I want to tell you the 100% true story of a conversation I had with my (then) seven-year-old son. For reasons that my wife and I couldn’t explain, he had a fear of dying. Yes, I know that sounds completely reasonable, but this isn’t the usual sort of being afraid to die that many of us have, in that he wasn’t afraid of pain or process; it was more like… a fear of no longer existing; a nihilistic, existential crisis. I discovered that he had a very clinical, thoroughly biological understanding of death: that when we die, we are henceforth no longer functional. The reason he feared death was that he believed he would no longer be able to do the things he loved to do, or see the people he loved to see. “If I die,” he’s day, “I won’t be able to see you and mommy anymore.” Death meant no longer being able to see. While our son could conceptualize no longer being alive, he equated it with no longer existing, reaching the logical conclusion that death was infinitely worse than life.
This is precisely the kind of fear that the Gospel of Jesus Christ best addresses. I told him that it’s only our bodies that die; that our essential selves continue to commune with God, and that the Bible tells us that someday God will give us our bodies back. We’re not just gone forever; we continue to live, we continue to love, we continue to see.
I opened a Bible—or, to be more precise, I opened a Bible app on my iPad—and turned to the book of Revelation. From there, I read,
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humanity. He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’” (Rev. 21:1-4, CEB).
“Do you understand what this means?” I asked my son. He shook his head. “This means that God is promising us that even after we die, we continue to live with God; and where God is, no one ever dies, or feels pain, or cries about anything.”
As I watched him weigh this information for its truth, I asked him, “Do you know what happened on Easter? Do you know why we celebrate Easter?” Again, he shook his head. “Well, Jesus died on a Friday—we call it Good Friday—but then on Sunday, he came back to life; and after a while he went to live with God. And because he came back to life, that’s how we know that God’s promise that we’ll come back to life is true.”
“God always keeps his promises,” he said matter-of-factly, having been assured of this before.
“Yes he does,” I said, “and we know his promise is true, because it has already happened to Jesus.”
Finally, we talked about how we can thank God for this wonderful promise when we pray, and by being good people in the way that Jesus taught his followers to be good.
Psalm 118 is a psalm that seems tailor-made for Easter Sunday. It includes the most exultant of lines: “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” Could any other phrase in the book of Psalms better capture the pure joy of that first Easter morning? As I read the psalm, I thought of my conversation with the young boy, who was afraid of death until he heard about God’s promise. “I shall not die—no, I will live and declare what the Lord has done… I thank you because you answered me, and have become my salvation.”
Psalm 118 is actually the lectionary Psalm for both Palm Sunday and Easter, since it also includes the words “Hosanna” (or “save us” in English) and “blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!” In other words, as the crowd waved palm branches at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, they were singing Psalm 118. This is not surprising, since it happens to be one of the psalms traditionally sung during the Jewish holiday of Passover. Martin Luther said that this was his favorite psalm, and that it had helped him out of messes through which all the kings horses and all the kings men could never have helped him. (Those are my words, not his.)
In its original context, the psalm recalls God’s saving help, and was used by pilgrims flocking to the temple in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, because it evokes God’s saving help of his people during their flight from Egypt. It opens with the point of the whole psalm: “Give thank to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.” Then the king describes his circumstances: he was distressed, and God responded. He was surrounded by enemies, but in the strength of the Lord, those enemies were defeated. “The Lord is my strength and my might,” he declares. “He has become my salvation.” Now the king has come to God’s holy temple in order to give thanks. “Open to me the gates of the temple, that I may go in and give thanks to the Lord!”
But the priests interject: “This is the gate of the Lord, only the righteous can enter through it.” Apparently, this didn’t stop the king; he goes on extolling the Lord. But what is most striking is what he says while extolling the Lord. “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.”
Reading this psalm in the context of Easter, it takes on an added weight. For on Easter, we remember that the greatest enemy of humankind is death itself and its effort permanently to separate us from God’s love. As the psalmist writes, “I was attacked so fiercely I nearly died, but the Lord helped me. The Lord was my strength and protection; he has become my salvation… I will not die—no, I will live and declare what the Lord has done. Yes, the Lord definitely disciplined me, but he didn’t hand me over to death.”
