STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MAY 16, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Ascension Day
Call to Worship Psalm 12: 6 & 7
God’s promises are pure,
Pure silver words refined seven times
In the fires of his word-kiln,
Pure on earth as well as in heaven.
You, O Lord, will protect us.
You will guard us forever.
The Lighting of the Christ Candle
Hymn: Standing on the P romises
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Although you are far greater than us in every way, you have chosen to be active in our lives.
You intervened at the Exodus to change the course of history.
You appeared to Jacob in a dream, changing his relationship with you.
You came as Jesus, entering into the very essence of our human existence.
In every promise you make and keep, you declare your desire for friendship with us.
Your love for us is so great. We praise you.
We confess that we aren’t reliable when it comes to keeping promises. Even when we intend to do so, we often fail. We do not steer clear of sin as we vow to do. We do not seek and worship you as we said we would. We do not love as we promise or hope to love. We do not follow you with unwavering faith.
We confess to you a time when we made a promise which we failed to keep.
As we gather to worship today, we remember those in our congregation who share our journey of faith building one another up and working together for your kingdom. We thank you for them and pray your blessings on them.
May our worship please you, exalt you and give you joy, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: 2 Peter 1: 3 & 4
Everything that goes into a life of pleasing God
has been miraculously given to us
by getting to know, personally and intimately,
Jesus the One who invited us to God.
The best invitation we ever received!
We were also given absolutely terrific promises to pass on to you
—your tickets to participation in the life of God
after you turned your back on a corrupted world.
Prayer for Illumination
Gracious God, you have promised us the fullness of life in Christ Jesus, give us the gift of faith so we may inherit your promises. Amen.
Acts 1: 6 – 11
2 Corinthians 1: 17 – 22
Matthew 28: 16 – 20
Message: Friends with Benefits – Jesus promises
A cowboy moves from Texas to Montana. He walks into a bar and orders three mugs of beer. He sits down and takes a sip out of each one in turn. When he finishes, he orders three more. The bartender says, “You know, it’s fresher if you buy one mug at a time.” The cowboy replies, “Well, I got two brothers. One’s in Arizona, the other’s in Colorado. When we left Texas, we promised we’d drink this way to remember the days when we drank together. So, I drink one beer for each brother and one for myself.” The bartender agrees it’s a nice practice. The cowboy becomes a regular customer, always drinks 3 beers at once. One day, the cowboy orders only two mugs. All the regulars take notice and fall silent. When he comes back to the bar for the second round, the bartender says, “My condolences on your loss.” The cowboy is puzzled. Then the lightbulb comes on and he laughs. “Oh, no, my brothers are fine, but I promised my wife I’d quit drinking.”
Promises are only as good as the integrity of the person making them. In The Cremation of Sam McGee, Robert Service writes of two miners freezing in the arctic. Sam is close to death, so his friend promises to fulfill his last request and cremate his remains. He has no means of making a fire, so when Sam dies, he drags the corpse around for days. Finally, he finds the remains of an old boat and uses the wood to set a fire in the boiler where he “stuffs in Sam McGee”. He goes for a walk to avoid hearing Sam sizzle. He returns to find Sam, sitting in the boiler, thawed and warm. For some people “a promise made is a debt unpaid” and it stays with them until they fulfill it. Then there are people like Jonathan Swift who thought “promises and piecrusts are made to be broken”. Perhaps it’s due to such cynicism that promises are losing their popularity. Over my years in ministry, I’ve noticed that very few people bother to make marriage vows anymore. Of those who do get married, whether in real life or on TV, they often don’t make actual vows. They tell the other person how they met, how wonderful or horrible they are, why they want to get married, what they need and expect from the relationship, etc., but rarely do they promise one another anything. It raises the question: are promises important? Promises have the potential to bring peace of mind, because they give a framework for the future. They assure us of what we can expect. The political theorist, Hannah Arendt, said, “Promises are a uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that it is humanly possible.” But the power of a promise is a two-edged sword. Promises can also wound. Marilyn Monroe, claimed that, “Promises are worse than lies. You don’t just make [the other person] believe, you make them hope.” Lies break relationships by destroying trust; unfulfilled hope breaks the soul.
