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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Promises to Keep

Hannah was a faithful wife. She was faithful to her God, and she was faithful to her husband, the priest Elkanah. Elkanah had two wives -- Peninnah was his other wife, by whom he had many children. Hannah and Elkanah loved each other very much, and they tried to have children, but had no success. This was a great sorrow to Hannah. She wanted to be a mother. She wanted to have children with her husband. And she wanted Peninnah to leave her alone. Peninnah was constantly taunting Hannah because of her barrenness. God must not love Hannah, and maybe Elkanah did not love Hannah, for her to not have any children. Hannah went to the shrine at Shiloh to pray. This was before the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem, and there were a number of hilltop shrines for prayer and sacrifice throughout Israel. Crying out to God, Hannah promises that if God gives her a son, she will raise him as a Nazirite -- he would not drink alcohol, not cut his hair or shave, or touch a dead body. These monastic practices would give the Nazirite great spiritual power. Samson is the most famous Nazirite in the Bible -- he loses his strength not because his hair gave him strength, but because of his Nazirite vow was broken. Eli, the priest at Shiloh, sees Hannah praying silently -- her lips are moving, she is clearly distressed -- and assumes she is a mumbling drunk. Eli calls Hannah out, but Hannah responds that she's not drunk, she's praying that God will give her children. Eli blesses her, and tells her God will answer her prayer. God does -- Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel, whom she raises as a Nazirite. When Samuel is weaned, she takes him to the shrine and surrenders him to Eli, to be raised as a priest. Samuel becomes the last great judge of Israel, and is the prophet/priest who anoints Israel's first King, Saul.
Look at the sequence: Hannah cries out to God and makes God a promise. God answers Hannah's cry and makes it possible for her to keep her promise. Hannah, finally, keeps the promise that God has made possible to fulfill. Keeping promises begets keeping promises; faithfulness engenders faithfulness. You and I are here because people kept their promises. Veteran's Day this week celebrates people who kept their promises to defend us, so we could keep our promises to live out the promise of this nation. Our parents promised to feed us, clothe us, love us, teach us, care for us. Many of us were baptized as children: our parents promised to raise us in the faith. Some of you are living on Social Security or Pensions; Medicare or health insurance plans. I'm paying for your Social Security and Medicare; we're all paying for the health insurance for our retired preachers; many of us have benefited far more from our medical insurance plans that we ever paid into them; we keep our promises to them, and hope in a few years people will keep some promises to us. We worship in this beautiful building because for a hundred and fifty years people kept their promised to build and maintain the property, to teach and care for each other, to share the gospel of Jesus with us. More than that, United Methodists all across Virginia and all across the country kept their promises to plant and maintain colleges and seminaries, write Sunday School materials and Bible Studies, train clergy and lay leadership, offer retreats and conferences and seminars. In a million ways, you and I are here today because people kept their promises. And when people keep their promises, miracles happen everywhere. I continue to marvel at those of you who have kept your marriage vows for forty, fifty, sixty, or more years. In the thirty-sixth year of our marriage, Vicki and I know that the more practice you have keeping your promises, the easier it becomes. Faithfulness begets faithfulness: children of long marriages are more likely to have long marriages themselves; children of parents who live healthy lifestyles are more likely to have healthy lifestyles themselves; children of parents who are life-long learners are more likely to be intellectually curious all their lives; children of parents who have been faithful to their church commitments are more likely to be practicing believers themselves. Keeping promises begets keeping promises; faithfulness engenders faithfulness. It is so with God, the Bible declares. Hannah makes a promise -- God is faithful to her -- Hannah responds by keeping her promise. God promises Abraham and Sarah a son -- Abraham and Sarah trust God's promise, even when it appears that God is going to kill their child -- God keeps his promise. Jesus promises to obey God's will, not his own, and God keeps his promise of resurrection. And Peter and Paul and the martyrs and fathers and mothers and saints of the church promise to love and serve God, and God keeps promises to them. You and I are the fruit of the faithfulness of God and of the saints.
All of you who are married -- hold up your wedding rings. Why do you wear them? They are "outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace," reminding us of the promises we make. Every time we touch water, we are called to remember our baptisms -- of the vows that we made, or were made for us, to love and serve God. The reason we say grace before we eat is not to make the food holy: Jesus said whenever you eat bread and drink the cup, remember me. Every doughnut in the gym is a reminder that God is keeping promises to love us, feed us, and be in us. Every single one of us is here because at some point or another, we made a promise to God. The reason we're still here is because, in one way or another -- maybe not exactly the way we expected or thought -- but in one way or another, God answered our prayers. God got us through. God didn't give us what we wanted -- God gave us what we needed. God blessed us with family and friends and health and grace and love and mercy. God kept his promises. Now -- are we going to keep ours? Are we going to keep the promises we made to God? Are we going to keep the promises we made to each other? Test me, Malachi 3:10 says. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, and see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down an overflowing blessing. The question isn't whether God will answer our prayers: the question is whether we're going to keep our promises.

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