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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Easter Day, April 20, 2014

From This Time Forth and Forevermore!

Psalm 121; Matthew 28:1-10

              From 1984 until 1991, I served Westminster Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Westminster was set in a highly-commercial, rapidly changing neighborhood. The church was right on Broad River Road, in front of the Dutch Square Shopping Mall. Dutch Square was as well placed demographically as the former malls, Bellevue and Hickory Hollow were in Nashville! Two years ago my son Josh was in Columbia on business building a distribution center for Amazon, and he called me. “Dad,” he said, “I’ll tell you how bad things have gotten on Broad River Road. They just closed Hooters!” Every Easter we had a community sunrise service in front of the movie theater at the mall. Saint Andrew’s Lutheran, Saint Andrew’s Baptist, Virginia Wingard Methodist, All Saints Episcopal and Bethel A.M.E. churches join Westminster for what was often a huge service. In 1990, we had a hail storm followed by the prediction of rain, so we moved the service inside the mall. I arrived early and heard the brass practicing, and followed the sound to where the service was being held. And all along the way, in that still empty mall, I walked by store windows filled with finely dressed mannequins, clad in the latest fashion finery of the new spring season. Belks had both men and women decked out in their windows. J.B. White had a group of women in bright Easter colors. Dillards had the same. As I walked by them I thought, “This is the problem with too many Easters in America. We’re all dressed up for Easter; we look great. But we aren’t doing a thing in response to God’s amazing, astounding action of resurrection into our world. There’s no movement, no life, no passion, not enough joy or enthusiasm.” Like those mannequins, we don’t seem to care that Christ is risen.

             Two weeks ago, Connie and I went with Miller and Turner to the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica for Turner’s thirtieth birthday celebration. The Osa Peninsula is what National Geographic calls “the most intensely bio-diverse part of the earth,” hosting 3 percent of the world’s biodiversity in .1 percent of the earth’s land mass. One morning we got up a for a five-thirty bird watching guided tour. (For most of you, that is no big deal. But for Connie to get up that early is a miracle of Easter proportions!) Our guide was Herardo Orosco, who is a twenty-seven-year-old Costa Rican who loves nature. His passion and enthusiasm for his work were remarkable. He had a little scope set on a tripod, and he would set that thing right on some species of bird, and tell us what we were about to see. “Sir,” he would say, “this is a Swallow-tailed Kite. This is fantastic!” Or, “Sir, get the Mrs.! Here is a Southern Lapwing, the only crested wader in Central America. It is fantastic!” (I thought, “Wow! The only crested wader in Central America!”) Or, “Sir! Here in the same creek are three species of egrets – the Cattle Egret, the Snowy Egret and the Great Egret! They are fantastic!” “Sir! Bring the Mrs.! Here is a Tiger-throated Heron – they can kill and eat baby alligators with their beaks, they are so powerful. Look at it. This is fantastic!” Then in a few moments, “Sir! Here is a pair of Scarlet Macaws, the largest parrot in the world. They mate for a lifetime, and they travel in pairs. They have lived for seventy years. They are fantastic!”

             I loved all that Herardo knew about birds and three-toed sloths and Costa Rica’s four species of monkeys. But even more, I loved his passion, his sheer joy, his enthusiasm for life that is everywhere to be seen. I found myself thinking: “I want to be as passionate about Jesus as Herardo is about birds!”

             If a Scarlet Macaw or a Tiger-throated Heron is worthy of joyous passion and enthusiasm, how much more is the resurrection of someone from the grave worth celebrating?! One thing for sure, there is no absence of passion and life among the women who came to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus with burial spices sometime before the dawn on that first Easter. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” came on a mission that was all about death. They brought burial spices, John tells us one hundred pounds of them! Instead, they were greeted with “a great earthquake” and “an angel of the Lord” who descended, rolling back the stone and was sitting upon it. “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.” The soldiers quaked before him, and “became like dead men.” Karl Barth points out that angels have been absent in Matthew’s Gospel since they visited Joseph with the news of Jesus’ birth, and then visited Jesus in the wilderness of His temptations. Now an angelic visitor returns at the empty tomb. And in that place of death, his announcement is all about life. “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. Come, see the place where He lay. Then go quickly and tell His disciples.”

             This is not a word about human capacities or possibilities. Matthew wants us to know that this is a God-thing, that God is acting in the face of death to do something altogether new. God acts at the boundary of life that we call death to do something breathtaking, something bold and new. We call it resurrection, and it is most assuredly a message of life trumping death.

