Ascension May 24 2020
Ok, it’s Ascension Sunday. … What comes to mind? Anything? We don’t have any great Ascension songs. No Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny. And, really, wouldn’t it be more fun to talk about Memorial Day instead?
All we have is this odd story. Luke says, Jesus “was taken up [or, “taken away”] before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”
It’s like he’s fumbling for words. How do I describe this moment? Carried up, taken up. Up into the sky, up into the clouds. He was talking to them, and then “before their very eyes,” poof, he was gone, and they never saw him again.
What are we supposed to do with that? If we take it as a literal description, we’re going to do what the painters have always done: Jesus puts his arms out, and floats there, about eight feet off the ground.
Problem is, in our modern context, we can’t help but add a UFO: In our time, it sounds like Jesus was beamed up into a flying saucer. And of course, if you believe in flying saucers, that may make this whole thing a little easier to understand. But if you don’t, it may make it even harder to believe.
For some, this may be where you check out of the story. Too ancient, too primitive, too superstitious. Just way too weird, so forget about it.
But it’s not that easy. The Apostles’ Creed makes an issue out of it. It’s right there at the core, the center of our faith: “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
So, once again: What do we do with this odd little story? I think the key is to read it in its context. So now it’s story time:
(1) The real drama here is a struggle to understand. In verse 3, Luke says that after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples over the span of the next several weeks–“a period of 40 days”, as he put it–“and spoke about the kingdom of God.” But what did that mean–the kingdom of God?
Then in verses 4 and 5, Jesus tells them to stay in Jerusalem a few more days, and then they’d receive “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” And the way he says that, you’d think they knew what he meant, but obviously, they don’t. In verse 6, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
“That’s none of your business,” Jesus says: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”
This isn’t about my power, Jesus says. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In other words, this isn’t about me prancing back into town as the Messiah, armed and ready to slice up the Roman occupation troops. This is about you being my witnesses, carrying my message around the world.
And that’s when Jesus disappears.
Now the focus changes. Now the story transfers from Jesus to the disciples. They will pick up where he left off.
Luke pictures it in almost comical terms. “They were looking intently up into the sky,” he says. And that’s when the angels, “two men dressed in white,” suddenly show up and say, in verse 11, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus…will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Wait. How did he go? In that odd way Luke can’t quite describe. They saw him … and then they didn’t. He just sort of seemed to be sucked up and away. And when he comes back, it will be the same way: He’ll suddenly just sort of be there, standing among his people.
Meanwhile, don’t look up. Look out. Look outward. Don’t stand around waiting for Jesus to do something. You do it.
(2) How? “You will receive power,” Jesus says in verse 8. Yeah, the disciples were mixed up on that. They were asking about Jesus finally grabbing his machine gun and mowing down the Romans. For them, the “kingdom of God” that Jesus mentioned in verse 3 meant the kingdom of God’s people, the kingdom of Israel, a literal kingdom.
The world always measures power in terms of force. Is America a powerful country? We measure it in terms of aircraft carriers and bombers and missiles and tanks. And then there’s never enough. We spend as much on defense as the next 25 countries combined–as much as all of our friends and enemies put together. But for some, that’s still not enough.
Or closer to home, we ask, Am I a powerful person? We measure that in terms of our ability to control others and bend them to our will.
We threaten our children. When they’re little, we yell, “Just wait till your father gets home!” And when they’re grown, we yell, “I’ll cut you ingrates out of my will!”
Employers threaten their workers: “You want a raise? I’ll move this factory to Vietnam! Increase the minimum wage? I’ll replace you with robots! Make this factory safer? I’ll report you to Immigration!
We keep people walking on eggshells. The mom cries. The dad yells. The boss threatens to fire people. In this sad world, that’s power. But that’s not the power of the Holy Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit revolve around self-control, not controlling others. It’s seen in forgiveness instead of guilt trips, unconditional love instead of playing games.
At one level, the Spirit gives you the power to straighten out your own life, and get your act together. But the angels aren’t telling us to look inward either, to look only at ourselves in the mirror. That may be the first necessary step.
(3) But our real calling, our real goal, is to look outward. Don’t stand around waiting for Jesus to manipulate things from heaven. Look at the people around you. You carry the Holy Spirit out into the world yourself. Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Sioux City, America, and around the world.
Worldly power takes no courage. That’s just the power of the bully that everyone fears but no one loves: I’m bigger than you, and I know how to get my way.
Heavenly power, the power of the kingdom of God, takes real courage.
A real man doesn’t go around beating up people. That’s not power. That’s just muscle and mindless nerve. A real man, in the kingdom of God, persuades by the power of love, the power of forgiving others and letting it go.
A real woman, in the kingdom of God, persuades by joy and goodness, not gossip.
Real Christians persuade by peace and patience, and maybe not having to win every issue, every debate, every dispute.
This is the power we need to bring into our city and nation and world today. It’s the new life, the new way, that comes with resurrection. It’s the new power that comes with Christ’s ascension. Jesus didn’t go blasting off into heaven so that we’d stand around telling each other how cool it was. That’s just something we do for 50 minutes a week in worship.
Jesus entered the heavens to become the power line, the extension cord, from God to us; to energize us with the power of the Holy Spirit; to bring the power of heaven into a sick and sad world that always seems to be stuck in a fight.
We don’t stand there looking up. We look out. We’re not old-time pagans standing around sacrificing chickens, or making astrology charts for horoscopes. Jesus calls us to be his witnesses, to be models of his way, to behave so others can see how his way works in real life. It’s not enough to hear me talk on Sunday morning. You’ve got to live it out the rest of the week, out there in the real world.
That’s really what Ascension Sunday is all about. It’s not about, Where did Jesus go Up There? but Where is the power of Jesus popping up Around Here?