By Dave Johnson
On summer nights when I was a boy there was a group of us kids from our neighborhood that would play outside every night — games like Hide and Seek, Kick the Can, Manhunt, and of course Truth or Dare. Of all these games, Truth or Dare produced the most anxiety. I usually chose Dare because the Dare was often something hilarious (at least to us) — doing a “ring and run” at some grumpy neighbors’ house (I wonder why they were grumpy…), or making a prank phone call (great fun in the days before caller ID), or taking the gum one kid had been chewing and start chewing it in your mouth (not the wisest thing to do).
But choosing Truth instead of Dare could be even more risky because it involved honestly answering questions like “Who do you think is the best-looking teacher at school?” or “Who do you have a crush on?” or other questions that are best left in the past. If you chose Truth, you had to answer honestly whatever question you were asked — and you would make your friends promise they would never tell anyone what you said — “Do you promise?” I promise. “Do you swear?” I swear. “Cross your heart and hope to die, stick a needle in your eye?” Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.
But of course, no one ever kept their promise not to tell, so your answer to the Truth question, an answer that everyone promised they would never tell, would soon be spreading all around your neighborhood and school. And that fall you would find yourself in a classroom with some kid you barely knew telling your teacher that you think she is the best-looking teacher in the school.
Even from childhood we learn a hard lesson — people often break their promises.
We may make promises to ourselves, especially in the form of New Year’s resolutions — promises to lose weight, manage our time better, get more involved in the community, save more money, on and on — and often by March we cannot even remember all the things we promised ourselves.
On a deeper level we may make promises to other people — promises to our spouses, promises to our kids, promises to our employers, promises to the bank — and yet such promises are often broken, and all of us in one way or another have experienced the devastating fallout when that happens.
Digging a little deeper for a music reference today…when I was in middle school there was a British New Wave band called Naked Eyes — a rather obscure band, but they had a hit in 1983 called “Promises, Promises” that describes what ultimately happens when promises are broken:
Never had a doubt in the beginning
Never a doubt
Trusted too true in the beginning
I loved you right through
Arm in arm we laughed like kids
At all the silly things we did
You made me promises, promises
Knowing I’d believe
You knew you’d never keep
Second time around
I’m still believing words that you said
You said you’d always be here
‘In love forever’ still repeats in my head
You can’t finish what you start
If this is love, it breaks my heart”
(from their 1983 album Burning Bridges)
There is truth in that song, because when promises are broken, ultimately something else gets broken…your heart.
And when our hearts are broken, what do we often do? We make more promises, promises to ourselves or others, and, on a deeper level, promises to God — promises to get our act together, to start going to church more, to not commit that particular sin ever again, on and on — and yet again, even these promises are often broken.
Today’s lesson from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah addresses this. From his childhood Jeremiah had served as a prophet in Judah during an especially dark season of her history, the final decades before Judah was conquered by Babylon in 587 BC, decades in which Judah was completely mired in the fallout of their broken promises to God — fallout that included rampant idolatry, corruption, and perversion of every kind. Jeremiah repeatedly called upon Judah to repent, again and again and again, but to no avail. He wept so much in his ministry that he became known as “the weeping prophet.”
Jeremiah was there when Judah was conquered. Jeremiah was there when Jerusalem, including their beloved temple, was razed to the ground. Jeremiah witnessed unspeakable suffering and devastation — and as he sat on the rubble of the fallout of all the broken promises Judah had made to God and one another, Jeremiah wrote the Book of Lamentations, which opens with these words:
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies” (1:1-2).
And yet, even in this darkest of dark seasons in the history of Judah, Jeremiah prophesied about a new covenant, a new promise, that God would make:
“‘The days are surely coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,’ says the Lord. ‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ says the Lord: ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ says the Lord; ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more’” (Jer. 31:31-34).
The old covenant between God and Israel was established by the shedding of blood (Exodus 24:8) and maintained through the shedding of blood in the sacrificial system — and yet, over and over again Israel would break their promises, Israel would break the covenant.
But this new covenant, this new promise, about which Jeremiah prophesied, points to Jesus Christ, the One who would establish a covenant not just with Israel and Judah, but with all of us, with the shedding of his own blood on the cross.
And this new covenant, this new promise, would be centered on forgiveness — “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more,” says the Lord.
And now an illustration from some early seventeenth century poetry…in the ninth of his Holy Sonnets the incomparable John Donne (1572-1631) points to the longing we have for God to remember our sins no more, a longing that goes all the way back to the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden:
If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damned; alas, why should I be?
Why should intent or reason, born in me,
Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?
And mercy being easy, and glorious
To God, in his stern wrath, why threatens he?
But who am I, that dare dispute with thee
O God? Oh! Of thine only worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly lethean flood,
And drown in it my sin’s black memory;
That thou remember them, some claim as debt,
I think it mercy, if thou will forget.
The good news of the gospel is that God is a indeed a God of mercy, that God does forget our sins, that in the blood Jesus shed on a different tree, the cross, to establish the new covenant “sin’s black memory” is drowned — and God remembers our sins no more.
Moreover, in the New Testament the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews emphatically connects Jeremiah’s prophecy about the new covenant with Jesus’ death on the cross:
“For by a single offering (Jesus) has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days,’ says the Lord: ‘I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,’ he also adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (Heb. 10:14-18).
In other words, Jesus dared to go to the cross, and the truth is that the blood Jesus shed once for all to establish the new covenant he shed once and for all for you, which means God remembers your sins nor more, which means you are forgiven.
And lest you forget that, remember what Jesus said at the Last Supper, when he took the cup of wine as he instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11: 25).
Article XXV of The Thirty-nine Articles assures us that “Sacraments ordained of Christ” are “certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us” (The Book of Common Prayer, 872) — so as you receive Holy Communion, receive anew that grace, receive anew that assurance that God remembers your sins no more.
Jesus was there every time your heart was broken because someone broke their promises to you — and Jesus was there every time you broke someone else’s heart with your broken promises to them.
Yes, the bad news is that people often break their promises—but the good news of the gospel is that God always keeps his promises.
And the new covenant, the new promise established by the shed blood of Jesus Christ, ensures you complete forgiveness for all the broken promises in your life.
The Rev. Dave Johnson is rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta, Georgia.