Isaiah 43: 14-21; Acts 1: 1-11
May 13, 2012
Today’s scripture passage is on the ascension of Jesus. This is not something we Christians talk about much. We don’t know quite what to do with it, honestly. We do a pretty good job with Easter, and we get our red on for Pentecost, which is coming in a few weeks. But the whole “Jesus-being-taken-up-into-heaven” thing doesn’t get a lot of press time.
Nevertheless, it’s what we find there in the very first chapter of Acts – the sequel, if you will, of Luke’s gospel; written by the same person. The ascension is a way of bridging the work of Jesus and the work of the early church, led by the Holy Spirit. It’s a way that we as followers of Christ understand our calling to continue what he started, even as he himself is no longer with us to do it.
But make no mistake, y’all: the ascension of Jesus is awkward. There’s really no other way to put it. Maybe this is why we kind of gloss over it. Jesus has gathered his disciples together. They ask him if it is time – time to complete the restoration of Israel, which is what Jesus said he’d do. Jesus tells them no one knows the time; but that until the time comes, they are witnesses – witnesses to what they had seen and heard to those who didn’t get a chance to see and hear. They are to carry the torch, so to speak; continue what Jesus had started.
That’s what he’s telling those disciples there. And then, before they get a chance to respond, before they get a chance to say anything, Jesus is gone. Just……gone.
Awkward! I’ve always tried to imagine what this must have looked like, you know? How exactly did this ascension happen? I kind of envision it like when you release a helium balloon into the air – which, by the way, you never should do, because it’s bad for the birds – but just for the sake of argument, how that balloon rises up and up and up into a crystal blue sky, and how it gets smaller and smaller and smaller until it’s just a tiny little dot, barely visible. And then at some point you can’t see it anymore – you know it’s there, somewhere up there, but you can’t see it. That doesn’t stop you from looking, though – at least for a little while. You keep looking to see if you might catch a glimpse of it again. Just looking.
Was that what it was like the day that Jesus ascended? All those faces, looking up…..? How long do you think they stood there, huh? Five minutes? Ten? Twenty? Thirty? I like the way someone in our Bob Chilton Bible study put it this past week: when you see something go up, you expect it to come down! How long did they stand there, looking up to try and see Jesus again?..........
Do you figure some other folks kind of wandered onto the scene; people who just happened to see this crowd looking up and wondering to themselves what they were looking at? I mean, it’d pique your curiosity a bit, wouldn’t it? Do you figure some of them kind of joined in, adding to their numbers, staring up at an empty sky?
Eventually you have to figure some of them gave up looking and walked off. I mean, there comes a point when you realize, he’s not coming back! What goes up doesn’t necessarily come down. So I imagine there were a few who peeled off, one by one. But I bet there were others who kept standing there; kept looking up, like they were trying to find that helium balloon they couldn’t see anymore but knew was up there, somewhere……
They’re still looking when these two guys in white show up. We’re not sure how they got there. Maybe they were part of the crowd that wandered onto the scene. And their voices cut through the silence of this upward-focused bunch, and they said: Hey people – why are you just standing there staring up at an empty sky?
If the disciples had answered them, you know what they would have said: Because Jesus is up there! The same Jesus who asked us to follow him and showed us the breadth and depth of God’s amazing love. The same Jesus who followed that love all the way to the cross and died for it; the same Jesus whose love was too great to be kept in some silly old tomb. He was just here with us, and now is gone – gone up there somewhere. And that is why we’re standing here, staring up at an empty sky – because when someone that like that is part of your life one moment and gone the next, you just don’t know what you’re supposed to do anymore.
Don’t you think that’s kind of what they were thinking? Don’t you think they were stumped by this, and what they were supposed to do now that Jesus was gone?
You know, it’s kind of ironic – for the little attention we give to the ascension of Jesus, this seems to be the perfect metaphor for our Christian journey today. You and I, not always sure what to do, not always sure what God wants for us or from us. So there we are, staring up at an empty sky; waiting for Jesus to come back down so he can tell us what to do, because so much of the time we’re not sure what exactly Jesus wants from us.
I mean, what’s the Christian stand on this issue? What does the Bible say about that topic? You ever had questions like that before? I know I have! And isn’t that one of the greatest struggles – knowing what God wants from us; knowing what God wants us to do? Heck, over a hundred years ago a Congregationalist preacher named Charles Sheldon coined the well-known phrase, the same one that adorned t-shirts and bracelets and was all the rage just a few years back: WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? You know why that saying has stood the test of time? Because it’s the truth! We want so badly to know what Jesus would do, because knowing that helps us determine what we’re supposed to do, right? To be more like Jesus – that’s our goal. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Trying to figure it out as we’re part of that crowd, staring up there, hoping and wishing that at some point we’ll see Jesus again….
