The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 4/12/98
Text: John 20:1-18 (Isaiah 65:17-25)
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Easter. My favorite day of the Christian year. I am going to tell you a story...a true own story...the story that makes Easter mean what it does to me.

It was almost twenty years ago...January 4, 1979... right after lunch. I was at home, my work for the day now complete. I was not a minister then; I was a disk jockey on the radio doing an early morning program - fun job - but I had some additional managerial responsibilities which sometimes kept me busy. On this particular day, there was nothing pressing so I told my office that I was planning to take a nap. If there were an emergency, they would know where to reach me. Other than that, DO NOT CALL. Unfortunately, I had given them that message many times before and the calls came anyway. Sometimes they were necessary, but most often they were not.

This particular afternoon went as many others had. I was not quite asleep, but I was close...a little after 2 PM. Sure enough, the phone rang. Nuts! Should I answer it or not. I TOLD them I was going to sleep. Maybe it is not the office. No matter. Whoever it is, if it is important, they will call back. So I just let it ring.

An hour passed. It had been one of those days when sleep refused to come, but now it was on the verge. The phone again. DOUBLE NUTS! Ignore it, David. You are asleep; you TOLD them that. And again, it finally stopped.

Now another hour had gone by. I never did REALLY get to sleep, but by 4 PM, nap time should be over and when the phone rang THIS time, I answered it.

Well, how about that; it was not the office. It was my kid brother in Baltimore. "Hi, Joel, what's up?"

"Dad's dead."

What? I thought I had heard what he said, but what my ears picked up, my brain did not want to process. "What did you say?" There was nothing but silence on the other end of the line, the silence of a teenage boy trying to choke back the sobs enough to repeat those two awful words. "Joel, did you say Dad's dead?"

A weak..."Yes"...came from the other end.

"But HOW? What happened?"

"I don't know," he said. "He died in his sleep; they guess it was a heart attack."

It made no sense. My father was the picture of health; he had no history of any heart trouble. He was a jogger before anyone had ever heard of the word. He took good care of himself. He had always said, "The Lord didn't give us our bodies to abuse." Why, he was just a month-and-a-half shy of his 65th birthday, and he had hardly any gray hair. HE was no candidate for a heart attack. But now he was dead.

It took me a moment, but I finally began to get things together in my mind. My reaction was typical, because even in the face of death, our thoughts are for the living. I asked, "How's Mom doing?"

He said, "She still doesn't know. She's in Macon. She's coming home tonight."

Good gracious, that was right. Mom had gone down to Macon to visit one of our sisters right after Christmas. Judy had had her first baby, a little boy they would call Rusty, just a week-and-a-half before. And if at all possible, a new mother wants HER mother around to help out, especially for the first. Now the help was going a welcome she would have never thought possible.

I had to go too. I told Joel that I would get there as soon as I could and would call him back when I got plane reservations confirmed. I hung up, called my office to tell them the situation. Then the travel on the first available flight. Would Christie be going with me? I did not know. I had not talked to her yet, but go ahead and make the reservations for both, then call me back to confirm.

I dialed my wife at work. "Hi, could you possibly get away for a few days?"

"Why? What's up," she asked.

"My father died this morning."

"O Baby, of course I can. I'll be right home."

As I hung up the phone, the words of my brother began to sink in. "Dad's dead." As I sat down on the edge of the bed, the tears welled up as they had not done in years. Dad's dead. I just sat there and sobbed.

I think back to another who sobbed a garden in Jerusalem, Mary Magdelene. She was asked, "Woman, why are you weeping?"

She said, "They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid Him." She had come early that morning, that first Easter, to anoint Jesus' body for burial, something which they had not had time to do properly before the Sabbath two days before. She wanted to finish the job, but now she had come to the tomb and found it empty. She had loved Him. Now she missed Him. She had reason to weep.

