An Ascension Day Message

This is the full text of a message I gave today on the Ascension.

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How many of you have siblings?

I’m an only child. No siblings. People would ask me all the time, weren’t you lonely? Lonely? I was never lonely. Was I lonely? No, I had friends, didn’t you have friends? I guess when you grow up without siblings, you don’t know any different. But secretly, I used to envy you. You people with siblings, I always thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have an older brother, you know, someone who was cool and who you could look up to. But when in my adult years I talked to people who had siblings, and they told me their war stories, then I didn’t envy you any more. It was then that I learned about birth order, and about the middle child. You know, the oldest is the responsible one, and the youngest is the baby of the family, but the middle child, well… the middle child often feels invisible, neglected, and ignored. Unsure of their role in the family, uncertain of their parents’ affection, the middle child struggles to be heard. So the theory goes, anyway.

In the church, Ascension is kind of like the middle child, forgotten between the grand drama of Easter and the joy and celebration of Christmas. According to the Christian calendar, Ascension Day comes 40 days after Easter, exactly as described in the Bible, and always falls on Thursday. This year Ascension Day will be on May 1st. But on the radar of most Christians, the Ascension fails to register. Why is the Ascension so often neglected? Maybe we just don’t quite get it, or understand its significance, so we just leave it aside? Maybe we’re thinking, “What’s the big deal? He went into heaven, it’s just one more amazing thing that Jesus did, one final item on his list of accomplishments. Is it one more thing to try to come to grips with, and after wrestling to understand the virgin birth and the resurrection, and maybe it’s one thing too many? Or maybe we don’t like to think about the implications, that Jesus would leave the earth, and leave us behind. Is God really absent?

The final episode of Star Trek The Next Generation was entitled “All good things…” That old adage, “All good things must come to an end” was never more appropriate, I think. For me, it was an event. During my final years of High School, and into University, I was only allowed to follow one show a week, and that was it. So, like most geeky teenage boys, I chose to watch Star Trek Next Generation. I remember watching the finale, and when the ending credits came up, I felt sad. You could even say I felt loss at the end of Star Trek. I don’t know if you get that way about TV shows. I do. A season finale isn’t so bad, because you know there will be a next season. But when the entire series is coming to an end… well, that’s different. You don’t want it to end. When a show is really good, when you’re a fan, it’s hard when it ends. This show, the story, the characters have become your show, your story, your friends. When it ends, you feel like you’ve lost a friend.

I imagine that’s a little like what the disciples felt when they standing there, staring into the sky. This time, it really was ending. Jesus was gone.

I also imagine the disciples might have felt like a company who just lost their CEO. Here they were, thinking they would build a new kingdom with Jesus, but now they realized that they would be doing it without him there.

Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple and one of the founders of the company, is a strong leader with vision. In many ways, Steve Jobs and Apple have defined what the gold standard for personal computing ought to be. And not content to just make computers, Jobs had the vision to get into the music player market and introduced the first iPod in 2001, and since then have dominated that market with a whole line of iPods. Now they’re turning their attention to the smart phone, and we’ll see what happens in the next few years with the iPhone. At the centre of it all, is Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs is the face of Apple. No, Steve Jobs IS Apple. It’s his company.

It’s hard to imagine Apple without Steve Jobs.

For the disciples, it was hard to imagine their group without Jesus. Who they were, what they did, was defined by following Jesus. And now they were standing and staring into the sky. They didn’t know what to do next.

Philip Yancey puts it this way, in Chapter 12 of his book, The Jesus I Never Knew: “I have concluded that the Ascension represents my greatest struggle of faith–not whether it happened, but why. It challenges me more than the problem of pain, more than the difficulty of harmonizing science and the Bible, more than belief in the Resurrection and other miracles. It seem odd to admit such a notion… yet for me what has happened since Jesus’ departure strikes at the core of my faith. Would it not have been better if the Ascension had never happened? If Jesus had stayed on earth, he could answer our questions, solve our doubts, mediate our disputes of doctrine and policy.
I find it much easier to accept the fact of God incarnating in Jesus of Nazareth than in the people who attend my local church–and in me. Yet that is what we are asked to believe; that is how we are asked to live. The New Testament declares that the future of the cosmos is being determined by the church. Jesus played his part and then left. Now it is up to us.”

