Keeping Your Word: A Sermon on Matthew 5:33-27

Preached on Facebook Live
for United Reformed Church of Clifton,
April 26, 2020

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33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

“Our text this morning speaks of the sacredness of our word.  It says that every “Yes” and every “No” we utter is spoken absolutely before God, and that every word of ours is deemed so important that, as Jesus tells us later in Matthew 12: 36 that ‘on the day of judgment we will have to give an account for every careless word we utter.’”  (Helmut Thielicke, Life Can Begin Again, 1963, Fortress Press, p. 50)

You see our words matter to God. Christians are to be promise-keepers.  So this morning I want ask three things:

  1. What makes a promise a promise?
  2. Why are we to keep our promises?
  3. How can you become a better promise-keeper?

What Makes a Promise a Promise?

When I was a kid if you wanted to guarantee you were going to keep a promise, you said, “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”  I checked with a teenager and she told me that they were still doing this today.  I also googled it and found that the phrase first appears in print in the 1800s.  In addition, there is an alternative version “Cross my heart and hope to die; step on a cat and spit in its eye.”  Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing to have in the time of corona virus?!

But there was a loophole to this promise making.  If you secretly crossed your fingers while you were making the promise, the promise didn’t count.  Part of the fun was to try to get one over on your friends by sneakily crossing your fingers. I became such an expert at crossing my fingers that I could cross all eight fingers at the same time.

And that raises a question—What makes a promise a promise?  Do I have to say some special words?  Do I need to make a “Pinky-Promise” by locking pinkies with my friend as we make the promise? Do I need a notarized contract for a promise to be binding?

That was a question that also occupied the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. They felt they had to have rules for everything—what you could eat, what you could wear, how you washed your hands, etc., etc.—and they also had rules for what constituted a valid promise.  Jesus describes some of those rules in Matthew 23:16-20

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ 17 But which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ 19 How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” 

Matthew 23:16-20

James Montgomery Boice notes that this kind of thinking made for evasive swearing“People who were afraid to swear by the name of the Lord because they were not telling the full truth began to swear by things, and because mere things were not thought to be as significant as the name of God these kinds of oaths were not considered to be binding.” (The Sermon on the Mount, 1972, Baker Books, p. 131)

Jesus says that all such reasoning is hog wash.  God witnesses every promise you make and no special wording can make it either more, or less, binding. Jesus says, quit playing games and keep all of your promises. There are no loopholes because God is present in every area of life, and witnesses every word we say.  Therefore, Jesus concludes, “Do not swear at all, but let your ‘Yes, mean Yes and your No, mean No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (verse 37)

Why Are We to Keep Our Promises?

There are at least three reasons why we need to keep our promises.

First our own personal integrity demands it. Frank Sonnenberg, a motivational speaker says this,

Every time you give your word, you’re putting your honor on the line. You’re implying that others can place their trust in you because you value integrity and would never let them down. It goes without saying that if you don’t live up to your word, you may end up tarnishing your credibility, damaging your relationships, and defaming your reputation.

Second, only when we make and keep our promises can we build a life with others.  Dave Eggers, an American writer, editor, and publisher, and author of the children’s book, The Lifters, says

A promise is like the earth underneath us. It must be solid. How can we walk, and run, and live and laugh, when we can’t count on the ground beneath us? And so it is with promises. They keep us upright. They hold up everyone and everything.

I like that image. A world where promises are not made and kept would be like living in a world full of quick sand.  It is the promises that we make and keep that enable us to live together.

Third and most importantly, we are to keep our promises because God is a promise keeper.  Throughout the Bible God makes promises.  He promised Noah that there would never be another flood.  He promised Abraham that he would make of him a great nation. He promised us to send Jesus to die for our sins.  He promises us that we will live with him.  God is a promise keeper.  In Numbers 23:19 the prophet Balaam says this of God.

God is not man, that he should lie,
 or a son of man, that he should repent.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
 Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?

And the Apostle Paul adds in II Corinthians 1: 20

For all the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus.
That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God.

If God keeps his Word to us, then we must keep our word to others.  To not keep our promises dishonors God and compromises our witness.  How will others learn to trust God’s faithfulness unless we demonstrate His faithfulness to others by keeping our promises?

