The Ascension of Jesus – why does it matter? Continued…
I was reading two very different types of news stories last week.
The first had to do with the phenomena of celebrity readings. Of course, people have been doing this for years – but during this lockdown period it’s a craze that seems to have gone, well crazy!
So far we’ve had:
- Daniel Radcliffe (the actor who played Harry Potter) reading Harry Potter (and other cast members have of course now followed suit).
- Andy Serkis (who memorably played Gollum) reading The Hobbit
- David Walliams reading any number of his children’s books
Together with countless other celebrities who have signed up for Poetry Pharmacy or Save With Stories. The list goes on – if I’ve missed your favourite, please let me know and I’ll edit them in too!
It seems there’s something powerful about hearing the stories we love most read to us live by the voices we most associate them with.
The second type of news story was far more heart-breaking. Charities like AGE UK and Silverline have reported a huge boom in calls from people aged over 50. There’s a perception that for some of them, retirement should have better prepared them for lockdown life than the rest of us – but, of course, retirement is nothing like isolation. Not going out or seeing anyone is very different from knowing that you must not go or see anyone; and feeling vulnerable and being told that you are especially vulnerable are also very different things.
The people phoning are reporting feeling new levels of boredom, cabin fever, anxiety and depression.
One widow said that the isolation was like “grieving all over again” because there was little space for her to escape from the constant reminders of her late husband.
Another grandparent said that the loss of physical contact with her grandchildren felt like an emotional amputation.
Others reported the common phenomena of being bored and yet experiencing time moving rather rapidly, and being left struggling to focus on simple tasks; with things like reading, writing or knitting taking far longer than they usually would.
The report also suggested that the reason their phone lines were so busy is because the elderly people were ringing them so as not to add a burden on the rest of their family.
Maybe you have felt in similar circumstances and been uncertain as to where to look for support.
But it’s not just the elderly or the isolated who can feel this way.
Later in the book of Acts we met an amazing guy called Stephen. We know so little about him, but he is introduced to us as “a man full of God’s grace and power” who was having such an amazing teaching and healing ministry that provoked huge opposition from the Jewish Authorities.
When they surround him with their false accusations and threats, He looks up, to where Jesus is ascended and enthroned far above the conflicts and confusion of our world:
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:54-56)
Jesus’ Ascension into heaven inspires Stephen right in this moment of intense opposition, because it allowed him to see beyond this present darkness to the glory of where Jesus now stands. He knew that, just as God had vindicated Jesus, so God would vindicate him, and that just as God had not abandoned Jesus – so too God would not abandon him.
Right when he needed it most, Stephen turned his ear to the Author of Life, and Author of his salvation, and was able to hear another story! And this was a ‘live’ reading, his faith was lifted and inspired right when he needed it most!
And so, with this vision firmly in his mind, Stephen (the first ever Christian martyr in history) is able to face death with strength, dignity and words of grace; a mirroring of Jesus’ own death:
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7.59-60)
We know this strength, dignity and grace had a particularly deep impact on at least one of the crowd who were attacking him. It is in this moment that we are first introduced to a young passionate Pharisee called Saul:
And Saul approved of their killing him. (Acts 8.1)
Saul would prove to be a dangerous threat to the early church, it’s hardest critic and harshest persecutor. Fueled on by Stephen’s death, Saul obtains the legal permission to arrest the members of an early Christian gathering in Damacus. Jesus, however, has other plans. Whilst on the road to the city, Saul too sees the glory of Jesus – but what was brilliant to Stephen was blinding to Saul.
He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him,
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9.4-6)
It is now a matter of history that the man who got up from the dust of the Damascus road was a changed man. He left the name of Saul behind and, now known as, Paul became the churches greatest theologian and evangelist.
Undoubtedly though, one of the things that forever changed his life – was the discovery that the Ascended Jesus feels the pain of his persecuted people. “Why do you persecute me?” was a question that changed the course of Saul’s life, and that led him away from a man driven by law to a man defined by grace.
Jesus may be standing in glory and exalted as head over all – but He is still able to share deeply in the painful experiences of His body, the Church, on earth. That amazing truth changes everything, and has the power to change the course of our lives right now.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4.14-16)
However we are feeling, there is a place we can all look today and a story that can intersect with others. Jesus Himself is waiting for our attention so that He can read it personally to us:
“You are not alone.”
“You are not abandoned.”
“I know your pain, I’ve walked your road.”
“You are loved.”
“You are free.”
“You are mine.”
“Look to me, listen to me, hold onto me today and receive from me the mercy and grace you need to help you right at your time of need.”
On Tuesday next week (26th May) we are marking the 80th anniversary of The King’s Call a National Day of Prayer that brought about what history now recognises as “The Miracle of Dunkirk”. It is such a comfort and a strength to know that Jesus understands our pain, He stands with us in our hurt, and holds out for us the path of life – the grace and mercy to help us in our time of need. Stand with us as we make our stand and cry out for His help.