Category Archives: Contemplative

Ascension: Luke 24: 50-53

The Ascension of Jesus

50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Luke 24:50-53, NIV

Horsham, 9th May 2024

You probably didn’t hear this on the news today or pick it up on social media, but today is Ascension Day.

When I was a child, my entire primary school were marched down the road to the village Church for the Ascension Day service. That almost certainly wouldn’t happen today.  Whilst it’s a really important date in the Christian calendar, I’m kind of disappointed that relatively few Christian Churches will be celebrating it today.

So, what is Ascension Day and why is it important to me? Let’s start with a bit of important context.

Good Friday

Jesus was crucified a Friday morning just before the start of the Passover festival in Jerusalem. His death was hugely dramatic, and restored the relationship between mankind and God. Because of his death on the cross, Jesus offers salvation to eternal life for those who believe in Him as the Son of God (John 3:16). In spite of the absolute horror of execution by crucifixion, Christ’s death opens the opportunity of a right relationship with God (which is a good thing) so we call that day ‘Good Friday’. You can read the story of His death in Luke 23: 26-49.

Easter Day

Good Friday, then, commemorates the day of Christ’s death. We regards the Friday as the first day of his death. The Saturday, the second day, was regarded as the Sabbath. Jesus’ friends could not visit his tomb to anoint the body on the Sabbath, so they went there at dawn on the Sunday, the third day. You may remember the story, that when they arrived, the large stone which had covered the entrance to his tomb had been rolled away and the body was gone. You can read the events of that extraordinary day in  Luke 24The eyewitness accounts speak of the risen Jesus.  Jesus rose from the dead on the third day – the Sunday – which we celebrate as Easter Day.

‘The disciples didn’t need to see Him rise, because they saw Him risen.’ (i)

Resurrection

The story of the Gospels is that the death of Jesus was not the end. The risen Jesus is seen by his disciples repeatedly after his death over a period of 40 days. We call this the period of his resurrection. Resurrection means ‘raised from the dead’. He appears to his friends and disciples. This isn’t a vague ghostly apparition. Jesus talks to them. He allows them to touch him and even eats with them. He speaks to them in ones and twos, and sometimes in much larger groups (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

Ascension

40 days after his resurrection he leads them out to a hilly area just outside Jerusalem, above a village called Bethany. Jesus, we read, lifted his hands in blessing over his disciples, and as he does so, he is lifted up towards the sky. I have no idea how that worked – but he ‘ascended’ in front of them, until a cloud hid him from their sight. Because he ascended, this is commemorated as ‘Ascension Day‘ 40 days after Easter Day. That’s today.

‘The Ascension must always remain a mystery, for it attempts to put into words and describe something which is beyond description.’ (ii)

Why does it matter?

This is one of the most extraordinary moments of the account of Jesus. Theologian and preacher Charles Spurgeon describes the highlight dramatic events of Christ’s birth, death, resurrection and ascension as being like four rungs of a ladder, with the foot on earth and the top in heaven (iii).

So here are three reasons why  Ascension Day is important to me as a follower of Jesus.

  1. It marks the end of the ‘resurrection’ phase of Christ’s ministry in the most dramatic and extraordinary way;
  2. It is a moment of blessing, assurance and preparation for the next phase in the establishment and development of the Church at Pentecost; and,
  3. It is a visible point of transition from the experience of Christ on earth to the visible certainty of Christ in heaven.
(You can also read an account of the Ascension in Acts 1: 1-1.)

So there we are. Ascension Day and why it’s important to me!

Happy Ascension Day!

(i) John Wesley, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles
(ii) Wm Barclay, Daily Study Bible, Acts, p.353
(iii) Spurgeon, ‘Commentary and Sermons on Acts’ Kindle Edition, ref 25673

Waiting

27th December, 2023: Pocklington, Yorkshire 

I wonder whether you have ever sat in a theatre waiting for a musical to start. There’s a sense of anticipation and excitement,  tinged by the fear that someone tall will unexpectedly appear on the seat in front of you and obscure your view. After what always feels like a lengthy wait, the conductor stands up, taps his music stand, and then the band strike up with the overture.  The overture grabs your attention. The burble of conversation stops and there’s a sense of excitement as people eagerly soak up the music. The overture reaches a crescendo, and then comes to an end. There is a moment, often just a very brief moment, of silence. A moment of waiting. A moment of profound anticipation. And then the curtain rises and the performance begins.

After the waiting of Advent, with the anticipation and excitement of the coming Christmas, tinged with the anxiety that someone will spoil it all by testing positive for covid on Christmas Eve, the big day comes. Advent seems to last for ages, and then suddenly Christmas arrives! Christmas Day brings its own sense of excitement and  grabs your attention. The food, presents and family traditions. The day reaches its crescendo and comes to an end. Then, between Christmas and New Year, comes this moment of silence. A time of waiting. A time of profound anticipation.

