A Sermon preached for Ascension
May 20, 2012
The texts we heard this morning are the ending of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of his sequel, the Book of Acts. Both stories describe the same event, but in the gospel, it is used as a conclusion. And in the Book of Acts, it marks the beginning of the story.
And we understand that. There are events in our lives that seem like endings. Clearly nothing could ever happen after a death, or loss, or tragedy, or after watching your savior ascend into the clouds. The End. That’s all she wrote. End scene.
But the story goes on.
Luke says they returned to Jerusalem and worshipped with great joy. Which is great and all.
But I think they also returned to Jerusalem wondering what had just happened.
And feeling a little unsettled.
40 days of Jesus’ resurrected presence must have upset their equilibriums after all. At first, you wonder, “what in the heck is going on?” but then, after a while, perhaps you get used to resurrected Jesus just showing up at your gatherings, eating fish with you, teaching you scripture, and then disappearing again.
But now he’s instructed them to be witnesses, he’s blessed them, and then he ascended into the clouds. This has a finality about it.
As they walk back to Jerusalem, where they worship in the Temple with great joy, you wonder if some of the joy is from the fact that it is over. As much as they loved Jesus and didn’t want him to leave, perhaps there is also relief. He has gone back to the Father where he belongs. And they are left where they belong, full of his recent teaching and instruction, ready to be the witnesses he’s called them to be. Ready to move on.
Endings are like that. We don’t want them to come. We would rather stay in the places and situations we are, and perhaps have been for a long while. But change happens. Loved ones die. Jobs and relationships come to an end. Jesus ascends up to heaven. And in the midst of the sadness of those endings, we also find joy, when we gather together, worshipping in the Temple.
And as Luke’s audience would have known, even the Temple would change, would come to an end. By the time his people are reading his book, the Temple is in ruins, never to be rebuilt. The very house of God is destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD. Surely that must have seemed like an ending from which they would never recover. Where do you go to find God when the pipe organ is burned to the ground and things are different and you don’t even recognize the people in the rubble?
Who are all of these people and what have they done with my church????
Yes, change is hard. And I don’t say that glibly. Change is hard. We are creatures of habit and comfort and doing things the way they have always been done. It is what builds stability into our lives. It is a marker of what makes us human.
When Elliott was a toddler, (and he gave me permission to tell this story), he especially didn’t like change. If he was playing with trains, he wanted to play with trains forever. We’d say,”time for a bath!”, and he’d cry and scream and be sad that he wouldn’t get to play with his trains. And so we’d throw the crying kid in the tub and all of a sudden, he realized that being in the bath was exactly where he wanted to be. forever. And he’d stay in the bathtub until he turned into a prune and the water grew cold. And then he’d cry when we took him out of the water to dry him off and get him ready for the next favorite activity of the day.
He’s gotten better.
But we’re reminded, as we think about Jesus’ ascension, that change happens and we have to help each other through it. We don’t stop it. We can’t stop it.
And before Jesus rises on the clouds as he returns to God, he helps them prepare for the transition. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
So when Jesus heads up to the clouds, it is because things are fulfilled, things are complete, things are finished. Not all of our endings seem to have fulfillment in them, but upon reflection, sometimes our understanding of that changes.
He didn’t leave them until it was time, until things were fulfilled.
He says, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised”. He reminds them that the Holy Spirit will come to them and surround them, encourage them, and uplift them. They are not alone.
The Spirit will be with them. And they need to be witnesses of what they have seen in Jesus of Nazareth. Witnesses of where they have seen God in the midst of change they never wanted to experience. Witnesses of the grace and love from God that was visible in the person of Jesus in ways that the world had never seen before. Witnesses of life and resurrection where they only expected to find death.
And he blesses them and ascends to God.
And then the white robed men show up, as the crowd is staring, dumbstruck at the sky, watching the bottoms of Jesus’ feet as he disappears into the cloud. “Men of Galilee, why are you looking at the sky? Who do you expect to see there? Didn’t Jesus tell you to go and do something?”
