive hasn’t dried up yet. And because we have seen this saga play out so often, it makes it harder to believe retiring athletes.
But what about a bigger promise? This Following Jesus series has been teaching and reminding us what Jesus encourages and empowers his followers to do. And so on this final Sunday, it’s time to talk about promises, like the promises we should make and keep. “I promise to be a follower of Jesus. And as I follow him I promise to support the ministry, I promise to love my neighbors as I love myself, I promise to listen to God first and foremost, I promise to pray boldly and persistently, I promise to have the proper priorities in life always looking forward to the eternal paradise and not trying to make this world paradise.” These are promises that we have been talking about and these are the promises that followers of Jesus make.
And d’you know what? These are promises every follower of Jesus breaks. There are the Sundays where sleep, sports, or social activities are more important. Broken promise. There are wallets and check books that stay at home because “it’s been a tough month.” Broken promise. There are days when the Bible stays closed. Sometimes days become weeks and weeks become months. Broken promise. There are days we are not humble, not loving, and not selfless. Broken promise. Broken promise. Broken promise. There are days when I am afraid and worried. Broken promise. There are days when we trust the Lord a whole lot less than we need to. Broken promise.
Does this happen because you get older and when you get older you can’t always keep a promise to your growing children? Does this happen because we didn’t realize what we were promising at the time? Do we break these promises because we weren’t sincere enough at the time we made them? Do we break these promises because God isn’t holding up his end of the deal? Nope! It happens because of who we are. We aren’t perfect. We are the type who can’t always protect our children. We get too old or weak or the kids grow and get bigger and smarter. We are the type who don’t always know the right time and the wrong time. We are the ones who try the best we can, but our best is not good enough. Sometimes we might not have the right skills, sometimes we might accidentally make a mistake, or sometimes we might just lie to try and cover up our own inadequacies. But no matter what it is one thing is certain: we leave a boat-load of broken promises in our wake. It’s who we are. We aren’t perfect. We want to be there for our families and friends. We want to be trustworthy and honorable. But we can’t make that happen. Instead, we get ourselves into all kinds of trouble, trouble that is not just going to irritate those we care about around us, but trouble that is also unacceptable to God.
So then, how can people like us ever keep our promise to follow Jesus? I think Hebrews 11 helps us figure that out. Hebrews is a book written to Jewish people, or Hebrews. They knew about the Old Testament. They knew about all God’s civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. They knew all about the history of Israel and everything God did for them. But they also were Christians, who believed in Jesus. They were trusting in Jesus even though there was hatred against Christians going on in the world. But the strong temptation was to avoid all the persecutions against Christians by reverting back into old Jewish habits. They were being pulled back to their laws and traditions rather than the gospel of Jesus. The temptation was to break their promises. So God put the spotlight on some powerful examples in Hebrews 11 from the Old Testament, from Jewish history, to help these Jewish Christians persevere. Abraham was the top notch example that we hear about. Well, and his wife, Sarah, and their son, Isaac, and his son, Jacob. These were the who’s who of Jewish history. And they never gave up on the Lord.
You know, that the book of Hebrews was also written for us, too. We might not be Jewish, but we are experiencing what it is like to live in a world that is more and more open about being anti-Bible, anti-Christian, and anti-church. So, these examples can really help us to understand how we can keep following Jesus.
How could those Old Testament patriarchs do it? How could they continue to follow the Lord even when it was tough? What made them so good? How could they have such great faith that never wilted? How could Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob continue to follow the Lord like they did? Was it because they had some special gift that we do not? Was it because they didn’t have as many distractions as we do? Was it because God was speaking directly to them in visions, dreams and through angels? No, none of that!
