Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ascension of our Lord

While portrayals of the birth and crucifixion of Christ and predictions of end times garner more support at the box office, the Book of Acts tells a different story. It is the story of the life of the early church and disciples, and it is all about the in-between times.

As one pastor says: “We are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” The statement recognizes how we live in a broken world where hope has been buried in a tomb. And yet, we know the sure and constant hope of the resurrection, even when all visible evidence argues for despair.

Upon the Ascension of our Lord, forty days after the glorious Easter celebration of the resurrection of Christ, we enter another in-between time. It doesn’t cast the same somber pall as Easter Saturday. On this day, Jesus leaves the disciples and, as we affirm in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, “is seated at the right-hand of God” the Father in heaven.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus took time to withdraw from his disciples, and spend time with the Father in prayer and solitude.
But this time is different.

Since the fifth century, the focus on the Ascension has been on Jesus’ departure. Ancient works of art show him climbing a stairway to heaven; medieval paintings illustrate a group of disciples, and sometimes angels, watching his disappearing feet.  The impression one gets is that God has left us.

But the Ascension does not revoke or break the promise of the resurrection. Jesus is not held somewhere between memory and hope, in some kind of cosmic suspended animation. And Jesus is not seated on a golden throne somewhere in the fluffy clouds above our heads. It looks different than the last forty days, but
God – Father -Son, and Holy Spirit – is still with us!

His departure is an ending, of his physical appearances and presence, but it is also a beginning. At the Ascension, Jesus promises his disciples that God is empowering us to be God’s people in wholly new way.

Up until now, Jesus has been with the disciples, teaching about the kingdom of heaven, and witnessing to them how to forgive and love and draw people into relationship with our merciful God. Jesus has been leading them every step of the way. Following him was as easy as following his footprints in sand because he was right there where they could see him.

Then, immediately before his ascension, Jesus tells the disciples to wait, saying,
“You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here … until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Now, the disciples are being asked to learn how to lead;
to wait on God’s initiative and make sense of where God is accompanying them;
to watch for God’s lead and follow, when the footsteps may not be as visible and the path is obscured.

Waiting is hard work. It’s much easier to rush in and do what we think is best, to create big and audacious programs, or to try to wrestle control and make people do what we want.

In our instant society where you can download a book in seconds, order movies on demand, and nearly anything can be delivered to your doorstep for a premium, we have lost the art of waiting.

About a week ago, the story of Noah was part of the daily lectionary – the readings assigned for the days between Sundays that are in Word and Season and I noticed something new about this story that, even though I didn’t grow up learning memory verses in Bible drills, was familiar. You know the story, right?

God tells Noah to build an ark and then he tells him on a specific day to bring his wife and his sons and their wives and pairs of all the wild animals and creeping things and winged creatures onto the boat with him.
And then, it rains, and rains, and rains; for forty days, the flood continued, and every living thing on the face of the ground and the birds of the air were blotted out.
And when the flood ends, Noah sends out a dove and it returns with an olive branch and the next time he sends it out, it doesn’t return, indicating that all the waters were dried up.
And then God puts his bow in the clouds, and makes a covenant, or promise, with Noah and humankind.

That’s the story we all know. Except when you read Genesis 8 and 9 again, you hear a second story, an unabridged version that makes the story much more demanding, as if living on a boat for forty days with every blessed creature on earth isn’t enough!
Like the creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis, Noah’s story is told by two different writers, and their stories are entwined in the text. In the longer version of the story, Noah and his family have to wait.

It says that, after the flood stops, “the waters gradually receded from the earth; at the end of one hundred fifty days, the waters had abated; and in the seventh month…the ark [reached land].” The waters continued to abate for three more months. After TEN months, three HUNDRED days, the mountaintops began to reappear.

In 300 days,
a person can hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine;
a gardener can sow seeds, plant, grow and harvest a bounty;
an infant can be conceived, carried and born.

Contrary to what popular culture and technology teaches us, waiting is not something to be avoided.

It is hard though. Ask the high school senior waiting on college admission decisions; the expectant parents and grandparents eager with anticipation; or anyone waiting for a loved one to return from a military deployment.

Waiting, and admitting our powerlessness, our lack of control, is tough.

But waiting on God isn’t “doing nothing.” It isn't about indecision or laziness.
Waiting on God is choosing to trust God’s promise to be with us in all circumstances, instead of anxiously worrying about what’s next.
Waiting on God is learning to be a disciple and be fully present in each day that God has given us.

With Jesus’ words echoing in our heads, may we wait, with courage and patience, confident God is with us.

Let us pray…[i]
Holy God,
Prepare us to go out into the world,
that in our words and in our lives we may bear witness to the Christ who has ascended to be everywhere present.
Give us patience and a spirit of wisdom and revelation,
that we would await the fulfillment of your promises in our lives.

[i]a Adapted from Laughing Bird Liturgical Resources

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