Carl Sagan was a well-known cosmologist and astronomer. He thought he might have some fun with a theologian sitting next to him at a conference. So he told him, “You know, if the Ascension of Jesus occurred as it is literally portrayed in the New Testament – that is to say, had Jesus actually been caught up in the heavens in order to sit at the right hand of God – well … you know what that means, don’t you?”
“What?” asked the theologian. “Well,” said Sagan, “if Jesus were caught up at the speed of light — 186,000 miles per second — with what we know today about the vastness of our galaxy — Jesus would still be traveling today just to reach the outer limits of the Milky Way! Furthermore, there are billions and billions of galaxies!”
Last Thursday was Ascension Day. And if you asked 9 out of 10 church goers, they wouldn’t know that. You don’t hear much in the church today about Jesus’ Ascension. I wonder if people are embarrassed by a text that makes Jesus look like some kind of first century astronaut flying up heaven.
Let’s face it. We live in a scientifically advanced culture. We know a little more about the cosmos than 1st century Palestine. Can any 21st century thinking person really entertain the idea of Jesus doing lift off from planet earth? That’s just not reasonable thinking, is it?
Stephen Hawking was one of the most brilliant scientists of our time. He also lived with Lou Gehrig’s disease for 55 years and died two years ago. No one would ever accuse Stephen Hawking of being goofy thinking.
But when asked about God and heaven he said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark”.
Stephen Hawking would regard Luke’s description of Jesus leaving planet earth as a fairy story for people afraid of the dark. Yet listen to his intelligent prescription for our future. He said, “It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet.”
So he concludes that we need to abandon earth or face extinction. Scientific-sophisticate Stephen Hawking thought we needed to blast off from planet earth and find a new planet to colonize. Is that reasonable thinking?
Luke’s account of the Ascension offers us a different future. And he does it by using the language of time and space to describe an historical event that transcended both time and space.
It was 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection. Forty days during which Jesus had appeared to over 500 people in Jerusalem and Galilee. Forty days of vindication for the forty days he had once spent being tempted by Satan.
Jesus takes his disciples across the ravine from Jerusalem and journeys up to the top of the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave instructions to the disciples all gathered with him there.
Then Luke tells us: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
Not a lot of embellishment, not a lot of explanation. Very factual, very straight-forward. Indeed, the eyewitnesses were left gazing up at the sky. “What happened?” “Where’d he go?”
The Ascension is one of the church’s feast days that is either overlooked or kept out of sight like Crazy Aunt Sally. But the Ascension marks a critical time in the life of the church. And, if God could part the Red Sea and resurrect a man from the dead, he could beam his Son up.
Moreover, it was necessary that God provide an Ascension Day. A hinge point in history marking the close of one era and the beginning of another.
Here’s why. When Jesus ascended, Luke tells us in Acts and also in the Gospel account that he was “taken up.” Did you catch that Something happened to Jesus. Jesus did not levitate. Jesus did not fly up into the air. He was “lifted” or “carried” in a cloud.
There’s another moment in Jesus’ life when he was enveloped in a cloud. And that’s when he was transfigured on top of the mountain. The Father spoke out of the cloud.
But look back to the book of Exodus and we find Moses building a tabernacle in the desert where he could meet with God. Once he finishes his work, the bible describes how the “glory of God” –what is known as the shekainah – descended in a cloud from Mount Sinai to indwell that new tabernacle. “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
Hundreds of years later, King David replicated this tabernacle in Jerusalem, Then Solomon transformed into the Temple. When construction was completed, the bible says that the cloud filled the temple. The priests could not perform their service because the cloud of glory filled the temple.
Years later, that Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. When it was reconstructed God promised to fill the Temple with the cloud of his glory. Ezekiel prophesies that one day when the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt, that cloud of glory will enter by the east gate and once again fill the temple. At this point it we should call to mind one of the most radical claims Jesus ever made about himself. Standing in the Temple courts he declared: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”).
Jesus was not, in fact, referring to the Temple made with stones. He was speaking about the temple of his body.” And just as the cloud of God’s glory filled the tabernacle, just as it filled the temple of stone, and just as it will fill the temple of prophetic vision, so the cloud of God’s glory descends upon Jesus.
Moses was not able to enter the Tabernacle because of the cloud of God’s glory. Ezekiel fell on his face. But Jesus is enveloped, he is embraced and he is lifted up. The Father bends down tenderly to embrace the Son and lift him off the treadmill of time and into eternity.
In ten days, the Father will send his Holy Spirit to these disciples to turbo-charge them..
But look what they do to prepare for that day. The first thing they do is shift their gaze. The Ascension was the hinge point in history. Because it’s when Jesus is taken up to sit at the Father’s right hand.
But it’s also a hinge point for the ones who remained. For three years, they were personally tutored by Jesus. And now, Jesus has left the building. He’s turned over the keys to them.
They stand gazing up in the sky. Where did he go? Is He coming back?
The reality of what had just happened begins to sink in when they hear someone call out to them: “Men of Galilee, what are you standing around gazing at?”
