Luke 24:44-53; John 17:25-26
Unless you come from a liturgical tradition higher than the Presbyterian Church, I doubt you celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord. The Ascension is observed exactly 40 days after Easter which always falls on a Thursday. With the exception of Maundy Thursday, we are not big on Thursday services. The other problem is Hallmark has not put out a line of Ascension Day Cards. That keeps it from being considered a real holiday. Furthermore, Ascension and Transfiguration are among those mystical scriptures that make us a bit uneasy. The idea of Jesus floating off into the clouds seems too much like something we would encounter in a 3-D movie. This image has certainly given credence to the idea that heaven must be skyward. All I know is anytime a sports star does something he believes to be spectacular, he assumes God was watching and points up.
Nonetheless, I find this to be an interesting scripture. When Jesus ascended, the hearts of the disciples sunk. What a rollercoaster ride they experienced. First Jesus calls them by name to a ministry they could not imagine. Then Jesus was arrested and executed. For three days they were lost, only to be even more confused by his return. The next forty days he walked among them. I imagine Jesus showed a little swagger every time he pointed to his hands or feet. Can we blame Jesus if he bragged just a little? Can’t you hear him saying, “I told you I was coming back and none of you believed. Well, what do you think of me now?”
It is amazing how proof lifts the human spirit. While we talk about faith all the time, most of us are hesitant to jump into a new adventure. It is always better if someone else takes that leap of faith. I once took a number of young people on an excursion to a lake outside of Fort Worth. At one end of the lake was a huge cliff that towered over the water. I had been told it was safe to jump from the cliff because the water was at least 30 feet deep. But my allowing anyone in my group to jump had to be based on more than the spoken word. I had the owner of our boat take me near the cliff. When we arrived I looked up and witnessed this Amazon of a woman preparing to jump. I marveled at her courage as she leaped from the cliff, holding her body erect as she plunged into the waters below. Imagine my surprise when the girl, barely ten, emerged from the water screaming, “Daddy, can we do it again?”
Once the disciples experienced the risen Lord, the words of the Prophets and Psalms became perfectly clear. Faith no longer seemed necessary. They had proof. Christ was among them. He emerged from death and told them to jump on in, the water was fine. God’s truth, and God’s vision were real to the disciples because Jesus was once more in their presence. Peter once again regained his boastfulness and probably declared, “Jesus wherever you go, I am right behind you.” I wonder if Peter even heard Jesus say, “Not yet Peter. Not yet. I am only here for a moment.”
Suddenly everything made sense to the disciples. How difficult is it to believe in the resurrection when the one you assumed dead is standing in your midst? What a glorious moment it must have been. But it was only for a moment, and then once again, Jesus was gone.
Now imagine the disciples looking up as Jesus ascended. Imagine the disciples wondering what would happen next. Imagine their fears returning. Imagine their faith based on proof disintegrating. Imagine one of the disciples crying out, “He has left us.” Imagine the voice of God softly saying, “And what has he left you?”
Because I complained about it so much, most of you are aware that recently I spent a week in Dante’s level of hell known as Disneyworld. The only advantage I had was being tall enough to see my desired destination while thousand of zombies surrounded me chanting, “When you wish upon a star.” Can you imagine what my 23 month old granddaughter must have experienced? Refusing the safety of a stroller, Siddalee would attempt to brave the madness. I suspect all she could see was their knees. When her spirit was almost quenched Siddalee would holler, “Up Granddaddy, Up.” I would lift her up on my shoulders where she could observe the insanity. Once there, she delightfully sang a song liberating my ears from any zombie’s mantra.
The disciples wanted to be lifted up out of the madness they feared would consume them. They wanted to be lifted up to join their Lord. They so feared being left behind, they didn’t realize what Jesus had left. As the clouds closed, each disciple prayed to also be lifted up, and they were, but not to the heavens, but upon the shoulders of God’s grace. It was then that the disciples heard the words, “It is your turn. You have seen the Christ; now you must tell the story. I will lift you up, so that you can sing God’s song.”
As much as our faith is dependent on what God has done, the church finds its life in what we will do. If Jesus had stayed, everything would have centered only on him. Jesus would have told more stories, healed more folks who were sick. Peter and Paul and the thousand of saints that followed would have remained in the shadows of the light of Christ. Why build a church if God is among us? Why live for tomorrow if it doesn’t get any better than today? Jesus knew there would be no Pentecost while he was on earth. Messiahs spark a revolution. But is it the masses that turn a revolution into a movement. Jesus said, “Sit on my shoulders so you can see the future. Then together we will walk toward God’s destiny.”
I grow weary hearing people complain that God is not doing enough or God ought to step back into the world and straighten everything out. It is as if they are saying once Jesus disappeared into the clouds, all was lost. The truth is, from the moment Jesus left, we became the body of Christ. From the moment Jesus left, we became the hands of Christ. From the moment Jesus left, we became the shoulders of Christ, with the specific task of lifting someone else up and affirming that they are a child of God.
How can we find the courage or the faith to do this? We have the Psalmist who sang, “The heavens are declaring the glory of God”. We have the prophets living by the words, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” We have Jesus promising, “I am the resurrection”. We have the apostle Paul guarantying, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
These affirmations are planted in our very soul. They are our reason for being. But following the Word of the Lord is not easy. Nowhere did the psalmist or the prophets or the apostles say, “Believe and everything will perfectly fall into place.” Instead they said trust in the Lord and keep singing.
I have a favorite song that lifts me up any time my eyes stray from the prize. I suspect many of you know it.
My life goes on in endless song,
Above earth’s lamentations.
I hear the real, though far off hymn,
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear its music ringing,
The sound that echoes in my soul,
How can I keep from singing?
Anyone here who has not been blessed? Then how can we keep from singing.
Anyone here suffered from the death of a love one and not been comforted by the presence of God? Then how can we keep from singing.
Anyone here ever cry, “God lift me up to higher ground.” Then how can we keep from singing.
As God has lifted us up, so God has called us to do some heavy lifting. There is someone you know that needs to know they are loved. There is someone you know who needs to be comforted. There is someone you know who has lost hope. But God’s command goes beyond the familiar. There is someone you hate who needs to be understood, someone you fear who needs to be approached, someone you have marginalized that needs to be recognized, someone you have ignored that needs to hear their name.
Look down. See the world around you.
Look down. Witness the hurt that surrounds you.
Look down. Notice on whose shoulders you are riding.
Then look up and witness the glory the stars declare.
Look up and remember the words of the prophets.
Look up and see the face of Christ.
What you do next will come naturally.