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The late Lloyd C. Douglas, the author of The Robe, tells that he once asked an old music teacher, "Well, what's the good news today?" The old man went over to a tuning fork suspended by a chord, struck it with a mallet and said, "That, my friend, is an "A." It was "A" all day yesterday. It will be "A" all day tomorrow, next week and for a thousand years. The soprano upstairs warbles off-key, the tenor next door flats on his high ones, and the piano across the hall is out of tune. But that, striking the tuning fork once again, is "A." And that, my friend, is the good news for today."(1) Sounds VERY Presbyterian, doesn't he?
There are times I think God is a Presbyterian. We live in a very ordered world. When our feet left the bed this morning they ended up on the floor, not the ceiling. When we came to worship, we avoided running into utility poles because we knew they would not bend. In looking back at the year that separates this Easter from last, the landscape is dominated by strange sights - George W. Bush is president, but his opponent received more votes; the United States Senate is evenly divided - 50-50 - Republicans are in control because Vice President Cheney casts tie-breaking votes, but if Strom Thurmond's number comes up...; Slobodan Milosovic is in jail; Saddam Hussein is not. Go figure. But, political regimes come and go. They always have, always will. God must be Presbyterian.
There are other times I am not so sure though. It was almost midnight on a Saturday night several years ago. My phone rang. The police. One of the neatest 14-year-olds I ever knew was dead. Car accident. Worship for our congregation that next morning was, to say the least, different.
After church that day, I went to the hospital. One of the neatest 68-year-olds I ever knew was near the end. Cancer. By nightfall, she too was gone. Two very special people...within twenty-four hours of each other.
Nowhere in scripture is there any detail given concerning what happens as we make that final crossing. Is there some sort of "Central Receiving?" Does heaven have a registration lobby just behind the Pearly Gates where accommodations are arranged? Where they issue harps and fit you for wings? Did Ashley and Mildred run into each other in the lobby?
"What are you doing here?"
"What are YOU doing here?"
I know that death is as inevitable as the taxes due tomorrow, but some deaths do not seem to be the way for a Presbyterian God to allow things. Woody Allen once asked, "If there is a God, why is there poverty and baldness?" We might not be so flippant in our questioning, but we DO have our questions.
I am sure that the disciples had questions. For three years they had walked and talked with Jesus. They had seen him befriend the outcast, heal the sick, even raise the dead. They had seen him confront the provincial authorities and come out on top every time. They heard him speak of a Kingdom and assumed that he would be the one to lead Israel to victory over Rome. They had hitched their dreams to this shooting star only to see them come crashing down on a hill called Calvary. It was not a very Presbyterian day. Of course, they had questions. Just like ours.
I would dearly love to be able to answer all those questions this morning but I cannot. Instead, I will ask you to use your imagination with me for a moment. We who are the spiritual heirs of Jesus' friends have gathered for worship two days after remembering Calvary. We sing our hymns and pray our prayers. We are ready to hear a sermon when suddenly, a voice comes from the gallery saying, "I have a word from the Lord."
No, this time, instead of the intruder getting the bum's rush, he is allowed to continue. He says, "First, a brief illustration. Recently a man came out of his home one morning to find the trunk of his car smashed in. He was relieved to see a note on the windshield. It read, `As I am writing this, five people who saw me hit your car are watching me. They think I am giving you my name, address, phone, license number, and insurance company. I'm not! Have a nice day.'"(2)
The man in the gallery continues, "My little story is simply to illustrate my word from the Lord which is this - THINGS ARE NOT ALWAYS AS THEY SEEM!" Then just as suddenly as he appeared, he vanishes.
What would your reaction be to something like that? Probably stunned silence. We would look around at one another, just as the twelve must have done when they heard the crazy story of the empty tomb, the resurrection of Jesus. They too were very Presbyterian. In a way, the fantastic report of the women who had run from the grave was like that voice from the gallery. The disciples were no more ready to give them a hearing than we would some mysterious stranger.
But this is not a day of decency and order. This is Easter, the day of all days when we should be ready for the unexpected, ready to hear a new voice. After all, this is the day which affirms that things are NOT as they seem, the day which proclaims that life does not end with death, that the God who is sometimes so decently Presbyterian and at other times is whatever divine wisdom chooses, at ALL times is in control.
