Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ascension Sunday: Luke 24:44-53, Psalm 93

This week we celebrate Jesus' ascension and our Psalm reading is from Psalm 93. The Gospel reading is from Luke 24:44-53.

The audio is in the player below and the full manuscript is after the break.

May 17, 2015
Year B

Psalm 93
The Majesty of God’s Rule
1     The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.
He has established the world; it shall never be moved;
2        your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.
3     The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
4     More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters,
more majestic than the waves of the sea,
majestic on high is the Lord!
5     Your decrees are very sure;
holiness befits your house,
O Lord, forevermore. [1]

Luke 24:44-53
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
The Ascension of Jesus(Mk 16:19–20; Acts 1:9)
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.[2]

The Majesty of Our Lord
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church

            Whew! It’s been two weeks since I’ve stood in this pulpit to preach and it’s felt weird! I actually planned out the entire summer sermon series because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. At least last week I wasn’t on vacation, so I could work on planning ahead.
I hear this is pretty common among pastors, but I’m very bad at relaxing. I live to be busy. But the week I was on vacation, I knew I had that race coming up and I needed to be as lazy as possible so I could let my body rest. Anyway, while I was sitting around on vacation not writing a sermon, I started watching a TV show called “AD: The Story Continues.” It’s a series that starts with Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and follows the disciples through the days of the early church and the development of Christianity as a faith community.
To be honest, I actually expected to hate it, but as a pastor, it seemed like my duty to at least watch it once. I assumed it would be cheesy and not very biblical, because let’s face it. . . television rarely does the Bible justice when it tries to take on its stories, let alone its purpose and theology. But in fact, this show isn’t terrible. It’s not going to win an Emmy any time soon, but it’s not a complete waste of time. It’s decent and it doesn’t try to explain away miracles or make Jesus out to be nothing more than some zealous rabbi who tangled with the wrong people. It really does tell the story as it’s written in the Bible. There are a few creative side stories added that don’t really add or take away from anything. And as I expected, it’s a little corny and over-acted. And the special effects leave quite a bit to be desired, but overall, I don’t hate it. I like it enough that I’ve kept watching it for a couple weeks now.
It’s been interesting to watch it this time of year, because it’s hitting at the right time in the liturgical calendar (that’s the fancy name for the church calendar of holidays and celebrations), so I’ve been really attuned to what stories are coming up in the lectionary (that’s the fancy word for the list of what scripture passages are most appropriate for the different Sundays of the church calendar). With this in mind, I was pretty struck by the Ascension episode. One minute, Jesus is talking to the disciples about their mission that he’s leaving with them, and the next moment, he’s just gone. There was a little bit of light in the clouds as he trudged dramatically up a mountain and some slightly corny music played, and then. . .ZIP! Up he goes and the disciples are left to get on with their mission. They stick around in Jerusalem for a bit until the Holy Spirit comes, but even when they are there, they are starting to spread the gospel to the people of the city. I thought for sure they had shortened this story for some reason, but when we turn to the text for this morning out of the Gospel of Luke. . . it’s really pretty much the same.
Theologically, the ascension is really important. It shows us who Jesus really is. Jesus is God reigning in heaven. But when we look at the biblical narrative, the ascension just a tiny little moment. It’s pretty stark. One second Jesus is there and the next. . . POOF! Up in heaven.
There are all sorts of interpretations of how the Ascension worked – how exactly Jesus was up on earth one second and in heaven another. Did he just float up? Did he vanish? Did he hop onto a cloud and ride it off into the sky? Luke doesn’t seem to care about the mechanics of it. In Luke’s second volume – the book of Acts – he does mention a cloud, but it’s still not terribly informative. This is one of those moments in the Bible where obsessing over the “how” means we’re clearly missing the point. There’s something else interesting about this passage about Jesus physically leaving Earth.
We hear about how people are “taking God out of schools” or “taking the Christ out of Christmas” or “taking God out of our government” or “taking Jesus out of. . .” fill in the blank. Granted, it’s really nice to see our faith held up as the model for a good life. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by people who believe what we do in this age after the ascension of Jesus into heaven. It can be lonely down here with Jesus all the way up there sitting at the right hand of God the Father in Heaven. But the Ascension shows us that humans can’t take God out of anything. God is the one calling the shots, not us. We give ourselves too much credit when we think that people can take Jesus out of the world. And the Ascension shows us that while Jesus is no longer physically walking the Earth in the way that you and I do, Jesus is not gone. God hasn’t removed God’s self from the face of the planet to let us hang for a while.