My sobs were of a different nature. I KNEW where my father was. He was with his God. Paul says, "Absent from the body; present with the Lord."(1) My tears were not for him; they were for me and my family, especially Mom.

Christie came in. She saw my tear-stained cheeks and red eyes and just hugged me. I needed that. The phone rang again: it was the travel agent saying she had booked us on a flight which left in two hours. That meant we had better hurry, because the airport was an hour away.

By this time, all the family knew except those in Macon... and one other, our sister Jan, Judy's twin. Some months before, it had been announced that she too was pregnant and would deliver her first child just about the same time as Judy. We all thought how uncanny it would be if these twin sisters would have their first babies on the same day. But it was not to be - Rusty was born in mid-December; Jan's baby, Kate, would be born THIS day. The Lord had given us a life to replace the one we had lost. Jan would find out later that evening from her husband.

Little Kate was seriously ill. Her chances were not too good, so Jan had called Dad that morning to let him know the situation. Time and again, she called and got no answer. Finally, she called the church office to see if they could locate him. The office was in the basement of the manse, so the secretary simply had to come upstairs. She found him looking very peaceful in his bed. She did not get back to Jan. Instead, she called the church custodian, who in turn called the ambulance. My father was pronounced dead at the scene of an apparent coronary.

Now, as all of you know, just about everything traveling by air in the southeast goes through Atlanta. It has been said that if you want to go to HEAVEN, you have to go through ATLANTA. My flight to Baltimore had to go through Atlanta. I knew that my mother's flight from Macon would ALSO have to go through Atlanta. I became concerned about meeting Mom in the Atlanta airport and having to give her the news there. Fortunately, my fears were unnecessary. Mom found out in Baltimore. Several had come to meet the plane, and one of the elders of the church took her off to the side and asked her to sit down. Mother said later that the first thing that came to her mind was that something was wrong with Jan's baby, or worse, that the baby had died. That was why Dad was not there to meet her; he had gone to be with Jan. But no, it was not the baby; her husband was be with his Lord. There were no tears when she heard. It had not registered. Not yet. But it would.

By the time she was driven home, the faithful had already begun to gather. Another minister and his wife who had been special friends had come by to offer their prayers and condolences. People were bringing food and asking if there were anything they could do, anything at all. But as usual, the response was, "No...thank you. Everything is taken care of."

By the time Christie and I got to the house, about two hours later, it was a bustle of activity...people in and out, much of the family already there, lights on everywhere. Dad would have been mortified. He was always telling us to turn off the lights. It would be another couple of hours before the visitors were gone, but, finally, it was just family.

There were tears, of torrents railings against a God who could take our father from us so suddenly, with no preparation. Because we HAD had preparation. Mom said to us, "Kids, this is the acid test. If we cannot meet this, our faith has been a sham." She was right, of course. We knew where he was...the destination he had looked forward to all his life...with the One whose good news of eternal life he had preached. We knew that sometime early that morning, he had heard, "Well, done, thou good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of thy Lord." No, those tears were not for him; they were for us. We missed our Dad.

The funeral home called the next morning and said they were sending a car for us to come to make the final arrangements. Dad had always said he wanted to be buried in the cheapest possible casket, so as Mom and I and Christie went to make the selection, the funeral director was told of his request. We were shown one that was covered with a light purple crushed velour. YUK! Sorry, Dad. Not that. We selected something a little more expensive, but more in keeping with what we thought was good taste. There were forms to fill out; hours for visitation to be set; announcements for the newspapers; and finally the trip to the cemetery. Mom selected a plot on the basis of how easy it would be to find. She had accompanied my father on too many funerals where most of the people would have been hopelessly lost before they ever got to the gravesite had they not been in a procession. She said her sense of direction was not good enough for her to take any chances, so she found one near the gate.

