A promise is a present statement with a future commitment. “I’ll call you tomorrow” is a promise – a present statement with a future commitment. Or “I promise I’ll pay you back.” Even a lease or a cell phone contract is a promise. One of the greatest promises someone can make is to solidify love with a vow. This is the traditional wedding vow:
“I, __________, in the presence of God and these witnesses, take you, __________, to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death parts us, and I pledge you my faithfulness.”
This vow is a present statement, but it requires commitment every day. Which gets to the fact that a promise is both word and deed. A promise means you both SPEAK and DO. You say, “I will” and then you give, help, serve, love. You promise with words, and then you fulfill the promise with action in the future.
We live in a non-commital, change-your-mind-last-minute, flaky society. My father-in-law has a saying, “It’s not only what the lips say, but where the feet go.” People’s actions will either confirm or discredit their words. Words come cheap. We expect promises to be broken. It’s easy to speak a promise. But it is harder to keep a promise.
In a broken promise, you say one thing, but do another. We all struggle with things that are easy to say but hard to do. Peter’s denial of Jesus stands as a prime example of a broken promise. Matthew’s account of the story draws the clear disconnect between Peter’s word and deed. First he makes bold, uncompromising promises:
“Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away (26:33).”
“Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (26:35)
But Peter’s words come back to haunt him. Later in the night he is accused of being an associate of Jesus of Nazareth. He says:
“I don’t know what you mean” (26:70).
And twice he says, “I don’t know the man” (26:72,74).
Within a span of hours, Peter goes from, “I’ll die with you!” to “I don’t know him.” Peter’s night ends with, “and he wept bitterly” (26:75).
Broken promises have tragic consequences. It’s not just a typo or a bending of the rules. Broken promises are personal. You let someone down.
Why do we break promises? Why is it so hard to keep our word? A promise is tested when there’s a cost. Peter made promises to Jesus when he was with him and the other disciples. Matthew records the context, “When they had sung a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.” It was easy to say because he was in the company of others - safe and secure. But his promise is tested when he’s alone in a courtyard. When Jesus is not present. When his friends are gone. When he is accused.
A promise is tested when there’s a cost. Marriage is easier in health, but harder in sickness. A contract is easy to sign when there’s money, it’s hard when you’re broke. Friendship is fine when it’s fun; it’s hard when tragedy strikes. Being neighbor is easy when you don’t know your neighbors, but it’s hard when you’re invested in one another. A promise is tested when it requires sweat, blood, or tears. When it hurts. When it’s inconvenient and unpleasant. Now we’re gonna see how good your word is.
One of the striking features of Jesus’ story is that he fulfills his promise even when everyone breaks theirs. Everyone let Jesus down. Literally everyone. No one stood with him. They said one thing, but when there was a cost, they ran. They say, “I’m with you.” And they fall asleep. Betray. Deny. Run. Hide. Retreat. Lock the doors. Jesus is left all alone.
This is what makes Jesus different. His promises were proven precisely when there was a cost. When there was hell to pay. When there was blood to be hemorrhaged. When there was sweat to be dropped. When you left him. When you failed him and forgot him. The saying goes, “It’s not only what the lips say, but where the feet go.” Watch his lips, listen to his words. And then watch his feet, see his path. He calls your name and says, “I promise you.” And then you watch his bloody feet on a gravel road to a hill. This is a promise, not broken, but kept.