The God Who Keeps Promises

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
April 8, 2012

Easter Sunday

John 20:1-18 

          I wish you could have heard the conversation at “Preacher’s Club” last week.  That’s what I call my Tuesday morning coffee with a few of the local pastors.  We get together and talk about what we’re going to preach the following Sunday and last week we were talking about what it’s like to preach on Easter Sunday.  There is more than one school of thought on this.  Some in the group said you should preach your best sermon of the year, because this is the one Sunday when everybody comes to church, and if you preach a really good sermon they might decide to come back the next week.  But others said it doesn’t matter what you preach.  You could read out of the phone book as far as that goes, because people don’t come for the preaching; they come simply because it’s the Easter Sunday thing to do.  So I’ve spent some time trying to make up my mind in the past few days: do I try to preach my best sermon of the year or do I just get up here and read out of the phone book?  It’s a big decision.  In the end I decided to do the best I could and let the sermon fall where it may on that broad spectrum between phone book and phenomenal.

          Part of the problem, of course, is that on Easter Sunday you already know what the preacher is going to say.  At some point he’s going to tell you, “Christ is risen!”  But by the time he says it you’ve already heard it or sung it a half dozen times.  It’s old news by then.  And if the truth be told it was old news before you got to church this morning, before you were even born.  This is 2,000-year-old news, and I don’t care how good a preacher you are, it’s hard to make it fresh again.  I was thinking about how it would be if, just before I came to church this morning, I learned that a cure for cancer had been discovered.  Suppose I heard it just as I was tying my tie, that a drug had been developed that would safely and effectively cure cancer, and not only cure those who already had the disease, but keep others from getting it, so that by the year 2015 cancer would be a thing of the past.  Can you imagine how I would have come to church this morning?  I wouldn’t be able to wait until it was time to preach.  I would come to the pulpit as soon as I could to tell you, “Good news, friends!  They’ve discovered a cure for cancer!”

          Some of you may remember April 12, 1955, when a cure for polio was announced.  Until that day polio had been the most frightening disease of the post-World War II era.  It was a plague that swept across the country every summer, claiming the lives of thousands of people—mostly children—and leaving tens of thousands more crippled.  One reporter claimed that “Apart from the atomic bomb, America’s greatest fear was polio.”  But then came the news: after seven years of tireless research Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine that had been declared both safe and effective.  A cure had been found.  Paul Offit writes: “By the time [the announcement was over] church bells were ringing across the country, factories were observing moments of silence, synagogues and churches were holding prayer meetings, and parents and teachers were weeping…It was as if a war had ended.”[i]

          So imagine the reaction if I could tell you this morning that a cure for cancer had been discovered.  Cancer!  A disease that kills and cripples millions more people every year than polio ever did.  That would be good news, wouldn’t it?  We wouldn’t be able to contain ourselves!  This place would erupt in celebration.  Becky Payne would start playing the Hallelujah chorus (even if it wasn’t in the bulletin), the choir would start to sing along, someone would go out there and ring the bell, and the rest of us would pour out onto Monument Avenue looking for someone who hadn’t heard yet so we could grab them by the shoulders, look into their eyes, and say, “Good news, friend.  They’ve found a cure for cancer!”  Historian William O’Neill says that when the cure for polio was announced April 12th almost became a national holiday.  In the years that followed, “People observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, fired salutes, blew factory whistles, took the rest of the day off, closed schools…drank toasts, hugged children, attended church, smiled at strangers, and forgave enemies.”[ii]

          But they don’t do that anymore, do they?  April 12th is not a national holiday.  If I stood here this morning and told you that a cure for polio had been discovered some of you would remember that day and smile, others would look confused, wondering what I was talking about, still others would simply yawn and stretch.  It’s old news; it happened 57 years ago.  How much more when the news is nearly two thousand years old?  And so we adjust our expectations.  We don’t come to church on Easter Sunday to hear the news; we come to observe a religious holiday.  We put on our nicest clothes, squeeze into a crowded pew, breathe in the aroma of Easter lilies, sing “Christ the Lord is risen today,” and listen to a sermon about the Resurrection.  But when the last hymn has been sung and the benediction pronounced we may stroll out onto Monument Avenue, we may join the others who have turned out for “Easter on Parade,” we may smile at the dogs wearing bunny ears, and nod at people sitting on their front porches, we may even get up the nerve to say “Happy Easter!” to a complete stranger.  But we probably won’t grab anybody by the shoulders, look them in the eye, and say, “Have you heard?  Have you heard the good news?  Christ is risen!”