How Can You Become a Better Promise Keeper?

Let me suggest three things that you can do to become a better promise-keeper.

1.  Before you make a promise, check your motivations.  Michelle Gielan in an article in Psychology Today, “Why Keeping Your Promise Is Good for You?”, suggests that before we make a promise we should ask ourselves several questions.

What is my motivation behind the promise? What is my intention? Am I doing this for the recipient or for myself? Sometimes we do something purely out of good intentions. Other times it is for what we will receive. We might believe that we need to say “yes” to get what we want or to ensure someone will like us. We tell people what we believe they want to hear so they’re happy.

Be honest with yourself about why you are committing to something. What are you getting out of the deal? That might clue you in as to whether or not you should make the promise in the first place.

I sometimes make promises for the wrong reasons.  Sometimes I make promises just to get someone off of my back.  As parents we sometimes do this when our kids are distracting us while we trying to do something.  “Go away and I promise I’ll play a game with you in a few minutes.”  Other times I make promises because I am trying to win someone’s approval or I want to get something out of them.  These kinds of promises are manipulative. 

If my motives are wrong, then I am going to have a hard time following through.  I should only make a promise to someone if it will be good for them and if I am not trying to get something out of them.

2.  Before making a promise, realistically determine if you are capable of keeping the promise.  Michelle Gielan says, before making a promise we should ask

Am I being realistic? Life moves at the speed of light and we often have to pick and choose how we spend our time. Consider your schedule, and ask yourself if this is a promise you can keep.

It is so easy to promise the world to someone, but so hard to deliver it. 

When I was in a mortgage underwriter, I often had mortgage brokers breathing down my neck demanding to know whether their loan was approved.  It was so tempting to say, “I’ll do it right away,” even though I had 3 other brokers who were demanding the same thing of me. I wasn’t able to keep my promise and the result was hard feelings towards me and ill will towards my company.  Finally, my boss took me aside and told me, “Mike, quit making promises you can’t possibly keep. Instead, under promise and over-deliver.” 

From that point forward this became my mantra: under promise and over deliver.  It was better to say “I’ll have it for you tomorrow before close of business.” Then when they got an answer first thing the next morning, they were happy.  Everyone will be happier (including yourself) if you don’t make promises you can’t realistically keep.

3. When you make a promise, keep it, even if it harms or inconveniences you. 

Many years ago, my wife was the Director of Nursing for a long-term care facility affiliated with the Methodist Church.  However, the CEO and the financial officer were very lax about paying the bills and often stiffed their suppliers, including the local hardware store owner whom we patronized.  It was an embarrassment for us as Christians that a church-affiliated institution could so callously avoid paying their bills.  This is not the way it should be.  If you make a promise you should keep it, even if it harms or inconveniences you.

Psalm 15 asks a very important question and gives some very important answers

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;

The Bible is clear, if you make a promise you stand by it, even if it will hurt you.

One of my favorite children’s books is Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss. Mayzie, a lazy mother bird who is tired of sitting on her egg, wants a vacation. Horton, a full-sized elephant, passes by and Mayzie, begs him to take her place. She promises that she “won’t be gone long. … I give you my word.” Although initially reluctant, Horton agrees and climbs up onto the nest to sit on the egg.

In world of Lazy Mayzies,
be a Horton.

Mayzie doesn’t keep her word, but takes off for an 11-month vacation in Palm Beach.  Horton, however, proves faithful.  He nearly freezes through the winter, is mocked and deserted by his friends, captured by hunters, shipped across the ocean, and is displayed across the country by a traveling circus. At each set-back, Horton keeps his word and proclaims “I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful one hundred percent!”  When Mayzie tries to reclaim her egg after it hatches, she discovers that the egg has been transformed by Horton’s faithfulness.  It is no longer an ordinary bird, but an “elephant bird” that looks like Horton and claims Horton as his true parent.

The world could use more promise-keepers.  In a world full of Lazy Mayzies, be a Horton.  Let your Yes be Yes, and you will bring glory to God.

Rev. Michael A. Weber, April 26, 2020
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