Sermon from June 5, 2011

The Ascension: Bearings Plus

Luke 24:44-53

Happy Ascension Day!  Haven’t you just been waiting with baited breath for this holiday?!  Don’t you just love it?!  I know you think I’m crazy but don’t get me wrong, as far as Christian high holy days I love Christmas, God becomes human that we humans might become like him.  Love the gifts.  Love it.  I love Easter, resurrection, new life, flowers and candy; out of death comes life.  But there is this little ornery part of me that just loves ascension even more — Jesus being exalted back to heaven.  I sort of feel like Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson when they wrote this: “Ascension Day is the perfect church holiday because the world can’t steal it.  The culture around us has quite ruined Christmas and Easter.  Of course, the world owned Christmas as its festival for the restoration of the sun before the early Christians used it to disguise their celebration of Christ’s birth. … But the world has now stolen it for its consumeristic purposes and has seized Easter for the same idolatry.  In my teen years I played clarinet in the high school band for the town Christmas parade at which Santa Claus was flown in by helicopter.  Later, I heard, they flew the bunny in for Easter.  But the world hasn’t got the foggiest notion what to do with someone flying out” [The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call (Eerdmans, 2000), p. 140].  I love Ascension because it gives me my bearings, plus.

In our small town suburban neighborhood growing up on late spring and summer evenings all us children were allowed to go out and basically play in the streets to our hearts’ content.  The one neighborhood rule was though, as soon as the street lights came on, everybody had to be in their house within, like, five minutes or there would be consequences.  The streetlights were always just there, they always pointed the way home and were a bearing for when it was time to be home.  As I’ve gotten older and reflected, to me they pointed to this reality of both freedom to thrive and yet within a safe structure of loving accountability and care.  The window in the sanctuary that depicts the ascended Christ is to me a similar kind of thing.  It points to a greater reality.  It gives me by bearings, plus.

It gives me my bearings.  It gives me a focal point.  The ascended Christ is the always exalted one.  In this passage from Luke 24 in which the ascension of the risen Jesus is narrated one commentator observes that the general atmosphere is one of incomprehension and confusion.  I’m so confused – ever feel like that?  Yet in between the incomprehension and confusion of whatever we are going through in the present and the unknown uncertainties of the future there is this clarity in vss. 50-53 (read vss. 50-53).  He is the always exalted one and that moves us continually to recalibrate our lives as worshipers.

In the midst of incomprehension and confusion and uncertainty they looked up and worshiped and got their bearings.  Jerry Goebel says, “The Upper Room was the womb of Christianity, but the temple was the birthplace” [2005 http://onefamilyoutreach.com].

On the window there is this depiction of the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.  He is the exalted one, for those who like bible study the places to look are Philippians 2 and I Corinthians 15 and revelation 1.  Jesus the high God who humbled himself and served humanity is now in his rightful place.  He is on high, the earth is his footstool, things are as they should be – so even if things are still out of whack down here things are moving toward that focal point.

Focusing on this moves us to recalibrate to revalue everything in our lives from the standpoint of worship.  If he is the alpha and omega then everything we do, in one sense, is worship.  When we work we worship him, when we study, we worship him, when we play, we worship him, when we drive, we worship, when we worship we worship.  Worship helps recalibrate the rest of our lives as worship.

He is the always exalted one, we get our bearings, he moves us to recalibrate as worshipers, but there is more.  We get our bearings plus.  Along with being the always exalted one, we see in this passage and in the window he is also the always interceding one.  In incomprehension and uncertainty we focus on the always interceding one; thus he moves us to relax.

Luke (vss. 45-47) tells us just before the risen Jesus ascends, “then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 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, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’”  The ability to repent and be forgiven – it flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus.  What is implied here is that the risen Jesus who still bears his wounds is now exalted at the highest place still interceding, advocating for us, still standing in the gap, so that these constant gifts of forgiveness and the ability to change are constantly flowing.  He is the always interceding one.  We focus on it and it moves us to relax.

On the window there is this symbol of cross and crown intermingled; it symbolizes that even as Jesus is exalted rightfully he continues his sacrificially loving work that he accomplished on the cross of interceding for us.  NT Wright puts it this way: “To embrace the Ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy your status as creatures: image bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless [Surprised by Hope (Harper One, 2008), p. 114].  Creatures interceded for by, advocated for, vouched for by the exalted one.

But there is one more thing we see here in this window and passage.  He is the always exalted one and moves us to recalibrate as worshipers.  He is the always interceding one and moves us to relax.  Finally he is the always empowering one and moves us to recharge as witnesses.  Do you notice how Jesus has his hands positioned in the window?  One hand is over is heart, the other hand is raised with two fingers lifted.  Long before the cub scout salute or any other modern gesture good or bad, early Christians often depicted Jesus blessing people with two fingers raised as a reminder that he is dual natured, fully human and fully divine, also of the great commandment to love God and humankind.  It is as if he is constantly blessing us from the heart in the person of the Spirit.  Jesus is on high, but he is empowering us constantly with his Spirit in with and under us, before behind beside us.  Verses 48-49: “You are witnesses of these things.  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.”  In the midst of whatever fog in incomprehension and uncertainty we find ourselves, we focus on this: he is the always empowering one who moves us to recharge as witnesses, both in telling people the message of the ability to change and be forgiven, but also in living out, in demonstrating this reality of repentance and forgiveness through his gift.

So happy total happy Ascension Day!  It’s our bearings plus.  He is the always exalted one and moves us constantly to recalibrate as worshippers.  He is the always interceding one and moves us constantly to relax in that intercession.  He is the always empowering one and moves us constantly to recharge as witnesses.  Following an Easter service a few years ago a woman approached one pastor and asked, so what happened to Jesus after he was resurrected?  He replied, well, he ascended into heaven and he’s still alive.  He’s still alive? She said.  Yes, he is alive.  Alive, ALIVE.  Why didn’t you tell me?!  For the next two weeks, she telephoned everyone she knew and exclaimed, “Jesus is alive!  Did you know he’s alive?!” [Eric Reed, Leadership Weekly (4-13-04)].

You see, it’s better than street lights, it better than Christmas and Easter all rolled up in one.  It’s bearings plus.  I don’t know if you will call up everybody you know but I hope the same joy that got into that woman will get into us!  Just keep coming, keep brining people: recalibrate, relax, recharge.  The always exalted, always interceding, always empowering one is always here – always here — for you.

Rev. David B. Humphrey

Asbury United Methodist Church, Smyrna, Delaware

June 5, 2011

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