Byron C. Bangert
March 17, 2001
Joshua 24:1-28; Matthew 26:31-35
The people of Israel had finally laid claim to the Promised Land. Each family and clan and tribe had been allotted its territory in which to dwell. Their leader, Joshua, gathers them all at Shechem to make a covenant before God. There he reminds them of their ancestry and their history. He recounts for them the acts of deliverance by which God has brought them to this place. He rehearses for them the story of God's gracious dealings with them: Remember Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses. And perhaps we should now add, Sarah, and Rebecca, and Rachel, and Leah, and Miriam. Remember the liberation from Egyptian slavery. Remember the victories by which this land was given to you. There are cities which you did not build, but now you dwell in them. There are vineyards you did not plant, but now you eat of their fruit.
His recitation finished, Joshua calls upon the people to serve Yahweh who has done all this for them. "Now if you are unwilling to serve Yahweh," he says, "choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River (Euphrates) or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living . . ." As we would expect, the people answer, "Far be it from us that we should forsake Yahweh to serve other gods; for it is Yahweh our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and did those great signs in our sight." Of course this God is the One whom we choose to serve!
But note what Joshua then says: "You cannot serve Yahweh, for [Yahweh] is a holy God. [Yahweh] is a jealous God [who] will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake Yahweh and serve foreign gods, then [Yahweh] will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good." Does this man Joshua want the people to serve Yahweh or not? He certainly does not want them to do so lightly, or unadvisedly. They will be in a whole lot of trouble if they do not take this matter with the utmost seriousness. When any people declare themselves to be God's people, the stakes get much higher.
Yet what this Joshua says here is not altogether true. What he says about God is not altogether true. Yahweh is a holy and a jealous God, but also a God who will forgive. There will be many times when God will forgive this people. On the other hand, what Joshua says about the people is only too true: "You cannot serve Yahweh." You are hardly able to serve this God who is our God!
There is pathos written between these lines. It is the pathos of a people who know that the covenant was not kept. It is the pathos of a people who know that the promise was broken, and broken, and broken again. It is the testimony of a people who are witnesses against themselves. Joshua says to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen Yahweh, to serve . . ." And the people answer, "We are witnesses." And the verdict is "guilty"!
The verdict is not written in this text. It is written in what follows. It is written in Judges, in I & II Samuel, in I & II Kings, in the Chronicles, in Ezra, Nehemiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah. Except for the wisdom writings, virtually the rest of the Old Testament can be read as the witness of the people of Israel against themselves. They did not keep the promise. Judges, chapter 2: "Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of Yahweh and worshiped the Baals . . ; they followed other gods." They should have known! Joshua had told them, "You cannot serve Yahweh." But they had said, "But we will." But they did not, and woven through all the telling of Israel's history is the story of Israel's grieving for this failure to live up to the promise the people had made before Yahweh their God. In page after page of the Old Testament Israel pours out her grief before God, and God also grieves with and for this people. Jeremiah speaks of Rachel, wife of Jacob whose other name was Israel, "weeping for her children" [31:15]. In Hosea, God says, "How can I give you up, Ephraim. How can I hand you over, O Israel! . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger . . . for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath" [11:8, 9]. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah is "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity" [53:3]. These people bring upon themselves and their God all kinds of grief, because of this promise that they have made but cannot keep.
There are few things more painful than a promise that has been broken. Think of a friendship that has been betrayed. Think of a marriage in which infidelity has taken hold, or love has died. Think of a job that did not turn out to be as first described.
James Dittes of Yale Divinity School wrote of a young woman whose pastor found in her an intense refusal to study the Bible. As the minister invited her to explore her feelings, "she remembered that when she was in the fourth grade, the Sunday School made a big ceremony of presenting her with a Bible of her very own. They told her that she had earned this, and that this reward, this Bible, was very special, because it could answer all her questions, solve all her problems, make her feel right or good when she felt wrong or bad. For her the Bible represented this great promise. But it also represented a promise unkept . . . because after the Sunday School gave her this special gift and promise, in front of the church at the altar . . . they hardly ever mentioned the Bible again for years. The book with all its promises stayed closed, and her questions and fears, which were momentarily relieved by the promises of the Bible, persisted, now covered by the scars of the broken promises [WHEN THE PEOPLE SAY NO, p. 29].
