June 1, 2014 – Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them 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. On 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. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “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.”

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Ascension Sunday   June 1, 2014   (Psalm 47, Eph 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53)

Acts 1:1-11           Higher Ground

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The last we see of Jesus here on earth, he’s heading up to higher ground. Rising into the heavens, disappearing into the clouds…

And as someone trying to follow Jesus… I’m reminded of the old hymn… Lord, lift me up and let me stand, By faith, on Heavens table land – A higher plane than I have found – Lord plant my feet on higher ground

Seeing Jesus heading up to higher ground has me wanting to go with him…

Yet, at the same time, I’m hearing the word from the angels today about not looking up into the skies… The word angel means (literally) messenger. Angels often bring major messages from God in Luke’s telling of the Jesus story. Angels in the beginning of Luke’s gospel announce the coming births of John the Baptist and Jesus. Near the end of Luke’s gospel, angels are there at the tomb, asking, “why are you looking for the living among the dead? He’s not here, he has risen.”

Now in the beginning of Acts, angels appear again, asking now,“why do you stand here looking up into the sky?” Strongly implying – as at the empty tomb – that we’re not looking in the right direction. Jesus will come again, the same way we saw him leaving, unexpectedly and mysteriously. Don’t be looking up into the heavens, the angels say. Focus instead on what Jesus has been telling us to do.

St Luke has just told us in his opening verses of the book of Acts, this is going to be the next part of the story of Jesus, and all he began to do and teach. This is part two of Luke’s gospel. And Jesus has just finished telling his followers that we’re now to be his witnesses who continue his work to all the ends of the earth.

Which can sound like a stretch to me – remembering how these disciples, up to now, have been looking like the Red Sox on that recent ten-game-losing-streak, doubting and denying Jesus and arguing with each other about which of them should be considered the greatest. Not looking much like guys who can do what Jesus did.

Yet here’s Jesus, just about to head off for higher ground, telling us with a straight face… we’ll be doing all that he has begun to do and teach.

And the only way I can think of… to make sense of this… is to remember… Jesus really does always know us better than we know ourselves. Jesus always sees us… better than we can see ourselves…

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Luke’s telling of Jesus’ rising into the heavens is probably primarily a parable for us. Jesus, remember, has told us that where he is, there his followers will be also. The bible doesn’t say we’ll be living in the clouds plucking harps (or watching tv) when we pass away. Which doesn’t mean we’re not going to heaven. But remember again, Jesus taught us to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. (Not in heaven as it was on earth.) And Jesus never says heaven’s far-off, light-years away from us. In fact he tells us (Luke 17) God’s kingdom is among us.

And yet Jesus clearly is seen rising up into the heavens. A bit like Elijah of old, taken up into the heavens in a chariot of fire. Except now there’s no need for a chariot with Jesus… And it’s he who will send the fire of the Holy Spirit down to earth next week at Pentecost. Old metaphors are still in play, but Jesus is re-mixing them considerably. And yes, there is something in Jesus’ ascension that does call us to follow him… onwards and upwards to higher ground.

I’m pressing on the upward way, New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I’m onward bound, “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

Jesus isn’t telling us to become rocket pilots. He’s not telling us to shoot for the heavens in any material sense. Which is a good thing.

Our family stopped by the Herring Run last week and watched the herring coming in from the canal, struggling mightily to swim up the fish ladders and up the creek that runs down from Great Herring Pond. It was so sad to watch fish coming up over the last big jump, regrouping, swimming in formation, round and round, as if waiting for stragglers to catch up. Then, we’d see many herring slipping backwards…back down over the waterfall… Swimming and struggling hard, but still washed backwards…Many dead herring lay on the bottom of the stream, after succumbing to the forces of gravity in their upward journey…

Thanks God, getting to the higher ground Jesus calls us to isn’t about physical or mental strength. If only the strong survived, as in nature, that would be depressing.