The problem is, all that looking-up stuff, it’s not really accomplishing much, is it? But that’s what I feel like we do a lot, First Presbyterian. We as a church, we as a denomination, we as Christians around the world. We’re just staring up, looking for Jesus, trying to find him up like a tiny helium balloon that we just can’t see.
You know, some of you may know that, as part of her studies at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Shasta is doing an internship on faith and movies. It’s pretty cool when you can take a passion of yours and get graded for it – Tiki Room heaven! In our Bible study this past week, Shasta pulled from her hefty movie arsenal and referenced the deeply theological cinematic experience, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Remember the end of that movie, when the credits start rolling? It’s like any other move – all the names of various actors, directors, producers, makeup artists, script writers. All the thanks to municipalities and organizations for their cooperation. All the copyrights, with the year in Roman numerals and that squashed earth symbol. All the stuff that you and I don’t typically see, because by this time we’ve either headed to our cars in the parking lot or have hit the “stop” button on our DVD remotes.
And then as the very last credit rolls through the top of the screen, we are suddenly back in Ferris Bueller’s bedroom, the one he was supposed to be in sick all day; and he’s looking straight at us as if our presence has caught him off-guard. And he says to us, What are you still doing here? The movie’s over. Go – go on home. Go on, get out of here. Go!
I mean, if Ferris Bueller had been dressed in white and standing outside the city of Jerusalem instead of in his bedroom when he said that, I’d almost think he was actually talking to those disciples in Acts – and talking to us, too. Talking to us as followers of Jesus; followers whose Lord and Savior had been taken up in a cloud, followers who are immobilized by our indecision and confusion and, yes, fear; followers who are staring up at an empty sky because sometimes we don’t know what to do when the whole reason for our doing is no longer with us…
And that’s when we hear the voice say to us:
What are you still doing here? Stop staring up! Start looking down and around. Look at the world around you; the world that Jesus came to in the first place. Look around at all the things that need his love, need his healing, need his mission. Because that’s where you focus has to be – not up, but down and around! You’ve got work to do down here. You are witnesses! You’ve seen the power of God; you’ve witnessed the building of the foundation of God’s kingdom on earth. So stop staring up at the heavens – look down at the world around you, and see just how much it is in desperate need of your witness.
That foundation, by the way, that Jesus came to build – it’s not something he came up with. It’s a foundation that’s been in place for years, thousands of years. It’s what the prophet Isaiah had talked about long before:
Do not remember the former things
or consider the things of old;
I am about to do a new thing;
Now it springs forth – do you not perceive it?
How appropriate is that last question on Ascension Sunday: Do you not perceive it? Well, if all we’re doing is staring up at an empty sky, of course we’re not! If all we’re worried about is what’s happening up there, we’re sure not going to perceive much of what God is doing down here, are we? It’s like we talked about last week – the Christian life is not all about the finish line. It’s not all about getting that ticket to heaven. It’s about the journey that gets us there. Our lives matter, people! What we do with our lives and our time and our gifts and talents and treasure, and how we treat God’s children – all of God’s children – that stuff actually means something. And if all we’re doing is staring up at an empty sky, we’re going to miss a whole lot of what God needs us doing down here.
If all we’re doing is staring up at an empty sky, we’re going to miss the ever-increasing number of children and adults in our quaint little town who look into their kitchen pantry every night and see slim pickings, and so they can’t wait for Thursdays to roll around, because they know at least then they’ll get a decent meal at Friends Feeding Friends, served to them by some very kindly Presbyterians and Baptists.
If all we’re doing is staring up at an empty sky, we’re going to miss the people in our lives, the people we’re closest to, seeking reconciliation with us because of some wrong in the past. We’re going to miss an opportunity to live into the love of Jesus and let that love permeate all aspects of our lives, changing us from the inside out.
If all we’re doing is staring up at an empty sky, we’re going to miss all the horrible things that are carried out in Jesus’ name in the world, and an opportunity to unite our voices together and say, “No, that’s not what he was talking about” or “No, that’s not what the Bible says.”
But you know what we’re going to miss most of all if we’re just staring up at an empty sky? We’re going to miss Jesus himself! Because even though those disciples watched his go up and disappear from their sight all those years ago, he told them: Inasmuch as you’ve done this to the least of these, you’ve done it to me. We are surrounded by Jesuses, y’all! They’re in the pew next to us; they’re out there walking the streets, they’re in our classrooms and offices and with us in the grocery check-out line. They look and act and live like us, and they don’t look or act or live like us. Jesus hasn’t left us at all. He’s right here.
So forget the old and welcome in the new. Stop staring up there – start looking down and around. Look for the Jesus among you. He’s there. And he’ll show you what you need to be doing. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.