A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 29, 2016: The Third Sunday of Lent
Psalm 15, 2 Timothy 2:8-14, Matthew 26:30-35, 69-75
If you have ever studied history you know that the events of the past are not interesting merely from the standpoint of trivia or intellectual rigor, nor is the study of the past important simply for its value in explaining present situations and circumstances. No, there is value in studying the past for the sake of the lessons we learn about human nature and the reality of relationships. One of the hard realities that forces itself on us again and again through the whole course of human history is the bitter truth that promises don’t mean much.
In ancient Rome, there is the tragic story, made famous centuries later by Shakespeare, of Julius Caesar’s violent end. Warned to beware of the Ides of March, the great leader failed to see that the threat was from his own knife-wielding loyalists and even friends. Stunned by the betrayal, Caesar’s dying words capture the horror: “Et tu Brute—even you, Brutus?” It was true: his closest friend also carried a blade and attacked. Brutus broke his promise.
Anymore, I think we have become callous to broken promises, we have developed a thick skin against broken promises that allows them to just bounce off. I think we have become especially callous to broken promises from the gray and murky world of politics, but politicians aren't the only people who break promises. Words come cheap. You break promises, I break promises; teachers, doctors, lawyers, pastors, friends, family members, and neighbors break promises, too. It is easy, so easy to blurt out a promise, but it is harder, so much harder, to keep a promise.
Peter seemed to have a running struggle with things that were easy to say and hard to do. Do you remember the night on the Sea of Galilee? Peter saw a figure walking towards him on the water and he said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Unfortunately for Peter, Jesus beckoned him out of the boat, and the brash disciple realized as he was sinking below the surface of the water that doing the deed was much different than promising it.
And then we have the story from today’s Gospel reading—a story that is more widely known and more infamous than the most blatant lie or broken promise from a neighbor or friend. It is the night when everything reaches a sudden and feverish pace for Jesus and the Twelve; it is the night when everything is going to come undone. It is the night that Jesus is going to be betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, and deserted by all the disciples. The night had started well. Jesus gathered his twelve close friends in the upper room, shared the Passover celebration with them, and then heightened the celebration by giving them the Lord’s Supper. But then, Jesus took everything in a different direction and things went downhill. There was that uncomfortable business about someone at the table being a traitor, and the abrupt departure of Judas. Then Jesus solemnly declared that everyone of the remaining eleven would do the same—they would all depart; worse, they would all desert their teacher.
It was an astounding claim and Peter would have none of it, and he let Jesus know. Maybe he suspiciously looked around the room when he said, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Even when Jesus sharpened the warning and told Peter bluntly that he would deny Jesus three times before the cock crows, Peter stood firm in his promise: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Peter promised, with all the sincerity and force that he had, that it would never happen.
That night did not go well for Peter—Jesus’ prediction was dead-on. When the time came for Peter to stand strong and declare his allegiance to his Lord, he faltered, and then he gave himself up completely and plunged into the denial with all the same sincerity and force he had mustered to make his promise to Jesus. Peter said finally to the servant girls, “I swear an oath to you, I do not know the man!” Peter knew better, of course. He knew very well from his upbringing in the synagogue that a person’s word was a precious and essential thing. He knew what the law taught about the importance of keeping your word, of following through on promises. He knew that a promise made is a commitment that must bind and direct you, no matter what. Peter knew all of this, but when the moment came, and when he felt the threat of danger and suffering, he folded and collapsed. Peter broke his promise. There in the courtyard, with the denial echoing off the hard walls, Peter was lost. He had fallen from grace and the fall was hard.
Peter’s sin of breaking a promise was as great as Judas’ sin of breaking trust. The outcome of Judas’ sin was a head-first plunge into faithlessness and anguish that led Judas to take his own life. Judas teaches us regularly that none of us dare take for granted our place next to Jesus, because human nature is fallible and prone to evil, deeply and totally dependent on the grace of God.
Peter teaches a different lesson. He warns us of the problem of broken promises, about the problem of words quickly and idly spoken that prove difficult and costly to keep. Peter shows us what it looks like to violate a promise, and his failure is so enormous, so blatant, that it is tempting and quite easy for us to pass judgement on him. Considering Peter’s pointed promise, Jesus’ explicit warning, and the relatively mild threat that Peter faced had he been honest, it probably seems reasonable and justified to not only chide Peter but also to ridicule him for being beat by a simple series of questions from a servant girl. We can add to our scolding by noting the great bravado and boast that had preceded Peter’s epic denial by only a dozen hours or so. Peter completely blew it. So we chide him for his folly, his unguarded words, and his weakness. And we comfort and even congratulate ourselves with the knowledge and assurance that, unlike Peter, none of us has ever made a rash promise to God we could not keep. Unlike Peter, none of us has ever failed utterly to keep our word and follow through on a solemn commitment; unlike Peter, none of us has been too quick to make promises that would later prove difficult and costly to keep. It’s good know that we aren’t Peter.
