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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

2009-05-24 Acts 1:1-11 The Ascension ...

2009-05-24 Acts 1:1-11 The Ascension of Christ

Acts 1

Jesus Taken Up Into Heaven
 1In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3After
his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing
proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty
days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4On
one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command:
"Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised,
which you have heard me speak about. 5For John baptized with[a] water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."

 6So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"

 7He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8But
you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will
be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the
ends of the earth."

 9After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

 10They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11"Men
of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky?
This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come
back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."


This is the season of amazing things from the Bible. We're still in the season of Easter. And Easter is without a doubt, the most amazing event in all the Bible. Jesus is praised with hosannas, Jesus is betrayed, Jesus is crucified, Jesus is buried. And then, on the third day, on the first day of the new week, on the first day of a new relationship between God and humanity, Jesus is resurrected. Easter. Jesus arises. Jesus arises not only from the tomb, but Jesus arises from death itself. Not even death can conquer Jesus. Not even the most powerful force on earth - not even death - can conquer God. God is finally and fully revealed as the God of life and life eternal. We're reminded of this incredible good news all these weeks before and after Easter. This is the season of amazing things.

And yet. I'll bet Easter seems a long time ago to you. Since Easter there's been graduation. Since Easter there've been doctor visits. And funerals. And weddings. Since Easter there's been Mother's Day. And dance recitals. And ball games. And birthdays. Life keeps going on. The Easter lilies have long been discarded. The Easter dinners have long been digested. About the only Easter leftover are the white shoes you ladies - and a few preachers - can now sport in style. Easter is so long ago. The amazement of Easter - if it amazed us at all - has shrunk down to one tiny spot in life's rear-view mirror. We're driving forward, faster and faster, the season of miracles disappearing in the distance. We arrive without fanfare in the reality of this present day. When the economy keeps sinking, when gas prices keep rising, when payment due dates keep rolling in... it's hard to distract ourselves, and look back at a season, or even a day, of miracles. Like the signs say, "You are here." Here we are: Post-Easter. Post-amazing.

I think this is why the Day of Christ's Ascension gets so little notice, at least in post-boom-time America and its churches. Did any of you get excited that last Thursday was Ascension Day, and this Sunday morning we'd be talking about Christ's ascension into heaven? Did you even know? Don't feel bad. I had to look it up on the calendar, myself. After Easter, Ascension's kind of a footnote. We're more aware that school's out. That tomorrow's Memorial Day. That the pools are opening up. Maybe one serving of miracles is about as much as we can handle. Quicker than we can blink our eyes, life piles on more and more non-miraculous stuff on our plates. Whatever miracles we may have feasted on in the past, there's a heaping helping of reality waiting for us all. Right here, right now. You are here.

As I read Luke's version of the Ascension of Our Lord, I think that may be exactly what the Bible's trying to say to us. Miracles have happened. Miracles will happen. Christ has risen from the grave so now it's miracle season all the time. Right here, right now, in the real world: You are here... and so is God. Get used to it. This is the season of ordinary life. This is the time of downsizing, and bills, of weddings and funerals, of births and deaths. But more than that, this is also the season of miracles. Of Christ rising from the grave, of God destroying the power of sin, God destroying the power of death itself. Easter has happened and now, in this ongoing Easter season of miracles, anything's possible.


To get a handle on Ascension and what it means, we start with the angels. God's divine messengers. We come from here, and they come from there, and what's amazing to us may not be that big of a deal to them. In the book of Acts, Luke starts the first chapter with the passage we read today, and this sets the tone for everything that happens to the early church thereafter. Luke starts out briefly recalling that in the 40 days since his resurrection, Jesus has been back on earth with the disciples. Jesus has been back on earth, living with the disciples, eating and drinking with them, teaching them, for the 40 days since he died. Pretty miraculous stuff in itself, we might say. And then one day at the end of a lesson about how it's not for them to know the times or the dates the Father has set by his own authority, as if to illustrate his point, without warning or fanfare, Jesus is, the Bible says, lifted up into heaven. Now, this might be nothing big for Jesus, but I imagine the disciples standing there, mouths hanging open. I imagine the disciples staring up like deer in headlights, watching in total disbelief as Jesus disappears like a tiny speck, up into the clouds. He doesn't even say goodbye.

I don't know about you, but if I were a disciple, I would be dumbstruck in the most literal sense of the word. I might also be a little perturbed that he just lifted off without so much as a 10 second countdown. ("We have ignition. Jesus is go for liftoff." Not even that much.) He ends a sentence, and then he's gone.

And then, the Bible tells us, heaven itself underscores the non-miraculous nature of this miracle by sending the two most understated angels in all of scripture. The disciples are squinting up at the sky, aghast, amazed, bewildered... and two angels appear on earth beside them. No trumpets, no heavenly chorus. Maybe the angels wait a minute. Nudge each other and smile at the simple humans. Maybe one gets tired of waiting and clears his throat. "Men of Galilee. Why do you stand here, looking into the sky?" The unspoken subtext is, "We see this stuff all the time." And in their reality, maybe so. Easter altered reality.


