THE ASCENSION

He showed himself to them alive, after his suffering, by many proofs. He was seen by them for forty days, during which he spoke about God’s kingdom. [Acts 1:3 (NTE)]

He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end. [Nicene Creed]

viceroy butterflyYesterday was the 40th day of Easter and Ascension Day (or the Feast of the Ascension): the day we remember Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Although Augustine of Hippo and his contemporaries John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa held that the Feast of the Ascension originated with the Apostles and possibly dated as far back as 68 AD, no written evidence of its celebration until Augustine’s time in the fourth century exists today. From his time on, however, it has been a church holiday. Nowadays, it is observed primarily in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and liturgical Protestant churches.

At Easter, we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection: His return to life and to His disciples. Yesterday, some of us may have observed His departure from the disciples. Whether or not we consider Jesus’ ascension into heaven a religious holiday, it is a significant event in Christianity. Rather than stopping at the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, we should continue through His ascension, when Jesus was seated at the right hand of God, and all the way to Pentecost, when His Holy Spirit came upon His followers.

Jesus’ ascension signified that His task on earth was complete. His time here over, He was returning to His full heavenly glory to reign as the one true King. Until His return, only one more piece needed be put in place – the giving of the Holy Spirit – which would happen ten days later on Pentecost.

Unlike most partings, Jesus’ departure was not a sad farewell but a joyous one. It must have been a glorious sight as the disciples stood on the Mount of Olives and watched Jesus being taken up in a cloud. If any had doubted before, they now knew for sure that Jesus truly was God and His home was in heaven! As they stood there, astonished, with mouths agape, two angels appeared and assured them that someday Jesus would return in the same way He left: physically and visibly!

Before parting, Jesus commissioned the disciples to be His witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” The disciples didn’t just stand there and wait for His return and neither should we. He gave us all a job to do until that day comes.

As Jesus said this, he was lifted up while they were watching, and a cloud took him out of their sight. They were gazing into heaven as he disappeared. Then, lo and behold, two men appeared, dressed in white, standing beside them. “Galileans,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” [Acts 1:9-11 (NTE)]

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THE SONG OF HOPE

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. [Romans 12:12 (NLT)]

Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken. [Psalm 62:5-6 (NLT)]

northern mockingbirdA family of mockingbirds has moved into a nearby bush and they frequently serenade us from their vast repertoire of songs. Hearing their exuberant and joyful warbles is a perfect antidote to the sameness of life during this pandemic. While being charmed by their avian concerts, I thought of Emily Dickenson’s poem “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers.”

What exactly is hope? In the world’s view, hope is like wishful thinking: an “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but I hope it will be something good!” attitude. We hope for a cure, a job, a raise, or a phone call without knowing if we’ll receive them. Worldly hope can fail us—the cure isn’t found, the job falls through, the raise doesn’t materialize, or the phone doesn’t ring. We live in a fallen world where we will be disappointed and our hopes often are dashed.

Biblical hope, however, never disappoints because it is based on God’s promises; it is confident that something will come to pass because God has promised it! We may hope our circumstances will improve while knowing they might not but that uncertainty about our circumstances or how God will answer our prayers doesn’t mean we don’t have hope. Ours is a living hope; while it looks to the future, it is grounded in the present. We put our trust in God because His promises became a reality in Jesus. We don’t have to dream of a better life tomorrow because Jesus had given us a better life today. Our Christian hope is a confident expectation that God will work “for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” [Romans 8:28] It tells us that eventually God will deliver us and that our salvation is secure.

Although raised in a Christian family, Emily Dickenson never made a public profession of faith in Jesus, explaining, “I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die.” She was, perhaps, more honest than many of us. Nevertheless, several of her poems reveal her Christian roots. I think she understood a Christian’s hope in her metaphor of hope as a bird. Just as a bird perches on a branch, hope rests in our soul. Like a bird, Christian hope sings its pleasing song endlessly and, undeterred by hardship, hope’s song sounds sweetest in a storm. The bird’s song can be heard from the coldest land to the strangest sea and Christian hope can be found from the bleakest of conditions to the most inexplicable of situations. Even in the harshest circumstances, the bird never asked anything of Dickenson and our hope, the hope offered by Christ, asks nothing of us. We can’t earn it or buy it; it is there for the asking if only we believe!

