(Text:Micah 5:1-5. If you prefer to listen rather than read, you can find a link to this sermon below.)
Do you have one of those friends – maybe you have more than one – who is always making, but rarely keeping, promises? “I’ll take care of it,” he says, but he doesn’t. “I’ll be there,” she says, but you already know there will be a last-minute text explaining, yet again, that something has come up. You’ve learned to smile, nod, and ignore what they say. You certainly don’t entrust anything important to them.
Hopefully you have some of those other friends too, the kind that rarely makes promises, but when they do, they keep them. Their word is their bond. They don’t make excuses. They don’t have time for that; they’re too busy making good on their promises.
Walter Carr is that kind of guy. He hired in with a multi-state moving company called Bellhops, was given a start date and an address, and told to meet his fellow-workers there for his first day on the job. But between his hire date and his start date, his car broke down.
Even so, Carr was the first worker to arrive. He left his home in another town at midnight and walked. He made a commitment, and he intended to keep it. The police saw him walking around 4:00 AM, and then again sometime later, so they stopped and asked if he needed help. When he explained what had happened, they drove him to the address and so he got there very early.
Of course, he had to explain to the owner why he was so early. She couldn’t believe this guy would leave his home at midnight and walk all those miles. She posted the story on Facebook and the post went viral. Someone brought it to the attention of the Bellhops CEO, who rewarded Mr. Carr’s faithfulness by giving him a 2014 Ford Escape.
When people like Mr. Carr make a promise, they create a point of certainty on a vast plane of uncertainty. They make one thing predictable in the midst of an unpredictable future: they will be there. They will defy circumstances, if necessary, and keep their promise. They are brothers and sisters of the righteous man of Psalm 15:4, “who keeps his oath even when it hurts…”
God cares about keeping promises. There is a revealing story in the Book of Joshua. The Israelites have entered Canaan and have won battle after battle, conquered tribe after tribe. The Gibeonites fear they are next. So, they plan an elaborate ruse to trick the Israelite leadership into entering a treaty with them. At the heart of the deception is a carefully-crafted illusion that their tribe is from far away, from out of state, if you will, which would allow Israel to enter a treaty with them. The truth is that they were neighbors from one county over.
Israel’s leaders were played. They signed a non-aggression treaty and even promised to defend the Gibeonites, if they were attacked. The truth came out three days later, and when they realized they has been scammed, Israel’s leadership wanted to break the treaty and attack the Gibeonites. After all, they entered the treaty under false pretenses. Surely, they had every right to break their promise. But God said to them, “No, you don’t. You should never have made that promise, but you did, and now you’re going to keep it.” He insists his people keep their promises, even when it hurts.
But then, he’s not asking his people to do anything he hasn’t done himself. When God makes a promise, he keeps it. He will be there. A promise from God is a refuge of certainty in the storms of uncertainty. He will keep his promise, even when it hurts, regardless of the cost. The birth of the baby in Bethlehem is the result of a promise. So is the death of the man on Golgotha. The cross says to us, with unmatched eloquence and unparalleled power, that God keeps his promises, even when it hurts, no matter what.
In Micah 5, we have a promise that is all tied up with Christmas. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the rulers of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” This is the promise the biblical scholars and chief priests quoted in answer to King Herod’s inquiry about the birthplace of Israel’s messiah. The true king of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem. God promised.
The prophet Micah delivered that promise during a time of great adversity. That is often how it is with God’s promises: they come during our worst—even our most desperate—times. Consider, for example, when Adam and Eve received the promise of a future deliverer: in the moment when their guilt was exposed and the consequences of their treason became woefully apparent. For Abraham, the promise came during the trauma of childlessness. For Jacob, the promise came when he was running for his life. For Paul, the promise came aboard a storm-tossed ship, which was either on its way to the bottom of the sea or to a capital trial in Rome. For the disciples, promises came on the night Jesus was betrayed and their whole world caved in. God made Joshua promises on the eve of war as he sat on the border of a new and hostile land. Hannah received God’s promise when she was in despair over infertility. Israel received God’s promises when they were being exiled from their home. And what about the promise to the thief on the cross—his situation could not have been worse. So often, the promises of God come to people at their lowest point. If you’re in trouble, if you’re desperate and don’t know what to do, you’re in a place where God works.
Now, he works in other places too. Being in distress is not a prerequisite to receiving God’s promise. David had just gotten out of trouble and was in a peaceful and successful time of life when God made him a gigantic promise. But even if the promise comes in relatively good times, as it did for David, it doesn’t mean a person won’t have to live through difficult times while waiting for the promise to be fulfilled. That was certainly true of David. It was also true of some of the greatest heroes of the faith. They received promises from God, but before they saw those promises fulfilled, they were “put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated … These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (Hebrews 11:36-37, 39). Not in this lifetime. But they will … because God keeps his promises.
So, one thing about God’s promises is they often come during times of trouble. Another thing about God’s promises is they are rarely what a person would expect. Take the promise that the savior would be born in Bethlehem. If you surveyed ten thousand people at the end of the first century B.C. and asked them to choose a place where the next world-changing event would happen, I doubt even one of them would choose Bethlehem. It would be the equivalent of giving ten thousand 21st century people pins, putting them in front of a world map, and instructing them to stick their pin in a place they guessed would be home to next year’s most important world event … and they chose Quincy, Michigan.
