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How Does God Keep His Promises?


Several years ago, my father passed away at 88 years of age. During his last adult years, my father lived with us in Texas. Before that he lived in New York City. His family lived in an area of New York called Harlem, in a section of Harlem called Mouse Town, a neighborhood that Reader's Digest said was the toughest section in the United States. The two years before my father came to live with us in Dallas, he was beaten up twice by thugs. Once he was knocked down two flights of stairs and went to the hospital. The second time he was beaten up, he developed a hernia. My father didn't know what the hernia was, and being a man of simple, perhaps even simplistic faith, he asked God to heal him. But nothing happened.

When he finally wrote to me to tell me what had occurred, it was obvious that he was deeply upset. I received his letter in the morning, and by that afternoon, I was on a plane to New York. A day or two later, I brought my father back to Texas, where the surgeons successfully operated on him. My father felt that somehow God had let him down. He had prayed for healing, and the healing had not occurred.

I tried to explain to my father that the hand of the physician was the hand of God, but he shrugged all of that off, and the last eight years of my father's life were not good ones. Not only were these years a time of declining health, but he went through them with a diminished faith. I think I could have handled what took place in my father's life by attributing it to senility; after all, as people get older, they lose emotional and mental and perhaps even spiritual strength.

But a couple of years before that, I had read C. S. Lewis's book A Grief Observed. If you know that book, you know that C. S. Lewis, perhaps the most brilliant Christian writer of the twentieth century, wrote it after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. Joy Davidman had been an atheist, a communist, a Jews who came to faith in Christ as a result of Lewis's writings. Then to be close to him, she and her two teenage sons moved to England, and she served Lewis as his private secretary while he taught at Oxford.

When Lewis and Davidman were married, there wasn't much romance with it. As I understand it, they were married in a hospital room, and the reason that Lewis married Joy was to assure her that if she died of cancer, he would be responsible for her two sons. As God would have it, there was a remission in the disease. Joy Davidman came back to health, and C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman were actually married a second time in a Church of England ceremony. They enjoyed several wonderful years together. And then, as suddenly as the disease had stopped, it started again, and after a period of very painful illness, Joy Davidman died.

C. S. Lewis, this brilliant Christian writer, in order to come to grips with his grief, wrote his feelings in a series of journals; those journals became the basis of A Grief Observed. The book was first published under a pseudonym. Lewis was afraid that if people knew he had gone through this kind of experience, it might badly damage their faith. It was not published under his name until after his death in 1963. But if you know that book, you know that the opening pages are shrill and harsh. C. S. Lewis had certain expectations about how God would work in his life, and when those expectations were not fulfilled, he became angry, confused, and somewhat hostile. As was Lewis's custom, he turned from his expectations of God to his experience of God. At the end of the book, even though the skies are still leaden and gray, here and there a shaft of hope manages to break through.

As I thought of those two experiences, there was a way in which my father, a very simple Christian, and C. S. Lewis, the brilliant Christian writer, had at least one thing in common. Both of them had expectations of how God would work in their lives. When those expectations were not fulfilled, they became confused and hurt, upset and angry.

As I thought about that, it occurred to me that to raise religious expectations too high can be dangerous and damaging. Disillusionment is the child of illusion. If we live with illusions about how God should work in our lives, we can suffer twice. We can suffer the arrows and stones that life throws at us in addition to feeling the heat of a badly wounded faith.

Dr. Jerome Frank at Johns Hopkins talks about our "assumptive world." What he means is that all of us make assumptions about life, about God, about ourselves, about others, about the way things are. He goes on to argue that when our assumptions are true to reality, we live relatively happy, well-adjusted lives. But when our assumptions are distant from reality, we become confused and angry and disillusioned.

Those of us who are Christians move into life's hard experiences with all kinds of assumptions. We move into those experiences with the promises of God in our pocket. In Isaiah 49, we read that God has our names written on his hand and that our reward is with him. We read what Isaiah wrote in chapter 40, when he said to the people in exile that they who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings as eagles; they will run and not be weary; they will walk and not faint.

Our question today is, how does God keep his promises? How does God work? How do we work?

The answer to that simple question divides all kinds of theologies. I have some friends who are strong Calvinists. And if I hear them at their best (or maybe it's at their worst), they seem to believe that God does everything. For them, all the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players. God plans the action, maps the dialogue, and we simply go through the paces.

I have friends at the other end of the spectrum who wonder if God does anything at all. For them, God is the producer of an impromptu play. He gets all the characters lined up on the stage, raises the curtain, and goes out for coffee. The players muddle through the best they can, and God is going to come back in time to bring the curtain down. But in between, everything is left up to us.

