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Promises We Can be Thankful For

Thomas J Parlette

“Promises we can be thankful for”

Jeremiah 23: 1-6


General Douglas MacArthur was one of the great heroes of World War II. He was greatly admired by many people, and well-loved by the people of the Philippines. One reason for the admiration and love was that he kept an important promise. When the Japanese invasion forced MacArthur to retreat from the Philippines, he promised he would return. Standing in the water in March 1942, before he set off towards the safety of Australia, the general promised, “I shall return.” And he did.

Two years later in October 1942, when he landed on the islands, MacArthur spoke the words that meant so much to the Filipino people. “I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil.” He had kept his word. He had fulfilled his promise.

One of the things that we generally admire in people is honesty and integrity. When people give us their word, we like to be able to depend on it. When your teenage son promises he will be home by 11:00, you want to be able to trust that he will come walking through that door at the appointed hour. When a co-worker says she will finish that report by Wednesday afternoon, her office mates want to know they can count on her to follow through. And of course, when the preacher says he will have you out by 9:30  noon, we all like to be able to depend on that promise as well.

It is a wonderful thing to be able to take someone at their word and count on it. A promise kept goes a long way to enhancing personal relationships of all kinds. The husband and wife who are faithful to each other can endure all kinds of outside stress because even if they can’t count on others, they know they can depend on each other. The friends who keep their promises to each other have relationships that last a lifetime. And companies that keep their promises to their workers have loyal employees that give their best effort.

This morning, as we draw near to the Thanksgiving holiday, we can give thanks for a God who is faithful, a God who always keeps promises, a God who never betrays our trust. When God makes a promise, that promise is always kept. That is a fundamental idea of the Christian faith. God is faithful. We can count on God being true.

In fact, the whole history of God’s people in the Bible is a history of God being faithful, of God being true to God’s word. God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would be the parents of a mighty nation and that all the world would be blessed through them. Those promises were kept. God then promised that their descendants would one day be given a land all their own. The land of Canaan would be become that home. Another promise kept.

Later on, when God’s people were slaves in Egypt, God appeared to Moses and called him to be God’s special servant and bring the people out of bondage. Moses made several excuses, he tried everything he could to get out of the job – but God promised to be with him. God promised to give him the help he would need. God followed through – and so did Moses. The people were liberated from Egypt and another promise was kept.

Many years later, God promised to make a shepherd boy named David King over the people of Israel and to have David’s descendants rule over God’s people in the land of Judah. And as long as there was a kingdom in Judah, up until 586 BC, David’s descendants did sit on the throne.

Time after time, in big ways and small ways, the Bible has shown us that God can be trusted. When God promises to do something, God always follows through. Our God is faithful.

In this passage from Jeremiah, God promises through the prophet to do two things…

1.    To gather the remnant of God’s people, who had been dispersed after the Babylonians swept through Jerusalem…

2.     To raise up a new shepherd, a King who will bring justice.

This passage was addressed to the Jews living in exile. In their situation, they needed some kind of hope. The very foundation of their lives had been destroyed with the unimaginable Babylonian victory and the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem.

Psalm 137 captures the mood of the Jewish people very well when it says… “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion! How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” These are words aimed right at the heart of a people who feel defeated, demoralized, people who are struggling with the idea that evil could win the day. These words are crafted to those who wince with hopelessness and shudder at the thought of what the future holds. These are people who know pain, as we all do sometimes – and Jeremiah has some words from God.

Up until this point in Jeremiah, we have heard a lot of condemnation, a lot of warnings and doom and gloom. Jeremiah has not been a very cheerful prophet. Until now. At his point, Jeremiah’s message changes from condemnation to hope. The people who weepy in Babylon could count on God bringing them back, giving them a new King, a leader who would fill the land with justice and righteousness.

This new King, according to Jeremiah, will “reign” as King. Now I know this sounds like a curious and rather redundant thing to say, until we take into account the political situation of the time. Zedekiah was the King, a true descendant of David, but he was really just a puppet for the Babylonian King. He didn’t really rule as a King, he had no power of his own. But this new King, this righteous branch from David, will have the full power of a real King, and he will use that power to establish and maintain justice.

The people living at the time expected God to keep this promise. They knew that God was faithful. But what they didn’t know at the time was that God was going to fulfill this promise in an unusual way. Well, after 70 years, God did bring the Jewish people back to Jerusalem. The first part of the promise was complete, but the second part didn’t happen. Not at first anyway. No new King appeared.

The fulfillment of that promise came about when God sent Jesus to live amongst us. The surprise is that God’s new King did not rule with political or military power. God’s King turned out to be a crucified King, much to the shock of everyone.

The Jews of Jesus’ time were expecting a Messiah who would come and drive the Romans out and establish a powerful new Kingdom that would make all the other nations tremble with fear. They expected that all the world’s people would come to Jerusalem and bow down before their God. They expected to be in on the ground floor of a Kingdom that would never end. What they got instead was a man who was crucified on a cross, a man put to death by his own people because he dared to challenge the status quo, a man who died a humiliating death to save us from our sins. It was not at all what they expected, but it was everything they needed.

God does keep promises – but not always in the ways we expect. Sometimes God surprises us, throws us a curve ball. When God led the people of Israel into the promised land, God led them the long way around. Apparently they had a lot to learn before they entered the land God had prepared for them.

What they learned, and what we still struggle to learn today, is that God will not be put in a box. God will not be bound by our expectations. God is free to keep promises anyway that God sees fit, even if they are in strange and unexpected ways.

For instance, there was once a husband and wife who made it a point every year to take their kids away on a family vacation. It had become tradition. It was one of those things that made their family strong.

But one year, the husband was very busy with work. It didn’t look like he would be able to get away for a vacation that year. Nevertheless, the whole family sat down and made a decision to go to Disney World for their family vacation.

As the departure date neared, the husband realized that he just couldn’t get away – too much work to do. So he helped load up the mini van, promised he would see them soon and waved goodbye as his wife began the long drive down to Florida.

As soon as they were out of sight, this man felt terrible, and he vowed he would someone finish what he had to do. So he took a change of clothes, some deodorant and his razor – loaded up on chocolate and coffee and headed into the office. He worked all day and through the night, and he got his work done.

Then he went online and bought a ticket to Orlando. When he touched down, he took a taxi cab toward the hotel where his family would be staying. He had the cab drop him off about a mile from the hotel, and he made himself comfortable on a bench at a bus stop. While he waited, he made a sign out of cardboard that said, “Disney World or Bust”. By tracking his wife’s cell phone, he knew when they were getting close. So when they were driving by, the whole family saw Dad standing by the side of the ride holding up his sign “Disney World or Bust”. It was the beginning of the best family vacation they ever had. Promise kept.

We like to have people in our lives like that. People who keep their word no matter what. But what’s even more important is that we have a God who keeps promises. The Bible is nothing less than the story of God’s faithfulness to us. God did raise up a new King, a true descendant of David, as was promised. God did establish his throne forever. God did crown this new King Jesus with glory and honor. But God did it in an unexpected way. It was not the kind of King that people expected. But it was just the kind of savior that we all needed.

In this season of Thanksgiving, we need to remember to give thanks not only for food and family and country – but for all God’s blessings on us. We need also to be thankful for the simple fact that God keeps promises. God follows through. We have the whole Bible as our evidence. A book full of promises we can be thankful for.

May God be praised. Amen.