But thanks be to God, the higher ground Jesus calls us up to is spiritual ground. We know, because Jesus teaches us, again and again, to always choose the lowly paths, the way of humility, meekness, gentleness, patience. Jesus tells us those who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted. If there’s any competition on the upward way of Jesus, it’s really competing in downward mobility… Since he teaches us to put others ahead of ourselves in terms of honor, esteem, and pride of place.

Jesus calls us to spiritual higher ground – where we can see life’s big picture, panoramically, and prioritize what’s truly important.

The higher ground Jesus calls us to is the higher ground of his love…

Higher ground where we become fully alive; freed and forgiven…Free to be able to forgive others… as we become more and more able now to see others, as Jesus sees… Free from all illusion…that we are somehow better than others…

My heart has no desire to stay – Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Though some may dwell where these abound, My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.

Our daughter Rohi recently was part of a book group at the library, that read a book called The Hundred Dresses. Miss Kathy, librarian and group leader, suggested I read the book too. She assured me there would be sermon illustrations in it for all ages. She was right.

In the story, a young girl named Wanda, lives out on the outskirts of town with her family. They’re poor and their last name sounds, well, different… Wanda wears the same old faded blue dress to school every day. Other girls tease her. One day Wanda says she has a hundred dresses at home, all lined up in a closet…The other girls tease her all the more. One girl, Maddie, who is also poor, but not as poor as Wanda’s family, starts to regret teasing Wanda… but she’s afraid if she defends Wanda other girls may turn on her and tease her too. So she stays quiet… And Wanda stops coming to school for days at a time…

One day the teacher announces an art contest. All the boys are assigned to draw pictures of boats. All the girls are to draw pictures of dresses. On the day of the contest, paintings cover all the walls of the classroom. Everyone is wondering where they all came from. Many of the girl’s pictures are especially beautiful.

Then the boys contest has a winner…

Then the winner of the girl’s contest is announced. There’s really no contest, the teacher says. One girl has submitted a hundred paintings, and they are all remarkably beautiful. Anyone of them would be the winner. Everyone agrees. And it turns out, all of them are painted by Wanda.

Who is not there to hear that she is the winner. She and her family have moved away. Her father sends a letter that the teacher reads, saying they are tired of people making fun of them. They’ve moved.

Later, as Maddie and her best friend look at the beautiful pictures of beautiful dresses more carefully, now they notice – their own faces – and the faces of all the other girls in their class – all wearing beautiful dresses – all with their faces painted to look even more beautiful. Each girl in each picture has been painted by Wanda to look truly beautiful…

And everything Wanda said about having a hundred dresses turns out to be true. The dresses were all there, in her pictures. But the yet-more-beautiful-truth is that she was able to love the very same girls who teased her and didn’t believe her. Love them enough to see them as more beautiful than anyone else could see them…

Somehow Wanda knew the redemption song, and how it goes –

I want to live above the world, though Satan’s darts at me are hurled;

For faith has caught the joyful sound – the song of saints on higher ground.

Wanda turns out to be a Christ figure. She sees, as Jesus sees, from higher ground… Jesus sees us (each of us), even when we’re acting really ugly… as far more beautiful than we can ever see ourselves… Because Jesus sees our potential. Sees the image-of-God in each of us… No matter how poorly we’ve done… no matter many games in a row we’ve blown… Jesus sees our potential to be truly beautiful.

Because Jesus sees us always from the vantage point of the higher ground of God’s love… The same higher place… to which he now calls us…

I want to scale the utmost height – And catch a gleam of glory bright;
But still I’ll pray till heaven I’ve found – Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

Lord, lift me up and let me stand, By faith, on Heavens table land,
A higher plane than I have found; Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

May we all get to the higher ground of Jesus… and live there together, forever by his grace…. And may we always help others get there with us… in peace, by grace.

May this be our prayer always.

In Jesus’ name we pray.

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