They stood there craning their necks, mouths agape, eyes glassy and wide in disbelief.
This wasn’t the first time, of course. This wasn’t the first time all that was solid had melted into air. But after forty days of impossibility. Forty days of Jesus present amongst them. Forty days of stories retold. Forty days of barbecued fish, bottles of wine, and talking late into their night.
After forty days their hearts had begun to drift towards possibility. The possibility that this wouldn’t be like the last time. That this time they could stay on the mountain. This time they could set up their tents and stay for awhile.
And so it all came as a shock when at the ascension, these forty days (as all such experiences seem to do) came to an end, opening a gateway into something new.
Today’s readings draw us into the scene when Jesus hands out marching orders to the disciples who remain. And while we could spend this evening contemplating the mysteries of Jesus’ disappearance, it’s the disciples who are left behind to figure this whole thing out who’ve captured my attention.
As much as today is about Jesus’ ascension, it is equally about our response to Jesus and the words offered by the shiny happy people who close off the reading from the Acts of the Apostles:
“Why do you stand staring into the heavens?”
Well, it’s weird for one.
This sermon isn’t, of course, an encouragement to give up prayer, or to stop basking in the beauty and mystery of the divine. It’s not an admonition to stop listening for God, to stop speaking with God, or to stop screaming at the heavens when God just doesn’t seem to be listening. It’s none of those things.
If anything, it’s about paying attention to the stage whisper left resonating in our midst, even as our hero retreats through the dry ice haze, never to be seen again (or at least until he comes back in the sequel).
There are so many reasons to stand, staring into the heavens, looking for a sign. One of the reasons I come to church each and every week is because I’m hoping for a glimpse, hoping for a whisper of what God is up to, what God is calling me, calling us to do in the world. And one of the reasons that’s important to me, is because I don’t believe that this just some individualistic pursuit. To hear God, I need others.
I come each and every week hoping for a fresh word spoken. A fresh action embodied in the life of this community as we seek to follow Jesus in a culture that is at best indifferent to our peculiar way of being. I come in hope and expectation that God will be revealed, that the spirit will be present, and that Jesus will point the way as he says “come, and follow me.”
And yet in today’s readings, we’re not left with much clear direction. All we get is a “go to Jerusalem and wait for this crazy thing that I won’t fully explain to you right now.”
They’re all together, telling stories, reminiscing about the glory days, when the disciples ask Jesus once again, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Is it finally the time that you will overthrow the Roman occupation? Is it finally the time that you will boot the religious elite from the temple? Is it finally the time that God will return the Israelites, your covenant people from exile?
Is it finally the time that Yahweh will return in power & glory to Jerusalem? Is it finally time that we will live up to our name? Is it finally the time for us to be that city of peace to which all nations will flock? Is it finally time for these dry bones to live, in the way you promised all along?
Jesus responds, perhaps a bit frustrated that they still don’t get it. Perhaps a bit frustrated that they haven’t yet picked up on the meaning of his mission.
“It is not for you to know the time…but you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit upon you,” he says.
“It’s happening. We are in the time of the now, and the not yet. Something new is happening. With you. Between You. Amongst you.”
It’s like Jesus is saying, as he’s been saying all along, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. It’s within your grasp. But it’s not something you can control. It’s not something you can seize with white knuckled grip. To claim it, to truly understand and to grasp it, you’ll need to let go. Let go of your designs on what it might look like. And you’ll have to let go of me, too.”
“As I’ve been telling you all along,” Jesus seems to be saying:
My kingdom is nothing like the power-hungry kingdoms of this world.
It’s nothing like the selfishness that lurks in our own hearts.
“It is not for you to know the time,” Jesus says, and then he sends them to Jerusalem where they will be met by God’s spirit. The twelve tribes are about to be reassembled in Zion as the disciples pay heed to Jesus’ last words.
And so this is where we find ourselves today: accompanying the disciples in wonder and disbelief as Jesus sends us back out into the world. As Jesus sends the disciples to the city that killed him. That city that was the end of the line for all self-styled prophets and messianic movements, including that of Jesus.
Which is to say that they’re not headed there on an air-conditioned bus for a life-changing tour of the Holy Land. There will be no early morning mimosas followed by a guided tour of the city’s spectacular sights.
It’s in this story that the disciples pick up where Jesus left off.
It’s in the story of the ascension that we journey with the disciples out into the world and its uncertainties.
It’s in this story that we, like those first disciples, are called to bear witness to a hope beyond reason.
It’s in this story that we pass through the gateway, heading towards the promised life in the Spirit.
And it’s here that we’re left hoping that she’s bringing reinforcements.
Tonight, and throughout this week, we enter as disciples into another journey towards Jerusalem. Trying to live as though this Kingdom Jesus promised – while not fully here – is on its way.
Jesus’ crazy upside down kingdom is on its way. And he’s invited us to turn the world upside down through the way we live, the way we pray, the way we break bread, and the way we love.
And so you’ve got to wonder what will happen when we get to Jerusalem. But that’s another story for another time.