             Resurrection means a lot of things, but this Easter, please do not miss that it means freedom from fear. “Do not be afraid!” is the first word that the angel of the Lord utters. And when Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” encounter the risen Christ, Jesus’ word is the same: “Do not be afraid. Go, tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” We have heard this angelic word before. When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary with the news that she has found favor with God, and will give birth to a son whose name will be great, the first word he offers is “Do not be afraid!” And when the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night,” and they are “sore afraid,” the angel’s first word is “Do not be afraid!” “Do not be afraid” seems to be an angel’s calling card. It is how you know you have been visited by an angel of the Lord.

             When I was a child and was afraid of the dark or frightened by a terrible storm, I would run down the hall to my mother and father’s room and sometimes would crawl into their bed. They would hold me close and stroke me and say, “There is nothing to be afraid of, Todd, everything is going to be all right.” And I would believe them. But that seems a very long time ago. And for adults, fears are so much more complex and words of reassurance harder to come by. Life is hard, and as Hemingway says, “life breaks everyone.” No human being can say, “Do not be afraid” with any real authority because who really knows what the future holds? I know people today in tough, uncertain places. When Jesus or an angel says, “Do not be afraid,” they do not mean that nothing can go wrong, or that everything will be all right. Things can go wrong and often do. And not everything always turns out all right. No, when Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” He is speaking with the authority of God, offering the assurance that whatever may happen, whatever may come, God will strengthen and uphold us; that whatever we must face, God will be with us, we will not have to face it alone. This is the final promise of Psalm 121, and it may be the best promise of all: “The Lord will keep thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth and forever more.” Jesus’ “Do not be afraid” is the promise that nothing we encounter is stronger than God’s love, and that nothing is over until God says it is. God always holds the last word, and in Jesus, it is the best word of all. Only God can offer such a word of assurance. And in Jesus Christ, whom God raised from death to life, God does offer this word: “Do not be afraid.”

             Easter offers freedom from every human fear. “May you fear God so much, that you fear nothing else at all.”

             You need not fear even death, because Easter is a forever reality. The second great gift of Easter is the promise of eternity. The promise of Easter is that we need not fear the future, that we can even look death square in the eye and not blink. A number of years ago a cartoon in the New Yorker showed a fellow outside the pearly gates of heaven. The man is surrounded by angels, but Saint Peter is scanning the list rather forlornly for his name. He cannot seem to find it! The man is sweating, and finally, the caption reads, “Do you by any chance take MasterCard?” Friends, you cannot buy your way into heaven! You cannot earn your way into eternity. You get to heaven by the power and the passion of God that raised Jesus Christ. It is the power of forgiving, redeeming, resurrection love. Forever comes as gift and grace to those who know the truth of Good Friday and Easter, of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Not everyone knows this, sadly.

             Marilyn Monroe did not know this Easter faith, and caught up in a destructive life where she grew hopelessly lost, in 1962 she overdosed on barbiturates and lay in a coma. Her former husband, playwright Arthur Miller, was heartbroken. He would later write, “I thought, if only she would awaken just for a moment. What if she would look me in the eye and say, ‘Arthur, is there any hope?’ I wished I could have told her something, but I knew I had no saving mystery to offer her.”

             How about you? If someone asked you, “Is there any hope?” would you have anything to offer? The Good News of Easter is that we do have “a saving mystery to offer!” His name is Jesus Christ, the crucified One whom the earliest believers encountered as Risen and alive forevermore. Indeed, “ahead” is where you will always meet Jesus. That is what the angels promised. “He has been raised from the dead. Indeed, He is going ahead into Galilee; there you will see Him.” Jesus goes “ahead” of us into every Galilee, into every tomorrow that we must face. This is the witness of the earliest Christians, and it is the heart and soul of the Gospel ever since.

             Debbie Blue is a pastor/theologian who lives on a farm in the wilds of Minnesota. She is deeply interested in living off the earth and in sustainable lifestyle practices. She marvels at the miracle that is God’s created order. She loves wood frogs. Wood frogs bury themselves in dead leaves as winter approaches. They actually stop breathing during hibernation, and their hearts stop beating. Ice crystals form in their bodies. A wood frog can be up to 65 percent frozen! But come spring, they come alive again. How is this not miraculous? And if the Creator God can do this with wood frogs every year, then why can’t this same God have raised Jesus sometime before the dawn from death to glorious life?

             The Easter Gospel is nothing less than the angel’s word to the two women. They ran from “the tomb quickly with fear and great joy” to tell the other disciples. That Easter act of faith has not stopped since. For two millennia believers have shared this great Good News that Christ is risen as He said. Death has lost its power over any life lived by the power of this resurrection faith. We can be free from fear, and free to live forever. “He will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forth, and even forevermore.”

             Free from fear, free to live forever! “Sir! Get the Mrs.! I tell you, this is FANTASTIC!” Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

                                                                                     Amen!

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