I always look forwards to the New Year with a mixture of excitement tinged with nervousness. Before it arrives,  the New Year looks like a blank page, waiting for the story of the coming months to be written. It feels fresh and exciting. But of course, I know that there will inevitably be moments in the story of the year to come which will be challenging and disappointing.

For the moment,  I’m in that special place between Christmas and New Year.  It feels a bit like that moment of silence before the performance begins. For me, Christmas has been the overture, reminding me of the greatest story ever told – Immanuel – God with us.  When the musical starts, it’s going to be good. Of course there will be the odd song which I don’t particularly like. One or two scenes will be longer than I might have wished, and several which could have been longer.

The coming year looks challenging. It’s not going to be straightforward. But the God of Advent love and joy, fills me with hope and an inner sense of peace. Whatever the future holds, I am not facing it alone.

‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
Matthew 28:20 (NIV)

Do not worry about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34)

In a few weeks time, I will be stepping down from my role as the Coordinator for Horsham Churches Together. I’ve done this job for just a couple of years. There have been challenges, but I’ve met and worked with some wonderful people and it’s been an incredible privilege to serve local Churches and Christian leaders in this way.

Moving on undoubtedly brings me closer to retirement. That feels like a big thing for me. I don’t feel ready to retire, and I have very mixed feelings about stepping down, but in my heart, I know it is the right thing for me to do.

Last night, I went to a worship and prayer service which brings together people from many of the 31 Horsham congregations.

As I walked to the meeting I was reflecting on my role with and my small contribution to the life of Horsham Churches Together over the last couple of years. Those mixed feelings rose again in my mind. Who is going to take over? What will it look like without me? How’s it going to work?

Then, as I walked up North Street, past the Old Council Offices, God spoke. ‘This story,’ He said, ‘is about me, not about you.’ There was a gentleness to these words, yet a profound directness. Stop worrying about the next stage of the story for HCT. It seemed to say, the future of HCT is part of God’s story. Not mine.

Later, at the service, I found myself praying on my own to one side of the auditorium. I was prayerfully reflecting on my own career – my own story. I have done many jobs – paid and voluntary. If a book were written about my life, I thought, each of them would be a chapter in my story. I have so often been deeply conscious of His presence at so many important points in my life. The start, and the closure, of each chapter has invariably involved a sense of His direction and leading. So, I found myself prayerfully asking God what was next for me. In an instant, in my mind, was the phrase ‘How much better will it be if you let me write the next chapter.’

“6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” Philippians 4:6-7 (NRSV)

“6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” Philippians 4:6-7 (NRSV)

Beatitudes: Dr Michael Frost

Dr Mike Frost is the founding Director of the Tinsley Institute, a mission study centre located at Morling College in Sydney, Australia.

This is quoted from: www.nomadpodcast.co.uk/michael-frost-deconstructing-the-christian-narrative-of-power-n302/

I don’t read these as conditions – if you do these things you will be blessed, but as proclamations of the upside down kingdom

  • God is for those who are down and out, for the freaks, the weirdos, the awkward, the suffering, the irreligious and the profane;
  • God is for those who are deep in grief, whose pain makes them unable to participate fully in the strategies of a successful modern life;
  • God is for those who do not use power and strength over others in order to make their way in the world;
  • God is for those who long for things to be put right and for the unjust systems of the world to be torn down
  • God is for those who show mercy and forgiveness to one another, rather than seeking revenge for the ways in which they have been wronged
  • God is for those who can see that the external markers of religiously approved behaviour don’t mean much after all;
  • God is for those who resist  ways of violence and oppression in the world, and instead seek to become agents of peace and reconciliation between those who do not yet understand or love one another
  • And God is for those who, because they seek to live in this kind of reality, encounter the impression, exclusion and disdain of those with power, wealth and status.’

Look for something beautiful

Each day, look for something beautiful. Take time to notice. Take time to breathe.

‘We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.’

CS Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory’, p.42, Harper Collins

If ever the world needed Jesus, it needs Him now!

About 20 years ago on Remembrance Day I was speaking at a small Baptist Church in south Essex. As part of the prayers of intercession, we reflected on the many wars and humanitarian crises which were happening around the world.  At the end of each section of the prayers I used this phrase.

‘If ever the world needed Jesus, it needs Him now.’

As I write, a week has passed since a brutal Hamas attack which originated from northern Gaza, resulted in thousands of Israeli dead. Women. Children. Entire families. Killed in their own homes. This attack was a massacre. This attack was brutal and inexcusable. The attack grows from a shameful history of deprivation and suppression of the Palestinian people.

