II Kings 2:6-12, Acts 1:1-11
May 29, 2011
This Thursday is the day the Church celebrates “The Ascension of Jesus.” That’s the event we read about this morning, where Jesus is taken up into heaven. I also had us read a similar story about Elijah, and how he left this earth. I think there are some interesting parallels between those two stories.
The problem with the Ascension of Jesus is that it’s one of those “holy days” that doesn’t fall on a Sunday. So we don’t often think about it. And even if we do, we usually celebrate it on the closest Sunday. In this case, that would actually be next week. But I thought it would be good to think about it today after all of the buzz last weekend about Harold Camping’s prediction. Since so much was said then about Jesus’ return to this earth, I thought it would be good to give some thought to this event where he left the earth.
So, for the title of this sermon, I borrowed these words from the Apostles’ Creed. “And he ascended into heaven.” I hope you recognized them. And since the creed is a statement of what “we believe,” the Ascension is then one of those things we believe. I also thought this was a good time to start using the creed again on Sunday morning. (I go through times when I use it, and times I don’t.)
For the scripture, I chose this passage from the book of Acts. Because this is the most “complete” telling of this event. In Matthew, Jesus takes the disciples to the mountaintop, and says, “Lo, I am with you always.” But he doesn’t actually ascend into heaven. In Mark, the Ascension is not mentioned at all, at least not in the “traditional ending.” It is mentioned briefly in the “extended ending,” But the “traditional ending” of Mark’s gospel ends on Easter morning when the women “said nothing because they were afraid.” And John doesn’t mention the ascension or the final meeting with the disciples at all.
But for Luke, this is an important event. He actually tells about it twice. We find a brief version at the end of his Gospel, and now in Acts, as he’s writing to his friend “Theophilus,” he gives the more complete version. I’d like us to look at this story from his point of view, and see how Jesus left this earth. And I’d also like us to see what it says about his return. Because we believe that, too! At least we say we do in the creed, when we say, “…from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
So Luke begins the book of Acts with this introduction to “Theophilus.” There he describes what has happened in those days, and how Jesus told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they received “the promise of the Father.” And he’s referring there to the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day we now know as Pentecost.
Then, in verse 6, Luke starts giving us the narrative of the story. He tells us that Jesus was with his disciples on the on the Mount of Olives. We know that from verse 12, where it says, “Then they returned from the Mount of Olives.” It also says, “…which is near Jerusalem, about a Sabbath Day’s journey away.” Just out of curiosity, do you have any thoughts about how far that might have been? Remember you could only walk so many steps on the Sabbath. Any more, and you were considered to be “working,” and therefore “breaking the Sabbath!” The answer is that it was a little bit more than half a mile. But does it mean that this event took place on the Sabbath? Or was this just a convenient way of expressing a distance – which every good Jew would know? We can’t really tell from the text. But what we do know is that they hadn’t gone far. They were essentially still in Jerusalem.
So there they were with Jesus, on the mountain, where they had been together many times before. And they have a question for him. And it’s a burning question that’s still on their minds? “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” It’s important for Luke to tell us about that question. Because they still hadn’t given up on that notion that Jesus would give them their freedom and reestablish the kingdom of Israel! Yes, that hope had been dashed on Good Friday – with all the rest of their hopes. But now they’re thinking, “Hey, he’s back! So, maybe now…” Remember they still didn’t know what was going to happen – not like we do. So this earthly kingdom was still on their minds.
Well, the answer Jesus gave them is very interesting in light of all the hype of this past weekend! He says, “It is not for you to know the times which the father has fixed by his own authority.” Is that not reminiscent of this passage from Matthew? (which Darryl quoted last Sunday.) “But of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son(!), but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36) A lot of people quoted that passage this past week! And here Jesus is saying the same thing to his disciples about the “earthly kingdom.” And notice, he’s not dismissing the notion! He’s just saying “No, not now. And I’m not going to tell you when.”
So we have to know that Jesus will have an earthly kingdom – some day! But it was hard for the disciples to get it through their heads that it wouldn’t be in their lifetime! In fact, throughout the early days of the Church, there was this question. “When would Jesus return?” “When would the kingdom be restored.” And that became quite a dilemma. There were people in those days who believed Jesus would return soon, and so they stopped being productive members of society. They stopped working and were just “waiting around” for his return. Doesn’t that sound like some of the stories we heard last week? We heard of people giving away their earthly possessions and just waiting around for the Rapture to happen. And that sad thing about that is that it’s so opposite to everything Jesus said about the subject! He didn’t want us to be “figuring out when it would be,” and then just “sitting around waiting.” He wanted us to be in this world, living the joyful life, loving others, telling his story, and living as though he were returning any day!
Let’s look what happens next. Jesus changes the subject, and he tells them they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the end of the earth! And I have to think that those “good Jewish boys” probably weren’t exactly happy about that! “What? Be his witnesses to all the gentile nations, too? Really?” And while they were thinking about that, the Ascension happened! “When he had said this, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” There’s that moment in time that’s been portrayed by artists, and celebrated by the church ever since.
Look what happens next. And only Luke records these details. “And while they were gazing into heaven,” and we might add, ‘with their mouths hanging wide open,’ “behold, two men stood by them in white robes. And they said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? (With your mouths hanging open?) This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go…”
There’s the promise of the “Second Coming of Christ.” And it’s part of this story of the Ascension. I hope you’ll think about that. With all this hype about last Saturday, (and I guess now it’s October 21st!) I hope you’ll remember that the promise is that Jesus will come again to this earth! It will happen some day. Maybe it’s this Thursday! Wouldn’t that be something if Jesus chose to descend the same day he ascended! (But of course, we probably don’t know the actual day of his Ascension. Like the other holy days of the Church, Thursday is simply the day that was set to celebrate it!)
The problem with all this is that we don’t think about it very often, do we? And the problem with that is that it’s too easy to forget to live our lives like we’re ready for it! That’s what Jesus wants us to do. That’s what he said whenever he talked about this. Read Matthew 24 sometime. That chapter has been called “the Little Apocalypse,” because it’s all about those end times. And it’s a “mini version” of the much larger book which was originally titled “The Apocalypse.” Does anybody know what that book is called? We call it “Revelation.”
So it’s in the “Little Apocalypse” where Jesus said that no one would know when it would all take place. And he also said that many would be caught off guard by it! That’s important! Jesus said it would come “like a thief in the night.” It would be like the time of Noah, when people were going about their daily lives and they had no idea about the calamity that was about to befall them. That’s how Jesus described his return! We cannot forget that! So when someone’s out there predicting when it is, we can be pretty certain they’re going to be wrong.
In the meantime, though. What do we do? “How shall we then live?” as the title of Francis Schaeffer’s book asks. How does this affect our lives? The answer is simpler than we might think. And more difficult. The answer is that we are to take Jesus at his word, and be ready. And the way we are to be ready is to be his people – every day. It is to live our lives “in this world, but not of this world” as he told us. It is to heed his call to live our lives by his example of radical love and unconditional grace.
Friends, those are “God things.” We can’t begin to be able to do them on our own. And when we think we can, we’ve missed the boat. It is the miraculous power of God living in and through us every day that empowers us to live our lives for him. That’s what God wants. So, in all these thoughts about the ascension and the second coming of Jesus, let us remember that we are not to know the time, but we are to live as though this is the time!
Eternal God, help us to understand, if just a little, this whole business of Jesus’ promise to return. Help us to live our lives as though his return is imminent. Help us to be your people in this time and place, and to promote your kingdom here on earth, and in the life to come. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.