By this time, the day was near spent. But the hardest part lay ahead: we were about to see him in the casket for the first time. I did not know how I would react, but I counted on the promise, "My grace is sufficient." It was. Soon, we were able to laugh again, even to tease, as big families always do. The tears that were shed were not in public. Our sense of loss was being minimized by the realization of the truth of our faith. To be sure, it was a strange sensation seeing him lying there with just the hint of a waxed-in smile. It was strange to touch a hand that was cold in its lifelessness. After all, this was only a shell. The MAN had gone home to be with his Lord.

Peter and John saw a shell that first Easter morning when they went into the garden tomb...not a bodily shell...the grave clothes, the linen wrappings that had surrounded Jesus' nail-scarred body. The scripture says they were still in the original folds that had been wound around him. They looked somewhat like a glove which has just been removed: still in the shape of the fingers, but slightly deflated now that it is empty. It must have been quite a sight for them...the napkin that had covered his head carefully laid to one side, and on that cold, stone slab in those early morning hours, what looked like a mummy from the neck down. As impetuous as Peter was, you can imagine him leaning over to get a closer look, peering into the clothes from the neck to see if anything was in there. Nothing WAS, of course. Jesus had risen, as he said.

I remember wishing that DAD would rise again in three days. For me, death had never been quite so close to home, and in my selfishness, I wanted it to go away. But my father could say with Paul, "For me to live is Christ, to DIE is GAIN."(2) He had gained something with which nothing in this world could compare.

Sunday night, the last night of visitation. Hundreds and hundreds had come, but now everyone was gone except those of us in the immediate family. The casket would be closed the next day for the funeral so this would be our last chance to say goodbye. As we gathered beside the coffin, I began to speak to that lifeless body. I wanted to say how much we loved him, and how grateful we were for all the things he had done for us, and how thankful we were for the faith we had learned at his knee which had gotten us through these past few days. I WANTED to say all that, but it did not come out well. I kept trying to choke back the sobs, and not too successfully. We were all crying now, and unashamedly. Our faith was not on trial in front of all those who had come. We were no longer trying to bear their burden. We were just a family who had lost our Dad, and who realized that we would not see him again in this life. We felt exceedingly sorry for ourselves. It did not last long. Mom began to speak words of comfort as only a mother could. I do not remember what she said, but I know the words must have been from the Lord. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted"(3)...and we were.

We had been in there for almost twenty minutes now, and it was time to leave. People were waiting to drive us back to the house. But in that final moment, we bowed for a word of prayer. We formed a circle, holding hands, with Mom and I holding Dad's. It was a prayer of thanksgiving. We thanked our God for the marvelous life now ended, for the swift, painless way it went from us, and for the prayers of so many who had supported us through these days. We thanked God for the gift of redemption through Jesus' death on Calvary, and especially for the sure and certain knowledge of the resurrection. As I said "Amen," Mom began to sing softly: Alleluia, Alleluia...and the rest of the family joined in...Alleluia, Alleluia. If, as mother had said several days earlier, this was the acid test of our faith, we had passed.

"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"(4) With a deep sense of loss, but with the abiding hope of a glorious reunion, we buried my father the next day.

As I said at the beginning, this is MY story. But it is not mine alone. It is the story of everyone of us who has ever lost someone we really loved. You see, the story does not end with the grave. As the angel told the women at the tomb in the first light of that first Easter, "He is risen." He is risen...He LIVES, and BECAUSE HE lives, my Dad lives...and YOUR Dad...and MOM...brothers and sisters and husbands and wives...ALL who have died in the faith HAVE NOT REALLY DIED AT ALL. As Jesus himself said, "Because I live, you also will live."(5)

Happy Easter.

Let us pray.

O God, death is so painful to us who are left behind. We feel exceedingly sorry for ourselves and too often forget the marvelous life which lies beyond this one. Help us to bring it to mind, especially in times of grief or loss. Remind us that Easter gives us the victory for all eternity. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen!

1. II Corinthians 5:8

2. Philippians 1:21

3. Matthew 5:4

4. I Corinthians 15:55

5. John 14:19

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