As some of you know, my favourite TV show is ‘Survivor’. I’ve been watching the US version for a while now. Did you know it’s been going for 17 years, since the year 2000? That’s astonishing for a TV show. Well over those 17 years, it’s fair to say that the way the game is played has changed. Whereas once you won a $1 million if you stayed loyal to the end, kept your word, and stuck with your alliance, nowadays it seems like it’s the opposite, and people win the $1 million by making big moves that involve deceiving and betraying people at exactly the right time.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of broken promises. It’s a token example, but I remember when I was in Year 8, I was quite the entrepreneur. During recess and lunch, I had this little side business going of selling basketball cards. Now I’m almost certain there was a kid who took some cards, and promised to pay me back, but never did.
But I’m also absolutely certain that I’ve broken plenty of promises to others, too. There’s been plenty of times I’ve said I’ll do something, only not to follow through. It’s happened again just in the last fortnight. Someone from this church, from this service, who shall remain nameless, got a taste of that. I said I was going to send an email on the Monday, but it didn’t happen. I didn’t do it. I broke my promise.
In a moment, we’re going to hear a story from the Bible, and it’s a story that’s got everything to do with ‘faithfulness’. Faithfulness is all about keeping promises, about being people who say what we mean and mean what we say. And I for one, am thankful that when it comes to faithfulness, God is in a class all of his own.
Let’s set the scene. We are in a place called Mamre, about 32 km south of Jerusalem. God has turned up to Abraham’s place. Did you notice how the moment Abraham realises God has turned up at his front door, he goes all out, over the top, such was his devotion to God. The creator of the world, and the maker of promises, has come to visit.
It’s not surprising then, for us to read of this 99 year old man—probably wearing one of those one-piece kaftans, not that easy to run around in—yet running here, there, and everywhere. One minute he’s bowing at his visitors’ feet, and the next he’s bringing water for them to wash. Then he’s running out to select a calf, then he’s back in telling his servant to cook it. Then he’s back out to the guests to give them some milk. Abraham is waiting on his guests, literally hand and foot. We’d no doubt do it for a celebrity, a TV star, or royalty. Abraham does it for God.
This is a picture of outrageous hospitality. Forget the ‘Tim Tams’ and a cup of tea, we’re talking quality food, and lots of it! That’s what you get when you make bread out of 21 litres of flour like Abraham did! Not just the scrawny goat, these visitors are served up a choice, tender calf. It’d be like me serving you up some premium grade ‘wagyu’ beef next time you come over. But if God came over for a visit, surely you’d set out your best.
What is the occasion of this visit? God has turned up to say that he is about to fulfil a long-standing promise he has made to Abraham and Sarah. God is going to give Abraham and Sarah a son, just like he said.
Imagine that the latest news out of Buckingham Palace was instead of Prince Harry’s engagement to Megan Markle, that Queen Elizabeth, who’s 91, and Prince Philip, who’s 96, would next year have their first child. On the one hand, someone might think that’s creepy and gross, but on the other hand, it would be utterly amazing. Certainly, to make such a public announcement of such a promise would be at the very least, foolhardy and risky. But in our Bible passage, that’s exactly what God did. He promised in the most explicit terms to do the impossible. God said that he would give a pair of Iraqi old-age pensioners, one almost one hundred and one ninety, a baby! The nursing home now needs a nursery. Now they’ve got to get an extra set of wheels—not just the wheelchairs but a pram as well.
Now I reckon that some of us might not like the idea of God making such a humanly-impossible promise. You might think that God is being cruel to Abraham and Sarah here, that he’s toying with them and playing games. If so, then it may shock you, or perhaps make you even more upset, to realise that earlier on in Genesis, God intentionally and deliberately prevented Abraham and Sarah from having children.
And the chances are that if you’re someone here today who desperately wants kids but can’t have them, either biologically, or because there’s no partner, then this fact might be yet another kick in the guts, reminding you what you don’t have, and what God has withheld from you.
This raises the question, “What kind of God are we dealing with here?”
Maybe you’re someone who feels angry with God. “God, why didn’t you give me that child, that spouse, that job, that HSC mark?” Or maybe God has given you those things but life’s not turning out the way you hoped. Maybe you are someone who has been faithful to God over many years. Maybe you can honestly say, “God, I’ve given up so much for you. Jesus, I’ve counted the cost like you told me to. I’ve said ‘no’ to all the pleasures and temptations of this world, and yet, you’ve let me down. It feels like you owe me.”
Maybe you’re here today and this is exactly the sort of thing that’s stopping you from accepting Jesus. You’re pointing the finger right at God. God’s the one to blame. “Why God? Why? Why didn’t you stop my parents’ marriage from busting up? Why God? Why do you let this evil stuff happen?”
Suddenly, once you dig a little deeper, you realise there’s a lot not to like about this story. Suddenly we’ve got a dilemma on our hands. God’s got a lot to answer for.
But once we take a step back and see the big picture of this story, we realise that God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are not our ways. It’s as if God’s operating on a totally different system here, like Mac versus Windows or iOS versus Android. Follow along with me as we rewind, and look back into the lives of Abraham and Sarah.
