Friday, February 17, 2017
How do you value a promise? A promise is an expression of intent. But it is more than that, it implies a commitment that “should” be “enforceable”. If I promise to buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks, you can determine whether this event will ever occur, based on your assessment of me as a person. If I have proven reliable, in that I do what I say. If I have proven consistent, in that you cannot think of a time when I did anything other than what I say. It is a pretty safe bet, you are getting that overpriced cup of coffee. But then, enter the winds of fate. If I make that promise and subsequently am struck by a car in an accident that puts me in and out of the hospital for years to come while in recovery. The value of that promise may be forgotten by both of us. I forget, because I am preoccupied with so much more weighty things. And you forget, or perhaps forgive, in that you would not dare bring it up, as you see me struggle with things that used to be so easy for both of us, and now remain so only for you. In the end, how do we value a promise?
And what if our promise is more contractual in nature, what if it represents a commitment of our lives, of what should be our entire lives. That kind of promise is more like a vow, maybe even a solemn vow. For the most part we treat these kinds of promises differently. They are far more rare, and far more personal. These kinds of promises are meant to transcend the tragedies of life, and endure till we no longer have breath. We stake our honor upon them. Honor being comprised of our reputations, and of what we think of ourselves. So this is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime promise that only gets spoken that often. But does it? We commit this way (at least in traditional wedding vows) at our marriage. No matter what the specific language, we intend a forever kind of bond with our spouse, and are committing, indeed vowing, to make that so. Yet our divorce rate makes liars of more than half of us. Our repetitive divorce rate makes our vow somewhat the joke. After all, can the sixth wife truly expect that “this” is the marriage that is meant for eternity? At what point does our words “forever”, become “for the foreseeable future”?
And what about our promise to God? When we choose our God, when we choose Jesus Christ as our vehicle of salvation and reconciliation, we are in effect making an eternal commitment. That promise is decidedly about lasting longer than just the boundaries of this lifetime. Do we shred it as we sin? Do we cast it aside as our hearts harden in the sins we choose over the sacrifice of self His way and His Law demand of us? It would seem the variable in any of our promises is our own commitment to see them through. For the strong willed, I could buy you that cup of coffee from my hospital bed if needs be, or from my wheelchair once I am able. For those who do what they say no matter what, I could stay in that marriage no matter how bad it is, and what kind of damage it does to the kids, because I refuse to lose. I refuse to admit I am less than perfect. Do I treat my promises to God the same way? Do I keep those ten commandments no matter how hard it is, keeping up with the strict letter of the law, while my desires buried deep within me present the constant struggle to let go and have fun. How sad, when all we have is our word, with a heart so terribly misaligned.
Jesus knew about these struggles. Jesus knew the value of human promises. He has seen so many of them broken to Him. It is because Jesus knows the human condition, that His first mission for us, is to change the nature of the human condition, to save us from ourselves. To reconcile us to God, is to change how we think, what we want, who we love. It is only through transformation to bring us into alignment with the motives and thinking of our God, that we can truly obey Him from a joyful and willing heart. It is only post-transformation, that we can truly know what it means to honor a marriage or love a spouse and children the way they long to be loved, and the way we should long to love them.
In contrast, at the heart of a vow, is the ego of the person who makes it. It is a universe-be-damned, I will do “x” or “y” or “z”. That commitment is based on the power of self, no matter what fate has in store. And without regard that “we” control nearly nothing. A vow is a statement of defiance against the reality of the near certainty of breaking it. Humanity proves that even our most sacred institutions are no match, for the changing of the mind or heart. We walk away from marriages without second thoughts. Some even find a way to reject Jesus long enough to die in that line of thinking. It would seem our vows are our least reliable vehicle.
And Jesus knows it. So what does He say on the matter? Matthew records it in a section of the Sermon on the Mount. It is found in his gospel in chapter five, picking up in verse 33 saying … “Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:” This was the tradition of the day. Don’t commit yourself ahead of knowing the conditions. That was a lesson learned from the tribe of Benjamin who was the smallest tribe of Israel, not by accident, but by the carrying out of a vow that nearly got it wiped out completely. The second bit of advice, only vow to God, and carry out what you vow to Him, or using His name or references about His creations. Swearing by God, or by heaven, for example was supposed to add meat, or add depth, to the promise you were making. It didn’t. But perhaps it felt good.
Jesus continues to set the record straight in verse 34 saying … “But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: [verse 35] Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. [verse 36] Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.” That bears repeating. Jesus says and I quote … swear not at all. This is not a reference to foul language, this is a reference to making vows OF ANY KIND. It changes the nature of what we then “commit” to God. It changes the nature then of what we commit to our spouse. It does not destroy our intent to pledge ourselves to them, it only changes the vehicle of how we express it. We pledge ourselves in our actions, and our motives, and our words. Not just words, no matter how flowery they may be. Truth does not need flowers, only a lie needs them to cover the stench of it. Swear not at all. God does not need another worthless promise you cannot keep. He needs a daily permission to keep digging in to your life to change it how He sees fit.
Your spouse does not need a one-time-only statement that you will honor him/her. They need a daily embodiment of what love looks like as you reflect it to them over and over and over again. That is commitment of a meaningful type, that is not hard to do, or damaging to the kids. It is renewing for the entire family, and a source every member can bath in, absorb, and in turn reflect. Jesus does not just tell us what not to do, He then follows with what we should do instead (just like He does in every point of transformation your life will go through). Jesus concludes this section in verse 37 saying … “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” When you are asked a question, speak the truth. Do not lie. Simply say yes, or no, depending on what your answer is, ignoring perhaps even what it should be. Truth in communication is the first step towards understanding each other. Understanding cannot be based on error, or misleading, or it will not be true understanding.
Simplicity in our communication. The simple yes, or no, response. It is all that is needed. I will take you as my wife. My actions will speak from then on whether I intend to meet them, or not. My fidelity will be witnessed or it will be hidden. My actions will speak from that moment on, I need no once-in-a-lifetime declaration to seal it. Rather, I need a daily renewal that is based in the strength of Jesus Christ, not in this erring weak sin-prone body of mine. You can count on the faithfulness of Jesus. Me, not so much. But if we together are committing daily to make Jesus the center of our marriage and our love for each other, then we are opening up an infinite source of love and devotion we will hardly be able to contain. That kind of basis works. All the human stuff, does not. Divorce simply proves it.
As for our commitment to God. The worst thing in the world we could do to hinder our salvation is to consider our Baptism’s or dedication’s or leadership events in the church as being the “most” important moments in our spiritual journey. They are NOT! They are only moments. The next one will be as important as the current one, and as the one that just slipped through your fingers. It is right now, when Jesus can make a difference in your life. There is no waiting. You are at the front of the line. He is ready to work on you right now. What else do you have to do that is more important than that? What difference does it make how long ago you got baptized, Jesus is here right here and right now. If you let Him, He will change the core of who you are. It’s great that you got baptized, but that was not the end of your journey, that was barely the beginning of it. We cannot think of God in terms of thinking we are done now, or done for now. God is an every-minute opportunity. God cares more about what you let Him do in you this moment, than He does any promise you made to Him so many years ago. The moments count. Let Him work. That is what saying yes is all about. Not yes for now, but yes right now. Then repeating it over and over and over again, till His work in you is complete and perfected.
And the sermon was not over yet …