Here’s a clue: they considered him faithful who had made the promise. God is the one that made a promise…first. And that’s what matters most. God knew what was wrong with Abraham and Sarah and their son and grandsons. God knew that people could not be trusted to follow him perfectly. We can try as hard as we can but we break promises. So what does God do? He doesn’t make us promise to be good and follow as best we can. He doesn’t make us blaze our own path. Instead, he makes a promise to us. God promises that he doesn’t hold our broken promises against us. He loves us too much to do that. God promises that he is not going to send us to hell. God promises, “I will take care of you. I will watch over you. I will bring you to my city, where I am the architecht and the builder.” I love that description. For anyone doing a building project, this is a great find, that the designer, the blue-print drawer, and the builder, the constrctor, the finisher is the same guy. God says, “I promise that I will take care of it all for you.”
And that’s a promise that God keeps. He patiently continued the line of the Savior from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from David and Solomon, and all the way through Israel’s tumultuous, promise-breaking history until the time had fully come. Then, God kept the promise to come here so that our Savior would sit and stand and walk in your place and mine. God’s promise made sure that every one of our sins would be covered by the blood of Jesus. God’s promise was proved true when the Savior came out of the tomb on Easter alive. And God’s promise found you through his Word, at the baptismal font, and at the altar.
You see, what matters is the one who is making the promise. If it’s me, Michael Phelps, Brett Favre, a president, or anyone else then it doesn’t have the same effect. But when it’s God, then you know he can keep it. Because everything he has ever said is true. God keeps his promises. He gave Abraham a place to call his own. He gave Abraham and Sarah a son even though they were too old. He made them into a huge nation. And most importantly, he gave Abraham a home not made of tents, but designed and built on the promises of God with a permanent foundation. That was a huge deal for men who lived in tents. You see, the tent is not permanent. The tent is not home. The tent means you don’t have a country of your own. But Abraham lived his life with the promises of God. And so he lived his life trusting that his home was still coming. He lived longing for that home and trusting that God would keep his promise to make heaven his own country, his permanent home.
We can trust God, just like Abraham and Sarah. We can trust God just like Isaac and Jacob. Not because they were so good at keeping their promises, but because God was so perfect at keeping his promises. Yes, even to people like us, who break our promises. He kept all those promises in the Old Testament and that led to a manger, a cross, and an empty tomb. You see, with God there are no broken promises.
The good thing about trusting a God like that, is you never have to worry. Faith in a God like is not uncertain. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Sure, you might not see Jesus right now. Sure you might not know what heaven looks like. Sure, life can be hard and there are so many uncertainties. But when God makes you a promise it’s sure and certain.
And the interesting thing is this faith makes us strangers in this world kind of like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Do you ever notice that? Do you ever notice how odd you are? As we follow Jesus, we give our time and our energy and our money to thank someone who is not here. Because God never breaks his promises, because our faith in Jesus will certainly lead us to heaven, we can spend time genuinely caring for other people not wondering if it’s worth it or not. It is worth it because God promises that it’s worth it to love others. That’s the way he loves us. And that looks weird to people in this world sometimes. And you look odd when you spend time reading a book. Everyone else is consumed with technology and screens, but you read a book because God gave it to you and because his words and his promises are not just inspiring lives, his Word is life for us, spiritual and eternal life. And you are strange because you spend time talking to someone who you’ve never seen, who doesn’t live here on earth. And you’ll look like a foreigner when you aren’t consumed by a relentless pursuit of more stuff, because you know this is just a tent. The home that has a permanent foundation, the paradise city is coming. You’ll be the stranger. You’ll be the odd one. People might make fun of you. They might question your faith. Some might even be ashamed to know you.
But there’s one person who won’t be. For followers of Jesus, who have faith in him and who live in his promises, God is not ashamed to be called your God, for he has prepared a city for you. How’s that for a promise? God says he is not ashamed of you. You might wonder why in the world you do some of the things you do. You might question yourselves. You might feel shame. But God never will. He takes your shame away. He forgives you. He is proud to be the God who loves you and saves you. And he promises that there is a place for you with him. It’s a place that he designed and built to last for eternity. It’s a place that Jesus paid for with his life, death, and resurrection. It’s a place that is yours through faith. God says, “I promise.”