          It’s good news, but it’s old news; it doesn’t have the impact it once did. 

          But I’ve been thinking about the Resurrection in these last few days, just as you would expect me to, and here’s what I’ve been thinking: that the Resurrection is even more newsworthy than a cure for cancer.  A cure for cancer might keep some people from dying, or from dying sooner than they should, but resurrection is a cure for death itself, of which cancer, and polio, and every other disease is only a symptom.  Think about it: the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t good news only because Jesus, who died, was alive again, but because death itself had been defeated.  A cure had been discovered.  And the news spread everywhere.  It’s come to us—across the miles and through the years—and it was such good news that even today, 2,000 years later, we celebrate the Resurrection.  Because here’s the truth: you may not have lost anybody to cancer, you may not know anybody who had polio as a child, but every one of us knows somebody who has died, every one of us has lost somebody to death, and for some of us on this Easter morning those losses are painfully fresh.  It’s to you especially that I want to say, “I’ve got good news friends.  We’ve discovered a cure for death!”

          During the Season of Lent I’ve been talking about the God who makes promises, but today I want to talk about the God who keeps promises.  It seems clear that in the resurrection of Jesus the writers of the New Testament found the fulfillment of a promise made long before: that God “would not let his Holy One see corruption”[iii] But when I look at the promises God has made and kept through the years it seems clear that God doesn’t want anyone to see corruption, doesn’t want his world to see it.  In the promises he makes and keeps God seems to be working toward the redemption of all creation. 

          You remember that in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he looked on what he had made and called it good.  And when he made humankind in his image, both male and female, he looked on them and called it very good.  But it seems that humankind has been bent on wrecking God’s good creation ever since.  And here’s the problem: God made us free.  He gave us the freedom to choose for him or against him.  If he hadn’t he could have put on the best puppet show nobody had ever seen.  He could have danced us across the stage of history and made us do whatever he wanted.  But instead he made us free, and from the beginning we have used our freedom to do not what he wanted, but what we wanted. 

          And yet he has never given up on us.

          When Adam and Eve did what he told them not to do he could have given them the death sentence.  But he didn’t.  He gave them a life sentence.  He put them outside the Garden of Eden and urged them to make a life for themselves.  It wasn’t the kind of life he had wanted for them, but under the circumstances it seemed generous.  They did the best they could, Adam earning his living by the sweat of his brow, Eve laboring painfully to bring children into the world.  But their children seemed to have the same disobedient spirit they did.  Cain killed his brother Abel and roamed the earth as a fugitive.  Adam and Eve’s other children fared a little better, but only a little.  A few generations into the project God looked on what he had made and shook his head with sorrow.  It seemed that evil was all these people could think about.  With a heavy heart he decided to purge the world and start over again with Noah, a good man, who might give rise to a whole new kind of humanity.  But it wasn’t the way God had wanted it, and after the flood he came to Noah promising, “Never again.”

          We might hope that the story got better from there, but it didn’t.  It turns out that Noah’s descendants were no better than anybody else.  Soon they were trying to build a tower with its top in the heavens so they could climb up there, drag God off his throne, and take his place.  In a pre-emptive measure God mixed up their languages, scattered them far and wide, and chose one man, Abram, to be the father of one family among all the families of the earth that would be uniquely his.  He made a promise to Abram that if he would only love him and trust him God would give him descendants like the sands of the sea, like the stars in the sky.  Abram did, and God kept his promise.  Generations later he came to the descendants of Abram in the desert and said, “If you will be my people, I will be your God.”  It was a promise, but while God kept his part of the covenant the people did not keep theirs.  Eventually God left them to themselves, let the Babylonians conquer them and carry them off into exile.  It may have been the best thing that could have happened to them, because in all that time, and in all the years that followed, they wondered what they had done wrong and how they could make things right. 