Now, I’m not dissing Quincy, Michigan. I’m sure some important things have happened and are happening in Quincy, and some important people have come from there. Some of you are Quincy born and bred. Samuel Etheridge, who was one of Michigan’s first state senators, was from Quincy. Scott Barry, the Major League Baseball umpire, hails from Quincy. So does Jill Dobson, who has been a correspondent for Fox News and The Associated Press.
Quincy has had its moments, and so had Bethlehem. The sleepy little village was not always sleepy. It had the distinction of being the starting point for one of Israel’s most horrific crimes: the rape, murder, and dismemberment of a young woman. It was also the site of a famous battle. And there were some important people associated with Bethlehem. Rachel, the wife of the man for whom the nation was named, was buried there. King David, one of the Bible’s greatest heroes, was born there. His grandfather Boaz was from there, and his grandmother Ruth moved there.
But knowing all that, Bethlehem is still not a place that would spring to mind when talking about the next great thing. In the first century, one would expect the next great thing to come out of Rome or Athens or Corinth or Ephesus. Maybe out of Alexandria or Damascus or Jerusalem. But Bethlehem? Unlikely.
In our day, we might expect the next great thing to come out of New York or Washington or Beijing or London, but probably not Quincy, MI. Yet God is full of surprises. He doesn’t need to start big to get big results. That’s the thing about God. He always has the fulfillment in hand when he makes the promise. He plans and shapes history for thousands of years in such a way that his promises never fail. He’s that big, that smart, that strong.
The promise God made through the prophet Micah was that a ruler of Israel, one who would “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God” (verse 4) would come out of Bethlehem. He would bring security at last, and his “greatness [would] reach to the ends of the earth.” By Jesus’s time, people referred to this ruler as God’s anointed; his Christ—the Messiah.
That promise, though, would not be fulfilled right away. That’s another thing about promises. They are not like the drive-in at McDonald’s: you don’t place your order and pick it up a couple of minutes later. Abraham waited 25 years to see God’s promise fulfilled; Noah, a hundred years; Adam and Eve waited millennia. Promises do not end the tough times; they sustain us through them. They help us endure, support us as we learn to wait on God, to trust him, and do the right thing when circumstances are all wrong. The promise of a Bethlehem-born ruler whose “origins are from of old, from everlasting” (verse 2) came through the prophet Micah, somewhere around 700 B.C. It took approximately 700 years for the promise to be fulfilled, 700 years before, verse 3, “she who is in labor gives birth.” Between the giving of the promise and its fulfillment, life was hard. Israel was conquered, subjected to foreign rule, and most of its people were exiled, never to return. It was a humanitarian crisis similar in kind but much larger in scale to the forced exile of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar today.
The prophet knew it would take time for this promise to be fulfilled and warned that before that day came, Israel would be abandoned. (That is verse 3.) And abandoned they were. The nation came under attack. The capital was besieged and finally fell. It’s people either died of hunger during the siege, were killed in the bloodbath that followed, or were forced into exile. During this dreadful time – one mass exile after another, followed at last by marginal (and disappointing) resettlement efforts – the promise of the Bethlehem ruler sustained people and gave them hope. Promises do not end the tough times; they sustain us through them, if we remember who made them and what he is capable of.
I once read something J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to a friend while he was working on The Lord of the Rings. He mentioned he had introduced a new character into the story he was calling Strider but had no idea who this character was or what he was going to do. Strider would become one the author’s best and most important characters. The entire plot would revolve around him. Yet Tolkien didn’t know that when he started.
God does not labor under the same limitations J.R.R. Tolkien faced. He sees the end from the beginning. He is at work through countless generations, both in terms of biology and nurture, through events that seem planned and others that seem entirely coincidental, to bring about his purpose. You can throw a civil uprising in his way, a plague or two, an ice age, a tyrant – a Caesar or Herod or Hitler or Stalin – and he will simply work those things into his plan. He is unstoppable. Unbeatable. Irresistible. He cannot be outsmarted, out-maneuvered, or outdone. When he makes a promise, nothing in heaven or on earth or under the earth can prevent him from making good on it.
No wonder St. Paul, when he thought of him, burst into praise: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”
This is the God who made the promise that one coming from Bethlehem would rule over Israel, would stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD (verse 4), and would cause people to live securely and in peace (verse 5). And remember: the God who promised to send his son the first time to Bethlehem also promised to send him a second time to make the world right. And he keeps his promises. You can depend on it. Nothing gets in his way, not even death.
A church showed a cartoon video of the crucifixion to their kindergarten children. When Jesus was buried, a little boy who knew the story turned to his buddy and said, “He’s dead now, but he’ll be back.” That boy got it: nothing can stop him. They beat him with whips. They nailed him to a cross. They hanged him in a public spectacle, horribly dehydrated and exposed to the merciless Middle Eastern sun. They ran a spear through his side and watched him bleed out. When they knew he was dead, they stuck him in a hole in the earth and covered him up. And guess what: he still he kept his promise.
So we’d better keep ours. Let’s not make promises lightly and then break them lightly. We’re the people of Jesus. Our behavior reflects on him. We show the world what he is like. We’ve made promises: let’s keep them. Promises to a spouse. Promises to the church. Promises to our friends. Promises to our kids. We’re the people of Jesus. Let’s keep our promises.
God kept his. The Baby of Bethlehem is proof.
 Robert Russell, “Resurrection Promises,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 151.