We will not be talking about the “Paradox of Generosity” today. I never finished the sermon. As I was getting ready to go back to work on it on Friday morning, my cell phone rang. It was my brother, Jon, calling to tell me that he had just read on Facebook that my best friend had died.
Dan Chouinard and I have been friends since we were six or seven years old – that’s 50 years, give or take.
His mom led the singing and my mom played the piano for Vacation Bible School at a church campground in Maine. The campground is very similar to Epworth Park in Bethesda. My mom owned a cottage – which now belongs to my brother and me – right next to Dan’s parents’ cottage.
Our friendship deepened considerably as we went to camp together in our teen years – and so did our faith as Jesus became very real to us. We worked as junior counselors for the younger kids’ camp one summer – and got in trouble with the local fire chief for building a gigantic bonfire in the field. It seems you need a permit for such things in a state as heavily forested as Maine.
Dan – being a true New Englander – has been the friend who never pulled punches with me, but who always loved me. He seemed to relish reminding me that I was not worthy of a woman like Diane, and that I should get busy becoming worthy of her. I’m closer because of him – but I’m not there yet. I was blessed to have been there for him, too, during some of the hardest times in his life. It was a once-in-a-lifetime friendship.
Last Saturday, Dan was riding his motorcycle to the funeral of a friend’s father. He swerved to avoid a truck that had stopped quickly in front of him. The bike went out from under him, and he suffered a concussion and six broken ribs – but was recovering well.
I spoke with him Monday for about a half an hour, and he was the usual Dan. We talked about politics, about North Korea – he had been a translator in military intelligence and had great insights about Kim Jong Un.
We also talked about my proposal for leading a Bible Study next summer at the campground, and our plans for seeing him this summer.
On Thursday morning, he got out of bed and went into cardiac arrest. We believe it was a blood clot.
Thursday was Ascension Day. And that’s significant.
Dan – like my mom – came from a Christian tradition that emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ promise to return: a promise that was confirmed on the day He ascended into heaven. And so, it seems fitting that today – on Ascension Sunday – I honor the faith of my friend Dan and of my mom by talking about the Ascension. Generosity can wait a few weeks.
So let’s turn to Acts, chapter 1, verses 1-11.
In that last line, the angels confirmed that what goes up must come down:
“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
“Will come back in the same way.” What will that look like? Well, it certainly won’t be in secret – it will be unmistakable. Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 24:
For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west,
so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
John wrote in the introduction to the Revelation:
Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him …
That was based on the prophecy of Daniel 7. And Jesus quoted the same prophecy as a warning to Caiaphas while Jesus was on trial for His life:
… you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.
Jesus did not offer a defense; instead, He warned the High Priest, “You will see …”. And not only will His return be visible everywhere – but it will also be audible. Paul wrote that in his first letter to the Thessalonians:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
And so we will be with the Lord forever.
Are there any more beautiful and promise-filled words in the Bible? “And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
That is our hope. That is our promise. That is our encouragement in the saddest times in our lives – that the One who went up on Ascension Day will come back down someday. Lord, let it be soon! Jesus will gather up His risen people and take them to be with Him forever.
We sing about that truth every year at Thanksgiving:
Even so, Lord quickly come
to Thy final harvest home.
Gather Thou Thy people in,
free from sorrow, free from sin.
There forever purified,
in Thy presence to abide:
Come with all Thine angels, come
raise the glorious harvest home.
So that is our hope – that what goes up must come down. But why did Jesus go back to heaven? Why was the Ascension necessary? As you have heard many times before from this pulpit – it was to sit at His Father’s right hand, ruling over all as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And it was to send the Holy Spirit to enable His followers to live and die for Him.
But Jesus is also busy getting ready for us. He told His disciples on the evening of His betrayal and arrest –
the evening before His crucifixion:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.
In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. (“To prepare a place for you.” That’s the why!) And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
That’s Jesus’ promise in John 14 – that He would go back to His Father’s home in heaven to prepare a home for us. He was, after all, a builder – working with His stepfather Joseph before beginning His ministry. And He also promised that when the time was right, He would come back to Earth to take us to be with Him.
His focus is not on what the home will be like. Maybe it will be like the one in the old Gospel song, “I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop.” But probably not. After all, a house is a building we live in. A home is any place we are with those we love.
His focus is not on what our resurrected bodies will be like. What age we appear to be doesn’t matter. Whether we have wings or feet that still carry us around doesn’t matter. Neither does the pavement, for that matter, be it purest gold or good old God-created dirt. What matters – what encourages me today and I hope what encourages you – is that “we will be with the Lord forever.”
And Paul finished his words to the Thessalonians about the return of Jesus with these amazingly simple instructions:
Therefore encourage each other with these words.
So today – as my mind floods with all the memories and I struggle to accept the reality that a future filled with more memories won’t come to pass – I am heeding God’s command in Paul’s letter – to encourage you and to encourage myself with these words:
What goes up must come down – and so we will be with the Lord forever.
And as John wrote just before the end of the Revelation, “Amen – come, Lord Jesus!”