The ascension of Christ into heaven may have been amazing, but it's not without precedent. God really has been doing ascensions for a long time. There are two other ascensions in the Bible. The first comes way back in the book of Genesis. Remember Adam and Eve? Adam and Eve's great, great, great, great grandson, Enoch, was the first mention of ascension in Bible. And, in typical Bible fashion when it comes to ascensions, Enoch's ascension gets one measly line. In Genesis 5:23, it says, "Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away." Every other descendent of Adam & Eve live well into their 800's or 900's, and then, the Bible says, they died. But short-lived Enoch never had such a long life, because when he was only 360 and in the prime of his life, God, the Bible says, "took him away."

The second ascension comes in 2 Kings, Chapter 2, when the prophet Elijah and his assistant prophet, Elisha are walking along by the River Jordan, and suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separates
the two of them, and Elijah is lifted up to heaven in a whirlwind.
At least in this ascension, there's a chariot of fire. The Bible says, "Elisha saw this and cried out, "My father! My father! The chariots and
horsemen of Israel!" Then he took hold of
his own clothes and tore them apart." But again, no protracted amazement. In the next sentence, the Bible says Elisha puts on Elijah's clothes and gets right back on with life.

Ascending into heaven might be a pretty big deal in our minds, but the Bible really doesn't treat it as something that special. Why? I think the clue might be in what the angels said next to the disciples who watched Jesus rise into the sky.

They say, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand there, looking into the sky?" And then listen to what comes next. They say, "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come
back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."

Now. What does that mean? A lot of people will tell you the angels are talking about the Second Coming. A lot of people will say this is a direct connection to the Book of Revelation, when Jesus descends from heaven and brings a new heaven and a new earth in a cosmic disruption of universal proportions.  But if this were what the angels were intending, don't you think they might have had a little more to say about it? But the Book of Acts, unlike the Book of Revelation, is much more of a "right here, right now," kind of book. Instead of a sign that says, "Here's your destination," (as Revelation is), Acts is more like a sign saying, "You are here." Acts' message is more like, "You are here... and so is God. Get used to it." Jesus will come, and Jesus will go. You'll see.


A couple of weeks after Easter, Kristen and I were sitting together on our living room couch. It was probably about 11:30 at night, because that's the only time we get to do such miraculous things, like, sitting down, watching TV. It was a couple of weeks after Easter, and so she looks over at the mantle and says, "I guess we need to take down the Easter decorations." Now, I'm a guy, so I know what that means. It means I get to carry down the Easter decoration box from the attic and then carry it back up again. So I have what I think is a brilliant theological idea. I say, "You know, every day is supposed to be Easter. I think we should leave them up all year. As a sign to everyone that Easter never ends." (The same idea works with Christmas decorations, too, by the way.) Unfortunately for me, Kristen didn't buy this brilliant, theological idea. I still think it's one of my best.

Easter, its decorations, and its memory, get stowed away pretty quickly into the attics of our soul. That doesn't mean it's not there. It just means we, like the angels, get used to it. But unlike the angels, we forget. We know we're "Easter People," but we we forget how extraordinary this really is. The excitement fades like Jesus disappearing into a cloud. We go on with life, as life was before, as if Easter never happened. We know it did. But we forget. So when miraculous things do happen, we, like the disciples, spend our time staring into heaven and trying to hold onto the moment. We think that's our only choice. Either we stare into heaven, trying to hold onto the miracle, or we get on with life, as if miracles just don't happen anymore. The Bible - and those nonchalant angels - give us a third choice.

"This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come
back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." And how, exactly, did the disciples see Jesus go into heaven? Well, when you read this passage in context, not just the miracle, but the things leading up to it, you get some clues about what more the angels might have meant.

 6So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"

 7He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8But
you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will
be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the
ends of the earth."

 9After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

In what "way" did the disciples see Jesus go up into heaven? The disciples saw Jesus go up into heaven as the were "meeting together." The disciples saw Jesus go up into heaven as they were asking him heavenly questions. And, the disciples saw Jesus go up into heaven immediately after the last sentence in a lesson he was teaching them.

Where is the place where we meet together, the place where we ask questions about Jesus, the place where we hear lessons about God? Church. Worship. Sunday School. Church suppers. Right? We hear lessons, we ask questions, and we get together, hopefully with Jesus in our midst in all those times. All those PW meetings, all those youth suppers, all those times serving food at the homeless ministry. We meet, we ask questions, we learn when we are church. That's an answer that's entirely consistent with every last word in the Book of Acts. This book we're reading today is all about what happens when people get together in Jesus' name. Amazing things start to happen. Maybe amazing things start to happen so often that, like the angels, they become part of our reality.

The Bible's filled with so many things that are hard to believe. People say, "You just have to take a leap of faith." Sometimes that's true. But you also have to be careful you're not leaping off the wrong cliff. The bold leap of faith of the Ascension of Christ isn't believing that the disciples saw Jesus rise into the clouds. Yep, that's amazing, but that's not the most amazing part of the story. The most miraculous part of the Ascension is promise that this Jesus who went up... will come back down. This Jesus who went up will come back down in exactly the same way. Jesus will come back down. Without fanfare, without warning. In mid-sentence. Jesus will come back down, as if it's the most natural thing in the world. The boldest leap of faith about Jesus going up into heaven... is believing that he's coming back down the same way. Maybe, even as we get together right here. Maybe even as we get on with life, right now.