I mentioned before that God was the one who deliberately made Sarah infertile right from the get-go. That happened in Genesis 11. But come the very next chapter, Genesis 12, and God then makes not just one, not two, but three massive promises to Abraham. I remember them using the word ‘LOB’.
L is for Land.
O is for Offspring.
B is for Blessing.
Let’s hone in on that second promise of ‘offspring’ or ‘children’. In case the penny hasn’t dropped yet, God is actually making it harder for himself to keep his promise. One minute he makes Sarah infertile. The next minute he tells Abraham that he is going to be the father of many nations—that is, he is going to have lots of kids. And I reckon God does this because he wants to put his promise in big neon lights, to make it loud and clear to everyone, and that we make no mistake—that God is the only one who can deliver on this promise. If the job’s going to get done, it’s God himself, and he alone, who will get the job done.
Take a look at Sarah’s reaction to this promise. It’s there in Genesis 18:12.
Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “What, after I am worn out and my lord is old, now I’ll have this pleasure?”
Sarah’s reaction is our reaction: 90 year old women don’t become first-time mums! 90 year old woman don’t conceive let alone carry healthy children to full-term, and then on top of that, that both mother and child survive the delivery. We need to remember that we’re talking about no IVF, ultrasounds, epidurals, paediatricians, or hospitals back then.
But notice Genesis 18:14, two verses later, that we see God’s way when he tells Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Make no mistake, God says, “I will return at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
As far as God’s concerned, the due date for this baby is locked into the diary. The ‘when’, the ‘where’, the ‘who’—it’s all taken care of.
It is 25 years long years after God made that initial promise to Abraham when God finally comes good on his promise.
Take a look at Genesis 21:1-2—his fingerprints are all over this.
The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. (NIV)
Who was gracious? It was the LORD. It was he who did exactly as he had said. He did for Sarah “what he had promised”
Let me introduce you to Ramjit Raghav. Ramjit was 94 years old when he became a dad for the first time. His wife was 54 in case you’re wondering. And like Abraham, Ramjit had to change the nappies. He had to do the toilet training with his son, he had to help his son walk, at the same time that many people that age need someone to help them with those exact same things.
The difference between Ramjit and Abraham is that God promised Abraham that this humanly impossible thing would happen because God was going to turn Abraham into a great nation. God told Abraham, “Look up! As many as the number of stars in the sky, as countless as the sand on the beach, that’s how many people are going to call you ‘Dad’.”
But Abraham experienced none of that when God reiterated the promise in Genesis 18. There, Abraham’s nation had an ageing population which had a greater likelihood of shrinking than increasing. The very existence of Abraham’s family was at risk. And for all Abraham and Sarah’s laughing at the absurdity of this promise, doubting God’s ability to re-open her womb, it is God who ends up with the last laugh!
For ‘Isaac’, the name given to the miracle baby God gave Abraham and Sarah, means ‘laughter’. How appropriate it is. This confirms that God’s ways are not our ways. Our God is faithful. That’s what we learn about God from this story.
We’re talking about a God who not only makes promises, but who keeps them too! God is deadly serious. He says what he means and means what he says. We don’t worship a God who lies, a God who’s disinterested, who couldn’t give two hoots about keeping his word. No, we worship a God who follows through. God’s fulfilment of this promise shows that he, and he alone has done it, and that no human act, no scientific discovery or intervention, no rational or reasonable explanation, none of those human explanations is going to steal the limelight from the God of this universe and his willingness and ability to fulfil his promise.
When Teresa and I were planning our wedding, the thing we really wanted to emphasise was the faithfulness of God. This impacted the songs we sung and the sermon. When we made our vows, we promised “in sickness, in health, for better, for worse”. It was something that we wanted to hit home because unlike God who is faithful we as humans are faithless. I am so often faithless. So often, I don’t take God at his word. I play God myself. I give God the silent treatment. So often I trust in my ways rather than his ways.
Back to the story, let’s look at what happened to Sarah.
In Genesis 18:15, Sarah flat out lies pretty much right to God’s face.
But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.” (NIV)
Now just imagine for a second if your best friend did that to you? Imagine if a child lies to their parents, an employee cheats their boss, or a student lies to their teacher. Well we don’t have to imagine. We know what happens. Politicians and leaders step down and get the sack, kids get time out and detention, athletes get suspended and fined. But none of that happens to Sarah.
Take a look at Genesis 21:1 again: “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah”. Rather than Sarah getting what she deserved—punishment—Sarah instead gets the exact opposite—grace. God gives Sarah not what she deserved but what he’s promised.
The one standout from this story for me is this: God doesn’t give you and I what we deserve. Instead, he gives us what he promises. That’s how faithful our God is. He’s committed to holding up his end of the bargain.
Again and again, at key turning points in the Bible storyline, God delivers a miracle child into the arms of a previously infertile couple. Whether it’s the judge Samson who was born to a ‘passed-it’ couple, or the prophet Samuel, the child Hannah was desperately praying for, or even John the Baptist, born to barren Zechariah and Elizabeth—time and time again God delivers what he has promised to the most unlikely recipients.