There are few things more painful than a broken promise. And yet, our lives are strewn with broken promises!--not always intentionally so, but nonetheless. Beverly Gaventa writes of an incident shortly after she became a new mother. She and her tiny infant son were alone. For the moment he needed neither feeding nor cleaning nor quieting. As she rocked him and held him close, she said, "Nothing is ever going to hurt you, Matthew. I promise you that. Nothing." Reflecting on that moment, Gaventa comments: "Doctors tell us that such preposterous promises are symptomatic of the crazed state of new mothers. . . [T]hat moment was Matthew's first encounter with a broken promise, it will not be his last" ["God keeps promises," THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, May 5, 1993, p. 483].
Those of you who have been married--have you been able to do all that you first promised? When my wife, Hayden, and I were married, we promised "to live together in the covenant of marriage"--to love each other, comfort each other, honor and keep unto each other, forsaking all others "in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, so long as we both shall live." Does anyone ever keep such vows? Not completely!
Promises, promises! Spoken and unspoken; explicit and implicit; intended and unintended. Our lives are filled with promises made and promises taken for granted. Our lives are strewn with promises broken: "I'll fix it tomorrow." "As soon as I finish reading the newspaper." "When payday comes." "We really ought to get together more often." "Let's do lunch." These are spoken promises. Many of the more important ones are never spoken. There is the promise of the father whose child expects him to play when he comes home. There is the promise of the neighbor who knows you are in the hospital and will surely be coming to see you. There is the promise of the friend who will attend your presentation, or view your work, who will comment upon your art or read what you have written, who will notice your new outfit or that you've cut your hair, who will offer to care for your children when you are busy or to drive you where you need to go. There is the promise of the friend who will understand when you are not able to do the thing that friendship promises. There is the promise of the spouse to know and care about your feelings. There is the promise of the minister to be ready to listen to what you have to say, and to appreciate what you have tried to do. There is the promise of the church member to follow where the minister feels called to lead. Unspoken promises! Promises never made, and yet made; promises seldom articulated, and yet relied upon; promises always there, and always being broken. These are the promises of our disappointments, our dashed expectations, our misperceptions of others. These are the sorts of promises that spring from our relationships to others, upon whom we have come to depend. These sorts of promises, when unfulfilled, or when broken, feel like a breach or betrayal of relationship [cf. Bernard Meland, THE REALITIES OF FAITH, 244], a violation of trust, a personal rejection.
But most broken promises are probably not intentional at all. A man and a woman marry. What do they really know about each other, or about marriage? Each comes with his or her own vivid expectations, projected upon an empty world of the future. It is not their fault that these expectations cannot possibly be in perfect harmony. And even if they could be in complete agreement about everything, even if they could decide ahead of time who is going to do the dishes and who will take out the garbage, these vivid expectations, which are necessarily abstractions from the wealth of their actual experience, will invariably be dashed and broken and reconstituted in the fashioning of the further actualities of their lived experience together.
The situation is equally complex in our public life. A candidate for public office promises that she will promote this project, pass this reform, accomplish this benefit for her constituency. Often times, these days, the promises seem excessive, beyond the realm of realism and possibility. We have grown cynical about the political process. But often the promises have been quite sincere. Only the ability to carry them out proves not to be there. Apart from the inevitable difficulties of knowing what to do to accomplish constructive social change and how to do it, the sheer weight of inertia, the resistance of entrenched interests to change, and the strategic diversions of the political opposition conspire to defeat some of the best intentions and noblest efforts to govern our public life. The promise of better government is broken for lack of agreement and support that it happen in a particular way.