In the early 1970s, a certain theological seminary held a conference on the future. Alvin Toffler's book Future Shock was all the rage, and an impressive group of scholars was assembled to "do futuring." They gave well-documented addresses, speculating about the sweeping changes moving toward us in education, economics, community life, and technology. They envisioned the future and described it in dazzling detail. The closing address was given by the president of the seminary, who said in essence, "I am only a theologian, and I have no idea what shape the future will take. The only thing I do know is that the future will belong to a merciful God." Years later when this seminary president retired, he was cleaning out his office and ran across the files from this conference. He re-read the papers, reviewing now with hindsight all of the brave predictions of the future. "You know," he said, "I was the only one who was right!"(3)
Perry Biddle Jr. is an Episcopal priest who tells of a time when he was invited to speak in a church in England. The point of Biddle's message was "the Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth," those wonderful words from scripture immortalized in the "Hallelujah Chorus." In fact he used that phrase several times in his sermon. Each time he used it, he spoke a little louder so that the last couple of times, he almost shouted it.
As people were filing out after the service, two ladies approached. An officer of the church who was standing nearby whispered, "Now these two ladies are mostly deaf; they probably didn't catch much of your sermon."
One lady said, "I didn't hear much of what you said today, Sir. The only thing I heard was "the Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth." As she went out the door she turned and said, "But I guess that's all that really matters, isn't it?"(4) Amen!
Think of what that means on a day like today. It means that what God did once in a graveyard in Jerusalem, God can and will repeat on a grand scale for the world.
What would it be like to walk out after the service and in the parking lot, to our utter astonishment, run into a Bill Nagy or a Bill Wightman(5) or another dear one recently gone? That gives us some inkling of what Jesus' disciples felt on the first Easter. They too had grieved, but now they were encountered by something else, a voice from the gallery with this word that things are not as they seem. Not for our friends and loved ones who have gone before. Not even for you and me one day.
No doubt Jesus' friends still had unanswered questions, just as we do, but I doubt that they mattered much. In fact, when they finally got over their shock, those same men who had slunk away in fear at Calvary soon became themselves the voice in the gallery speaking to large crowds in the streets of Jerusalem. To all who would hear, their proclamation was that this same Christ who had been tortured and murdered was now restored to life, that death did not have the final word, God did.
One of the most glorious passages in all of Scripture is found in the midst of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews. Great heroes of ancient times are noted for their faithfulness in trusting God no matter what. Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David, and on and on. As he goes through that long list, the writer does not say that they had all their questions answered. Instead, halfway through the list he wrote, "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance." Then at the very end, he says again, "These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised." The voice from the gallery had not spoken yet.
I love the way the passage concludes: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders...our doubts, our fears, our questions...and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." The picture is that of a heavenly gallery packed with famous fans, all with voices, cheering us on as we press toward the goal.
Imagine it. Over here, Abraham sitting next to Isaac with his arm around him shouting down, "Who would have expected - a son born to me when I was 100 and my wife was 90?" There is Moses yelling out, "Remember the Red Sea." Over there the prophets - Samuel, Jeremiah; there is Isaiah encouraging us to get beyond our doubts with the ancient reminder, "I have a word from the Lord - My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."(6) There are things we will not understand.
Over there are the Apostles - James, John, Paul, with Peter yelling out, "If I who denied my Lord can make it, ANYONE can." Just there, a quieter group, but one that means so much...the beloved grandmothers and grandfathers who bounced us on the knee, the sisters and brothers, the cherished moms and dads who taught us the faith. None of them are quite sure what to say, but their very presence is God's affirmation that things are not always as they seem, that what looks to us like an end is really just a new beginning.
There's my Dad. Hey, Dad. Can you believe this? The Leiningers are back again in Pennsylvania. How come you never told me about all the snow? I miss you, Dad. I miss you.
Standing above them all, looking down with twinkling eyes and the warmest smile, is Jesus. He speaks and we recognize his voice as the one we heard in our gallery saying that things are not always as they seem. He sees what we are up against. He knows we need help. He says, "Truly I say to you, out of crucifixion comes resurrection, out of death comes life, out of defeat comes victory. Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." Then as we hear him, in reverence we say, "Thanks be to God who gives US the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
1. Quoted by Leonard Griffith, The Eternal Legacy from an Upper Room, (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 30
2. Thomas Hilton, "What It Really Means," Church Management - The Clergy Journal, (April, 1990), p. 9
3. Thomas G. Long, "Growing Old and Wise on Easter," Journal for Preachers, Easter 2001, pp. 33-40
4. Perry H. Biddle, "The Important Point," Christian Ministry, (Sept., 1982), p. 19
5. Two members of First Presbyterian recently deceased.
6. Isaiah 55:9-10