For many right now, this is a time of darkness and fear and it seems like hope has taken flight. It hasn’t! God doesn’t change—He’s still there—the promises He made yesterday hold true today. God promises to be with us—both on the hilltop and in the valleys. Promising provision, His grace is sufficient for us. Promising to empower us, He tells us that, when we are weak, He is strong. As I listen to the mockingbirds’ songs, it seems as if they know God’s eyes are upon them and that He will take care of them. [Matthew 6:26,10:29] They remind me to live with hope perched in my soul.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
[Emily Dickenson]

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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PROMISES MADE AND PROMISES KEPT

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? [Numbers 23:19 (NLT)]

New England asterWith just 31,164 verses in the entire Bible, a Canadian schoolteacher named Everett R. Storms questioned claims that it held around 30,000 promises. During his 27th reading of the Bible in 1956, the inquisitive Mr. Storms compiled a list of all Scripture’s promises. Given that the books of prophecy are filled with promises (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel have over 1,000 each) and the psalms are steeped in promises, no wonder it took 18 months to complete this massive task! When finished, Storms had recorded 8,810 promises: 7,487 of which were made by God to man and 290 by man to God. Other promises were made by one man to another, by God the Father to God the Son, by angels to people, by man to an angel, by an evil spirit, and by Satan (all nine of which were lies).

While we’d like to lay claim to all 7,487 promises made by God to man, we must be cautious. Many of those promises were made to a specific person or in a specific situation. Although God’s promise to Noah that floodwaters would never again kill all life and destroy the earth is a promise for all of mankind, His promises to Abraham of fame, land, a son, and countless descendants were specific to him. God has not failed us if, unlike Abraham, we are without fame, property or children.

Moreover, many of God’s promises have conditions that test our obedience, require our trust, or act as a warning and those promises can’t be claimed without meeting the conditions. God promises us the desires of our heart in Psalm 37 with the conditions that we delight ourselves in Him and His character, commit everything we do to Him, and trust in Him. [37:4-5] When the Apostle James writes of the blessings and “crown of life” promised by God, the conditions include perseverance through trials by those who love Him. [1:5] In Romans, we find God’s promise of the free gift of eternal life, but it includes a warning that the “wages of sin” are death! [6:23] Unlike a legal document, God’s promises aren’t concealed or hidden in legalese; if there are conditions, they are spelled out clearly and any consequences are well defined.

What of those 290 promises made by man to God? After God promised His blessings to Israel if they obeyed Him and kept His covenant, they responded: “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” [Exodus 19:8] Sadly, their well-intentioned promise was repeatedly broken. As flawed mortals, we continue to be unable to live up to our promises to God. Fortunately, because He is a God of grace and true to His Word, we can live our lives depending upon His promises to us.

I can’t name the 7,487 promises God made to man. Nevertheless, during Lent, I compiled a far shorter list of verses with God’s promises to serve as an anchor of my faith. I know that He promises to give us wisdom if we ask, to provide a way out of temptation, and to finish the good work He began in us. He promises that our belief in Jesus gives us eternal life, that our salvation is secure, and that nothing can separate us from His love. God promises that He can turn every circumstance around for our long-range good, that He’ll never leave or forsake us, and that He will return! Without a doubt, what God promises will come true!

So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. [Hebrews 6:18 (NLT)]

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DON’T STOP AT FRIDAY – Good Friday 2020

Earthly people are like the man of earth; heavenly people are like the man from heaven. We have borne the image of the man made of earth; we shall also bear the image of the man from heaven. [1 Corinthians 15:48-49 (NLT)]

loretto - santa fe NMEaster will be a little different this year. Instead of getting up early for the sunrise service, we’ll have all day to go to online church and, rather than new Easter attire, we can attend church in sweats or jammies and our proverbial Easter bonnet can be a baseball cap. The kids won’t have brunch with the Easter Bunny, no family or friends will come for dinner, and, instead of hunting for Easter eggs, we’ll search for hand sanitizer or face masks on the Internet. Fortunately, we don’t need new clothes, eggs, brunch, jelly beans, Peeps, parades, Easter lilies, chocolate bunnies, beautiful hymns, or even a church service for Easter. All we really need is the Resurrection!

Nevertheless, some people are just Christmas through Good Friday believers. While they believe Jesus was born, walked the earth, and died on the cross, they doubt His resurrection and the promise of our resurrection. Their faith stops on Good Friday rather than going all of the way to Easter Sunday. Some of those in the church at Corinth were like that and, in 1 Corinthians 15, we find Paul’s response to those who couldn’t believe in the resurrection of the body. Without resurrection, he said, Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead and, if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, their faith was futile; they were merely false witnesses whose faith was grounded on a lie.

