As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
Scripture: Acts 1:1-11
Ascension Sunday has been the cause of many snide remarks about Christian faith. The idea of Jesus literally going up to heaven has been mocked with the suggestion that, depending on his speed, he would only be nearing the edges of the solar system after 2000 years of travel.
Our knowledge of the universe has changed over the centuries. The idea of Heaven as Up and we as Down doesn’t work on a globe, and we know it.
Does that mean we should throw out the story of the Ascension? No. There’s a lot of symbolism built into that story and we should read it with some understanding:
First we are told that Jesus was around for 40 days before ascending. As always in the Bible, 40 is a mystic number: like the 40 days and 40 nights of temptation, the 40 years Israel wandered in the wilderness, the 40 days and nights of rain for Noah’s flood; and Moses staying on the mountain top for 40 days to receive the law.
Forty represents an uncertain large number, like “umpteen”, but more than that. It combines the very human number 10 (consider your fingers) with 4, a divine number associated with the four-letter name of God in Hebrew (in English represented as JHWH) and all kinds of other associations where God interacts with humans. 40 is a number where God meets people
That makes it distinct from three or seven: holy numbers that are reserved for God or the idea of perfection.
So the message here is that Jesus was on Earth, bringing God to humanity for a symbolically important time between his resurrection and his departure, when he left to join God with the promise that he’d come again.
A second part of the message is that Jesus went to be with God for our benefit. God is divine: so very different from us. We can’t help but wonder how an infinite and all-powerful God can really relate to a bunch of intelligent animals trying to run the world.
If our personal experience tells us anything, even other humans who get into high places have a hard time relating to ordinary folk. So it’s natural to worry about God being close, being really connected.
But Jesus? Born in a stable? Working as a carpenter? Called illegitimate by the people of his hometown? Pushed around by the Roman oppressors?
Oh yes, Jesus can relate to the poorest, the most desperate, the weakest and the saddest.
And that’s the message. With Jesus at God’s right hand, we don’t have to worry about being left behind or ignored or falling through the cracks because we’re unimportant. Jesus brings into the equation the very human experience that makes God’s love something we can trust.
For myself, I don’t believe that God needed that. An all powerful and all wise God could take that infinite love that Jesus proclaimed and make it work for anyone. But we need the reassurance. The idea of Jesus there at God’s side reassures us that our prayers will be heard and that God’s love won’t overlook us.
The third lesson here is what happens at the end, where everyone is standing, looking up to where Jesus has vanished into the clouds. Kind of like waiting around until someone announces that Elvis has left the building, ’cause we’re hoping for another glimpse.
And the men who show up say: Why are you standing around, looking up?
Does this sound familiar? Isn’t this just like the empty tomb where the angels have to prompt the disciples to stop standing around and staring – but to get back to living?
That’s a real human tendency, isn’t it? When something amazing happens, we try to hold on to it; we don’t want it to stop. We want to live on in that wonderful moment.
But the message is always the same: Get on with it; don’t be so heavenly-minded; you’re of no Earthly good. In this instance, the people were told that Jesus was with God and that one day he’d return.
And that in the mean time, we have work to do. So rather than standing, looking up, we should look around and see what needs doing.
In those days, “up” clearly represented God and now in the Ascension, Jesus had gone “up” to be with God. Effectively, the disciples were called to trust God and Jesus to be reliable. They were called to trust, and stop staring up, as if there’s a danger of being forgotten.
Sure, it was a radical idea. Not new: it was clearly there already in the Hebrew scriptures. But Jesus gave it new depth and meaning by emphasizing over and over that every one of us matters to God. That God cares for us and makes us able to contribute no matter how limited we fear we might be.
So this Ascension call to the disciples happens: “get on with it; look around instead of up; take what Jesus taught and make it real in this life.”
There’s a lot of meaning tied up in celebrating the Ascension:
We are reminded that Jesus himself was a bridge between God and humanity, connecting us to our creator by his very life.
We are reminded of the fact that God cares for us, not in some remote, chilly, infinitely powerful way, but in a human way that can empathize with the deepest human suffering. And that God cares for every person regardless of their status. And even if we ever doubted that God would care so deeply, we have the reassurance that Jesus will bring that perspective to God.
And finally, we have the message to not worry about that stuff anymore, but to get on with our lives, taking the message of love, of justice, of hope, of all the things Jesus taught, and bring them to the real world in which we live.
Of course, we need to think about God to consider what ultimate meaning life has. But we can’t stop there, with our heads in the clouds.
If we find value in what Jesus has taught then we are to take that and apply it; to spend less time standing still and looking up, and more time looking around to see what good we can do.