Discovering Spiritual Truths & Celebrating God's Grace in the Every Day Happenings of Life.
Traffic was horrendous this morning. It took me 3 times longer than normal to get to work today. The ‘Denville’ exit was so backed up that I decided to drive the two extra miles and use the ‘Cherry Hill Road’ exit. Bad choice. Twenty-four additional minutes later, I was finally able to get off the highway. In my short stretch down Route 80, I passed three different (non-serious) accidents and there appeared to be a couple more of them just beyond my exit. To say that this commute was an agonizing crawl would be an understatement. It is a frustrating thing indeed to be stuck in traffic. It’s annoying, it takes a long time, and it’s beyond our control. Getting stuck in traffic is something I have never heard anyone say they enjoy.
Sometimes it can feel like there is no end in sight when you are stuck in traffic or caught in construction, but the end always comes, doesn’t it? The same is true in life—of difficulties, hardships, and trials. We spend a lot of our lives stuck ... at least, we feel as if we're stuck. We drive to work and get stuck in traffic. We finally arrive, only to remember that we're stuck in a frustrating job. We bump into someone at the store and get stuck in conversation. Maybe we're stuck with an underperforming mutual fund. Or stuck with a body that just can't stay healthy. Or stuck with extended family members who aren't pleasant to be around. Feeling stuck can be disconcerting, irritating, or depressing. And because we live in a fallen world, we have all had these stucky feelings before. Sure, perspective reminds us that there are always people in a worse situation than we are, but that doesn’t completely take away or negate our own “stuck” moments.
Still, feeling stuck can provide some helpful, Biblical reminders for us as Christians. How? These “feeling stuck” moments can be redeemed when we allow them to bring us back to what, or who, is most important—our God. These inevitable moments of helpless frustration emphasize the reality that we are not in control. Only God is. No matter the situation, miniscule or serious, things are often outside of our grasp of control. Thus, these are times in which we have to look outside of ourselves, and back to the One who rules and reigns over all things. God is God. You are not. Eat the humble pie. Yet, this is actually a wonderful thing, because there is great comfort knowing that God is with us. Do you remember this old hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”? It is filled with encouragement for the stuck moments we all have, “…O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!”
So, the next time you feel stuck, don't give way to panic, doubt, anger, depression or guilt. Repurpose that momentary feeling of “stuck” to rejoice in a good and loving God that just may be reminding you of who He is, who you are, and who's really in charge. Yes indeed, the mighty Creator is at work, on your behalf, “working all things together for the good of YOU who love Him.” (Romans 8:28) God has a plan, and His plan is wise and good, better than anything you could ever dream up. This means, God might even be using the extra time you sit in traffic for your benefit. The next time you feel stuck, rest. Not because you know what's happening, but because you commune with the One who's in control of what's happening to you right now. Rest because He's included you in something wonderful, even though in the moment it feels as if you're stuck.
I’m sure that most of you know this already. In fact, you have probably had this date circled on the calendar for weeks now. You’ve been counting down the days.
Filled with anticipation.
Barely able to sleep at night.
You likely have so many plans in place already.
Ways to celebrate.
Long guest lists.
Yes indeed, the day has finally arrived. Today is Ascension Day!
Who’s excited? Who’s ready to party?
On the off chance you don’t know what I’m talking about, Ascension Day celebrates Christ's exaltation—His ascension into heaven. While on earth, He was a servant. Now in heaven, Jesus is the ruler and Lord of all. By entering heaven as the representative of mankind, He completes the work of our salvation and guarantees the eventual glorification of all who put their faith in Him. Because the date of Easter varies from year to year, the celebration of the Ascension moves with it. It is always on the fortieth day after Easter and, since Easter always falls on a Sunday, Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday. Thus, it is frequently called "Holy Thursday." But few holy days in the church year get overlooked more than this day.
It is indeed a forgotten festival. When we tell the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, we tend to focus on His death and resurrection, and with good reason…talk about a glorious moment! But that’s not the only wonderful image we get, because after He reveals Himself to His disciples, He ascends into heaven. There are two main things happening in the Ascension. First, Jesus ascends to the Father to fulfill all things (Ephesians 4:10). He becomes hidden from our physical sight, but present with us in even more tangible ways when His Word is preached, when the Lord’s Supper is received, when forgiveness is bestowed, every time there’s a baptism. Christ promises at the end of Matthew that he would “be with us always” and this remains true – especially in light of the Ascension. What the Ascension changes is where Christ is now located. Jesus is not only the Word made flesh in a Bethlehem stable; but now He is ever-present with His people. He shows up for us in so many ways. The Apostle Paul confesses that Christ’s Ascension is not Christ’s absence, but a re-packaging of His real presence. Because of Christ’s ascent to the right hand of God He is not constrained to one place, but is, as both God and man, filling all things.
The second thing that occurs in the Ascension is a triumphant image. Picture watching this on the big screen. As the disciples watch Jesus rise up, He fades from their sight, then the camera cuts to the throne room of heaven, where God sits surrounded by elders and angels and cherubim, holding a scroll. When an angel asks who is worthy to open the scroll and carry out God’s plan for salvation, there is no answer in heaven or on earth. Jesus suddenly appears before the throne and takes the scroll from God’s hand! And the crowd of heaven goes wild! They sing songs of praise to the Lamb of God, and fall down and worship Him (Revelation 5). Then, Satan appears, in dragon form of course, gets into a battle with Michael and the other heavenly angels, who by the blood of Christ, are able to cast him down to earth. Jesus ascends and “boots Satan out of the presence of God,” so that the Devil can no longer stand before God and accuse His people (Revelation 12). Salvation has been accomplished, Satan has been cast out of heaven and bound, and Christ is crowned victor!