I don’t think I would have liked these messengers much. At the end of Luke’s gospel, they ask the women, as they’ve arrived at the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body, “why are you looking for the living among the dead?”
Well, duh. They weren’t looking for the living. They’d come to the tomb because he was dead. Why should they have been expecting the living? What kind of a question was that?
And here, “People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward Heaven?”
“Well, mister Angel smarty pants, if you didn’t notice, Jesus just lifted up into the clouds. And while we’ve seen some crazy stuff with him, we haven’t seen this before. That’s why we’re looking up toward Heaven.”
I want to fully support the disciples in their looking up to heaven. Because I’ll tell you right now—if and when any of you, or Jesus, ascend up to heaven in my presence, I will stand there staring until the soles of your feet have gone up into the clouds.
They had already lost Jesus once before, remember. And here he was, leaving them again.
“People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward Heaven?”
“ummm…because we’re scared. Because we don’t have a script for how this is supposed to go. Because we don’t know how to do this on our own.”
“People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward Heaven?”
“Because it is easier than doing what he called us to do. If we focus on heaven, we don’t have to notice the homeless, the hungry, the hurting who are here in front of our faces.”
We haven’t ever seen someone ascend to heaven, but the angels could ask us the same question.
Whenever Christians place our focus on looking for Jesus up in the clouds rather than doing the work of the church, we should ask ourselves, “people of Southminster, why do you stand looking up toward Heaven?”
And there it is. The community is reminded to go and to be the church, to witness to in Jerusalem, in Boise, in Meridian, in Ada and Canyon Counties, and to the ends of the earth. And the story spreads. What starts out as a small band of terrified disciples becomes the church that has nurtured us and brought us here today. Talk about a change!
I don’t know about you, but that seems daunting to me—the whole being witnesses to the end of the earth business.
I think if we’re worried the success of this whole business relies on us, that we can become paralyzed. We can decide it would be better to jump up as Jesus is ascending and grab hold of his ankle and pull him back to earth so he can be in charge.
But we can’t just hold on to Jesus, or what we’ve already known.
We have to let go. We have to let go of Jesus, let him ascend back to heaven so that the Spirit can come and settle on us, giving us the strength we need.
We have to let go of our expectations, our definitions of success, and our fears that it is about us.
Jesus ascends into heaven to get out of the way as we become the church. And while we don’t get to ascend to heaven, we do need to let our expectations and fears ascend and get out of the way so we can let go of however we think the perfect church is supposed to look and get busy just being who we are called to be.
How would that look? If we weren’t afraid of failing? If we weren’t afraid of looking like fools? Certainly we would still make mistakes and we would still look like fools at times, but it doesn’t change our instruction.
Despite our fears and insecurities about our fitness for the job, we witness still.
And we are at a moment in history of great change. The church as we have known it, religion as we have known it, in our denomination, in our country, around the world, is changing. And it is unsettling. We are reminded that we don’t have a roadmap or set of blue prints for what is to come.
But I hope we can live into this new future without fear. Because Jesus didn’t ascend into the clouds until the time was fulfilled.
What would it look like for us, at this moment in history, to let go? If we stopped looking up or looking back to the past, and started looking forward, what would we see? Where and what would we discern God calling us to be?
As we go from this place, go with peace and confidence to be Christ’s witnesses, because change happens. And people need to know they aren’t alone in the midst of it. They need to hear from you that there is another story yet to be told, even if all they can see at the moment is an ending.
We go from this place, surrounded by the very spirit of God, and we witness to what we have seen and learned from Jesus. And we go confidently into the future, letting go of our expectations and our fears, trusting that what is now unknown will turn out to be loving, and good, and the future that God is even now dreaming for us. We don’t need to look to the sky or look to the past. Our story is beginning again today. Amen.