Ascension Sunday 2018
Acts 1: 3-11
“Why Do You Stand Looking Up?”
Today is perhaps the most skipped day in the lectionary. It is Ascension Sunday. The story of the Ascension happens at 40 days after Easter, which places it on a Thursday. Which means that for our Catholic brothers and sisters they probably celebrate this more often, but for Protestants, sometimes we celebrate on next Sunday and sometimes (perhaps more often) we just forget about it. So what is the story of the ascension? What does it mean for us?
The ascension story begins with the disciples going to Galilee. Five hundred of them have gathered on a mountain with Jesus standing before them and teaching them. He gives them an instruction: wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, and then go from there to be representatives of Jesus throughout the world. The famous line to be representatives “in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And then Jesus begins to rise up, literally floated off the ground, and in a cloud he ascended into heaven until they can no longer see him. And then comes the part of the story that I want to focus on most this week: two angels appear amongst the disciples and ask “men of Galilee why are you standing around looking into the sky?”
This line stuck out to me for a number of reasons. First off, I want to give the disciples some credit. After all they’ve just seen a man they’ve known for upwards of three years literally fly into the sky. That would be an amazing sight. If I saw that I know I would need a little bit of time to process that event. So my immediate reaction is why is God so demanding that he needs them to get moving so quickly after they’ve seen this monumental event of Jesus being raised to heaven? I want to give the disciples a little bit of credit.
Of course the Bible does not say how much time God gave them to stop looking for Jesus in the sky before sending these two angels. The angels come in there and they appear among the disciples with the intent of getting the disciples moving again. I want to go look at this question and what it can mean for us. First, let’s look at what are they doing that God wants them clearly to stop. And the answer is they are admiring God’s work. In some sense they are worshiping in that moment; by looking up and admiring, by being in awe and wonder at the ascension of Jesus. And God sends the angels tell them to stop doing that. Why?
The scripture gives us an answer to that question. The answer is: that’s not what God wanted in that moment. If you want proof that God did not want that style of worship in that moment all you need do is look back a couple verses to see where Jesus specifically tells them what he wants them to do: leave the mountain, go down to Jerusalem, and to wait there for the Holy Spirit. And instead they’re standing on the mountain looking into the sky.
We place a great deal of emphasis on worship. And God does like worship. One of the first things God does after freeing the Israelites from Egypt is tell them how they are to worship him. Worship is important to God. But also in multiple places in scripture: in the prophet Amos, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah in the Old Testament; when Jesus walked into the Temple and overturned the moneychangers we see something more to the story.
The moneychangers were there to facilitate proper worship as displayed by God to Moses at the very beginning. And Jesus goes in and overturned their tables. Or we have the book of Revelation. In those letters at the very beginning of the book of Revelation there is one where Jesus says “if only you were hot or cold I would know what to do with you, but because you were lukewarm, I will spit you out.” In other words, you’re not worshiping perfectly, and you’re also not doing justice. You’re just there. You’re going through the motions. And because of that, even though you’re worshiping I will spit you out. When we see these kinds of passages in the Scriptures, we see that there is something that God wants even more than worship: that is to follow his commandments.
In other words, don’t look up into the sky, but rather follow Jesus on the ground. It’s important to note that when these two angels appear they do not appear next to Jesus and come down to the disciples, or even speak to the disciples from beside the cloud. Rather they appear with the disciples on the ground, which shows that God has not left them even though Jesus has. God is still with them, present on the ground. And this also shows we are expected to hit the pavement; we’re expected to move, expected to do something with God.
That got me thinking about whether or not we are looking into the sky. Are we doing any better now, 2000 years later? Is there any improvement in this? I believe there’s some improvement in this. I would hope we’ve done a little better. But I do think there are ways that we are still looking into the sky. I want to get into two main ways that we do that.
The first is a way that we are quite literally looking into the sky. This is when we as Christians become more focused on when Jesus will return then in actually doing Jesus’ work. The number of times that the world has been predicted to be ending, the number of hours spent trying to do math on scriptures that were never really meant to be a math textbook, or even a history textbook in that sense, in order to try and predict out when Jesus will return has skyrocketed. We do this so that we know when the boss is coming around, and we need to be good so we know how long we need oil in our lamps, to use the bridesmaids metaphor the Jesus used. When we do that we’re looking into the sky. It’s really what we’re doing.
