by Kurt K. Hendel
Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Ministry Professor of Reformation History
Trustworthiness and the ability to trust are essential building blocks of any healthy relationship. They are literally the glue which binds such a relationship together, and they foster confidence and security. Hence they bring comfort, peace and certainty and inspire honesty, tolerance and love. On the other hand, when trust is broken and there are reasons to question the partner's trustworthiness, doubt, uncertainty and suspicion set in, and it is quite likely that the relationship will deteriorate quickly and eventually fall apart. An essential aspect of creating and building trust is the ability and willingness to make promises and to keep them. Human beings desperately need to be able to trust and, in turn, to be trustworthy. However, even with the best intentions, these important ideals are often compromised and, as a result, human relationships are damaged or even broken. We experience these realities in the political arena, in the business world, in international affairs, in families and even in the church where many promises are made which are then broken.
Of course, trust and trustworthiness are not only crucial for healthy human relationships. They are absolutely essential in the divine-human relationship. And there is radical good news here because one of the partners in this relationship is absolutely and unequivocally trustworthy. The assurance to which we cling with unflinching hope is that God makes and, even more importantly, keeps promises. The Abrahamic covenant is a striking confirmation of this reality.
God chose Abram and Sarai to be the recipients of bold and utterly surprising promises. In spite of their advanced age, they were assured that they would be parents of a son and that through that son they would be blessed with many descendants. Furthermore, the land which God had promised to Abraham would be a particular blessing to their heirs because the land would not only provide them with a home but it would also help shape their very identity as God's people.
A son, future generations and a precious inheritance! These were startling, unexpected, unbelievable promises. No wonder Abraham questioned God and Sarah could not suppress a laugh which likely betrayed not only her doubt, her incredulity, but also her desperate hope that God would somehow be true to God's word and that her most ardent wish, namely, to be able to bear a son, would come true. Both Sarah and Abraham ultimately learned that God not only makes promises but keeps them as well. That is, of course, crucial, for a promise means nothing if it is not trustworthy; if it is not fulfilled. Then the anticipated blessings never materialize. Disappointment and mistrust arise. Hope is shattered, and the relationship between the one who makes the promise and the one who is the recipient of that promise is strained.
That never happen when God makes promises. It is crucial to note, however, that God determines when and how divine promises are fulfilled. Both Sarah's and Abraham's biological clocks were ticking. If God intended to fulfill the promise of an heir, why was God waiting? That simply made the promise even less believable. Sarah's and Abraham's doubt, frustrations, fears and questions were surely understandable from a human perspective, but they were of no concern to God. When God makes promises God fulfills them, but on God's schedule, not ours.
That is why faith is necessary. Only faith enables human beings to persevere; to wait—perhaps impatiently yet confidently; to trust even when such trust appears to be utter foolishness; to expect that God will act in God's time; to believe the promise even when it is absolutely unbelievable. However, faith does not only enable us to wait. It is only through faith that God's promises become ours. Without faith the promises are still real and trustworthy, but they are not fulfilled for us. The divine gifts promised do not become ours. Promises must be trusted in order to become realities, and only faith inspires, only faith is, such trust. In spite of their questions, their impatience, even their doubt, Abraham and Sarah ultimately believed—they trusted—, and they received what God had promised. They experienced that God is always trustworthy.
God's assurances to Sarah and Abraham were not the first nor were they the last promises of God to God's people. God did not only promise children and land. God also promised to be present among the people, to rescue them from their bondage, to forgive their sins, to bring them peace and hope and to be their God. As New Testament people of faith we trust that all of God's promises were ultimately fulfilled in Christ, the Promised One, the Word made flesh, God incarnate. Christ is now our guarantee that God makes and keeps promises. In Christ God has proven to be absolutely trustworthy. That is the assurance of faith. Thus, dear people of God, when God says, "I love you," trust that God's love for you will last forever. When God promises, "I have redeemed you," be certain that your salvation has already been accomplished. When God says, "I forgive you," be comforted that your relationship with God has been restored. When God speaks the calming words, "I am with you," sense God's tangible presence within and around you in word and sacrament, in the gentle embrace of the community, in the sister or brother who loves you. When God calls you my daughter, my son, be assured that you are God's child even when your prodigal tendencies manifest themselves.
Since God makes and keeps promises—also to us—, we can boldly make promises as well, not our own promises, of course, which we may or may not be inclined or able to keep, but God's promises which have already been fulfilled. We can make promises about life and salvation, freedom and wholeness, forgiveness and love, hope and peace. We can make promises about the present and the future, about what is and what can be, about God's relationship with us and our relationships with one another. We can make such promises believing and trusting that they are God's promises which are already fulfilled in and confirmed by the Christ. That is God's promise to us, and God keeps promises.
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35