May 8, 2016

Ascension Sunday    May 8, 2016    Ps 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53,

Acts 1:1-14

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As Jesus goes up, up, and away into the heavens… Hidden at last in the cloud… Angels ask disciples, craning necks to watch as he rises – “Why do you stand looking up into the heavens? This Jesus will return… in the same way you’ve seen him go into heaven… ”

Meaning what?

Meaning coming again in the clouds, with a pair of angels escorting him back to earth? Maybe. But even if this were to be literally true, I don’t really think this would be the main idea…

Or do the angels mean – Jesus will come again as he left, meaning not according to anyone’s schedule but his own and God’s? Or – coming again with no more explanation other than what Jesus already gave, while with us in the flesh? Probably yes, I’d say, on both counts.  But again I’m not sure these partial explanations are the main point the angels have in mind.

Trying to understand everything Jesus and his apostles and angels say can be a full-time job. It’s not all 100% transparent. And I sympathize with his first  disciples as they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this now the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

They do understand correctly now – Jesus is King… They just don’t understand yet that he’s King of the universe – not just Israel… And isn’t this still a misunderstanding…we often fall into?

Isn’t it just human nature to want to have exclusive rights to our Savior? He’s our God. (Not their God.) He’s God of the red white and blue… He’s God of the blue states. Or God of the red states. God of Red Sox. Not God of the Yankees…

“Lord, is this now the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

‘Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to America – to the Red Sox – to us here in this place?’

Somehow this strange good bye scene we call the Ascension is important enough so that St Luke tells it twice. Once at the end of Luke’s gospel, and again the beginning of Acts.  Notice, by the way, how Luke tells us in the first verse of Acts that this is volume two – as he says ‘in the first book, dear Theophilus (Theophilus meaning “God-lover”), in my first book I wrote about “all that Jesus began to do and teach until he was taken up into heaven…” St Luke says this is the continuing story of Jesus and friends…Continuing all… Jesus began to do and teach… And…

Now his followers are beginning to put it together… Beginning to realize Jesus risen from the dead… rising into the heavens… is Son of God – and God and King… Now they’ve begun worshiping Jesus joyfully. And only God of course is to be worshiped…

And still disciples are asking Jesus many questions, knowing now that Jesus, with God, is God and King… “Lord, is the time when you’ll restore the kingdom?”

Israel of old knew God alone is King over all. Psalm 47 says, “The Lord, the Most High, is awesome – a great king over all the earth…”

“Sing praises with a psalm. God is king over all the nations…”

Israel knows God alone is king… Yet Israel also notoriously asks it’s leaders to provide a human king for them, like all the other nations have. Samuel, the prophet and governor of Israel, goes to God with this request, which he, Samuel, doesn’t like, but dutifully passes along to God. And God tells Samuel – what Israel’s really asking – in requesting a human king – is to not have me, their God, as King. ‘It’s not you they’re rejecting,’ God says, ‘it’s me…’ (1st Samuel 8 tells the story…)

And knowing God is king over all is of course essential… But not sufficient.

Time after time the prophets have to call Israel back to worshiping God as our one and only true king and ruler. As does Jesus… Who is, after all, crucified because of charges that he’s out to subvert the power of the Emperor, the High Priest, and all manner of human rulers and authorities…

And not to excuse Israel, or ourselves… But we should probably acknowledge… it can be difficult to serve a God and a King we can’t see… As it can also be difficult to serve a Christ who takes his own time… returning… We know that God and Christ alone determine the proper time, Christ and God alone are to be worshiped… God and Christ alone are to rule in our hearts and lives…

Yet it can be hard not to hedge our bets… and bring a few backup kings and rulers along to bide us over while we wait for King Jesus to return…

On one level, sure, we know God and Jesus are here with us all along… We know God and Jesus are much higher, much greater than any human king or president. Even so, it’s hard not to wind up spending more time following the royal Red Sox or the high priestly presidential primaries… then we spend listening attentively for a word from God on high… (Especially since it can be difficult to get good reception, listening for God, with all the static. It can be like trying to tune in the Cape and Islands Classical music station on the radio. You need an above average radio placed in just the right location…to get a good signal….)

We may believe all the words of Ephesians today, where we’re told God has given Jesus power over all other powers, rulers, and authorities in the heavens and on earth… Yet it can still be hard to remember and accept the natural conclusion that follows… that all other kingdoms – including our beloved USA and Red Sox Nation – will all pass away… (Perhaps sooner than we think…)

No earthly kingdom is ever permanent. This is basic doctrine for all Christians. No wonder the early church was so small… The whole band of the first disciples numbered only about 120 (we’re told in the 15th verse of Acts 1)… The whole church could fit inside either of our church sanctuaries, with no need to pull out any folding chairs.

They’re all gathered together in one upper room, as they were at the Last Supper, forty-some days earlier.. His mother Mary’s here with us, on her first Mother’s Day without her son…Along with the brothers of Jesus… Brothers who not only doubted Jesus – they wondered if he might be out of his mind (we’re told in gospel accounts)…

And now all the first disciples may be wondering – are we out of our minds? – being part of such a small, vulnerable group, with beliefs so very different from  the world around us. Believing Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord of all. Jesus not the President, not the Governor, not the CEO, rules over all…

But here we are…. regrouped, re-gathered… Ready and waiting… for what Jesus and God the Father have promised… Wondering still…

What exactly do these angels mean –  When they say ‘this Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come again in the same way you saw him go into heaven…?’

We may be wondering too… Speculation about the second coming is a growth industry. Millions of copies of books are sold claiming to reveal something about the when, where, and how of Jesus’ return… (Anyone who takes such predictions seriously, of course, is forgetting Jesus told us – nobody but God ever knows the time of his return.)

And all the best clues as to what the angels really mean when they speak about Jesus coming in the way that he left – are all here – in Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts…The only books that describe Christ’s ascension.

So… whenever we ponder Jesus coming again… We should probably start by remembering the last words Jesus speaks from the cross in Luke’s account, as he departs his life in the flesh. We should remember how he cries to God, saying, “Father, forgive, they know not what they do.” Having told us to forgive like this also…

Remember also how Jesus replies to the bandit crucified next to him who asks “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom….” And “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise…” Jesus says… Reminding us – we too have been told by our Lord and Savior – to welcome all who will ever even try to come to his kingdom…

So as we think about what the angels mean – when they tell us Jesus will come again as you saw him go… We should start by remembering how Jesus came into this world… and went forth again from this world… In the midst of all this world’s pain and suffering – this world’s injustice and lack of mercy… Remember how Jesus lived among us, sharing our sorrows and suffering, bearing our griefs, forgiving our sins, healing our ills…Teaching us to always love and pray… and never lose heart… So…

We expect Jesus to come again – just as he came into the world –  in love, and justice, and mercy – and in weakness and vulnerability – as a child, weak and small, born in humble and difficult circumstances…

Just as he also leaves this world – rising up in power, cloaked in mystery – yet still bearing the scars of his suffering and death on the cross…

Still showing mercy and grace to all….

So – may we do just as the angels say – and expect Jesus to come again much the same way he left…

Teaching us still to know how much we depend on his word, his example, his teaching… his promises…

As we wait again…in love and in prayer –

For the promise we have from God the Father and Jesus the Son…

The promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit…

Bringing life-renewing power and grace…

Thanks be to God… always… As we worship and wonder and wait… Amen.