There are a couple of motivations for it that I can see. For one, I think an evangelistic motivation has been displayed, where people want to be able to say “look you only have until October to accept Jesus Christ. There’s a time limit on this.” That’s certainly one motivation people have.
But I think another motivation for people is that we recognize now more so than they did back then, certainly, but maybe more so than ever just how large the world is. And we live in the United States of America, which is about as far to the ends of the earth as you can get from Jerusalem. And if God is coming back in Jerusalem, I want to know when Jesus is coming back so that I can get on a plane and I can get there; so I won’t miss it. And I think that’s what the primary point the angels are making is: it’s OK to be excited about Jesus‘s return, it’s OK to be anticipating this major moment, but he will return as he has left. What they are saying is “we promise you won’t miss it. It will be big when Jesus comes back. You do not need to be looking for it, you will not miss it, focus on the work.”
I’m reminded every week what that work is. The Lord’s Prayer contains three things that involve this work: hallowed be your name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Every week we ask that God’s name would be praised, that God‘s will would be done, and that this earth might look a little more like the Kingdom of God. Every day we pray that. And I believe it is our job to go out and praise God‘s name, to go out and do God‘s will as if we were in heaven, and to go out and make that Kingdom of Heaven appear here in our little part of the world.
This brings us to the second point. I believe that sometimes we, even 2000 years later, are still looking into the sky when we act as if we have no work to do, as if Jesus will do all the work for us, as if we can merely be observers watching Jesus. Don’t get me wrong; I believe Jesus will do miracles for us. And certainly I think Jesus is the primary worker when the Kingdom of Heaven does indeed show up on earth.
But I think ahead to the story this coming up in just two chapters here with John and Peter. Right after Pentecost they are walking to the temple, and there is a man who had been lame from birth sitting there, and Peter looks at the man and says, “I cannot give you gold, but what I can give you is more valuable: in the name of Jesus Christ pick up your mat and walk.” And he does.
Now, obviously Jesus is the one who healed the man. But I’ll tell you Peter and John got up, they got out the door, they walked toward the temple to pray, they saw the man instead of simply walking by him, and they thought to offer that healing. And you know what? If the healings that Jesus did in his life are any indication, that man was only healed because he trusted in their words and in the name of Jesus Christ and he tried to get up. In other words, yes Jesus does the miracle, but we have work to do within it.
We are meant to be participants in the salvation of the world. The angels are reminding these apostles that they are meant to be witnesses, not observers, to this event. The gospel is going nowhere if we don’t tell people. God has for 2000 years refused to send a neon sign down from heaven saying, “Jesus is correct! Follow him!” We are the neon sign.
Every week I pray for the blessing of this church. I hope you do as well. I hope you remember your church in your daily prayer, that God would bless this church. Many weeks I will go through and ask God‘s blessing upon each section, each pew and upon all who would sit there that week. Every week before church I pray that God’s Spirit would come into this place and would fill us and revitalize us to do God’s work in the world. What if we’re not meant to be observers of that blessing? What if we must be participants or witnesses within that? How would that look?
For starters, I think it would include inviting your friends. And you might say, “well I’ve invited my friends and they said no.” Yeah, invite them again. Maybe invite them to this cookout. That’s kind of what the purpose of the cookout is: so that people can come and can meet us and recognize that we’re not scary people (I hope). That people can come without having to walk through the door. But invite people; invite again, and again, and again. Never with hostility, never with malice, but with pure invitation.
Sometimes churches expect the pastor to do all the inviting to church. And maybe I can do so a little bit more often then you. But I’ll tell you one thing: you will be far more successful than I will be. You start in your friend’s mind with 20, 30, 40 years of evidence that you are a good person who will not lead them astray. I’ve been here for one, and I may not even know them for anywhere near that one. Secondly, people know that I am a pastor, employed by this church, and that I am paid to like this church. Now I do like this church, and I would like this church even if you didn’t pay me, but people know that I am paid to like this church, and that the reduces my credibility when I am inviting them. And if you don’t believe that, just try and figure out if you were looking for opinions on a restaurant, do you trust the review of the owner of the restaurant or do you trust the review of a customer?
Invite friends if they don’t have a church. Invite them again this week. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, then at least to do this: show the love of Jesus to everyone you meet. Be that smiling face. Don’t yell at someone who cuts you off in traffic. Assume the good in people. Give the benefit of the doubt. Give second chances. In short, be Jesus to those around you. And if you can at least do that this week, I trust that God will indeed bless you, and that God will, through you, bless us the church. May this be so. Amen.