If we only believe from Christmas through Good Friday, we have a philosophy but not a faith and Jesus was just a godly, wise, and loving man. Paul suggests that, without the resurrection of Jesus and His followers, we might as well live with the attitude, “Let’s eat and drink, because tomorrow we’re going to die!” If our belief stops at Friday, we finish like a Looney Tunes cartoon with, “That’s all folks!” On the other hand, if we believe through Sunday, our lives are just beginning! That Jesus was raised from the dead means that even though all people die, all those in Christ will rise again! Instead of a philosopher who offered answers, the Resurrection means we have a Messiah who was the answer.

When we accept the resurrection of the dead, we’re bound to wonder how it’s done and what we’ll look like. Rather than putrefied remains, ashes or the broken bodies we had at death, Paul uses the analogy of a seed growing into a plant. Transformed, our resurrected bodies will be as different from our earthly ones as an oak is from an acorn, a chicken from an egg, a butterfly from a caterpillar, or a sunflower from its seed. Because imperfect finite bodies can’t inhabit a world that is infinite and perfect, Paul explains that God will take our perishable bodies and replace them with ones that are spiritual and imperishable. By spiritual, Paul doesn’t mean something ghostly or indistinct. There will be a body of some kind but, unlike our earthly one, it won’t be subject to decay, weakness, or death. Incapable of deterioration, it will be a beautiful and perfect vehicle for God’s Spirit.

I like C.S. Lewis’ explanation. Pointing out that, in this life, we tend to think of the soul as inhabiting the body, he suggests that, in the glorified body of the resurrection, the physical body will inhabit the soul and, rather than being less, we’ll be more. Of course, it’s all speculation. We don’t know what it will look like nor can we understand how it will be done because we’re not God. But, because we are Resurrection Sunday people, we know that it will happen!

The body that Jesus wore when he walked the earth—the one that fed a multitude, healed the sick, ate with the disciples, prayed in the garden, sweat blood, stood trial, was beaten, had nails driven into it, and hung on a cross—was a body like ours. Subject to pain, injury, disease and death, it was a body designed for an earthly life. But, Jesus’ story didn’t end on Friday and He rose on Sunday with a body suited for heaven!

One day, we will inherit His everlasting kingdom with everlasting bodies of our own. Yes, we will die in mortality, weakness, and infirmity but we will be resurrected in glory, strength, and power. We will be resurrected because we are Easter people!

On what does the Christian argument for Immortality really rest? It stands upon the pedestal on which the theologian rests the whole of historical Christianity—the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. [Henry Drummond]

‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ replied Jesus. ‘Anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die. And anyone who lives and believes in me will never, ever die.’ [John 11:25-26 (NTE)]

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NOT WHAT THEY WANTED – Palm Sunday

For the Lord will remove his hand of judgment and will disperse the armies of your enemy. And the Lord himself, the King of Israel, will live among you! At last your troubles will be over, and you will never again fear disaster. On that day the announcement to Jerusalem will be, “Cheer up, Zion! Don’t be afraid! For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. [Zephaniah 3:15-17 (NLT)]

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. [John 1:10-11 (NLT)

blue jayWith palm branches waving, the people greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. News of Jesus’ miracles, especially the resurrection of Lazarus, had spread through town. They shouted “Hosanna!” at the man they thought would overthrow the Romans, establish peace in the nation, and retake David’s throne. Expecting a political liberator rather than a spiritual savior, they wanted deliverance from the Romans rather than redemption from sin—a conquering king rather than a suffering servant. More concerned about the here and now than the forever after, they wanted power and might rather than love, peace, humility, forgiveness or eternal life. Jesus, however, didn’t come to change their circumstances; He came to change their lives and, when He didn’t give them what they wanted, they rejected Him.

I sometimes wonder if we do the same. Are we fair-weather followers like the people of Jerusalem? Those cries of “Hosanna!” became calls to crucify Him when the miracles stopped. Like them, do we turn away from God when He doesn’t fulfill our expectations? If God delivered Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from a fiery furnace, why won’t He deliver us from cancer, marital problems, or debt? God answered Elijah’s prayers with rain, so why won’t He answer ours with an end to this pandemic? He freed Peter from his prison cell, so why won’t he free us from debt, pain, or addiction? When God doesn’t deliver what we want, do we turn our backs to Him as did the people of Jerusalem? Let’s remember that while Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were delivered from the furnace and Peter escaped from prison, not everyone got what they wanted: Stephen was stoned, John beheaded, Isaiah sawn in half, and James slain with a sword.