“I will not die—no, I will live.” The psalmist declares something truly amazing here! God did not simply save him, he became his salvation. Salvation is not something that God has done; salvation is something that God has become. This is never more evident—there is no greater proof that this is true—than in Jesus Christ, who has become our salvation. Therefore, we will not die—no, we will live.
The psalm offers us a model for testifying about what God has done for us. The preacher tells of the marvelous deeds of the Lord as they relate to God’s Word; that is, in essence, the task of preaching. We witness something, and then we bear witness to it by telling others about it.
This is the thrust of the Easter narrative. While the scripture describes the amazing fact of Jesus’ resurrection, the narrative tells a story of witnesses witnessing. Mary Magdalene finds that the stone has been rolled away from Jesus’ tomb, and immediately runs to Peter and the Beloved Disciple to tell them. They, in turn, run to the tomb to see for themselves, and, entering the tomb, find more evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, though still failing to comprehend.
It is telling that by various signals, the truth of Christ’s resurrection was gradually revealed to the disciples, but they were slow to accept such a possibility (though really, who can blame them)? Mary found an empty tomb and ran to tell her friends. Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to verify Mary’s account, and found everything as she had described, but it continued to make little sense to them. Mary then spoke to a man she didn’t recognize, who turned out to be the Lord himself! Once again she found herself in a position to share what she knew with others. Just as she was the first to find the empty tomb, Mary was also the first to encounter the resurrected Jesus. He tells her, “Go and tell…,” making Mary Magdalene not only the first apostle, but the apostle to the apostles! Go and tell. Mary went and told. It was pointed out to me recently that for a few brief moments on the day of resurrection, Mary Magdalen was the entirety of the Christian Church—she was the world’s only Christian! She announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord,” and then she told them what he’d said to her. Mary witnessed the risen Christ, and then was sent to bear witness to the living Christ. Go and tell.
A story appeared in the news on June 25, 1939, recounting the story of a Navy submarine that had been accidentally struck by another ship and was stuck on the bottom of a harbor in New York. All systems had failed; it had no electricity and the oxygen was quickly running out. The U.S. Navy sent a ship equipped with Navy divers to the spot. The trapped sailors heard the heavy metal boots of a diver land on the conning tower of their submarine. In the darkness they tapped in Morse code, “Is there any hope?” The diver on the outside, hearing the tapping and recognizing the message, signaled by banging on the exterior of the sub, “Yes, there is hope.”
We live in a world full of people who feel increasingly hopeless. International tensions are rising; famine rears its head in Africa once again; and terrorism has led some to forget altogether the better angels of their nature, to scapegoat others for their misfortune, and to demand that we care only for ourselves, rejecting responsibility for the common good. In short, ours is a world in need of good news, where people sit in darkness, banging desperately on the hull, “Is there any hope?”
If you have encountered the love of God—if you believe that our risen Lord is proof that God’s promise of reconciliation and eternal communion is true—Go. And tell. “Yes, there is still hope.” Go. And tell.
The psalmist says, “I will not die; I will live and declare what the Lord has done.” Even in that most famous of phrases from this psalm, we hear both a call and a response: This is the day that the Lord has made… let us rejoice and be glad in it! We are instructed to rejoice and be glad in response to the day that the Lord has made. And while we gladly use this call and response not just on Easter, but throughout the liturgical year, is there any day more marvelous than this one, whereupon Jesus our Savior climbed down off of a funereal shelf and walked right out of his tomb? As Psalm 118 also says, “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!”
And what makes it so marvelous? It’s like I told my son: in raising Jesus from the dead, in Jesus’ climbing down off that grave shelf and walking away after being dead for three days, God proved that his promises are true and entirely dependable. Because Jesus lives, we also shall live. “Yes, there is still hope.” The Lord is our strength and our protection; he has become our salvation.
Go. And tell.