Sermon for Ascension Sunday, Year A. Act 1:1-11
This past week I attended the NC synod assembly in Hickory, NC and it began, as it always does, with worship. During the time when the offering was taken up, a woman came on stage and began to paint on a huge black canvas. As the offertory music played, she made great white strokes on the giant blackness. First, it looked a bit like a tree. The woman would step back every once in a while to examine what she was doing from a bit of a distance. She worked quickly adding more and more white lines to the stark darkness. It began to look a bit like a small mushroom, or maybe it was a tree, or maybe something else altogether. More lines. Now blues, splatters of white and gold. Everyone was hypnotized as she worked with grand, quick movements, jumping back again to check the work, painting some more. It was strange, though. Just like looking at clouds in the sky and trying to make pictures out of them, we could all see something that sort of looked like one thing or another, but nothing clearly. As the offering was complete and the music came to a close, the woman lifted the huge canvas off the easel and, in one smooth movement, flipped it over. You could hear the oohhs of surprise throughout the huge auditorium. It was quite clearly an image of Jesus face, looking up into heaven. We had all been looking at the face of Jesus and didn’t even know it.
Later on during the assembly, this painting was hung on the giant cross at the back of the stage so that it became the backdrop of all three days. It was quite remarkable and a visible reminder of the a-has of God.
Our first lesson for today is from the book of Acts and in it we hear the story of Jesus’ ascension. It is the story behind our words in the creed: He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right had of the Father. The disciples watch him go–looking up at as he disappeared in a cloud. I always have a visual image of this text that looks kinda like this: a whole bunch of guys standing around with their mouths open looking up into the clouds with confused and perplexed looks on their faces.
They’ve been with Jesus through the thick and thin. The time he fed so many people on just a bit of fish and bread. The time they were in the boat and thought they were going to drown and then, with a word, he stilled the huge storm. The time he healed this person or that person. When he told parables that were so wise, so full of the wonder of the Kingdom of God that some were too great to understand, while others were just good common sense. They’d also seen him carried away by the authorities, unjustly tortured and put to death. They’d also seen him rise from the dead, teach them again about the Kingdom of God and the amazing power of God to defeat death forever.
So, they ask him, ‘Lord, is THIS the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Valid question, I think. Maybe they were beginning to get it; to catch on that this Messiah, this Kingdom thing wasn’t about a military coup. Maybe they were still hanging on to the idea of an earthly kingdom. Surely, the man who was killed, dead in the tomb, and rose up to live again could do ANYTHING! I’m not so sure this is an unreasonable question. Lord, is it Now? Are you going to finally do this Now?
Instead of giving a direct answer, Jesus starts talking about how no one knows the time or the season. The Kingdom is what the Father has set it to be and no one else knows. But, he tells them, you will receive the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and even to the ends of the earth!
Ummm. What? Why wasn’t he just going to do this restoring of the kingdom business now? Surely he could do it now if he wanted to!
And then, just like that, he disappears.
Well actually, he rises up and a cloud takes him away…but it’s the same thing. What? Why did he go? Where did he go? What are we going to do now? They really don’t seem to know what happened. They don’t even seem to know what they are looking at.
So there they stand, mouths open, gawking into the clouds.
I think this happens to all of us. We think we’re following God in one direction, and maybe we are, but then there often comes a point where we feel lost. Somehow abandoned. We find ourselves saying things like–Lord, is it time? Is this the place we should be? Is this how we are to live? And his answer isn’t always one that makes sense to us. Sometimes we feel like we’re trying to see what God is doing and it just looks like an empty sky, or a bunch of clouds, or maybe it’s some sort of tree, or maybe it’s something altogether incomprehensible. We stand there, like the disciples, wondering what has just happened and what are we to do?
“Men of Galilee, what are you staring at?” Out of nowhere there are suddenly two men who look a whole lot like angels standing there beside them. “Why do you stand there looking up in the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up into heaven and away from you will come back.” It is sort of like they are saying: Don’t worry, he’ll be back soon.
There is comfort in that. Not just in the ‘end of time’ sort of way but in knowing that we are not abandoned. Just because we cannot see the whole plan God has for us, for our lives, for our families for this congregation, for the world, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. It doesn’t mean we’ll always be standing around wondering what to do. It doesn’t mean we’re left to figure it out on our own all by ourselves. It does mean that Jesus has not and will not abandon us. He will give us the power to bring about the kingdom he promised. He will give us the way to do all that God has planned for us to do.
It is here that the text tells us that they returned home and the whole group, which also included some of the women, devoted themselves to prayer. It will only be a brief time from this day when they will receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Fire will dance on their heads. They will speak the Good News of God in every language and these once frightened, confused Disciples, gawking at the clouds, unable to process what they saw disappearing before them, will suddenly be confident, wise Apostles and they will be able to fulfill all that Jesus said they would do.
It has been as if they were looking at a strange painting and trying to figure out what it actually is. They struggled to put it all together, to see what God was trying to show them but not really being able to see the image of what was possible. And then, on Pentecost, it will be as if the picture is turned right side up. It will be clear. It will all be clear. They’ve been looking at the very face of the Kingdom of God all along and didn’t even realize it.