He Was Taken Up

Acts 1:9, Luke 24:51 – May 28, 2017

Acts 1-9 Ascension ENLUMINURES HILDERSHEIM

“He Was Taken Up”

Mentors often teach and assist their followers through conversations. Whether it’s a one-on-one relationship or a small group mentorship, many respected, learned teachers often are in a position where their followers are hanging on every word that comes out of their mouths. Imagine how much more closely our risen Lord Jesus’s followers listened to His words in the weeks following His resurrection!

This whole situation after Easter was totally unprecedented. The Rabbi Jesus, God’s Anointed, the Messiah, come back from the dead? Being resurrected, and brought back to life?  How can such a thing be? It was a blessed miracle of God, that’s how!

Jesus walked and talked for forty days with His disciples. We do not know for sure, but I suspect He gave them further information about why He had come down from heaven, setting aside His divinity, being born of the Virgin Mary as a human baby. From our Gospel passage this morning: “44 Jesus said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.”

Wouldn’t that be absolutely fantastic, to have Jesus, the Word made flesh, interpreting Scripture so that we could more fully understand it? Talk about an in-depth bible study! Those would be some awesome conversations. I know I would be sitting at Jesus’s feet, like Mary of Bethany, hanging on His every word.

I also suspect our Lord Jesus significantly affected and touched His followers while He realized His time was becoming shorter and shorter. Don’t you think Jesus must have told them He would be going away—soon? We know how upset the disciples became when Jesus told them such things before His crucifixion. In John 16, at that Last Supper the night Jesus was betrayed, He spoke plainly about His departure. But, that was the last thing His followers wanted to hear about, or think about, either!

If we reflect more deeply on that thought—the thought of Jesus going away—it’s similar to the idea of our loved ones dying and going away. Many people become deeply distressed at even the thought of it, much less the actuality. Even if we know our loved ones have died and gone to heaven, and we will eventually be reunited with them, it still can be distressing, even traumatizing for us to contemplate their departure.

This common feeling may well be similar to the feeling of the disciples as the time of Jesus’ departure got closer and closer. One of the commentators on the passage, Bob Deffinbaugh, wrote, “While we know that God’s will has been done and that those who have died in Christ are with the Lord…We do not find great comfort or joy in reminiscing over the departure of our loved ones. So, too, I believe the gospel writers did not have any predisposition to write of our Lord’s departure to return to His Father.” [1] That may be part of the reason why there was not much mention of the Ascension in the biblical record.

Taking a look at our companion reading from Acts 1, we can see that the disciples still do not quite understand. Even though Jesus opened their minds to the Scriptures that they might have fuller comprehension of the purpose and coming of the Messiah, as foretold by the biblical writers, they still had some misconceptions.

Reading from Acts 1: “Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

We can tell that the followers of Jesus are still thinking “of the day when the nation of Israel will be reestablished as it was in the days of Solomon. They dream of themselves as the chief executives in the new kingdom.” [2] They are having a glorified view of a powerful earthly kingdom.  I cannot imagine our Lord Jesus being unclear about this, so I think the problem is on the disciples’ end. They have faulty presuppositions that just do not match up with the clear things Jesus is telling them. The followers of Jesus need to have their vision clarified. The kingdom Jesus is preparing is not of this world, but instead of the spiritual world.  

How often are we like the disciples? So often, we focus on unimportant issues. Things like denominational differences, whether to baptize by sprinkling or by immersion, how often to offer the Lord’s Supper, social justice, church growth, choice of church music: all of these pale in comparison with the foundational purpose of Jesus and His coming to earth.

As we can see, the followers of Jesus were narrowly focused on the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. They were completely missing the larger picture of our Lord Jesus reconciling the entire world to God, His heavenly Father.

For Jesus, His followers have one overarching assignment—a far greater purpose than these unimportant things. “For Jesus, that purpose is witnessing. His disciples are witnesses of His life, death, resurrection, and now, His ascension.” [3]

We all are familiar with the words of the Apostles Creed. I quote a portion: Jesus Christ, “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” These words are the very words I am preaching about here, today. They are not just the dusty old words found in some theological tome or some stilted book of creeds of the church. No! These words of the Creed are faithful, true, and powerful.

While the disciples were being distracted by their pie-in-the-sky view of the restoration of the kingdom of Israel to home rule, Jesus had the cosmic view in mind. In other words, it is like Jesus is telling His followers, “Forget that other stuff. Look, I am going now. I will send you all a Helper, an Advocate, to help you in the important work of being My witnesses. So, BE my witnesses!”

