Where Are You Looking?
When I was in college I had a roommate who grew up in the rolling green hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (and just as an FYI, it’s pronounced Lancaster, and not Laancaster, as my Hoosier lips wanted to say it). And so I got to know this part of the country a bit better than your average midwesternern. Rebecca’s family were Church of the Brethren, one of the Anabaptist sectarian movements in those parts, but her family were close with Amish families, and Old Order German Baptist families, and Mennonite families. And so I learned more than the average a bear about life among the “plain people.” Rebecca and I were perhaps anomalies among our college friends and liked wandering around the tiny towns in Lancaster county looking at old antique stores, or Mennonite-owned quilt shops. And at that time I was fascinated by these folk who call themselves, “plain people.” One weekend in June, however, when I was visiting, and Rebecca and I were out galavanting we noticed that all the shops were closed. It was a weekday, a Thursday it seems, and it made no sense to us…what had we missed? Had the rapture come and we didn’t know it? Finally, on our third stop at an Amish bakery we saw a hand-written sign that said, “We are closed, to celebrate Ascension Day.” We both puzzled over the sign, having never heard of Ascension Day celebrations, or Ascension Day hooplas, or Ascension Day picnics. Even now, Hallmark hasn’t picked up Ascension Day theme with cards or gift wrap (and what would that look like exactly? Probably clouds?) and we don’t sing Happy Ascension Day to one another. I wondered then, and I continue to ponder even ten or twelve years later, “What’s this Ascension stuff mean? And how have I grown up in the church without ever really noticing it before? How have I allowed this liturgical obscurity to pass me by?”
This year I decided to make up for nearly forty years of Ascension Day ignorance by doing some remedial theological learning, and because whenever I get enthused about a theological topic I preach about it, guess who gets to come along on the journey with me? That’s right…you do! Wahoo!
The first chapter and first verses of the Acts of the Apostles are classically known as “the definitive” story of the ascension. The writer of Acts, who it is believed was also the writer of the book of Luke, was so amazed by the story that he actually wrote about it twice, once in Luke and then with more detail and four-part harmony again in Acts, and so it is this second scripture that we’ll look at this morning.
Picture if you will a motley crew of assorted characters. A band of followers who had lost their leader, and were at loose ends, sort of like the mice who have lost the pied piper, or a bee hive that has lost its queen. They were a scruffy band of folk who had had their hopes shattered by the death of this one they thought was the Messiah. They’d been in mourning for a good forty days, a little over a month after watching Jesus die. And not only did he die, but he died in an incredibly violent and agonizing and cruel way. And then, puzzlingly, strangely, there had been that cryptic message from the angel in the tomb, and those sightings of him, which were hard to wrap your head around. While it seemed Jesus was popping up here and there, or at least people were saying they had seen a fleeting glimpse of him (think of modern day Elvis sightings), there hadn’t been any clear directive from the disciples en masse. There was no clear movement or direction that could be agreed upon. There was no master plan, no mission statement, no grand vision. There were just some folks, scattered here and there, aimlessly wondering what was next for them, and what they should do with their remaining time on this earth.
And then, (and you already knew this, since Bev already read ahead in the story for you), lo and behold, there was a sign. Out of nowhere word came from this one who they knew as the Messiah, speaking on behalf of their God. Jesus appeared to the disciples and told them not to leave Jerusalem. They were to stay put, hang tight, just wait patiently. For there was something exciting and unanticipated on the horizon. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was imminent.
I love thinking about these disciples then…I have a pretty irreverent picture of them in my mind’s eye at this point. I see them as sort of like the Keystone Cops, fumbling and muttering to themselves, running into one another and bustling back and forth in a commotion. Not entirely understanding, not entirely catching Jesus’s drift, but still feeling the need to act. Perhaps I see them this way because it is I would see myself in their shoes, laughing along with jokes I don’t quite get, and wanting, desperately wanting to do the right thing, which would lead to lots of fumbling movement and accidental incidents.
