The Power of Pursuit

Psalm 23:6

Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Dear Friends in Christ,

I came across a story recently that was both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  It’s the story of Eric Hill.  At the age of 28 he had so much going for him.  He was a college graduate with an athletic build and a warm smile.  His family loved him, girls took notice of him, and companies had contacted him about working for them.  But for reasons unknown to anyone, on a gray rainy day in Feb. of 1982, Eric Hill walked out the back door of his Florida home and never returned.

His sister, Debbie, remembers seeing him leave.  She assumed he would return, but he didn’t.  Instead, he followed the voices in his head that had been tormenting him for some time and headed for San Antonio, Texas to begin the “assignment” that he felt those voices were giving him.  And that assignment was to pick up trash along a roadside in San Antonio.

Over the course of time his lanky form and bearded face became a familiar sight to those who commuted on that stretch of Interstate 10.  He made a home for himself out of a hole in a vacant lot.  He made a wardrobe for himself out of a pair of split trousers and a torn sweatshirt he’d found.  He wore an old hat on his head and used a plastic bag to soften the chill when winter arrived.  His weathered skin and stooped shoulders made him look twice his age of 44 years.  But then, 16 years of that kind of a life would do that to you.

That’s how long it was before Debbie saw her brother again.  One day Eric experienced a severe pain in his abdomen and was found alongside the road, clutching his stomach.  He was taken to a nearby hospital where tests revealed he had cancer.  Terminal cancer.  A few more months and he would be dead.  And with no known family members or friends, in all likelihood, he would die alone.

His court-appointed attorney could not bear the thought of that, so using the Internet, he was finally able to track down Debbie.  She came to Texas with her husband and 2 children, got a motel room, and set out to find Eric.  By this time he had been released from the hospital, but the chaplain of the hospital had a pretty good idea where he could be found.  Finally, Debbie caught up with him, but at first he resisted her attempts to re-introduce herself to him.  His interest perked, however, when she offered him a pin to wear, an angel pin, which he allowed her to pin on his shirt.  It was the first time in 16 years that she had touched her brother.

Debbie intended to stay a week, but a week passed and she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her brother.  Eventually her husband returned home to take care of things there while she rented an apartment and began homeschooling her 2 children while constantly reaching out to her brother.

It wasn’t easy.  He didn’t recognize her.  He didn’t remember she was his sister.  He didn’t want to sleep in her apartment.  He didn’t want to eat her food.  He just wanted his vacant lot and his old job picking up trash back again.  But Debbie refused to give up on him.  She understood that he didn’t understand.  So she stayed.  When she was asked what kept her from giving up, she replied, “Simple.  He’s my brother.”

When I read that story, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another pursuit that took place long ago, another compassionate heart that couldn’t bear the thought of a brother or sister in pain.  So, like Debbie, this individual left his home.  And like Debbie, he found his sibling…or maybe I should say his siblings.  And even though there have been times that this individual was treated like Eric treated Debbie, like Debbie, he refused to give up.  Of course you know whom I’m talking about, don’t you?  I’m speaking of our Heavenly Shepherd whom we’ve had the privilege of studying for some time now in a detailed look at the 23rd Psalm.  And in our text for today, David reminds us that this Shepherd pursues us until we finally understand who he is and what he has done for us, even if it takes all the days of our lives.  Listen once again to one of the sweetest sentences ever penned: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

To read that verse is like opening a treasure chest.  Every word sparkles like a brilliant gem and begs to be examined.  So let’s do that this morning, shall we?  Look at the first word: “surely.”  Notice, David doesn’t say, “Maybe goodness and mercy shall follow me.”  Or, “Hopefully goodness and mercy shall follow me.”  Or, “I have a pretty good hunch goodness and mercy shall follow me.”  Instead, David uses the word “surely” for he believed in a sure God who makes sure promises, promises that can be believed, promises that can be trusted.  David would have loved the words that the James, the half-brother of Jesus, would pen centuries later when he described God as the one “with whom there is never the slightest variation or shadow of inconsistency.”  How different that is from us.

Our mood shifts, but God’s doesn’t.  Our minds change, but God’s doesn’t.  Our devotion falters, but God’s never does.  2 Tim. 2:13 says that even if we are faithless, he remains faithful.  He is a sure God.  And because he is a sure God, we can confidently say with David, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

Please note those words “goodness and mercy.”  Not goodness alone, for we are sinners in need of mercy.  Not mercy alone, for we are fragile creatures in need of goodness.  As one man wrote, “Goodness to supply every want.  Mercy to forgive every sin.  Goodness to provide.  Mercy to pardon.”

