After a short break to begin adjusting to life as a retired priest, I have returned to weekly preaching.
A sermon for Ascension on Easter 6; Acts 1:1-11
We had been at Scout camp for nearly a week. Every day the camp leader was doing things for various groups of Scouts. We watch, we listen, we ask questions, we do the things we are asked to do – most of the time. Somewhere in all that I think we help. When we gather the next to the last morning, nothing was laid out. Our camp leader comes around the corner and just before we get anxious he calls us to follow him. We hike out of the Scout Camp through no man’s land, which was off limits, so we had never been there before, to the Cub side of camp. He leads us to a spot, explains that a group of new Cubs Scouts, who have never been to camp before, are arriving the next morning, and this site needs to be ready. We can see that everything that was needed is there, neatly stacked, ready to be put to good use. He looks at us and says “It is your task to have this camp ready for them when they arrive.” Then, he turns and walks up the hill into no man’s land. We stand there for some time, staring at the top of the hill. Then someone speaks up “Well it’s time to put to use everything we have heard, and seen, and been taught and practiced this week.” And after a short pause, we get to it. I won’t say there are not any challenges, there are. I won’t say there aren’t disagreements, there are. I will say we have everything we need. I will say that by nightfall we have done what we were called to do. And the next day those Cubs arrive to a campsite all set up just for them.
A couple millennia and 33 some odd years ago a young Mary accepted the calling of her angelic messenger to be the mother of the Son of God. Some 30 years later, two of John the Baptist’s followers heard a young rabbi say, “Come and see.” and they do. The next day this young rabbi says to another “Follow me.” and he does. For the next three years a growing group of men and women, Jews and gentiles, common folks (Gaventa and Petersen), perhaps a Temple priest, a member of the Sanhedrin, perhaps a scattering of folks from one prestigious group or another follow this young rabbi. They walked all over Israel, Galilee, and parts of Samaria. They watched, they listened, asked questions, went where they were asked to go, did what they were asked to do. They witnessed miracles; people healed, outcast restored to the families, untouchables reconnected to their communities, thousands feed, unbelievers become believers, outsiders reveal profound faith. They were uncomfortably close to direct challenges to Jewish authorities, and Roman overlords. They came to believe. They understood this young, itinerate rabbi, from nowhere, was who he said he was, the Messiah. They put everything they had into the promise he was going to restore the world. They believed everything would change. And then at the last Passover, he died. No, he was killed by jealous, angry Jewish political, business, and religious authorities. He died at the hands of a fearful Roman governor, who knowing the charges were false, authorized a crucifixion. He died abandoned by that hopeful band of ordinary folks. But then, he was alive again. No one believed the women who went to anoint his body. But then he showed up in the middle of a locked room. And did it again a week later when Thomas was there. For the next couple of weeks, maybe 40 days (Harrelson), they watched, listened, asked questions, and did the things they were asked to do.
The followers grew in numbers, strength, courage, and hope. They asked him “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). To their surprise, he answers, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority…” (Acts 1:7). But he is not finished, continuing
… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
After that, he goes up into the sky. The disciples are standing around looking up into the sky. Then suddenly two strangers speak up, Why are you staring into the sky?” Just this side of an uncomfortable pause they continue “This Jesus will return the same way you saw him go into heaven. Here begins the rest of the story. Here begins our story, my story, your story.
Today is the 6th Sunday in Easter, Wednesday is the feast of the Ascension when Jesus returns to heaven. The disciples want to know if now is the time when it will be like they think it will be. Jesus tells them that is not anyone’s business except God’s. He also tells them that there is more to come, that by the power of the Spirit, they are to be his witness here, there, all the way to the ends of the earth; with an emphasis on the ends of the earth (Gaventa and Petersen). Their witness is to proclaim the truth about the one true God against the alternative visions of all the nations’ cultural-theism (Harrelson) (Keener and Walton). Their witness is to upset all competing authorities, local, national, empire, religious, business, whatever, and to bring salvation to all (Gaventa and Petersen). Their witness is to promote Jesus’ message about the overarching presence of the kingdom of God (Gaventa and Petersen). Jesus shifts the emphasis away from the expectation of his imminent return toward practices of witnessing the gospel day-to-day (Harrelson). The two men description of Jesus’ return does remind the disciples of the end of days as written in Daniel (7:13-14) (Keener and Walton); so even if it cannot be known where, or when, or how, it is nonetheless a divine promise.
All these thoughts are divine forces shaping our calling as witnesses. They define what we are witnesses too; they define where we are to witness; and by implication, they define how we are to witness. But, none of it matters when all we do is to stand around staring into the sky; and there are an amazing number of ways to stare in to the sky. As a Scout the sky can look like a hill top; as a faith community, the sky can look like anything from a program we are excited about to a controversy we are angry about, or anything that diverts our attention. As a city, county, state, or nation it can be anything that threatens us, drawing us to seek other means of protection that diminishes our trust int God. You get the idea, there are many things that keep us from doing the work we are called to do.
You have heard my take on Godly work, drawn from the story of the man born blind in John 9. The disciples ask Jesus “Who sinned?” which is a staring into the sky question. Jesus answers
No one sinned. This man was born blind. Now is the time for us to work the works given us to work.
All those years ago, when I stood with my fellow Scouts, all it took was one of us to speak out, and then all of us began to work the work that had been given us to work. The Book of Acts is a series of stories of one person speaking up and the community beginning to work the work given them to work.
In the Ascension story, I see two challenges for us. Learning what is your, what is our favorite way of staring into the sky. And secondly, to follow the Spirit’s nudging us to speak, thereby unleashing the Spirit driven power which empowers all of us to be witnesses to the love of God revealed in Jesus to the end of the earth, which from Jerusalem looks at lot like right here and right now.
The Ascension is the story of Jesus’ return to Heaven. It is also the beginning of the story of our witnessing, our working the work God has given us to work.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Smith, Mitzi J. Commentary on Acts 1:1-11. 29 5 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.
Walton, John. Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1978.