God is 100% committed to delivering on his promises. In fact, he is so committed to being faithful and for us to know it, that God himself turns up, born of a virgin, coming himself in the flesh, to show us how faithful he really is. Jesus was truly God and truly human, and he was always and in every way faithful to his Father. In his obedient life on earth, he was always and only doing the will of His Father, the work that the Father had given him to do. His impeccable obedience to his Father took him all the way to the cross. Jesus is the embodiment of the faithfulness of God.
And all of God’s promises point to him. Here is what 2 Corinthians 1:20 says:
For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him [Jesus …] the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God.
Friends, what that sentence is saying is that for every single one of God’s promises, God’s come good on them. In Jesus, every single promise that God has made has been met with a big fat ‘yes’.
I love the fact God is a promise-keeping God. That’s good news especially if right now you are doubting God, if you are not sure whether he is there, or if he is not answering your prayers the way you want, or you keep tripping over that same sin again and again, or that depression or anxiety is getting the better of you. Whatever is your situation, I think that this story assures us that God is a God who can be utterly and totally trusted. At the end of the day, we can be certain that he has got our back!
Sure things might not work out the way we’d like them in the short term. But the things that God has promised us both in this life and in the life to come are far far better. Let me give you three quick examples:
First, God promises me that I’m one of his children. This is what 1 John 3:1 says:
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
I love that word ‘lavished’. God’s love has been ‘lavished’ on us. Is it just me, or does that word ‘lavished’ scream out over-the-top, excessive, more-than-we-can-handle ‘love’? God is not a stingy God. No, God has demonstrated and shown us a love that is sacrificial, that we didn’t earn or couldn’t buy or don’t deserve. It is a love that was expressed when Jesus swapped places with us in his death on the cross. He died so we can live. And now, because of that love, I’m a child of God. And you are a child of God, too, if you’ve accepted God’s love in Jesus. That’s God’s first promise to you.
The second promise is the promise of being forgiven. That’s possible thanks to Jesus. I love the words of 1 John 1.9:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”
God promises to forgive us and cleanse us from not only a little bit of our unrighteousness or merely some of our sins, but from all unrighteous. God promises you and me that no matter what you’ve seen or where you’ve been, what you’ve done or who you’ve become, that the slate has been wiped completely clean. Each of us has a fresh start, thanks to Jesus shedding his blood for you. Your sins and my sins have all been paid for through Jesus’ death on the cross.
And the third promise is of eternal life. Seeing as we’re in 1 John, we might as well stay there. 1 John 2:25:
And this is what he promised us—eternal life.
How good is that? Jesus is offering those who trust in him life forever with him, with no shame, no regrets, and no guilt. He promises us an eternity with no more death, no more crying, no more pain. He has promised us a time of no more disability, whether physical or intellectual, no more mental illness, a time of no more death, decay, disorder, destruction, disease, or any other nasty thing starting with the letter ‘D’, including ‘diets’.
But for now we must wait. We wait for God to tick off that final promise he’s made, of Jesus’ return. Make no mistake, it will happen. That Christ coming back is a certainty. That’s locked in. But the exact date of his return remains a mystery.
Friends, if you’re someone who hasn’t yet taken the hand of Jesus, then know this, that according to the Bible, the only reason why Jesus hasn’t returned yet is because God is patient with you, and he is not wanting anyone to perish. Those promises I mentioned earlier can be yours today. Come and chat with us about it, because we want you to be ready for Christ’s return.
But for those who have already taken the hand of Jesus, there’s a reason why we often say around here, “Faithful in small things, entrusted with more things”. That’s a key value for us.
That is especially so for you guys who are millennials, who are also known as the ‘STABO’ generation. Have you heard that phrase before? ‘Subject To A Better Offer’?
We live in a time of ‘maybe’ buttons on Facebook events, or not replying to emails or texts just in case something better or more exciting comes up. But can I urge you not to be defined by the world. Instead, be defined by the God who doesn’t go back on his word. It’s impossible for him to lie or change his mind. This is the God who is impeccably faithful.
It is why we look forward to hearing those words “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Friends, God’s word for you today is this: God doesn’t give us what we deserve; instead, he gives us what he’s promised. He does this all so that we would end up better, not bitter: today, tomorrow, and every day into eternity.
Let’s talk to him right now with boldness and confidence.
What a privilege, Father, it is to believe, to have faith in you, not because of what we get out of it, as good as that is, but rather quite simply because of who you are. You are a God who can be trusted. You are a God is for us, not against us. You are a God who not only makes promises, but keeps them. You are a God who has given us his very best when we were at our worst.
And God, while we wait for that one last promise to be ticked off your list—that promise of Jesus coming back to judge the living and the dead—we pray that you will make us a people who are marked by faithfulness, too, the fruit of your Spirit that lives and dwells inside us. Make us a people who are faithful in our relationships, in our speech, in our conduct, until that day.
In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.