The disciples didn’t understand. Not yet. They asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of heaven?” Such an eager question. And the response they got was a perplexing one. Instead of answering the question he told them, politely, that the coming of the kingdom of heaven is in God’s hands. Jesus doesn’t give a yes or no answer, he doesn’t tell them an exact date and time and then encourage them to hand over their savings accounts to him so that he might create billboards and pass out flyers so that they might neglect the needs of this world and instead focus on the next one. Instead what Jesus says is this, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.”
I wonder what the disciples thought of that response. Did they understand? Did they furrow their brows and scratch their heads? Did it make any sense to them? Does it make any response to those who follow him some two thousand years later?
Jesus’s response was a crafty one. If I were a disciple, I might have been inclined to want to grab his shoulders and shake him and say, “Just answer the question! The question is this: Are you, or are you not, here to restore the kingdom!?!” But Jesus has a wisdom which offers a depth that mere mortals like me don’t understand. The fact that Jesus didn’t answer this question, and moved on to another topic makes me think that the disciples were asking the wrong question. For if the disciples were simply continuing to hope for a cosmic ruler who would command the people and bring a new kingdom, if they are simply looking out into the distance and waiting for the next world, they are missing the point entirely. They are looking in the wrong place.
The kingdom language that Jesus spoke of throughout his life, throughout his ministry is not about another place and time. The kingdom language that Jesus uses has much more to do with how we bring about the community of God today, and tomorrow. And the job of furthering the mission, the task of ushering in the kingdom is the responsibility of us all. The reign of God is ushered in when we love. The reign of God is realized when we go about creating spaces of sanctuary for those in need. The reign of God is alive here when we practice compassion and tenderness. And this reign isn’t about tomorrow, and it isn’t about looking up. It’s about today. And it’s about looking here.
Listen to Jesus’s response to his disciples again, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all of Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” What he says, in the common vernacular is, “It’s not just about me now, friends. This ushering in of the kingdom of God, it’s up to you now too.”
And after these words he was gone. Poof. As the disciples watched he was lifted into a cloud. He ascended. Voila, the first Ascension Day! And disciples are left with his words, and with a mission.
But there’s one more part of this story that I really love…the part that assures me that God has a twinkling sense of humor and a sparkle in the eye—as well as the patience to get through to even the densest of followers. While the disciples are still standing there, looking up, gazing heaven-ward two new men show up. Two mysterious men in robes and ask pointedly, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And the disciples must have wanted to point at Jesus’s still rising feet and say, “Well, um…duh!”
But the question seems to be the moral of the story, the way to sum it all up. Why stand around waiting? Why focus so much on the next world, when there’s a world right in front of you hungry for God’s touch? Why stand looking up when right down the road there is a beggar who needs help, when there is a blind man who needs healed? What are you looking at? The community of God needs to be ushered in here, my brothers, and it’s not going to get done if you just keep standing here staring at the sky.
I find it ironic that when the Church, and I mean Church with a capital “C” celebrates ascension, much more time is spent considering the rising, when what the writer of Acts documents, the words spoken from the lips of Jesus seem to have more to do with the witness that happens down here…in this world…in this place.
Friends, there is a hungry world waiting for out gifts, and the followers of Jesus don’t have the luxury of resting on our haunches. Friends, there is a planet which needs our attention, and the followers of Jesus can’t simply ignore it while we await the heavenly realm. Friends, justice is still slow to come to our nation, and to our world, and the followers of Jesus aren’t permitted to excuse ourselves from the cause.
Instead, we must stand together, and imbibe the power of the Holy Spirit. We can gaze fleetingly at the Christ who rose, but then we must get back to work building the kingdom on this ground, just as Jesus did in his ministry.
I want to close by sharing with you the words of a Nicaraguan song taught to me in college:
Enviado Soy de Dios
I am sent by God. My hands they are ready. Ready to build a peaceful loving world. The angels, they were not sent to change a world of pain into a world of peace. God has called me, to make it a reality. Help me, God, to do Your work.
In the name of Jesus, may it be so.