Acts 1:8 tells us where the followers are to be witnesses: “you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then, in verse 9, Jesus rises and is taken up into heaven.

Do we understand yet? The ascension of Jesus was glorious! He rose up into a cloud, most probably the Shekinah glory that surrounded Him at the Transfiguration, earlier in the Gospels. He ascended into heaven, just as we confess in the Apostles Creed. And, in Acts 1:11, we are reminded that the return of our Lord Jesus will be like His ascension.

“The ascension was a display of the splendor and glory of the coming Kingdom. As such it was a reassurance to the disciples that this Kingdom was the same as they had previously been instructed.” [4] A glorious, heavenly reassurance!

Remember, the followers of Jesus were not left to undertake this purpose, this task in their own power. Jesus tells us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” And then, “you will be my witnesses.”

The followers of Jesus did not know what to expect. But, we know.  This ascension may be the end of Jesus’s time on earth. He may be going away for a time, but no fear!

We are going to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit next week, on Pentecost Sunday. Talk about coming attractions! Praise God, today we have the power and help of the Holy Spirit assisting us as we share the Good News of Jesus, reconciling us to God. Jesus assured us of the help of the Holy Spirit, whenever we witness to Him. What a promise! Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/41-ascension-luke-2431-acts-11-11  “The Ascension,” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[2] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyot/ascensionot.html  “The Ascension,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://bible.org/seriespage/41-ascension-luke-2431-acts-11-11  “The Ascension,” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

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Jesus Wept, Too

John 11:1-44 (11:35) – April 2, 2017

John 11-35 Jesus wept, bible

“Jesus Wept, Too”

In hospitals and care centers throughout the country, chaplains are called to the bedsides of dying patients. The families of patients are grief-stricken, and need comfort, and spiritual and emotional care. Imagine the loved ones of the patient, recently deceased, rushing to the hospital from some distance to be with their loved one, one last time. Alas, the deceased patient has, sadly, already been moved from the room.

When I worked as a chaplain, from time to time this would happen. Can you imagine such a sad visit to the hospital? I would walk with the few relatives down to the morgue in the basement of the hospital with the nursing supervisor and we would bring them to see their loved one. Always—always the loved ones would be deeply moved. Sometimes with tears, sometimes with emotion. Their relative had died. I witnessed such raw feelings of deep grief, heartbreak, sometimes anger, and even despair—just as in our reading today from the Gospel of John.

Our Gospel reading today comes from John, chapter 11. I will read most of the chapter. This is about our Lord Jesus in the town of Bethany. I’ll let John fill us in on the details.

11 1-3 A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the brother of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.”

When Jesus got the message, he said, “This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.”

From what John says here, we can see how much Jesus cares for Lazarus and Mary and Martha. We may wonder at the cryptic response Jesus gives in response to the urgent message from the sisters, almost an SOS for help. Jesus healed others, Certainly He will heal our brother!

“After two days, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” They said, “Rabbi, you can’t do that. The Jews are out to kill you, and you’re going back?”

9-10 Jesus replied, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I’m going to wake him up.” Jesus was talking about death, while his disciples thought he was talking about taking a nap. 14-15 Then Jesus became explicit: “Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him.”

This is a complication, to be sure! Bethany is just down the road from Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders were already threatening to kill Rabbi Jesus, and He proposes to walk right into their backyard? Moreover, Jesus knows that His friend Lazarus is dead. But, He goes anyway. And, His disciples go with Him.

17-20 When Jesus finally got there, he found Lazarus already four days dead. Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of their friends were visiting Martha and Mary. Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him. Mary remained in the house.

21-22 Martha said, “Master, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.” 23 Jesus said, “Your brother will be raised up.” 24 Martha replied, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.”

25-26 “You don’t have to wait for the End. Right now, I am Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Master. All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.”

We see more of this family, and more of their grief. Many of the sisters’ friends and acquaintances are mourning with them at their home. Mary remains in the house while Martha goes out to see her friend Jesus. Martha makes the heartfelt statement that Lazarus will be raised at the end of time. And, Jesus follows that with one of the most striking “I am” statements from the Gospel of John here! I am Resurrection and Life! Jesus not only has power over the present time, but He has power over the future, as well. Martha’s response? It is in the formal language of a confession of faith. In the midst of her grief, she affirms—she confesses—that Jesus is, indeed, Messiah, the Son of God.