When God doesn’t meet our expectations, we may start to doubt. Instead of believing that God is good, we ask, “What good is God?” We don’t have to earn God’s love with our works and yet we expect Him to prove His love through His blessings. Our faith cannot be tied to His fulfillment of our desires and expectations; it must be tied to His word. His business is transforming us and not our circumstances.

Let’s never confuse our desires with God’s promises. He will always deliver what He’s promised—peace, love, forgiveness, salvation, the Holy Spirit, eternal life, His grace, and sufficiency. Whether they recognized Him or not, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, God was fulfilling His promises and meeting their greatest need: deliverance, not from the Romans, but from sin. God continues to be true to His word today. He will always deliver what He’s promised but, like that itinerant rabbi from Nazareth riding on a donkey through the streets of Jerusalem, often it is not what we expect or think we want!

Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands. [Deuteronomy 7:9 (NLT]

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? [Numbers 23:19 (NLT)]

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COWBOY OR SHEPHERD?

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. [Psalm 23:1 (NLT)]

cowboy - Losee Canyon - BryceIn A Gentle Thunder, author Max Lucado compares the hero of the Bible, the shepherd, with the hero of the American west, the cowboy. They both herd livestock, their home is the range, and they sleep under the stars. The difference, says Lucado, is that the shepherd knows and loves his sheep because he leads them to be shorn. The cowboy, however, doesn’t get attached to his cattle because he’s leading them to slaughter! While several cowboys drive a herd of cattle and know one another’s names, just one shepherd leads a flock of sheep and it is their names that he knows!

Lucado’s comparison got me thinking about the cowboy heroes of my youth: Marshalls Matt Dillon and Wyatt Earp, widower Lucas McCain (the Rifleman), gunfighter-for-hire Paladin, and the Lone Ranger with his trusty sidekick Tonto. They were larger than life heroes. Along with being excellent shots, they lived by a strict moral code, fought for law and order, and only used their fists or weapons in the cause of justice. I seriously doubt those cowboys bore much resemblance to the real thing.

The masked Lone Ranger stands out in my memory. He and Tonto rode through the West, doing good deeds and fighting evil. The stories were formulaic and, when the townspeople were in dire straits, our heroes would save the day. With the “William Tell Overture” playing in the background, they would ride into town, guns blazing, and rescue the good citizens from the forces of evil. Then without waiting for thanks, they’d ride off into the sunset with Rossini’s music in the background. We’d hear the Lone Ranger call, “Hi-yo, Silver” and someone would ask, “Who was that masked man?”

We no longer face the challenges of frontier life: desperadoes, stagecoach robberies, cattle rustling, hijacked stage coaches, gunfights, claim jumping, or evil land barons. Nevertheless, we need to be rescued from more realistic problems: fear, worry, poor choices, illness, anger, broken marriages, estranged families, doubt, indebtedness, addiction, disabilities, loss, and the challenges of care giving. Sadly, no cowboy in a white hat is going to ride to our rescue and the solution won’t occur in a thirty-minute time slot. Nevertheless, sometimes we seem to think Jesus will do just that (only without the silver bullets and white hat).

Fortunately, as Lucado points out in his book, we don’t have a cowboy; we have a shepherd. Unlike the Lone Ranger, He doesn’t travel around until He comes upon someone in trouble and, unlike Paladin, we don’t have to hire Him. Moreover, He never rides off into the sunset after helping us. Like a good shepherd, Jesus is always with each and every one of us. Being the sheep of His pasture, however, doesn’t mean we won’t encounter predators, pests, harsh environment, storms, or sickness. We’ll occasionally stumble, wander off, or be tempted by poisonous weeds. Having a shepherd means that we’re never alone in those trials. We don’t need to wait for a hero to save the day because our savior is in the day with us! The few times the Lone Ranger was caught, he never was unmasked and no one except Tonto knew his identity. As Christians, however, we know the identity of our shepherd. If we truly follow Him, we’ll never need a cowboy to save the day.

We need a shepherd. We don’t need a cowboy to herd us; we need a shepherd to care for us and to guide us. He’s not a cowboy, and we aren’t cattle. He doesn’t brand us, and we’re not on the way to the market. He guides, feeds, and anoints. And Word has it that he won’t quit until we reach the homeland. [Max Lucado]

I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. [John 10:14-15 (NLT)]

Once you were like sheep who wandered away. But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls. [1 Peter 2:24-25 (NLT)]

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