The recently elected incoming President of the United States took a number of controversial promises into his campaign. Some were alarming; he promised to build a physical wall between the USA and Mexico, he promised to employ a religious filter to incoming migrants, and he even promised to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate his political opponent! Some of his promises were more vague, but arguably more encouraging; he promised to prevent jobs leaving the United States, and to “Make America Great Again”. Whether all or any of these promises will be fulfilled over the next four years remains to be seen.
We have become so used to politicians breaking promises that it has ceased to surprise us. While John Howard’s old distinction between “core” and “non-core” promises seemed comedic, at least it was an honest window into the political mindset; some promises are made to keep, and some are made to break.
Jesus takes a different view towards promises. In Matthew 5 he says:
But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
For Jesus, not only is a promise a promise, but a Yes is a Yes and a No is a No. Jesus encourages everything we say to have the same weight as a promise, so that if we make a commitment, we will fulfil it. Our danger, however, is that we can let our suspicion towards political promises affect how we view other promises too. Sometimes we let ourselves off the hook for breaking a commitment simply because the universal standard of promise-keeping seems to have dropped. Sometimes we even read God’s promises in a similar way, perhaps trying to discern if a particular promise is “core” or “non-core”.
In a Christmas time when grief, suffering and war are constantly taking place, it can be hard to read the promises made about Jesus and trust that God will be faithful. We read that Jesus’ kingdom will never end (Luke 1:33), that God will give on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests (Luke 2:14), that Jesus will one day rule in peace and with justice and righteousness … forever (Isa 9:7).
However, the Bible encourages us to hold God to his promises, even when they seem a long way from fulfilment (2 Peter 3:8-9). Rather than making it easier to have faith, we are encouraged to believe in the unbelievable promises of God, who, unlike modern politicians, is faithful and trustworthy. May we continue to trust in the difficult and extraordinary promises of God this Christmas season.