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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Easter Day, April 5, 2015

 Forever is a Long, Long Time

Psalm 23; Matthew 28:1-10

              During this Lenten season, we have been looking carefully at the 23rd Psalm, savoring the beauty and truth it holds for us.  So on Easter Day, how fitting it is that we come to its final, concluding words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  Easter, of course, is all about the question of where we shall dwell for eternity, so it is a powerful truth to affirm this Easter Day.

Maybe the best way to talk about the wonder of Easter is by way of a parable.  A certain landowner had vast holdings and one son, who was the apple of his eye, his reason for being.  One of his tenants was causing trouble, so the landowner resolved to offer help.  He cut their rent, and found a new mobile home so they had a clean, decent place to live.  He went out to teach them how to farm their small parcel of land, and gave them seed to plant and some old farm machinery.

Folks thought he was a fool, but he believed that given a chance, he could change their lives.  But news came back that they were not really working, that they sold off the machinery, and were not taking care of the mobile home.  The landowner sent out the county agent and then his own foreman, but nothing seemed to change, and things only got worse till they started stealing from his other tenants.

He was ready to give up on them and evict them, when his son pleaded, “Dad, I think I can reach them; I think they’ll listen to me.  I’ve always liked them, and maybe I can get them to listen.  Please, give me a chance!”  And so, with no small misgivings, he sent out his son to help where he had failed.  When the day passed, he went out to see what was happening, and arrived to find his boy strung up out back, hanging from a tree, where they had tortured him.

The father was devastated, feeling a primal rage inside, wanting to repay these horrible, ungrateful rogues for what they had done. And even in my parable, if I had the power to raise this boy from the dead and send him back to live in such a world, I doubt that I would want to do such a thing.

Yet, my friends, this is what the event we celebrate at Easter is all about!  The miracle of Easter is not just that God could raise His Son, His only Son, from the grave.  The truly amazing miracle of Easter is that after what we did to His Son, that God would want to!  That God would still have mercy upon and hope for the human family is the real miracle and Good News of Easter.

Yet even one thousand years before Jesus Christ, King David sensed something of the astounding goodness and mercy that beats in the heart of the eternal!  “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

John Calvin said the most significant word in the last verse of Psalm 23 is the first one: “Surely.”  David, whose sins were profound and humiliatingly public, was sure, utterly certain of God’s goodness and mercy.  David, in his own sin and brokenness, had peered into the heart of the Eternal, and found there a goodness and mercy that would follow him all the days of his life.  Actually, the word for “follow” in this passage also can mean “pursue.”  “Surely, goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.”

In Matthew 28, the angel of the Lord promised the women at the empty tomb: “Behold, Jesus is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him.”  In other words, not only does God’s goodness and mercy pursue us, but it also is always going out ahead of us, into every Galilee we will ever have to face.  God’s mercy follows us and is always ahead of us.  We are surrounded by the goodness and mercy of God all the days of our life!  Is this a mercy that you know?  Do you sense on this Easter Day how deeply and completely God loves you?

This is the great promise of this Psalm, and the promise of Easter faith.  But it goes even further, for David concludes, “and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  Easter addresses the question that every human being raises – the question of death.  “What will happen to me when I die?”  “Will there be a place for me?”  “Where do we go, if anywhere, when death finally makes its certain claim upon us?”

Of course, in almost every book of the New Testament, the early witness of the Church, these questions are addressed.  In Matthew, it is the women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who went to the tomb.  What they encountered was completely unexpected and overwhelming – resurrection always is.  It is not the budding of flowers in the springtime after the dead of winter.  Resurrection is the work of a God who promises to make all things new.  It is the intrusion of God to do something no one else could do.  The angel the women encounter says, “Do not be afraid; I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for He has been raised, as He said.”  Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”  For Paul, Jesus’ resurrection prefigures and is the promise of our own.  John offers even more comfort, and even more of an answer to death’s certain visit.  In John, Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there you will be also.”  It is because of his faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus that Paul could say that nothing – neither death nor life, nor things present, or things to come – will be able to separate us from the love of God found in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” said David.  And forever is a long, long time!  What David was pointing to was hope.  Even one thousand years prior to Jesus, he understood that God is Lord of both life and death, and that nothing can separate us from the goodness and mercy of God that follows us all our days.

As a boy, I remember vividly how we would spend Easter Day.  It was a long day for us.  Dad would wake Luther and me early, so we could attend the Father-Son breakfast before sunrise at our church.  Then we would return home and open our Easter baskets, and hunt for Easter eggs.  I, of course, would get my already hyperactive little body into overdrive with all the chocolate I would inhale!  Then it was off to church, where I still can smell the lilies, and see them lined up so perfectly across the front of the chancel.  After church, it was outside for pictures, in our Sunday best, with our Easter baskets, always in front of the same blue spruce tree each and every year.  (Those pictures record some of the worst fashions!)  Then we would all pile into the car and head to my Uncle Dick and Aunt Betty’s, where my grandmother and cousins would join us. Usually, we would get ahold of still more chocolate, so by then, I was rocketing off the walls!  Then we would sit down to a wonderful dinner, and after dinner, we would gather around the piano to sing hymns, always including, Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.  Finally, we would all sit down to watch the Ed Sullivan Show, and somewhere between the Romanian jugglers and Topo Gigio, I would crash and fall sound asleep.  I don’t think I ever made it home once, my body was so exhausted from the sugar overdose.  What I remember next was waking up in my bed at home.  Although I never thought about it back then, I have thought about it a great deal since – about how I got home to wake up in my bed.  I know now that when it was time to leave, my father would pick my sleeping body up and carry me out to the back of those old Ford station wagons.  (No car seats, no seatbelts!)  I have done it with my own kids, and so have many of you.  My father lovingly lifted me from those cars and carried me upstairs and placed me into my bed.  And I also know this: that old Easter memory is more than a memory; it is a message, a parable about eternal life and resurrection.

Because when death comes, “when the shadows lengthen, and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and our work is done,” when we finally fall asleep in the night and enter into death – then Christ will come to carry us home to our heavenly Father.  We do not know exactly how this will happen, just as we do not know exactly how God raised Jesus – but we rest in these witnesses that it did happen, and we rest in the hope that it will happen for you and me.

Our great Easter hope is that when we close our eyes for the last time in death, we shall open them on the first morning of eternity, and we shall be home, and see our Lord face-to-face.  We shall be with the Lord, and with “all the saints, who from their labors rest.”  We “shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  For this Jesus is not dead.  “Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!”  So with David, let us rejoice!  “Surely, surely; goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever!”  And forever, dear friends, is a long, long time.

Amen.

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April 5th 2015 from First Presbyterian Church on Vimeo.

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