          So when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, telling them to repent and be baptized as a way of getting ready for the one who was to come, they did it.  All of Jerusalem and Judea came down to be baptized by John in the Jordan.  Jesus came, and when he came up out of the water the heavens were torn apart, and a dove fluttered down, and the voice of God thundered, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Again, not everybody believed it.  Some people used their human freedom to ignore Jesus, to turn against him, to arrest him, try him, and crucify him.  That might have been the end of it right there.  God might have washed his hands as Pilate did and said, “Enough of these people.  They deserve whatever they get!”  But God wouldn’t give up and didn’t give up.  Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, he raised Jesus from the dead and said, “Now I’m throwing the doors open to everybody, and not only the children of Abraham.  You don’t have to believe in my son but if you do I will give you life everlasting.  I promise.” 

          We’ve been living on that promise ever since, haven’t we?  We believe that in Jesus we have discovered a cure for death, that he really is, as he said to Martha, “the Resurrection and the life,” and that whoever believes in him, even if that person should die, will live again (John 11:25).  We’ve been living on that promise but we’ve seen far too many people die, and so far we haven’t seen any come back to life.  We need to know that God is not only a God who makes promises, but who keeps them.  I believe that he is, and here is the evidence I would offer: that God could have annihilated us long ago, but he didn’t.  He seems intent, not on destroying his creation, but on saving it.  Time and time again, when we have used our human freedom to twist and pull down the good things God has made he builds them up again, and the Apostle Paul would say that he is building toward something.  In Romans 8 Paul says,

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (vss. 18-25, NRSV). 

          We have used our human freedom to destroy what God has made, but Paul says one of these days God is going to use his divine freedom to redeem it, and that he has plans to redeem all of it.  Paul, who had encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, said that there was still more to come.  He urged the Romans to wait with hope for the wonderful thing that might be just around the next bend—the redemption of all creation.

          I talked with someone not long ago who had lost a beloved pet and who asked me if I thought all dogs go to heaven.  I said, “Yes, I do.  All good dogs, anyway” (smile).  And then I pointed to this passage in Romans 8 as proof.  “Paul says that one of these days ‘the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’” (vs. 21). So, not only dogs but cats, birds, elephants, beavers, ostriches, and antelopes, pine trees, poppies, Easter lilies, lilacs, cacti and tulips, mountains, valleys, prairies, deserts, oceans, lakes and streams—all of creation “will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). 

          In the Book of Revelation John says he saw a new heaven and a new earth, and he heard a voice from heaven saying, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).  There at the very end of the Bible you begin to get this feeling that everything—from the beginning until now—has been moving toward that moment when God will use his divine freedom to make the world what he has always wanted it to be, a place where there will no longer be any death, no longer any mourning, or crying, or pain (vs. 4).  You get the feeling that God has made and kept all these promises to us along the way as a way of moving toward the big promise—that he will one day redeem all of creation.  And Easter is our best evidence of this: because if God can do this—if he can take the cold, lifeless, bloody, broken, dead and buried body of his beloved son and breathe new life into it—then he can take the ruined, twisted, wreckage of all creation and redeem it in ways we can only imagine.  He can make a whole new heaven and earth out of it.  So, on Easter Sunday we might say, “Good news, everybody!  In the resurrection of Jesus we have found a cure for death!”  But we might also say, “And that’s not the half of it.  We believe that the God who makes and keeps promises is going to keep this one.  He’s going to use his divine freedom to redeem all of creation.  One of these days, early in the morning, while it is till dark, he’s going to get up, roll up his sleeves, and make a whole new heaven and earth.  He’s going to provide a cure… for everything!”

          And that’s a promise.

—Jim Somerville 2012

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonas_Salk

[ii] Ibid (with some poetic license taken in the arrangement of events).

[iii] Psalm 16:10, quoted in Acts 2:27 and 13:35.



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