So the question then is, how does God keep his promises? How does God work? How do we work? To put it in the jargon of the theologian, how does the transcendent mystery of God break into human affairs? And as I have thought about that question, it strikes me that there's not one way in which God works, but there are several ways in which God keeps his promises.

Sometimes God miraculously intervenes

One way in which God keeps the promises made to his people is what we might call the intervention of God. In this model, what God does is reach down into a difficult situation and take us out of that situation, or he reaches down and takes the situation away. It's what we usually mean when we talk about a miracle. That's the intervention of God with his people.

If I were thinking of a biblical example of that model, it would come from Exodus 14. In that passage, the Israelis have left Egypt, and they are confronted by a huge body of water. They are being pursued by the Egyptian army, and they are squeezed between Pharaoh and the deep Red Sea. In that moment, in Exodus 14:13, the people cry out to God in their terror and agony. Moses stands before them and says, "Stand firm, and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today." In that moment, the sea opens, and the people walk across as though the land were dry. When Pharaoh and his armies try to follow, the waters tumble in, and the armies are destroyed. It was the miraculous intervention of God on behalf of his people. It was a miracle.

That miracle was so great that all through the Old Testament, whenever the psalmists or prophets wanted to prove that Israel was God's special child, they pointed back to that day when God miraculously brought his people out of the land of Egypt, the womb of Egypt, and established Israel as his son. The miraculous intervention of God.

Do you want to see it in the New Testament? You can see it in Luke 18. Jesus comes to the village of Jericho and finds a chap there who had been bom blind. When the blind man heard that Jesus had hit town, he kept saying again and again, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus heard the cry and asked that the man be brought to him.

In his quaint way, Jesus said to the man, "What do you want me to do for you?"

The man says, "Lord, I want to see."

Jesus says, "Receive your sight. Your faith has healed you."

And that was it. The man was able to see. No making mud and putting it on his eyes. No sending him to an ophthalmologist. Simply the word spoken, and the man could see. The direct intervention of God.

When we think about how God works in our lives, the first thing that comes into our minds is that he is going to perform a miracle. I don't know why we think that way. Maybe it goes back into our infancy. When we were babies, if we were hungry, we made the appropriate noises, and the big people came, put a bottle in our mouths, and the hunger was filled. Maybe our diapers were soiled. We made the appropriate cries, and there was deliverance from without! If you've been to church all your life, maybe it's because the public relations department of the church is always trying to make God look good. All the way through Sunday school and church, we hear about those marvelous miracles of God on behalf of his people. You figure if he does it for them, why not do it for us?

I don't think it's wrong to expect a miracle. In fact I imagine that we could go around this room this afternoon, and some of you could tell of times in your life when you experienced the intervention of God—that he reached down and took you out of the difficult situation or reached down and took the situation away. It's not wrong to expect a miracle. The danger is to believe that is the only way God works or that is the major way God works. For disillusionment is the child of illusions. If you live with that kind of illusion, you'll find that you'll still go through life's pain but with a badly damaged faith.

Sometimes God interacts with his people

There are other ways in which God keeps his promises. Not only is there the intervention of God, but there's what we might call the interaction of God. In this model, God doesn't perform a miracle, but in this model God reaches down and empowers us to make a difference in our situations—the interaction of God through his people.

If I were thinking of a biblical model, it would be in Exodus 3. In chapter 2, Moses saw that the people of Israel were captive to the Egyptians. As young men have done for centuries, he resorted to violence in order to try to make it different. He slew an Egyptian, and perhaps he thought in his secret mind that the Israelis might rise up and throw off the oppressor. Huh! Didn't work that way. They rose up and threw him out, and Moses left Egypt and went to Midian and there, on the back side of a desert, took care of a bunch of sheep.

Somebody said you could tell the whole life story of Moses in three acts. His first forty years, he was in Pharaoh's courts, son of Pharaoh's daughter: he came to realize he was somebody. The second forty years, when he took care of those lousy sheep, he was nobody. And the last forty years demonstrated what God can do with somebody who realizes he is nobody.

But in what must have been Moses' midlife crisis, out there in the back of that desert, he saw a burning bush and God spoke to him. God said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt."

I'm sure there in Exodus 3, Moses must have thought, About time. I mean, we've been crying for 400 years!

And God says, "I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians."

I imagine Moses thought, Now we're going to see it. God is going roll up his sleeves, and we are going to see one great miracle!

God says, "Moses, you go and I'll go with you."

And Moses, the Hebrew of Exodus 3, responds, "You've gotta be kidding! I know those guys. I've been to prep school with them. That isn't any way two million slaves go free."

God says, "Moses, you go and I'll go with you." If you follow that incident in Exodus 3, you discover that's what happened. God worked. Moses worked. The people of Israel worked, and they became workers together with God. The interaction of God with his people.