Despite Hannah Arendt’s claim, promises are not uniquely human, in fact, promises are, first and foremost, Divine. Throughout scripture we witness God making and keeping promises. After the flood, God promises, “I’m setting up my covenant with you that never again will everything living be destroyed by floodwaters; no, never again will a flood destroy the Earth” (Genesis 9: 11). The Book of Revelation (22: 20) closes with the promise of Jesus, “I’m on my way! I’ll be there soon!” In between, God makes some 7000 promises. Among these, God promises to “go before [us] and not leave us” (Deuteronomy 31:8); to “instruct you and teach you in the way you should go” (Psalm 32:8); to “uphold the one who is faithful” (Psalm 37: 23); to “Give strength to the weary” (Isaiah 40: 29); that “my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed” (Isaiah 54:10); to “bind up the broken hearted” (Isaiah 58: 6); to grant us “wisdom” (James 1:5); to “forgive our sins” (1 John 1:9) and “give us eternal life” (John 3:16). As well, God makes many other promises, vows, and covenants. God knows our human need for reassurance and hope. Not only that, God wants a relationship with us that is alive and interactive. Promise making is one way God connects with us to enter and intervene in our human experience.
Today we celebrate the ascension of Jesus, when, after his resurrection, the living Christ was taken from the Earth back to Heaven, leaving the disciples to continue his work until he returns. Imagine being a disciple at that moment. You had lost Jesus once through death and had gotten him back through resurrection. You know the grief, trauma and insecurity that losing him brings. Perhaps you thought now, in his risen form, he’d be physically present to you forever. What you want is information – “is this the time when you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1: 6). Instead, you get the devastating news that Jesus is leaving, again. Added to this, you’re handed an immense responsibility, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world” (Acts 1: 8); and “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28: 18 – 20). The most important person in your life is leaving you with a massive assignment for which you have little training, less skill, and no plan. You have a deep desire to please Jesus and to bring good news to others, but his directive is overwhelming. There’s not much assurance or hope in an edict.
What we often ignore is that in giving these instructions, Jesus also makes some significant promises, “I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 20) and “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1: 7). I will be with you and within you through the Holy Spirit’s presence until the end of time. What a remarkable, reassuring, hopeful promise!
In order for a promise to be effective in it’s potential for comfort and reassurance, we need to believe, trust, and receive. Are the promises of Jesus believable? During Paul’s ministry, he’d made a plan to visit the church in Corinth – a plan which got derailed and didn’t happen. The Corinthians were disappointed and accused Paul of insincerity, of talking out of both sides of his mouth. Paul writes to disabuse them of that sentiment. In doing so, he doesn’t point to his own track record, instead he points to Jesus, “Whatever God has promised gets stamped with the Yes of Jesus. In him, this is what we preach and pray, the great Amen, God’s Yes and our Yes together, gloriously evident. God affirms us, making us a sure thing in Christ, putting his Yes within us. By his Spirit…” (2 Corinthians 1: 20 & 21). Paul is urging them not to look at himself, but to put their hope in Jesus whom he proclaims and serves. The promises of God are believable because God has fulfilled them all in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus has conquered sin, everything God promises us will come to pass. In fact, on a transcendent level they have already come to pass. There is no power that can keep God’s promises from happening. We can believe what God promises because he has proven his intention and ability in and through Jesus. Jesus has opened the door to God’s kingdom – in him, every promise of God is fulfilled; in him, every promise of God is answered with a resounding “yes”.
But faith is not an empty intellectual exercise. We can believe something is possible without trusting it. In 1859, Charles Blondin, crossed the Niagara Gorge on a tight wire using a 40-pound, 9 metre pole for balance. In 1860, Blondin made the same crossing using a wheel arrow as a prop. Before crossing, he asked the crowd if they believed he could cross the gorge pushing the wheelbarrow. The crowd enthusiastically declared their faith in his ability. Then Blondin asked for a volunteer to sit in the wheelbarrow while he crossed. No one came forward. Faith encompasses both belief and trust. Is Jesus trustworthy? Every Christian would say “yes”. But the answer may be different when it comes to actually putting our trust in him. Trustworthiness is a measure of the character of the other person. Trusting is a measure of our own character – of our capacity to put our confidence in another. Are we capable of trust? Trusting people is a risk. People have the ability to betray us. When the person we trust betrays us, that person also betrays him/herself. If I can’t keep a promise to you, then I demonstrate I’m not the person I think I am or claim to be. Not only am I untruthful about my promise, but I am untruthful about my self. I lack integrity. Do we trust Jesus? Well, if we can’t trust Jesus, then we can trust no one. Jesus is the one person who is consistent and reliable. Being God, he is completely integrated, so much so, he is three in one. He is true to the point that, “If we give up on him, he does not give up — for there’s no way he can be false to himself” (2 Timothy 2: 13). Jesus proved himself worthy of our trust by going to the cross when he could have easily called down an army of angels. He proved himself worthy of our trust when he rose from death as he said he would. Do you trust him enough to stake your life on his promises?