When we see things black and white like that – Jesus is either here or there – we have gotten too caught up in the mechanics and missed the words that Jesus left. We haven’t actually grabbed ahold of the point of the ascension. Look at how Jesus leaves the disciples. Jesus is clearly preparing the disciples for ministry once he is no longer with them physically. Jesus knows his time is limited. The disciples know Jesus’ time is limited. Yet, there’s no tearful goodbye. There is no panic over “What are we going to do without you, Jesus?” Never once do they cry out that anyone is “taking Jesus out of Jerusalem.”
We can see by Jesus’ words that we are to be witnesses to the Gospel – to spread the story of the resurrection. And the disciples don’t seem to be one tiny bit worried about the fact that Jesus is no longer physically with them as they embark on this work. What are we missing then, that that disciples got?
            Jesus didn’t leave the disciples alone to figure things out by themselves when he ascended.  He didn’t suddenly become some distant God who was no longer active in their lives. The point is not that Jesus was physically on Earth one moment, then in heaven the next. The point was that in that moment, the disciples were reassured that the resurrection is real, it is complete, and that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. And in that moment, they weren’t abandoned by Jesus, space was made for them to begin their own missions. If Jesus had just stayed, they would have still been following Jesus around all the time and sort of watching his ministry rather than branching out around the world to spread the gospel on their own.
            The disciples were left physically without Jesus and there was some time between the ascension and the day that the promised Spirit came down to inspire the disciples. But they didn’t panic in that time. God wasn’t gone. Jesus didn’t just leave them hanging. They went and they started to spread the gospel knowing that because God would be faithful to make good on the promise of the Holy Spirit, they needed to be faithful to Jesus’ command to love one another and spread the good news.
            There is a movement out there called “The Historical Jesus” movement. Their purpose is to figure out who Jesus was, historically speaking. They want to track down exactly what happened and what did he actually say and what was paraphrased by the gospel writers. They write popular books and make appearances on the history channel. I think that their motives are good, generally. I don’t think they are out to hurt people and some of them are genuinely trying to figure out what’s going on with their faith and what’s at the root of the stories that Christians tell. But the big problem with this movement is that it misses the point.
            We see TV shows or read books or talk about who Jesus was. But the ascension isn’t a story about a goodbye. Jesus didn’t stop interacting with people after popping back off to heaven.
We haven’t been left in a world without Jesus. No matter how much support or disdain we see for our faith in the world around us, nobody can ever take God out of anything. And God has not taken God’s self out of the world. We may not always be able to see Jesus clearly in the world around us, now that he’s in heaven at the right hand of the Father, but the point of the Ascension is that Jesus’ Earthly ministry is complete and now God’s mission is accomplished through us. Jesus isn’t gone. Jesus dwells in each of us.
            The Ascension doesn’t separate us from Jesus. It gives us the space we need to allow the Holy Spirit to work through us. The Holy Spirit awakens our faith and now in the days since Jesus’ ascension, we are, in a sense, the presence of Jesus in the world.
            In that TV show I was talking about at the beginning of the sermon, there’s something really striking. The show isn’t really about Jesus. And I think that’s an interesting and theologically sound statement to make. We’re living in the time called Anno Domini: The year of our Lord. The show AD is about the time after Jesus’ Earthly ministry, so it’s right that it’s about the disciples. And it’s right that they don’t panic when Jesus leaves.
            We aren’t living in the Year AFTER our Lord. We are living in the year OF our Lord. Jesus is still here and Jesus is still active in each of us and consequently, Jesus is still active in the world. God isn’t done with us. We’re not just riding out some indefinite time before Jesus shows up again. When we talk about Jesus, we should use caution to refer to who Jesus IS and what Jesus IS DOING, not who Jesus WAS and WAS DOING. If we worry about the part where Jesus leaves and forget about what he has left with the disciples to do and what he has charged them with, we have completely missed the point of the ascension.
            Next week, we will celebrate Pentecost. It’s one of my favorite church holidays. It’s the day we remember when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and they were inspired to spread the gospel to people of all races and languages. We know that Pentecost is coming, even through Jesus has ascended. But the disciples didn’t have a church calendar to tell them when to expect the Holy Spirit’s fire show. Yet off they went to spread the gospel, knowing that they hadn’t been left alone.
            The presence of Jesus is still in this world. God can’t be taken out of anywhere - We’re not that clever or powerful. We have been left with the Holy Spirit to guide us in doing God’s work. So as you go out this week into a world that is often hard to see hope for, a world that seems as though God has forgotten parts of it, a world which sometimes we think humans have removed God from, remember that God is too big to be taken out of anywhere and that God has not left us. Jesus didn’t go away never to be seen. Jesus is living and active in each of us.

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ps 93:1–5). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 24:44–53). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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