Or are we? The story of Judas turned out to be a frightening portrait of fallen human nature and the terror of our capacity to break trust. The story of Peter is every bit as relevant and disconcerting.
It may have been as a teenager, when you were confirmed into membership in the church. It may have been as a young adult or as a parent with small children, when you decided to join a congregation. It may been recently or it may some time in the near future. No matter when it was, all of us here today in one form or another made promises when we publicly declared our faith and became a part of Christ’s church.
The three questions asked of every person joining a Presbyterian church are these—Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love? Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?
Regardless of the wording, or the place or the time, these are the basic promises of faith. At some point, you and I stood before God and Christ’s church and declared that we believe in God, that we accept Jesus as the Lord and Savior and Light of our life, and vowed to follow his way and teaching, in good times and in bad. The promises we made do not sound like Peter’s, but they are the same. They are deep and rash and demanding. In so many words, we spoke up with Peter and said, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.”
How are you doing with that promise? Have you every denied Jesus? Before you answer, consider exactly what it means to deny Jesus. Have you ever missed a chance to witness with bold confidence to the truth of God and God’s Word? Have you ever been part of a conversation when you knew you needed to make your faith clear and speak up for God’s goodness, but somehow you just couldn't find the words and remained silent? Have you ever let someone think that perhaps you don’t believe all that stuff in the Bible about sin and morality and about living in a way that pleases God? How many times have we passed someone in need, pretending not to notice just to avoid what could be an awkward encounter with another human being? How often do we let other things—leisure, money, work, sports, entertainment—get in the way of doing what God wants us to do with our time and resources? Do we function at work and at home and in our relationships the way God calls us to function, or the way that everyone else and the culture tells us to function? You promised to follow Christ, and so did I. How are we doing with that promise?
Of course, there are so many other promises we make: promises to parents and teachers, promises to friends and employers, promises to spouses and children. Are we keeping those promises?
In the likely event that we are not, and in the equally likely event that we are not doing so well in keeping our promises to follow Jesus Christ either, there is good news…there is hope. We believe in and worship and serve a God who keeps promises. Whether it was the promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a place to call home, or the promise to David that his sins had been forgiven; whether it was the promise to Moses that his people would be set free, or the promise to Hannah that she would have a son; whether it was the promise to Isaiah that a Messiah was coming, or the promise to Mary that her son would be the Son of God…God keeps promises. God kept promises in the wilderness, in Egypt, in Babylon when the Israelites were exiled, and when a scared mother and father brought their first-born son into the world in Bethlehem. God kept the promise that sins would be forgiven on the cross and in the empty tomb, and God kept the promise that the Holy Spirit would descend on the earth and assemble the church to be our guide and comfort forever. God keeps promises, and because God keeps promises, those that we have broken in the past are forgiven. God's faithfulness wipes away the times we have denied or betrayed or failed to follow through on our word. God's nature of keeping promises to and with us means that we can and must do the same. In hope we can look forward to doing just as we say, because we have been restored in Christ!
Today I call you to recommit once again to your promise to believe in Jesus Christ and follow him, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I call you once again to recommit to your promise to turn from sin and renounce evil and its powers in the world. I call you once again to recommit to your promise to be Christ’s faithful disciples, showing in all that you do and say his grace and his love. I call you to examine the promises you make and test them. Are they based on the truth? Do they ensure the goodness and welfare of your neighbor? Does it honor the Lord? Those who make promises in this way, as the Psalmist says, shall never be moved. Examine your words: do you say them because they are easy or because you are afraid of silence, or do you say them because you intend to keep every one? Seek out those who have been hurt by broken promises and ask forgiveness; offer forgiveness to those who ask it from you. Turn to God and pattern your promises off of his: the promises of God ensure life, grace, mercy, joy, and love for all people—make promises that do the same. Walk with integrity and in truth, before God and before one another, and take strength from God who is our shield and our defender.
Friends in Faith, we have been restored in Christ: die with him and you will live with him; endure the trails and sufferings of the world, and you will reign with him; remain faithful, in word and deed, because he is faithful to us. Amen.