Finally, promises are like being given a gift. They’re useless to us if we won’t receive them. Promises benefit us only when we take them to heart and act on them. Three turtles named Jake, Jeff, and Jimmy decide to go on a picnic. They pack chips, sandwiches, and bottled pop, and start to walk to a picnic area, 5 miles away. Being turtles, it takes them 10 full days to get there. Upon arriving, they realize they forgot the bottle opener. They nominate Jimmy to walk back and get it. Jimmy’s reluctant. Can Jake and Jeff be trusted to save the food until he’s back? Jake and Jeff promise Jimmy they’ll wait, so Jimmy sets out on his mission. 20 days pass with no sign of Jimmy. Jake and Jeff are extremely hungry but keep their promise. Another 3 days pass, and they become worried, but still they don’t eat. After another 5 days, they conclude that Jimmy isn’t returning, so they decide to eat the sandwiches. Just as they are about to take their first bite, Jimmy appears from behind a rock, and says “I knew it! Just for that, I’m not going!” Jimmy didn’t accept the promise Jake and Jeff made, so in the end, it didn’t benefit any of them. Trust is often a two-way street. Many of God’s promises in scripture have a covenantal aspect. They ask for something from us in return for what God will do. An example of this is 2 Chronicles 7: 14, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” In that promise we become recipients of God’s forgiveness and healing when we demonstrate our desire to please God through humility, repentance and seeking him. At other times, like at Jesus’ ascension, God’s promises are given to equip us for the task God is calling us to do. We receive the blessing of those promises before we do anything. They are given by grace. When Jesus promised his enduring presence and Holy Spirit to the disciples, all they had to do to receive the blessings of these promises was wait attentively for them to occur. Waiting attentively didn’t mean they forgot about God or did whatever they liked. While they were waiting, they prayed. They made a commitment to one another. They used the time to reorganize, replacing the disciple that had been lost to them. Whether we are active in receiving God’s promises or we wait, to accept God’s blessings requires us to have an open heart and mind, to be calm and patient in awaiting God’s action, and to be hopeful.
When the disciples waited in the Upper Room for the promises of Jesus to be fulfilled, they didn’t know if they’d be waiting a day or 40 years. Despite their original question about timelines, they weren’t told when, just what. When we focus on when God will fulfill his promises, we become impatient and faith falters. The disciples believed Jesus’ resurrection made all things possible. They trusted that even though Jesus had ascended and left them, he would be true to his word. They remained open, finding reassurance in the promise of Jesus’ presence through the Holy Spirit. They waited with anticipation. Jesus did not let them down. He will not let you down. In him, all the promises of God are answered with a loud resounding “yes”.
Silent Prayer and Reflection
Generous God, you have promised us your kingdom in all it’s splendour, we bring you our gifts as our pledge to work with you in bringing you kingdom to others and others to your kingdom. Use us and our gifts to do your will. Amen.
Hymn : What God Hath Promised
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Lord Jesus, we thank you for conquering sin and death to open the way for us to be friends with you. Father, we thank you for your consistency of character which assures us we can trust you.
Spirit of Holiness, we thank you for giving us open and receptive spirits, so that are able to live in us.
Triune God, we thank you for the richness and abundance of your promises. We trust in your word. In your guarantees we find peace for today and hope for a future when all things will be fulfilled. We look forward to the time when all sorrow and sighing will pass away. We thank you for your generous love us and care for us. We are grateful for your patience and your forgiveness.
We are thankful for all the blessings we experience every day. For your presence and faithfulness. For the beauty of creation, the gifts of health and safety, and the love of family and friends. We thank you that you see our needs and move in our lives to give us the wholeness of your peace.
We pray for people who have been wounded by broken promises and for those who have betrayed themselves and others by not keeping their word. Heal us and help us to do better.
We pray for our world ravaged by CoVid and tired of fighting. May our need soften our hearts towards you. Move us to humbly draw close to you.
We pray for our world which is divided by differences of opinion, by minds closed to understanding others, and by hearts closed to loving others. We witness a lot of hatred and anger from those on both sides of the divide. Help us to see that animosity and condemnation cannot bring healing. Move us to welcome your Spirit of reconciliation.
We pray for the places in our world that face a variety of horrors. We pray for the Israeli and Palestinian people asking you to help them find the will to move forward in creating justice and peace. During this time of explosive violence create the will and the ability to respect one another and find resolutions. We pray for the people of Afghanistan, Syria and other countries ravaged by war. We pray for the families of the children in Russia who were killed in the attack on the school. We pray for the people of India where the virus spread is so severe.
Closer to home, we give you thanks for all the good news we have heard this week. We thank you that you hear our prayers and are with us in all things.
We pray for those whom we know, who are in need of healing, reassurance, comfort or help…
Thank you for hearing our prayers and answering them according to your will. Hear us now as we say together…
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn: 2 Chronicles 7:14
God sends us out:
We go into the world assured of God’s promises,
strengthened by God’s assurances,
secure in God’s Word
to speak that Word of hope to all those we encounter
Benediction: May the Triune God bless you and keep you. Amen.