And how long will our Shepherd provide that goodness and mercy?  “All the days of my life.”  Not just the days when I’m looking good and feeling good and doing good.  But every day.  Think, for a moment, of some of the days that you know lie ahead of you.  What do you see?  Days at home with only toddlers to interact with, cleaning up their messes, watching children’s shows all day long?  How about days in a boring, dead-end job?  Or what about days of raising teenagers and the unique challenges that brings with it?  Or days of loneliness in a house that was once occupied by a spouse you loved and noisy children?  Rest assured, God will be at your side for those days.  He will be your constant companion throughout those days.  And not just those days, but all the days of your life.

And notice what our text says he will do during those days.  He will “follow” you.  What an interesting way to describe God!  I think most of the time we think of God as sitting, sitting on his throne, ruling the heavens and the earth.  But David envisions a mobile God, an active God, a God who pursues us, who chases us, not to clobber us as some people believe, but who follows us with “goodness and mercy” that he wants to bestow upon us all the days of our lives.

Isn’t this the kind of God that the Bible describes for us?  You have to go no further than the 3rd chapter of the first book of the Bible to see God playing the role of the pursuer.  After Adam and Eve sinned, what did they do?  They hid in the bushes, didn’t they?  And what did God do?  Did he wait for them to come to him?  No!  Instead he went searching for them.  He pursued them.

Moses knew what it was like to be pursued by God.  After spending 40 years tending sheep in the wilderness, one day he looked up and saw a blazing bush that revealed a pursuing God who wanted Moses to shepherd his people Israel out of slavery in Egypt and all the way to the Promised Land.

Jonah knew what it was like to be pursued by God.  When he ran away from the call that God had given him to go and preach to the wicked city of Nineveh, he eventually discovered that God had followed him all the way out onto the open sea and wasn’t about to give up on him.

And on and on it goes, my friends.  From the disciples who were caught in the storm at sea to Lazarus who was dead in his tomb for 4 days to Peter who denied his Lord to John who was banished to the island of Patmos to Paul who sat in a Roman prison cell, God revealed himself as a God who follows, a God who pursues, a God who is present.

So what about you?  Have you sensed his presence in your life lately?  Sadly, often times we don’t because we clutter our lives with so much busyness and so many activities that, like Eric Hill whom we heard about before, we don’t even notice when our Helper is near.  But he is.  And just like Eric’s sister invited him to trust her, so also our Heavenly Shepherd invites us to trust him.  Admittedly, that’s not always an easy thing to do.  So let me give you 3 simple suggestions that you might want to try to help you trust your Shepherd more.

First, trust his Word, not your feelings.  Sometimes I’ll hear people say: “I just don’t feel God’s presence in my life.”  There’s no doubt that we’re all going to have days like that.  But just because we can’t feel his presence doesn’t mean that he’s not there.  If you go down into your dark basement and don’t turn on the light, does that mean the sun has ceased to shine outside?  Of course not.  It just means you’re in a dark place.  So on those days when you find yourself in a dark place and you don’t feel that God is close to you, go to his Word and trust what he tells you there.  For is he not the One who has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you”?  And doesn’t he tell us in Rom. 8 that “nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”?  So trust his faithful Word rather than your fickle feelings.

Then secondly, measure your value through his eyes rather than your own or somebody else’s.  To everyone else Eric Hill was a homeless drifter to steer clear of.  But to Debbie, he was a brother.  Well, there are times in our lives when we are real drifters as we drift from God’s will and ways.  During those times we may become moody, irritable, hard to love, hard to be around – and people think it best to steer clear of us.  But not Jesus.  Like Debbie, he still sees you as a brother, a sister.  And he was willing to go to the ends of the earth and do whatever it took to win you back to himself.  So even though others may not think very highly of you, you can pillow your head in peace at night knowing that the Creator and Ruler of the universe thinks that you’re so great, so special that he would be willing to die for you so that you and he can be together forever.

Then lastly, understand that your life is ultimately in the hands of God and that he is the master of bringing good out of bad situations.  Listen, my friends, if he can take a cruel instrument of torture and execution like a cross and transform it into a vehicle of life and hope and salvation for a lost and dying world, then surely he can transform your seemingly hopeless situation into one that is full of hope, which, by the way, is precisely what he did for Eric Hill.

Remember how I said at the start of this sermon that this was a story that was both heartbreaking but also heartwarming.  Well, here’s the heartwarming rest of the story.  Days before he died, Eric finally recognized Debbie as his sister.  All of her efforts paid off. And in the process, Eric discovered that he wasn’t completely alone.  He had a family and he had a home.

May that be the discovery that we all take home with us today, that even when we choose our dump over his house and our trash over his grace, our Shepherd still follows us.  He still pursues us.  Never forcing us.  Never leaving us.  Patiently persistent.  Faithfully present.  Using all of his power to convince us that he wants us in his family forever and that he can be trusted to lead us safely home.