I wouldn't want to go to the wall with this, but it seems to me that there are times, many times, when God just couldn't perform a miracle for us. I've got friends who get miracles almost every day: a couple before breakfast, a few before lunch, one in the afternoon, one in the evening: "I was downtown in Boston the other day, and I was looking for a parking space and found one"--then again, maybe in Boston that is a miracle! But everything is miraculous to my friends. When I hear those folks, it seems to me they're not just God's children, they're often God's spoiled brats.

But I would go to the wall for this: there are some things in a community, in a nation, in a world that will not be changed unless God works and unless we work—unless we become workers together with God.

Did you ever look at the Great Commission as you have it at the end of Matthew? That great charge that Jesus gave to his disciples is sandwiched between two great affirmations about himself. First, there is the affirmation of his power: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me." And at the end: "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." He states his omnipotence and omnipresence.

In between there is the charge, "Go, and make disciples of all nations." I believe as I read the Scripture that no woman, no man, ever comes to God unless first he or she is drawn by the Holy Spirit. But I also believe with all of my heart that no man or woman ever will stand in God's presence who does not have a human thumbprint on them. The world will not be evangelized—New England will not be evangelized—unless there is a working of God. But New England will never be evangelized unless we work and unless there is a working together with God. The interaction of God with his people.

Sometimes God does something inside us

There's a third way in which God keeps the promises he makes to his people. Not only the intervention and the interaction of God, but there is a third that we might call the inner-action of God. In that model, God doesn't perform a miracle; God doesn't even allow us the strength to get out of the situation; God leaves us pretty much who we are and does something beautiful in our lives—the inner-action of God with his people.

If I were thinking about a biblical example of that, it would be in 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul writes about his thorn in the flesh. We don't know what the thorn was. It may have been malaria; more likely it was bad eyesight. But we know it was something that dogged the apostle, and he says in 2 Corinthians 12, "Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'"

God didn't perform a miracle for the apostle Paul. God didn't allow Paul to reach in and somehow pull out that thorn in his skin. He left Paul where he was and did something beautiful in his life.

For ten years, I was the general director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society. And in that capacity, I met a man by the name of Jim Ashwin. Back in the late 1960s, Jim went to India as a missionary. While he was there, he came down with polio. And because of the crippling effect of that disease, he came back to Montreal, where he was confined to a wheelchair.

Paul had friends who had urged him to seek out the people who supposedly had the gift of healing. He went to them but nothing happened. Because he was in medicine, he has had the best attention of the medical physicians in Canada and the United States. While they've made him a bit more comfortable, they haven't really done anything to touch the effect of the disease. So Jim is confined to a wheelchair, and the things that you and I do without thinking take heroic effort on his part.

Sometimes when I've gone to see him, I've found myself a bit uptight. I don't know quite what to say to him. But believe me when I say this: I have seen in that man a strength you do not see in Olympic athletes. I've seen in him a grace you seldom see in folks who are vibrant and healthy. I have seen in Jim Ashwin a display of God's power and grace. God did not intervene. God did not allow Jim Ashwin to make a difference in himself. He left Jim Ashwin exactly where he was and did something beautiful in his life. The inner-action of God with his people.


A few minutes ago, I quoted to you the words of Isaiah chapter 40, where Isaiah says, "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." Many of the critics believe that Isaiah has destroyed the poetic structure. Isaiah talks about flying then running and then walking. You would think it would be the other way around, they say. But I think Isaiah knew exactly what he was doing.

They who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength, and sometimes because of God's intervention, they will mount up with wings as eagles. They will be carried above their circumstances and be able to dance among the clouds. Other times there will be the interaction of God in which they will run and not be weary. And other times they will be able to walk and not faint.

Within the last year, I went through perhaps the most difficult experience in my life. I was overwhelmed. There were times when I woke up in the morning and wondered if I could make it through the day. I would wake up in the morning and wonder if I could make it to noon. At noon I wondered if I could make it to evening. I didn't expect to fly. I didn't expect to run. I just wondered if I could walk. And in the evening when I moved into bed, I could thank God that I had walked and not fainted.

God keeps his promises. According to his purposes and according to our needs, sometimes we mount with wings as eagles and soar among the clouds and almost touch the stars at great events in life. Other times we run and are not weary; we have the second wind of grace. At other times, we walk one step at a time, and we don't faint. But know this: God will not lie to you. They who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. Sometimes they mount up with wings as eagles. Other times we run and are not weary, and at other times, at other times, we walk and we don't faint. You can bet your soul on that.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Sometimes God miraculously intervenes

II. Sometimes God interacts with his people

III. Sometimes God does something inside us