Princeton University Religious Life

Fulfilling the Promise

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
October 17, 2010
Luke 4:14-21

What Jesus says is, of course, important! “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he says. He had just emerged, according to the Evangelist Luke, just emerged from the wilderness and his temptations by the devil there.    His encounter with evil had only made him stronger. He immediately goes to his hometown of Nazareth – he will commence his ministry at home – his first public utterance is to read from Isaiah, and his first unscripted/unscriptured word is “today.” [Fred Craddock, Luke, p.62]   Today all the promises of this text are fulfilled; today – right now, this moment - God’s promises to a suffering people are coming true. Today! What Jesus says is important.

But what Jesus does not say is also important. At this time the scroll of scripture would be handed to any man in the synagogue to choose a passage and comment upon it. There wasn’t an ordained rabbinate as today; the priests were located at the Jerusalem temple. Perhaps Jesus was handed the scroll with a smile from the others – Mary and Joseph’s boy come home, let’s hear his thoughts! Jesus chooses the text that promises a Messiah to deliver the people from their suffering and oppression, concluding, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” That’s not the whole verse, however - Jesus stops in the middle of the phrase, which continues, “and the day of vengeance of our God.”  What Jesus does not say is important!

Was he, who was the fulfillment of God’s promise of a messiah, remembering another of God’s promises made to Noah? After God blots out all living things except Noah’s immediate family and a pair of each type of animal, God promises Noah “[n]ever again [to] destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Gen. 8:21(b), 22) Was Jesus of lowly Nazareth, the fulfillment of God’s promise of a messiah, remembering the fulfillment of another of God’s promises in choosing to end his reading where he did? In the various covenants recorded in scripture we remember so many more promises of God – the blessing of all peoples on earth through Abram, the promise to be our God and to have us as God’s own cherished people, the promise to forgive our wicked deeds and sins. A half century ago a wise woman wrote, “Let God’s promises smile on your problems.” This may sound like treacle, but the writer in question was Corrie Ten Boom, who was imprisoned at the Ravensbrck concentration camp because she had been sheltering Jews in her home in the Netherlands. God fulfills every promise; let us hold those promises close in hardship or suffering, joy or confusion. 

Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of one promise, and the keeper of so many others, beginning with those he reads of in Isaiah. He brings good news to the poor in every age – those living with hunger, exposed to the elements, who watch their children sink into malnourishment with no chance of the education for which their sharp minds are capable, who suffer for want of even the cheap medications that can end their chronic pain, who sleep on grates or find food in dumpsters, who hold signs at intersections that say, as I saw last summer, “will work for food.” Jesus, like his mother before him, has good news - the mighty will be cast down and the lowly raised up, the hungry and poor will be filled with good things. The last will be first and the first will be last. He spreads his brief ministry teaching and living a new ethic of human value that places human dignity and human needs in place of status, wealth and power. He teaches these things still to his one billion or more followers today, asking us all to help him fulfill the promise to bring good news to the poor – to bring justice.

So, too, Christ proclaimed release to the captives – captives of greed, their own or others’, those unjustly incarcerated, captives of sin, captives of addictions, captives of pride, captives of hate and prejudice – their own or others, captives of hearts broken by grief and loss, all imprisoned somehow, in bondage, separated from a life of true freedom. Christ fulfills the promise of recovery of sight to the blind – he covers the eyes that do not function with mud and they can see. He teaches all who will listen to him how to be those with eyes to see and ears to hear – how to perceive the truth around them, and the work of God in their midst. Christ is God’s fulfillment of the promise to let the oppressed go free, those kept subordinate by the prejudices of others, or their greed, or lust for power. Then and now, viewed as less than fully human, the oppressed are kept down so that others may expand their privileges and entitlement. Christ taught and lived the end of all dominations. And Christ proclaimed the year of God’s favor, the year all had been waiting for - the Jubilee.  Many kings and rulers had said they would enact this biblical commandment of forgiveness of debts and of debtors, of rejuvenation of land and communities, but political promises are so often broken. This promise Christ kept as well.

The promises of God are fulfilled. The promises of Christ are fulfilled. How about us? How about the promises we make, both to ourselves and to others? I appreciate the dry observation by Hannah Arendt that, “Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible.” Yes, the promises we make can be our way of morally requiring ourselves to meet beneficial benchmarks.  “I promise to finish my Ph.D. by 2012.” “I will lose weight before spring.” “I promise my children that I will ensure they do not take on debt in getting a college education.” And if we are conscientious about promise-keeping, we do what we must to achieve these benchmarks. We create a firm schedule for research and writing, for diet and exercise, and for saving money.   Yes, Ms. Arendt, we can make promises to try to control the future before us and provide it with beneficial order. We make promises for other reasons, too – we selflessly want to make a blessing or change in the life of another. (“I promise I’ll give sacrificially of my money this year so that women with AIDS can live more fully.”) We may want to live more faithfully. (“I’ll read a passage of scripture each night.”) We may want to grow in courage. (“I promise not to hold my tongue when I hear others speaking demeaningly of others.”) Some of our promises are very hard to fulfill, very challenging indeed. The promises that we make publicly can leave us struggling in the spotlight to perform some kind of thing for which we really don’t have the talent. We must be careful of what we promise! There is much wisdom in the Hebrew proverb that says, “Promise little and do much.”

We, like none other than God and Jesus, make promises and endeavor to keep them. But there are, too, promises placed within us by God. We are people of promise, we inhabit promise, we are the bearers of promise. “She is a person of so much promise,” we may say of someone. What is the promise that God has placed inside you, and how may you fulfill it? Are you one of those people whom God has endowed with marvelous gifts of discerning the spirits, of flat-out common sense? Do you read people and situations clearly; do you “get” the dynamics of power in any setting? Let me suggest that you may fulfill the promise that is in you by being a truth-teller. Speak up out of what you know. God and Christ need humble people who will tell it like it is; who will dare to say that the emperor has no clothes; who will blow away the smokescreens that people deploy to keep others from knowing what’s really going on. Will you be one of the people who tell fellow U.S. citizens that we need to let expire the last government’s tax cuts for the top 2% of America’s wealthiest because the money recouped would bring every American child out of poverty? I heard Marian Wright Edelman say that on Friday evening here in Princeton. That would be good news to the poor!

What is the promise that God has placed inside you, and how may you fulfill it? Are you one of those people whom God has endowed with marvelous gifts of compassion and empathy? Are you unable to keep on doing what you were doing when you sense that another is hurting? Does the suffering in the world pierce your heart? Do you notice other people? Perhaps you may fulfill the promise that is in you through work of healing or reconciliation, whether formal or informal. If you bring wholeness into the life of only one who is lost to despair, have you not shifted a piece of the universe?

Perhaps you are a person in whom God has placed the promise of intellect. We look forward to the fulfillment of that promise in the advancement of knowledge you will bring! Are you a person in whom God has placed the promise of faith? May you fulfill all the potential for prophecy that is in you. If you were to stand before this congregation, as Jesus did his, and say “today this promise has been fulfilled,” of what would you be speaking?

Remembering all the wonderful promises of God and Christ that have been fulfilled in our hearing, let us consider prayerfully how each of us is a bearer of promise, and commit ourselves to fulfilling every one. Like Christ, let us do it “today,” let us inhabit our callings now and not at some distant time when we’ll finally have our acts together. Ha! Most of us will never be satisfied with ourselves, and risk never acting on the promise that is within us. Jesus is right- “today”!   Let us start to fulfill those promises, like Christ, at home – which is to say, where we are now. May God grant us the courage and faith so to do.


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