28  She went to her sister Mary and whispered in her ear, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.” 29-32 The moment Mary heard that, she jumped up and ran out to him. Mary came to where Jesus was waiting and fell at his feet, saying, “Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33-34 When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, he was troubled and a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you all put him?” 34-35 “Master, come and see,” they said. Now Jesus wept.

Some people think Jesus is God. Only God. Not human at all. Yet, we can clearly see here that Jesus had emotions. He was troubled and deeply angry. He was sorrowful and He wept. These are deep feelings, and almost everyone has experienced them sometime in life. Jesus experienced them, too. Yes, He was fully God, and yes, He was fully human, like each of us, all of us. Jesus wept, too. He felt the loss of His friend’s death deeply, and mourned.

36 The Jews said, “Look how deeply he loved him.” 37 Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.” 38-39 Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb. It was a simple cave in the hillside with a slab of stone laid against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, said, “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days!”

40 Jesus looked her in the eye. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41-42 Then, to the others, “Go ahead, take away the stone.” They removed the stone. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, “Father, I’m grateful that you have listened to me. I know you always do listen, but on account of this crowd standing here I’ve spoken so that they might believe that you sent me.”

Everyone dies. Yes, it is incredibly sad. As soon as a baby is born into the world, we all know for certain that that baby will die. Yes, sometimes we say “She died too soon.” Or, “Died in his prime. What a shame!” Yet, death happens to everyone, with no exceptions. As a Rabbi acquaintance of mine said several years ago, “We all have an expiration date.” It just depends on whether it is sooner or later in our lives. Each of us must come to terms with our mortality. [1]

43-44 Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came out, a cadaver, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him loose.” 45-48 That was a turnaround for many of the Jews who were with Mary. They saw what Jesus did, and believed in him.

            God can come alongside of all of us, whether we are grieving the death of a loved one, the shock of a sudden medical diagnosis, or the loss of a needed job. Jesus weeps with us as we go through all of these experiences. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow.

But, that is not all—oh, no! We see from today’s bible reading that Jesus is much more than just a companion in time of need. John tells us that Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. How can that be? How can it be that Jesus brought back to life a man who was dead?” [2] We can affirm that Jesus is not only Lord of creation, but also Life-giver of the living. Not only in the first century, but also today.

 

How this resurrection can possibly happen is not to be understood with our minds. But we can understand it by faith, with our hearts. Because it is by faith that you and I, like Martha, confess that Jesus is uniquely connected to God. It is by faith that we, like Martha, confess that Jesus is Messiah, the Christ, God incarnate. [3]

This is another blessed aspect of our Gospel message. As I say each Sunday after our confession of sins, “Believe the Good News of the Gospel!” Jesus tells us all today, “Believe My Good News!” Just as Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus, so He will raise us all. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. By faith we believe, praise God. Amen.

 

(The Gospel reading is from the modern translation The Message, by Eugene Peterson. With gratitude, I appreciate Rev. Peterson’s translation and use his words in my sermon today.)

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/fifth-sunday-in-lent7#preaching

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Healing of the Nations

“Healing of the Nations”

Rev 22 leaves of tree

Revelation 22:1-5 – May 1, 2016

When some people take trips, they often take tours. Large tours, with a large group of people, or sometimes a small, intimate tour. When you go on a trip to a different town or an exciting place, don’t you enjoy tours? When I went to Washington D.C. last May to see my daughter, we went to the National Cathedral. We went on one of the behind-the-scenes tours there, and were in a small, intimate group that went through the cathedral from top to bottom. Fascinating information! And such a gorgeous, awe-inspiring place, too!

We can think of today’s Scripture passage in that light. John was on a tour of the new heavens and the new earth. He was getting a personal tour from an angel, showing him all the awe-inspiring highlights of the new-created Holy City.

This new creation is going to be great! Just from the short description here, I can sort of, almost imagine how intricate, how detailed, and full of splendor that new Holy City will be. Can’t you? Reading from the end of Revelation 21: “22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.”

This City is not only full of glory and splendor, but, wait—there’s more. Much more!

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.” Did you hear? The river of life, and the tree of life, with leaves for healing of the nations.

Let’s start with the river of life. That life-giving river is free for any to draw from. We can follow the allusion to the river or water of life, throughout the Bible. In Genesis 2, a river watered the Garden of Eden and made it fruitful. In Ezekiel 47, the prophet spoke of a river flowing through the Temple. Zechariah 14 mentions “Living waters shall flow out of Jerusalem.” And in John 7, our Lord Jesus says, “Out of the heart of the one who believes in Me shall flow rivers of living water.”

