Mark 6:14-29

Promises, Promises

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

The sermon this morning is about promises—rash promises, promises made with every good intention, and … let’s just say it outright: broken promises. We’ll begin with rash promises, since that’s what the gospel lesson is about this morning. Have you ever made a rash promise? Promised something you wished you could take back? Said something on impulse that, no sooner than the words were out of your mouth, you knew you’d made a big mistake?

Once there was a man in a park who saw some girls jumping rope.  He thought he’d have some fun.  So, he walked over and challenged them to a contest.  He tied a ribbon to the middle of the rope, scratched a line in the dirt and said, “I’ll give a quarter a piece to the team that can pull the ribbon over to their side of the line.”  With that, he stepped back to watch the girls pull and tug against each other.

Turns out, he was in for a big surprise.  The girls divided into two teams, picked up each end of the rope, and began to sing an upbeat little song.  Then they began to dance.  As they did, they took three steps forward and three steps back, three steps forward and three steps back.  Each time, the ribbon passed over to the other side and, each time it did, they racked up another quarter a piece.  When the man saw what they were doing, he shouted, “Stop, stop, if you keep that up you’re going to break me!”

Rash promises.  We’ve all made them, haven’t we?

Herod was no exception.  He threw a big party to celebrate his birthday and invited all of the dignitaries to come – “high officials, military commanders and the leading men of Galilee,” we’re told. (Mark 6:21)

At the height of the celebration, his step-daughter made her entrance.  We’re not told her name or anything else about her.  All Mark says is that “she came in to dance, and she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.” (Mark 6:22)

It must have been some kind of dance, for, when it was over, Herod blurted out for all to hear, “Ask me anything you want, and I’ll give it to you … up to half my kingdom!”   I can just imagine the other men applauding and raising their cups high in the air and shouting, “Hear, hear!”
It was a rash promise.  But then, so what?  What could a young woman like his step-daughter possibly want from him?  A new wardrobe?  Precious jewels?   A new sports chariot?  He wasn’t worried.

She ran out to find her mother. “What shall I ask for?”  Her mother, having nursed bitter contempt for John the Baptist because he condemned her for her adultery, said, “Go back and tell Herod to give you the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Mark 6:24)

When she came back to the banquet hall, a hush fell over the crowd.  It was a moment of high drama.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Herod had said she could have anything she wanted – up to half of the kingdom.  What would she ask for?  Everyone leaned forward to hear.

She stood before Herod and said, “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Mark 6:25)

Herod’s heart sank.  True, John had disgraced him publicly because he had stolen his brother, Philip’s, wife.  John was Herod’s nemesis – a nuisance – a pain in the … well, in the back side.  Herod put him in prison to shut him up, but he had no intention of killing him.

Yet, he’d made a promise, and everyone heard it.  To renege on his word would be to lose face.  He’d never be able to live it down.  So, he bit the bullet and sent an executioner to do the deed.  In no time, he came back with John’s head on a platter, dripping with blood.

Rash promises.  We all make them.  What are you going to do about it?  If you turn to God, God will give you the strength of character to man-up and admit your mistake.

Herod was not a man of faith, of course.  His only strength was his own self-will and the approval of others.  As such, he had no other choice but to make good on his promise.

Not so for those who call upon the Lord.  “God is our strength,” the Psalmist says, “a very present help in time of trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)

Listen: If all you’ve got to go on is your own ability to figure out what to do … or the advice of others to tell you what they think … or the approval of others to root you on and tell you what a good job you’re doing … you’re in big trouble.

When you find yourself over your head in promises and commitments you never should have made and can’t possibly keep, God will give you the strength to admit it, if you’re willing to ask.

Remember that the next time you bid a hundred dollars for an Italian Cream Cake at the Lion’s Club auction and, when you go to pay out, the hundred-dollar bill in your wallet turns out to be a twenty.
God is on your side, and that’s all that really matters.

But not all promises are rash promises.  Sometimes we make promises thoughtfully with every good intention of keeping our word.  It’s just that sometimes things don’t always work out as we planned.
Several years ago, a wealthy West Texas oilman pledged something like seven million dollars to his college alma mater for a new alumni center.  No sooner than he’d made the pledge, the price of oil dropped.  He found himself sucking air, as the old drillers like to say.  When it came time to pony up, he couldn’t come up with the money.

What did he do?  He went straight to the top and made no bones about it.  “”I can give you three, maybe four million now,” he said.  “If you’ll give me time, I’ll make good on the rest.”  They took his donation and said he could have all the time he needed.  In time, oil prices rebounded. He recovered his losses and paid off the pledge in full.  To this day, his name is legend … not only because of his generosity, but because he was man enough to admit his shortfall and ask for help.