Is that not an amazing image?
Christ’s Ascension is a critical part of His story, of our story. It shapes our understanding of who Jesus is. He is still active and still reigning, and in the physical places of this world where He promises, we can still find Him. It also reveals that Jesus didn’t just leave us to go lounge around in heaven waiting for us to come join Him. His crowning, triumphant moment, reminds us that not only has He not abandoned us here, but this battle that we fight, our constant struggle against sin, has already been won by His blood on our behalf. Christ has been crowned the victor! Now, the ascended and enthroned Christ cares for His suffering people as we bear witness to Him. Doesn’t that sound like a reason to party to you?
“When you went to bed last night Jesus was at work subduing his enemies. While you slept, he was continuing to rule over the world. He was still at it when you woke up this morning and even now as you read this. That is the outrageous claim of the ascension.” (Tim Chester & Jonny Woodrow)
“At His Ascension our Lord entered Heaven, and He keeps the door open for humanity to enter.” (Oswald Chambers)
“He controls all things for the church, and therefore you can face the world with peace in your heart . . . he’s at the right hand of God as the executive director of history, directing everything for the benefit of the church. If you belong to him, then everything that happens ultimately happens for you.” (Tim Keller)
Earlier this week, I heard a pastor say that the church is place for “everyone to be comfortable.” Though I understand, I think, the sentiment behind what he was trying to say, the phrase still struck me in an awkward way. Indeed, the church should be a place where all are welcomed and embraced. But should the church be a place where we are actually, completely comfortable? Should it be a place where our personal comfort is catered to? Should it be a place where our sin is overlooked? Where we are never called to repent? Where we are not challenged to change? Should the church be a place where we are never confronted? Where we never grow? It brought to my mind, from John 8, Jesus’ interaction with the women caught in adultery. She absolutely found acceptance and deliverance. Even more than that, she found salvation as Jesus' fended off her stoners. But she was no doubt made a bit uncomfortable by Jesus’ acknowledgement of her sin. In order for her to go and live her life differently, Jesus calls her away from the selfish and sinful ways she was living. There was no condemnation, but there was absolutely a call to do better, to sin no more.
A recent study by Lifeway Research revealed 67% of U.S. Protestant pastors believe comfort is a modern-day idol that has a significant influence on their congregations. This idol is hardly noticeable. But think about it. In a world of “church shopping” do we not try to have church our way? We choose churches where the worship music matches our taste, the hymns are always easy to sing, the sermons fit our preferences, the teachings tell us what we want to hear, our peers never disagree, and the building suits our style. We talk to the same group of people. We sit in “our” pew. Of course, although these habits aren’t inherently bad, they quickly reveal how easily we can turn the church into a country club—a place that never challenges us, never makes us a bit uncomfortable.
Yet, in our congregation, we begin each service with something to this effect. “We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean,” or “We have sinned against you in through, word, and deed,” or “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess…” This hardly seems user-friendly and comfortable. Admitting our evil. Owning our immorality. Acknowledging our iniquities. Imploring God to deliver His mercy and forgiveness hardly seems like a comfortable thing to do. To be sure, no one want to admit their flaws or failures. Yet this is the very first part of our timeless Lutheran liturgy. Why? Because the Word of God puts us in our place. We stand in front of the spiritual mirror with a harsh reality check; we are reminded that we are sinful and cannot stand before God who perfect and holy. But no sooner than we get the confession out of our mouths, then the holy and grace-giving words of God’s absolution are spoken over us. As the mercy of Jesus is poured over us, we are cleansed of all unrighteousness. The unholy are made holy. The wretched are made righteous. The sinful are made sacred. We arise from the uncomfortable kneelers as blessed children who have been made new, forgiven.
The church, our church, can never be driven by self-interest or human comfort. On the contrary, it must be the place where we are forced to face the uncomfortable reality of our sinfulness and brokenness. It is essential because only then can we rejoice in the Gospel of Jesus and in the incredible acts of love that He does on our behalf. Remember these words from Jesus, when He was being ridiculed for the flawed company He kept: “And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (Mark 2:17) We cannot fully appreciate the cure, unless we understand the severity of the sickness, our sickness. This is why we continue to be a church that is fully entrenched in the Word of God. This is why we make ourselves rightly uncomfortable to start the service, so that we can leave the worship service far better than comfortable—renewed and recreated in the image of our Savior (cf. Ephesians 4)! There should be Sundays, most Sundays, when you are challenged, when you are a little rattled, when you ask questions. There should be times when you resolve to do things differently than those around you, especially when the truths of God’s authoritative Word are penetrating the lies that we all believe in this fallen world. There should be those moments when you feel itchy and uncomfortable, and you end up going home and searching for answers in Scripture. Because the whole point is not to be happy and comfy– the whole point is to humble ourselves and find rest in Jesus, to pattern ourselves to be more like Him.
"The church is a place where broken people can fall in love with a beautiful God." (Shane Clarborne)
"The church is not a select circle of the immaculate, but a home where the outcast may come in." (J. H. Aughey)
Pastor Steve Vera