John mentioned the tree of life here in Revelation. There are not as many allusions in the Bible to a tree of life, but there are two. The tree of life is found in the Garden of Eden, in Genesis 3. And, in Ezekiel 47, the prophet describes the tree of life at some length. So similar to the description here in Revelation!

This healing aspect of the tree of life really intrigued me. Yes, in the time of the new heavens and the new earth, we will receive life from both the life-giving river and the life-giving tree. But, healing? Who doesn’t need healing, in some way, somehow? Especially now, in this fallen, imperfect world. Individuals need healing in many important ways. Physical healing, yes. But also psychological healing. Emotional healing. And, spiritual healing.

We are not in that time of the new heavens and new earth, though. We are still in the in-between time. Sometimes today, certain churches and ministries teach the children of God that God our Heavenly Parent actually makes us sick.

According to these churches, God has given us diabetes, cancer or depression to teach us something. Or, God allowed, even orchestrated neglect, trauma or abuse to take place to somehow make us a better Christian. As if God would ever do such a thing!

In the Bible, we learn about God healing various people. Time after time in the Gospels, Jesus heals individuals in body, mind and spirit. Just like the tree of life, with leaves for healing. Healing, upbuilding leaves. When we enlarge that healing to groups of people, of nations, there can be healing of relationships, healing of resentments, healing of hatred and animosity. To reference the book of Isaiah, God will settle all disputes, and see that every sword is beaten into a plowshare. No one will ever need to fight or go to war anymore.

This is just one aspect of group healing or national healing. But, there is more! I am so appreciative of the point of view of a commentary I consult from time to time, The African American Lectionary. [1] In it, Reverend Michael Lomax gives a short background and history of healing services. How these services over the years have allowed and provided African Americans hope; “hope to endure racial discrimination, economic exploitation, and emotional trauma, debilitating physical illnesses, death, and ruptures in relationships.”

Thank goodness that—in many places across the country—conditions have improved. Not only African Americans, but all people of color are often able to, in the words of Rev. Lomax, “have access to various modes of physical, mental, and emotional healing, including advanced health care and various kinds of counselors. Still, healing services continue to be a mainstay in African American congregations, where worship leaders invite the community to look beyond problems to catch a glimpse of God’s plan for restoration.”

Here we are, in the in-between time. We are not yet in the time that John talks about in this passage today, the time of the new heavens and new earth. We cannot see the crystal clear river, or smell the sweet, medicinal odor of the leaves on the tree. Not yet!

However, God has given us promises. God has given us a plan. God’s plan for restoration.  In the here and now, in the in-between time, God does heal, in any one of a number of ways. As Rev. Lomax says, “God’s healing may not include a cure of our immediate ailments. Instead, God’s healing may provide resources for us to press on in spite of our ailments. In healing services, God awakens the hope that allows us to live with grace and dignity in the present, even as we await God’s ultimate transformation of our brokenness in the future.“

What do we hear from this passage today? This word picture of a life-giving tree that bears fruit every season and is fed by a crystal river that flows out of the throne?  Sure, we have an abstract message about the fullness of eternal life. Sure, it is a complicated picture of life. However, the world will be transformed. It is completely as God intends it to become.

We can ask a follow-up question: how would this picture of the end of the world help Christians who are having hard times now? I think this picture would give believers hope. Hope in God, and praise for hope in God’s name on the foreheads of the redeemed.

As Rev. Lomax says, “God’s ‘healthcare plan’ provides equal access to wholeness and does not simply favor those who are already powerful and privileged. The healing leaves that God offers in this scene are as accessible as the river that flows. The healing supplied is not only an individual experience but also a communal experience because the leaves are “… for the healing of the nations” (22:2).”

Yes, this visionary tour of the new creation by our angelic tour guide gives us hope for the present. Hope for provision of strength. Praise be to God! God’s healing is here and now. And, God’s healing is something we all can look forward to!

God willing, may God’s healing come on earth as it is in heaven. Alleluia, amen!
[1] Michael R. Lomax, Guest Lectionary Commentator, Associate Minister, Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church, Nashville, TN,  http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=4

(Thank you to Rev. Michael Lomax and to the African American Lectionary for their excellent insights into Revelation 22:1-5.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)