Tonight, 2 million Palestinian people are living under siege.  They are being denied access to the basic needs of food, water and medicine.  Israel is bombing residential areas of Gaza, including places where displaced refugees are seeking refuge.  They are being shelled and killed in their own homes by armaments fired by the Israeli Defence Force. Civilians are being maimed and killed in their thousands. They are victims of a massacre. Women. Children. Entire families. There is no safe place in Gaza. The people of Gaza have nowhere to hide. They have nowhere to go.

As I write, the world is holding its breath in horror.

As I write, the world is watching.

‘If ever the world needed the love, the healing, the peace and the grace of Jesus Christ, it needs it now.’

Today, more than ever, keep praying.

Answered Prayer 1

We are often troubled because our prayers do not always seem to be answered as we would wish.

This, it seems to me, is how it works.

“God will either give us what we ask for in prayer or give us what we would have asked for if we knew everything He knows.”

Tim Keller

(Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God, Timothy Keller, Penguin, 2014 p228)

Next Post in this series

Don’t Expect Perfection

It would have been so easy for the writers of Scripture to ‘airbrush’ out the faults of key biblical figures. In our western culture, we almost expect people to do that. Yet because of those ancient writers, we know the characters of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.. in fact pretty much everyone in Scripture, ‘warts and all’.  We see their strengths, but we also see their weaknesses and faults. They all had shortcomings, and those are often what turns these characters into real people. It makes their stories real and sometimes gritty.

Moses had his faults, but God still gifted and used him. David made dreadful mistakes, but God honoured him.

‘Solomon (son of David) showed his love for the LORD by walking according to the instructions given to him by his father David, except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places.’ (1 Kings 3:3) (emphasis mine).

The mistakes of the followers of Jesus are all there in the New Testament story. They were all good people. They had good intentions. They aimed high, and God blessed them when they did, but they didn’t always completely get it right.

There have been times when I’ve messed up.  So all this gives me hope. Like you and me, every one of these people fell short of God’s standard and stood in need of His forgiveness – yet God blessed them when they repented. He blessed them when they aimed high. And He will bless you too.

In the same way that the deep blue of outer space emphasises the brightness of the moon, so the weakness of character of these giants of Scripture emphasises and throws into greater clarity the purity of Christ – the one who was tempted and persecuted, yet never fell short.

Don’t expect perfection in others. Don’t expect it in yourself. When you fall short, take responsibility – and move on.

Keep on praying.

 

‘I am the LORD your God’

‘I am the Lord your God.’

We read these words a number of times in Scripture. I wonder whether you have ever really stopped to think about what that short sentence actually means. It’s so easy to overlook the extraordinary power and majesty which they describe.

I have been leading worship for years. A lot of years. I have something of an itinerant ministry, which means that when I turn up at a Church to preach, I will also have the guitar ready to lead at least part of the service with music.

So a couple of nights ago, I turned up at a meeting, it was quite normal for me to be asked to start with a song and a prayer. It wasn’t a huge meeting, but it was a public meeting. No problem.

So there we were, gathered together, ready to start.

We started with a prayer. I brought a verse of Scripture. Exodus 20:1-2. The verse contains the words, ‘I am the LORD your God.’ I spoke a few words. Then, we were silent before the Lord.

Then, I started singing. The people joined me, praising God, singing a familiar song.

I noticed two things. First, I had started us off in the wrong key. It wasn’t wildly out. It was ok for most of the ladies, but a struggle for the men. As the worship leader I had accidentally set myself a huge challenge. The second thing I realised was that in the heat of a summers evening, my guitar had become horribly out of tune.

We kept going. I used the guitar as little as possible, and did my best. But there’s no question. I hadn’t prepared properly. I hadn’t checked the guitar properly. I should have done better. Much better.

Later, I reflected on what had happened. It was as if God was saying to me, ‘Don’t be over confident – don’t forget that this is not about you. It’s about me.’

It’s only now, a few days on, that I have been reminded of those six words.

‘I am the LORD your God.’

I praise you for who you are. You are the LORD my God.
Lord, forgive me for the times when I do things in my own strength.

The times when I forget to rely on you.
Forgive me for the moments when I don’t use the gifts which you have given me as well as I should. Forgive me when I forget who you are.
Forgive me for the moments when I act as if it’s all about me.
Thank you for the guiding touch of your Holy Spirit. Thank you for allowing me to draw close to you.
More than a friend. More than a brother.
You are the LORD my God.

Everyone’s Gotta Be Somewhere!

In Episode 163 of The Goon Show, the highly esteemed BBC radio comedy from the 1950s, Neddy Seagoon happens across the childlike Eccles in a dark, damp, coal cellar. “What are you doing here?”, asks Seagoon. Eccles replies: “Everybody’s gotta be somewhere.”[i]

Eccles, it seems to me, had a point. It is a simple matter of the laws of physics and of common sense that all of us, at any point in our lives, have to be somewhere. The fact that we are somewhere, means we cannot simultaneously be anywhere else. I am sitting in the shade in my daughter’s back garden in Bristol. I cannot simultaneously be sitting on the terrace of my apartment in Horsham.