If you’re willing to act in faith, God will give you the humility to negotiate and compromise in such a way as to keep your word and fulfill your promise.

Jesus told his disciples, “If your enemy is taking you to court, try to settle it on the way. If you don’t, your enemy might take you to the judge, and the judge might turn you over to the officer, and the officer might throw you into jail; in which case, you will not get out of there until you have paid everything you owe.” (Luke 12:57-59)

Put the shoe on the other foot: If someone promised you something he couldn’t deliver, would you rather see him squirm or come to you and offer to work things out, to the best of his ability?

Again, Herod was handicapped – he didn’t have the strength of the Lord to lean on.  His power was of this world.  How could he – mighty King Herod – stoop to negotiate with a young woman who had no rank, except that she happened to be his wife’s daughter?

The bigger your pride, the harder it is to eat crow.  But if you’re willing to humble yourself and call on the Lord, God will give you the strength to face those you’ve promised and work together to fulfill your good intentions.

But what about broken promises?  Can you expect to be forgiven when you’ve given your word and you don’t keep it?

I believe so.  I believe God’s grace is sufficient, not only to help you fulfill your promises, but, at times, to embrace you even when you fail … and renege … and default on a promise.

I hasten to say this is serious business, and we ought not take it lightly.  At the very least, we ought to be clear: God’s grace does not give us license to act irresponsibly.  When you make a promise, you ought to do everything you can to keep it.  It’s just that there are times when that’s nearly impossible to do.

Consider this: A young woman applies for a prestigious position.  She submits her résumé, is subjected to a lengthy vetting process, goes through several interviews and is selected over a number of other well-qualified candidates.  By the time she starts her new job, the employer has invested a ton of time and money in her.

On several occasions the question of longevity comes up; each time she makes it clear:  “I’m looking for a long-term relationship.”  Yet, within the first three months she realizes that she has made a mistake.  This job is not for her.  She can do it, all right, but it’s not fulfilling … and it never will be.
What are her choices?  To stay the course would be a disservice to herself – she’d die on the vine – but to quit this early in the game will be a big disappointment – and a big loss – to her employer.
Here’s another example:  A young man goes off to college.  All his life he has aspired to be a lawyer, like his father.  “Son, get your degree, go to law school, pass the board, and there will be a place for you in the firm,” he’s told.

So, off he goes to get his education.  But, wouldn’t you know it, he takes psychology 101 and, in his heart, he knows this is where he belongs.  He’s a people person with understanding and compassion and a heart for others.

He wants to be a social worker, not a lawyer, but he knows it will break his father’s heart.  Besides, implicitly he promised his father to pursue a law degree.  Can he responsibly go back on his word?
Here’s one more:  A young couple meet at summer camp, fall in love and get married.  Everyone says they’re a perfect match, and, in many ways, they are.  But after years of trying to build a strong marriage, they find themselves drifting farther and farther apart.

They seek counseling, yet, try as they may, the two never become one, as scripture promises.  They get along O.K.  It’s not as if they fight all the time.  Actually, they’re considerate and civil to each other.  You could say they’re friends.  What they lack is intimacy.  She feels it, and so does he; yet, no matter how hard they try, it just doesn’t happen.

When they got married, they took a vow: “Until death us do part.”  So, now what … gut it out to the grave?  That’s not what a healthy marriage is all about.  But, then, neither is divorce.

These are but three examples out the book of real life.  They illustrate how, sometimes, the most thoughtful promises made with the best intentions can be difficult, if not impossible, to keep.
In situations like these God’s grace can give you strength and courage, and yes, permission to fail and not keep the promises you’ve made.

Again, I hasten to say this is no license to take the easy way out.  It simply recognizes that there are circumstances in which there are no easy answers and others are likely to be disappointed and hurt, no matter what you decide.

Let’s wrap it up: When it comes to making promises, we all fall short of the mark.  We make rash promises we regret … and promises made with every good intention we can’t keep … and promises that, in the end, that turn out to broken promises we can’t do much about.

The Good News is our hope is not in promises made or promises kept, but in the One whose promises are steadfast and sure, Jesus Christ.  He promised his disciples,

  • “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
  • “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me will neither hunger, nor will he thirst.”(John 6:35)
  •  “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
  • “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and, if anyone lives and believes in me, he shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)

Check it out.  The gospels are full of promises Jesus made to his disciples, and I’m here to tell you they’re just as valid today for those who put their faith in him.  Our opening hymn says it best:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

Friends, put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Trust his word.  Stand on his promises.  And may his grace give you strength to make promises you can keep and keep the promises you have made.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2013 Philip McLarty.  Used by permission.