One of my favorite stories in the bible is the ascension of Christ after his resurrection. If you’re familiar with the story, you might think, Ah, yes, the glorious return of the Son of God to the right hand of the Father! But that’s not the reason. Actually, I haven’t really sorted out what the “ascending” part of the story means to me, what it speaks about my relationship with Christ, or how I can practically apply it to sharing God’s love with the people around me. With one exception.
The disciples were clueless. After years of living with Jesus, they still hadn’t learned why he came to earth in the first place, or what would come next. And I derive a tremendous amount of solidarity from that one, tiny detail.
There they were, standing on a hillside, talking to a man who was supposed to be dead, who was dead for 36 hours, who had been tortured and executed by the Roman empire until all of the blood had been drained out of his body. People don’t recover from those kinds of injuries. And yet, there he was, living and breathing in a way that seemed even more alive than he was the first time!
If Christ would have made only one appearance after being raised from the dead, even if he were to show himself to every one of his followers at once, they might have dismissed the experience. It could have been labeled as a mass hallucination, or at least a mere vision. But Jesus made at least a dozen appearances during the six weeks that passed between his resurrection and his ascension.
He surprises one of his most devoted followers, a woman named Mary, while she is frantically looking for the person responsible for raiding his tomb and stealing his corpse. He appears like a magician, out of thin air, to a bunch of terrified disciples who were hiding behind locked windows and doors, hoping to avoid being captured and killed by the same people who killed Jesus. He shows up in a crowd of five hundred people, many of them his friends and family members, as if nothing had changed, even though everything had changed. He even holds a fish barbecue on the beach for a few of the disciples who were in the middle of an attempt to return to their pre-Jesus vocation: fishing.
And yet, after dedicating his ministry to the disenfranchised, the “worthless” people, after allowing himself to be subjected to countless injustices with no complaining, after blatantly displaying his lack of earthly authority, they were still wondering when Jesus would overthrow the Roman rule of Israel and take the kingship for himself.
When I was a kid, I watched a lot of commercials on TV. Everyone did because we didn’t have much of a choice. If you wanted G.I. Joe or Transformers or Thundercats, you had to wait through commercial breaks (or go pee, or grab a snack).
Every once in a while, the melody or lyrics from one of those old ads will float to the forefront of my consciousness, and I’ll find myself whistling or humming along with my brain for a few minutes. I kind of like it, actually, because, almost invariably, someone close by also remembers the jingle and we end up laughing about it.
There’s one commercial, however, that never strays far away, never fully retreats back into the dark recesses of my subconscious. It’s from a McDonald’s ad featuring a song about their creepy clown mascot, Ronald, called, “Do You Believe in Magic?” And it’s really only a couple of lines.
Anything can happen right before your eyes.
Whatever you’re expecting, expect a surprise.
Like I said, it’s always stuck with me, and it took on significant meaning, especially after I became a husband and a father and life got a whole lot more unpredictable, sometimes downright random. It reminds me that I shouldn’t be all that surprised when something surprising happens. Yeah, I know it’s easier said than done. I forget all the time, and life sideswipes me.
From the very beginning of his life on earth, even before he was born, Jesus was substandard, not living up to the centuries-old expectations of an entire nation of people desperate to see him become the ultimate prophet, priest, and king of the Jews.
Conceived out of wedlock, birthed among the livestock, hunted by the government as a toddler, raised by working-class parents, he was unremarkable in most of the ways we would normally look for. Just like the prophet, Isaiah spoke: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
He undermined the authority of the religious leaders, he frequently broke the law, and he almost never gave a straight answer to any of the serious questions asked of him. He was a blasphemer, a drunkard and glutton, and most likely in league with demons.
This was, at least, the image painted by those with the most influence. Instead of defending himself, however, Jesus answered these kinds of challenges with a little bit of laughter, a lot of compassion, and with even more determination to continue doing the only thing his father truly wanted, showing us “a more excellent way,” the path of love.
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” Even with centuries of prophecies about the messiah, and centuries of analysis and debate concerning who and what he would be, they got it all wrong. They never saw the coming of the Christ. The nation of Israel was clueless.
There are hundreds of differing sets of beliefs in Christendom about the second coming of Christ, about the end of the world, about what happens to people after they die, some of them in diametric opposition to one another. There have been centuries of prophecies about all of these things, and centuries of analysis and debate concerning the when and where and how Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” (or if it will happen at all).
When Christ came to earth the first time, his life and ministry were never predictable. Like I said, even his disciples were clueless.
And we still are.
So, whether you’re expecting resurrection and rapture or kingdom dominion, whether your views about the end of the world are dispensational or allegorical, whether you read the bible literally or from a historical-metaphorical perspective—whatever your theology, you should leave plenty of room for the very real, very distinct possibility that you are wrong about some things, that we all are, and that the Holy Spirit would say to all of the churches that our hope is firmly rooted in the mercy and grace of God through Christ Jesus, and not, in any way, dependent on our finite minds being able to wrap themselves around the secret future planned for us by an infinite, loving Creator.
To those who have ears to hear… Expect a surprise.