This sheltering in place has cancelled commencement exercises for high schools and that’s too bad. Because those exercises serve an important function for the graduates, just as the Ascension did for the disciples.
That function can be summed up in something that a principal told his graduates at a graduation I attended one year. Looking at the graduates seated before him he said: “The time for your compulsory schooling is done. Now you determine what you want to do with the rest of your life.” You’re an eighteen year old kid and you’re charged with planning the rest of your life. That’s a daunting thought!
The disciples faced the same point in their lives while standing on the Mount of Olives. The time for their training with Jesus had come to a close. They’ve graduated. Now they will each decide what they will do with the rest of their lives.
There’s no reason to spend another minute at the top of the mountain. The Ascension marked a definitive moment in time when the disciples would take over from Jesus. It’s time for them to walk down from that mountain and back into Jerusalem to do the works that Jesus did.
There is a time appointed for us to sit and learn from Jesus. To build our knowledge of him, and learn what it means to be his disciple. And we could be very comfortable being spectators on the sidelines. We could get comfortable just gazing on Jesus for the rest of our lives.
But that’s not what God desires of his disciples. Jesus said, “Greater works will you do because I go to my father.” So there comes a point when every Christian needs to stop gazing to get going.
Ascension Day is graduation day for every Christian. Every Christian must experience their Ascension Day when they stop sitting on the sidelines and start doing the works that Jesus did. It’s the day when we take what we have learned and determine what we want to do with it for the rest of our lives. Jesus sent his disciples out saying, “As you go, make disciples.”
We all have natural spheres of influence around us. We have family and friends within our everyday lives that we interact with. They know us and they appreciate having us in their lives. It’s within those spheres of influence that we find opportunities to minister God’s grace. You’ve learned from Jesus, you’ve graduated, so you are able to do that.
It means when a friend shares a problem with you, you can offer prayer right then and right there. Because Jesus prayed for others, he’s taught you how to pray, and you’ve graduated.
It means when you see ungodly behavior, you can rebuke it. Because Jesus rebuked ungodly behavior, he’s shown you how to rebuke it, and you’ve graduated.
It means when you see someone with a need, you can meet that need. Because Jesus met the needs of those he encountered, he’s shown you how to do it, and you’ve graduated.
Jesus has ascended, and the disciples remained behind. Those disciples had to shift their gaze, They had to shift their focus from being observers of Jesus, to being players in the game. And that shift positioned them to receive God’s Holy Spirit 10 days later.
Here’s the next thing they did. They remained together as a community of prayer. I always chuckle when I hear that people don’t need to go to church to find God. They say that they meet God out in nature.
Well there was a time when you could meet God in nature. Moses met God up on Mt. Sinai, but God didn’t stick around there, and neither did Moses. When God came down at Pentecost, the tongues of fire didn’t appear over trees. When the Holy Spirit looked for a place to land at Pentecost, it wasn’t at a beach or on a golf course. The Holy Spirit came down to dwell in a group of people gathered together in one place – while they were praying.
If you were a disciple who took the day off to go to the beach or hike in the mountains –you would have missed Him. God shows up where his people are gathered.
Our God works in communities of prayer. And there’s good reason for that. Our God, himself, is a community of prayer. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are a community who are always communing. The Trinity is a fellowship in prayer.
God desires his people to enjoy that same community, that same oneness. Jesus prayed that his disciples may be one as he and the Father are one. So after the Ascension, the disciples positioned themselves to receive God’s Holy Spirit by remaining together in prayer. And finally, the disciples did one more thing. To position themselves to receive power at Pentecost, they lived in expectation.
Those two men in white told them that Jesus would be coming back in the same way as they saw him leave. But they didn’t say when. There was a reason for that. God wants his people to live in expectation. He wants his people to be people of hope.
There would be some tough times ahead for the disciples. They would be kicked out of their synagogues. Eleven of the twelve would die unnatural deaths. But living in expectation, living as people of hope would ease the tough times.
There would be some good times ahead, some heady times for the disciples. The apostles would perform healings and miracles. It would be easy to lose focus with that kind of attention. But the disciples lived in expectation that Jesus was returning. And that would keep them grounded in his teaching.
God wants us to be living in expectation. He wants us to be people of hope. We’ve been shut down for a couple of months. It’s been more difficult for some than others. But everyone put up with it because we know it’s temporary. We know things will open up before too long. We’ve been able to endure the lock down because we’re living in expectation. So it is with the message of Ascension Day.
Jesus is coming back. So it’s a little easier to be loving toward some of those annoying people.
Jesus is coming back. So you don’t need to ration out the joys of life. There’s even more good stuff ahead.
The disciples returned to Jerusalem without Jesus that day. But they knew that – even though Jesus was gone, he was coming back. And that expectation positioned them to receive power ten days later.
The Ascension closed a chapter of salvation history and opened another. Jesus has not gone, he’s just gone up. And like those disciples, we’ve graduated.
We can remain positioned to receive Pentecost power to do amazing things: As we shift our focus from being gazers to doers, as we hang together as a community of prayer and as when we live in expectation –
Jesus is coming back.