This is how it is, and always will be. For there are some promises that are too difficult to keep. "You cannot serve Yahweh," says Joshua. "But we will," the people answer. But they fail. And we fail. And we shall always in some measure fail. This does not mean that the promise is insincere, although it is often much too superficial. Would anyone ever take the marriage vows if she or he did not think, "This is the man, or woman, for me"? "I will love this woman!" "I will love this man!" Note that the vow is not a statement of love, it is a statement of intention to love. Our promises to each other are declarations of intention, commitments of the will. The people say to Joshua, "But we will serve Yahweh." Need we doubt their intentions? Andrew and Peter and James and John leave their nets to follow him who called them by the Galilean Sea. Need we doubt their intentions? Peter says to Jesus, "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you." Must we question his sincerity? The candidate for baptism or church membership says, "I will be a faithful member of this congregation, this body of Christ, this family of God. I will be a disciple of Jesus Christ." Need we doubt this profession, or the intention that lies behind it? The minister is ordained to the ministry and leadership of Christ's Church, promising to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church. The elder promises to serve the church with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. Need we doubt those intentions?
But the promise is never completely fulfilled. It always somehow gets broken. It is simply more than we can do. Even the best of intentions is not sufficient to carry the day. In the liturgy of my ordination there was a phrase that called upon the candidate for the ministry to make answer in promise of fulfilling the call of God. The phrase went something like this: "I will endeavor so to do, God being my helper." Such a phrase is not present in our current Presbyterian ordination vows. It really ought to be. We need to acknowledge that, despite our best and fullest intentions, we can hardly do all that God calls us to do without God's help. And even with God's help, we will sometimes fail. All of us who are here, whether ordained or not, need to be reminded that we have made promises we cannot keep.
On the one hand, we live by promises. We cannot live without them. Virtually everything we do assumes the promises of others--promises to show up, to do some work or task, to hear and answer requests, to meet the demands of the situation. It is by our promises, explicit and implicit, that we covenant together in all that we do. Our promises represent our shared visions, our common commitments, our mutual aspirations. Promises are so integral to our human existence, so constitutive of human community, that it is no wonder that when we think about ourselves as a people of God we see ourselves as a people of promise. But as a people of God we know not only what it is to live by promise, we also know what it is to come to grief when we have made promises we cannot keep. We know that there are promises we are always breaking, sometimes in ways we hardly realize, sometimes in ways that reveal our mixed motives and wavering intentions, sometimes in ways that we simply cannot seem to help.
This means that we also must live by forgiveness. This is true for everyone, all people, but it is most acutely true for those who know it to be true. What have we done? What does every church do? We have declared ourselves to be a people of God. We have declared that we will be a church. We have made promises to ourselves, to one another, to God. What have we said? That we will serve Yahweh, our God, and no other gods! That we will seek first the commonwealth of God! That we will be a servant community! That we will love neighbor as self! That we will share each other's burdens and sorrows! That we will rejoice in each other's joys! That we will keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace! Whatever we have said, we know we have often failed. We are witnesses against ourselves.
But we also bear witness to a depth of goodness that sustains us even when we fail. We bear witness to energies of spirit that daily transcend the grievances and offenses of our meager and misdirected actions. We bear witness to resources of grace that constantly dissolve the hurts occasioned by our failed intentions and rude attempts to have our own ways. We bear witness to possibilities for redemption and transformation that continually mark our life together so long as we are able to forgive and be forgiven. We bear witness to the enduring, steadfast, persistent love of God.
Our broken promises are not the last word about us. That last word has something to do with God's promise. Our disappointments and dashed expectations would often have us give up on one another, and even on ourselves. But God does not give up on us. We discover, as the Israelites discovered, as Peter and the first disciples of Jesus discovered, as all who have set out to serve God yet have failed have discovered, that God will bring something good from us yet again and again and again. AMEN.
Copyright 2001 by Byron C. Bangert