II Kings 2:1-12, Acts 1:1-12
May 25, 2014
This week we’re looking at the Ascension of Jesus. Ascension day is actually Thursday, but since it rarely falls on a Sunday, we just have to pick a day and celebrate it. (Unless you all want to come back on Thursday morning!)
As we think about this event, I wonder – as I often do, what the disciples were thinking. As they stood there on the mountaintop with Jesus, I wonder what they thought was going to happen.
This is that time we often don’t think too much about. This is the time between Easter and Pentecost. And of course, we do deal with the resurrection appearances of Jesus, and this is certainly one of them. But we don’t often think about what the disciples were doing, what they were anticipating, or what they were expecting in those days and weeks before everything became clear to them on Pentecost. And again, and I know I say this a lot, but we know what was about to happen. They didn’t.
On Good Friday, they certainly didn’t expect that their master would ever return! But now that he had, what was going to happen? Would he resume his public ministry? Would he go back to preaching to the crowds? And if he did, would the cynics believe him this time? That had to have been a major consideration for these disciples! Here he was with them again, and if he started it all over, surely those who didn’t believe the first time would have to believe now – now that he’d come back from the dead!
I really believe that’s part of what they were thinking that day. And more than that, they were thinking that maybe now Jesus would do all that they had hoped for before. They even asked him, “Lord, is now the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?!” That hope had been rekindled in them, you see. They were still (or maybe I should say “they were again”) looking for that kingdom on earth. So maybe now that he had returned, it would finally happen! And notice, it doesn’t say which disciple asked this question. I’m sure it could have been any of them. I believe that earthlykingdom was on every one of their minds!
Well, Jesus didn’t give them the answer they were hoping for. He said “That’s not for you to know.” Great! And I would venture to say that he might well have added, “And it’s certainly not for you to know how that will happen even when it does. Because that’s not what this is about. That’s not what this was ever about!” They really didn’t yet know what it was about!. They probably couldn’t even have imagined it. And sometimes I wonder if we can, either! We tend to have our own vision about what life in God’s kingdom is like, and we go about living it. But our vision is not always God’s vision. In fact, like those disciples, God’s vision of things is beyond our expectations!
Jesus gave them a hint of that vision that day. He told them, “When the power comes on you, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Oh boy, there he goes with that “Samaria thing” again! Yes, these guys were looking for the kingdom, but they weren’t sure what it would look like. And they weren’t sure they wanted everybody to be included! They certainly weren’t all that sure about those Samaritans, let alone the Gentiles! It would take some time before they understood that. Remember, the inclusion of the Gentiles was a big controversy for a good part of the book of Acts!
Well, Jesus then did what I think was the most unexpected thing. He ascended to heaven. Right before their eyes, he rose up into the air, and disappeared into the clouds! And we can only imagine what they were thinking then – other than astonishment! Whether at that moment, or thinking back on it later, they had to have thought about a number of things! Because they knew their scriptures. They knew the story of the Ascension of Elijah, which we read today. That had to have come to their minds! They also knew the vision of Daniel. “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Daniel 7:13)
They also might have recalled Jesus’ words, when he was talking about the end times in Matthew 24. “And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 24:30) I’m sure the people listening at that moment would have recognized the allusion to Daniel 7! And then, if any of those disciples were near the council when Jesus was on trial, they would have heard him reference that same passage, as he finally admitted that, yes, he was the Messiah. The high priest asked him point blank, “Are you the Christ, the son of the blessed?” And Jesus answered, “I am.” “And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:62) Do you see the common theme? Jesus taken up into the clouds would have evoked all of those words and stories!
So there they were gazing into heaven. Now they were clearly focusing on the heavenly kingdom, still not sure what any of it meant. What were they to think? Were they to give up on the idea of an earthly kingdom? It certainly wouldn’t come the way they expected, anyway. And by the way, we know that story, too! Israel would be destroyed in 70AD, and it wouldn’t become a nation again until after World War II.
So, if it wasn’t to be an earthly kingdom, then what would it be? Where were they to look for the kingdom? Again, they had no idea what was ahead of them. They didn’t know about Pentecost like we do! I doubt they could even have begun to imagine what was about to happen to them!
So how about us? Are we ever looking only to the heavenly Kingdom? Do we think that being part of the kingdom means something that happens just in the next life? That’s often what we think, isn’t it? But when we think that, we’re forgetting what Jesus said about the kingdom? Do you remember? He said, “The kingdom of God is (where?) among you.” “It’s in your midst.” It’s in the here and now! He taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?” We pray those words all the time, don’t we? But do we know what they mean? They’ve always been difficult words to understand.
What are we asking for there? Do we know what kingdom we’re looking for? Did these disciples? When Jesus ascended, it changed their thinking. It blew away their expectations. Where now should they look for the kingdom of God? And when we look for God’s kingdom, where do we look? Around us? Upwards? Both? I think Jesus clearly meant both. “On earth as it is in Heaven,” he said.
If we think about that prayer, we’ll find that there’s one more big clue to all this. In Jesus’ words, “Thy kingdom come” is in the same sentence with “Thy will be done!” There’s no break between those phrases. There’s only a comma in our modern translations. (And modern translators haven’t always been sure exactly where to put that comma!) But clearly Jesus meant for those two thoughts to be taken together. God’s kingdom comes where his will is done.
So, if we are looking to the kingdom, do we look to God’s will? Do we have that perspective of who is really in charge? That’s tough for us humans, isn’t it! We want to be in charge. At least we want to be in charge of our own lives. We want to be masters of our own destiny. But we follow a Jesus who said, “deny the self,” and who taught us to pray, “thy will be done.”
Let me suggest something here. Let me suggest for you to pray the Lord’s Prayer every day for the next week. And when you do, concentrate on this line I’ve been quoting here today. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Maybe even stop there. That’d be a short prayer. But maybe that will help all of this to become a little more clear.
While you’re doing that, remember, that that was one of the first lines Jesus put in his prayer. And it wasn’t just some kind of nicety at the beginning, a show of respect to God, a little worship before be we started “asking for things!” No, Jesus meant this to be one of the most important parts of the prayer. He was saying that’s what his people should be looking for! That’s the focus of what Jesus wanted his people to think about when they prayed, and as they lived their lives.
So think about looking to God’s kingdom. Seek his will for your life. Put those two things together. Like those disciples, God’s vision of what’s ahead is so much greater than our vision. Like Paul said, it is “Above and beyond all that we could ever ask or think!”
With all that in mind, let us close these thoughts today with the Lord’s Prayer…
Our Father in heaven. Help us to seek your kingdom. Help us to seek to do your will, and to have your vision on our lives and on our ministry here on earth. These things we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, and for the sake of his kingdom! Amen.