Scripture:  Acts 1.1-14

The ascension of Jesus


I am sure you have started to notice that I am, let's say, unique.

This uniqueness has been a life long problem.  My mother tells me it came on quite early in life.  She told me that unlike other children who simply ask "why?" I was more inclined to ask "why?" and then if I did not like the answer I was given I would offer my own alternate answer.

Depending on your perspective my uniqueness only got better or worse as I grew older.  Case in point: I am a pretty progressive Presbyterian pastor.  But the path I took to get here was very different.  My primary training was at a Conservative Evangelical Seminary, where I interned at a Charismatic Roman Catholic Church, while bartending nights and weekends to pay my tuition.  I would be willing to wager anyone that there has never been nor ever will be again a pastor here at Westminster with that pedigree.

It's not that I go out of my way to be different, or difficult, it just comes naturally to me.  I think I was just programmed differently than most people.  Take today for instance: today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, which is the day churches often celebrate the "Ascension of Our Lord."  Normally, this is a happy day.  Normally, this is day of praise and joy, the day we celebrate Jesus triumphantly going to heaven on a cloud to reign with God the Creator and Holy Spirit forever and ever.  Amen.

But suffice it to say, I am not normal.

I say this, because the passage we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles does not leave me feeling very joyous or triumphant.  Honestly, the story we heard leaves me feeling alone.  Perhaps I just had a bad week, but it appears to me that Christ goes way up there and the disciples find themselves alone way the heck down here.  And that does not make me feel like celebrating.

Let me explain my perspective this way:  Did anyone here ever go to summer camp when you were young?  Okay now, did anyone here ever go to religious summer camp when you were young?

I went church camp almost every summer.  And every summer, camp was amazing.  We would sing songs and pray and hear exciting speakers.  We would talk about God and about how thrilling Christian life was.  Now it may have simply been the effects of sleep depravation and terrible, terrible food, but at camp Jesus seemed to be with us in a very real way.  If you were so lucky as to have gone to a camp like I did, you also remember that at the final worship service everyone would cry, pray for forgiveness and get saved...again...for at least the second time that week.

All joking aside, back then nothing could have been more real to me.  It felt like God was right there with me.  I could not have felt more right.  And then I went home.  Soon there after all the excitement wore off and it seemed like God had gone away.  I felt alone and to be honest a little abandoned.

This summer-camp-phenomenon is not unique to summer camp.  The feeling of being extremely close to God and then God becoming very distant seems too frequent and normal for many of us.  On a mission trip, or at a retreat or during a special worship service, we encounter the living Sprit of Christ, then we follow, we serve, life is exciting and nothing is more real or important.  And then, Jesus is taken away in a cloud and we are left staring at the sky surprised and anxious wondering what just happened and what on earth are we going to do next.

Everything is going along perfectly.  And then perfect jobs are lost.  A world economic crisis devours our retirement and our endowment.  Our children go to war.  People we love die.  And we are left anxiously waiting and wondering what comes next.

I know it is little presumptuous to disagree with nearly two thousand years of tradition, but I really do not think the Ascension is story of celebration and triumph, I think this story about surprise, disbelief and anxiety and how we should respond to those feelings.

During the first century in many popular circles of thought in Judaism there was a clear plan for what God was supposed to do in the world.  These ancient people were waiting for a sign - the return of Elijah.  When Elijah returned, he was supposed to prepare the way for the Messiah.  When Messiah came, he would make everything right, then the righteous dead would be raised and the Messiah and the people of Israel would rule the earth forever.  The basic formula one more time: Elijah prepares the way, the Messiah comes, the dead are raised, the Messiah is enthroned and Israel is back on top of the world.

For the followers of Jesus, it appeared that things were going pretty well.  Some one like Elijah had come-John the Baptist.  The Messiah had come-Jesus.  The messiah was killed, to be honest a bit of a set back in the formula.  But then Jesus was raised from the dead-clearly the next step.  So now the time for the kingdom had come.  Israel, under the leadership of Jesus and his disciples, was about to rule the earth.  The disciples were certain they knew what came next.  We, in fact, heard disciples ask this question, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"

Everything was going along perfectly.  The formula the disciples knew very well was coming to pass.  Things could not have been better.  And then Jesus disappears in a cloud.

Had I been a disciple at that time I would have been shouting, "Excuse me, Jesus, where ya going?  Now is not the time to leave.  Come back.  You know the formula?  Now is the time to take power, to change the world.  Oh no, oh no...what do we do now."

Traditionally, we are given the image of the disciples looking toward heaven with awe and amazement as they watch Jesus ascending.  But, I think not. I believe that they looked with fear and worry.  I can only imagine that they hardly knew what to do.  Were I to paint a picture of the Ascension, I would have all the disciples staring at the sky with looks of surprise, fear and anxiety etched deeply into each face.

After an experience like this, what do you do?  You have lived with Jesus, you have experience life like never before and then Jesus goes away.

What the disciples did was really quite remarkable.  They did not disband in despair.  They did not give up and go away.  They did not become hopeless and faithless people.  They went home, gathered everyone they knew, and they prayed.  They prayed and waited for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

And prayer is really hard thing to understand.  In my opinion, prayer is too often presented as a kind of holy to do list for God.  The old formula goes: first we praise God, then we confess our sin to God, next we thank God and finally we ask for things from God.  Sadly, the implicit message that this understanding of prayer often communicates is: if you pray this formula correctly God will answer your prayers; but if you do not, God will not.  I know this is what I was taught and what I understood prayer to be for a long time.  Understanding prayer in this way is great...when life is good.  But when life falls apart, when it feels like God has disappeared, who has the strength to keep adoring, confessing, thanking and asking?

Over the years, my understanding of prayer has changed greatly from this concept.  Prayer for me has gone from lists to listening, from supplications to stillness, from pleading to peace.  Last week at the 11:15 service I gave a simple definition of what I believe prayer to be.  For me prayer is opening my truest self to God and then allowing God's grace and presence to strengthen the best parts of me and to transform the worst parts of who I am.  In prayer, I seek to quiet the many competing voices in my life so that I can hear the one true voice within myself, within those I love and even within those I do not know.  And when I am still and listening, I can always here the one true voice that speaks these words, "I have never left you nor forsaken you.  I will never leave you nor forsake you."  These are words that I trust.

And when seems like Jesus has gone away in cloud, that God has disappeared, I know that in prayer the Spirit will give me, will give you, the strength, courage and hope we need to continue on no matter what.  In prayer-quiet, still, listening prayer-I have learned that God's faithfulness is truly great.

I cannot prove this in anyway, but I think this is the kind of prayer the disciples engaged in as they waited for Holy Spirit, as they waited in the meantime for that first Pentecost to come.  I do not believe they spent their time pleading and begging for God to help them.  I believe this because they had lived with Jesus.  They had experienced and knew that God was faithful.

They trusted Jesus.  And so can we.

Now let us devout ourselves to prayer.  My sisters and my brother, let's pray together.

Holy God, quiet every voice in our minds but yours.

Silence the voices:

Of our fears...

Of our anxieties...

Of our conflicts...

Give us the courage to open our lives completely to you.

To trust...

To wait...

To pray...