So is God really gone from the world? When Jesus ascended, did he really just hand it over to his disciples? Was that really the plan?

Well, the short answer to that is yes, he really did. He really did hand it over to his disciples, and to all who were to follow, including you and I. He handed it over to us, and said, “Here, it’s your ministry now. It’s your time to take over. Go and do and teach what I have taught you.”

The long answer can be found near the end of Matthew 24, and 25. Is God really gone from the world? This is probably the most disturbing implication of Jesus’ ascension: that God is now somehow absent, that He is no longer here.

It is somewhat reassuring that Jesus anticipated our concerns and talked about this very thing in Matthew. Although after we read it, we might not be so reassured. Let me give you a summary.
Jesus is teaching in parables. The final parable, which we’ll get to in a minute, is the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It’s a great parable, one that is continually sobering, convicting, and challenging for me. Leading up to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus tells four parables that all relate to this idea of God being absent.

A homeowner leaves his house vacant, then the master of the house puts his servant in charge, then a groom makes the bridesmaids wait so long that they fall asleep, and finally a master distributes talents among his servants and goes away: these four stories all contain the motif of God being absent.

And then we come to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Matthew 25:31.

Matt. 25:31 ¶ “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne.
Matt. 25:32 All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Matt. 25:33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
Matt. 25:34 Then the King will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
Matt. 25:35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.
Matt. 25:36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
Matt. 25:37 ¶ “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink?
Matt. 25:38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing?
Matt. 25:39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’
Matt. 25:40 And the King will tell them, ‘I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
Matt. 25:41 ¶ “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his demons!
Matt. 25:42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me anything to drink.
Matt. 25:43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me no clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
Matt. 25:44 ¶ “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
Matt. 25:45 And he will answer, ‘I assure you, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
Matt. 25:46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

God is absent no more. Jesus describes an end time judgement of all people from every nation. This is what will happen when the master returns. But Jesus lets us in on a little secret. The secret is this: God, who we thought to be absent, has actually been here all along, in the most unlikely of disguises. He has been disguised as the poor, the needy, the sick, and the imprisoned. If we think that God is absent from our world, perhaps we haven’t been looking in the right places.

Where is God when it hurts? When we ask this question, in the light of a seemingly absentee God, the answer seems to be an unthinkable “nowhere”. But in the light of the Ascended Christ, the question is not, “Where is God?” but “Where are we when it hurts? Where is the church when it hurts?”

This is the hard part of following Jesus. This is where the work begins. This is where we have to roll up our sleeves and get dirty.

Maybe this is why we neglect to celebrate the Ascension, because somehow we think that we can ignore our responsibilities to the world if Jesus or God is someone else is around to do it. But that wasn’t and isn’t God’s plan for human kind. God isn’t going to do it, except through us, or rather, God is going to do it in spite of us. You see, God isn’t going to swoop in and miraculously solve all our problems for us. We are here to be as Christ to the world. But how can we, the church, so deeply flawed and fractious, ever hope to address the problems of the world? Precisely because God has chosen us to do so.

Philip Yancey writes: “.. the problem of the church is no different than the problem of one solitary Christian. How can an unholy assortment of men and women be the body of Christ? I answer with a different question: How can one sinful man, myself, be accepted as a child of God? One miracle makes possible the other.”

Because God has accepted us, made us His children, He will accomplish His work through us. Despite our shortcomings and weaknesses, God can and will use us.

Christ’s ascension was the signal for us that our work was beginning. But like the disciples, we were caught staring up into the sky, not knowing what to do next. We look at the task before us and we are immobilized by fear, uncertainty, and doubt. But ten days later, that all changed. Ten days later, the disciples would receive the Holy Spirit, and with the Spirit of the Living God in them, they began to do exactly what Jesus had asked them to do.

The miracle that is God, living in us, is the same miracle that makes the church the hope of the world. The miracle that is God, choosing us to be His children, is the same miracle that will empower us to love, as He has loved us.

We began this morning with the Ascension, and we end with surrender.

Lord I give you my heart
I give you my soul
I live for you alone
Every breath that I take
Every moment I’m awake
Lord have your way in me

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by pr.sheepherder on 2009/05/23 at 4:56 PM

    I found this while I was finishing up my preparations for Ascension Sunday services…good reading! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  2. I'm glad it still resonates with you! Ascension really does have profound ramifications.

    Reply

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