Eccles was right. “Everybody’s gotta be somewhere.”

The same is not true of God.

John 4:24 summarises a truth which permeates Scripture. ‘God is Spirit.’ From the first verses of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible through to the closing verses of Revelation Scripture makes clear that God is not constrained by the laws of science. He is not limited by geographical or political boundaries. He is global. He is universal. Our God is the creator of all things and is present by His Spirit throughout His creation (Isaiah 40:28). 

Unlike us, God can, by His Spirit, be everywhere at the same time.

We have a tendency to ‘compartmentalise’ our lives. We can easily start to see our work life as distinctly separate from our home life. Our behaviour during time spent with our friends can be very different from time spent with our family. Our expectations of our own behviour Saturday evening can be wildly different from our expectations of our behaviour on Sunday morning. Our attitude when driving our car can be completely different from our behaviour when visiting our Grandparents or our Grandchildren.

And yet another truth which permeates Scripture is the closeness of God. Wherever we go, regardless of our circumstances, God is always there.

23 Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? 24 Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:23-24 (NRSVUE))

Where, asks the Psalmist, can I go to get away from your Spirit?

Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence? (Psalm 139:7)                

The answer, ultimately, is ‘nowhere’. A God who is fills his creation with the Presence of His Spirit is everywhere. His presence extends to us as individuals.

Always ‘remember’, says Jesus to His followers, ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28: 20).

A God who is Spirit, who fills His creation, and is always present. When we’re facing an exam, or a hospital appointment, or a relationship breakdown, that can be a real comfort. When we’re dealing with bereavement, or anxiety about the future, or deep seated depression, that can be a lifeline.

God, we know, ‘is near to the broken hearted,  and saves the crushed in spirit.’ (Psalm 34:18)

But of course a God who is Spirit, who fills His creation, and is always present, creates a huge responsibility for all of us. A God who watches over us and never sleeps sees everything we do (Psalm 121, 3-4), and knows every word we say, even before we say it (Psalm 139:4). Nothing, but nothing is hidden from Him. We can compartmentalise our lives as much as we like. We can make excuses for our less than appropriate behaviour in dark corners of our life, but we can never hide our activities, even our thoughts, from Him.

A God who is Spirit, who fills His creation, who is always present, who is all knowing. This can feel burdensome, even overpowering. It can feel as if we are constantly on show. As if every error we make is being seen and noted. Yet this is balanced by the sense of His loving presence supporting, encouraging and blessing us at every point as we walk through life with Christ alongside us.

As followers of Jesus, we need to remind ourselves that the sense of burden which comes with our recognition of that ‘responsibility’, only kicks in if we are doing things which we know we should probably not be doing. The burden becomes heavier still, if we try to compartmentalise our lives in such a way that there are areas of our life which we would prefer that God did not see. Dark recesses where we hope that the light of His presence will not shine. Yet we have just reminded ourselves that such a ‘hidden’ place cannot – does not – exist. Scripture says that however hard we try to do that, we simply can’t hide ourselves from Him.

My point is that it starts to look a bit like this. If we’re doing the right thing, His presence is a comfort, an inspiration and a joy. If we’re not doing the right thing, His presence is a burden

When I drive to the shops, I can stick to my responsibility by driving at or below the speed limit. It might take me a minute or two longer to get to my destination than I would have liked, but I will arrive in one piece and by driving gently I will probably be calm and relaxed when I arrive. Alternatively, I can disregard my responsibilities to observe the rules by driving at excessive speed. I may get to the shop a couple of minutes earlier, but I am likely to feel slightly hyped up by the drive, and probably annoyed by the slower drivers who were in my way and slowing my progress. Driving at speed increases the chances of my involvement in an accident. An accident is damaging and can easily be harmful, even life changing, for me and for others. And of course, if I’m having a really bad day, I’ll have a speeding ticket as a souvenir. 

If I’m observing my responsibilities –if I’m doing the right thing – the Presence of God is an awesome thing. If I’m disregarding my responsibilities – going my own way – doing the wrong thing – His presence is something to be hidden from. Doing the right thing means that I can enjoy life to the full in His Presence. Deliberately doing the wrong thing creates a sense of anxiety and the desire to keep things hidden from God.

Adam and Eve tried to hide in the Garden of Eden. Jonah tried running away to escape from God. They all discovered that you simply can’t hide from God.

So, here’s the thing. Eccles was right. Everybody really has gotta be somewhere.

If you’re following Jesus, the teaching of Scripture is clear. Wherever that ‘somewhere’ may be, God will be there. You can try to hide. Or you can celebrate His presence. The choice is yours. If you are a follower of Jesus – you decide.