And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,
your progressive redneck preacher,
PS I am available to do guest preaching at time. If you’d be interested in having me provide a message to your church or group, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Never Forsaken, Never Forgotten
Our reading today comes from the book of Acts, beginning in chapter 1, verse 1:
In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” When they had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
These are the words of God, for the people of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Would you pray with me?
God, we believe you have more light to break forth from your holy word. We pray you open our minds and hearts so that we may see and know what light your Word has for us in these words of Scripture. As I strive to proclaim your Word, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight. In Christ’s name, Amen.
That is what I said to myself, as I rapidly scanned the food court of a Georgia mall. I must have been around 10 or 11. I was near Jekyll Island, GA, at a church conference with my parents. We kids had begged to go to the mall since my older brother and sister were teenagers and hanging at the mall was “the thing to do”, and my younger sister and I knew if we backed them up, maybe they’d back us up on what we wanted to do later.
I had seen a comic book rack, and turned aside to look at it for what I thought was just a second. It must have been longer because when I turned around, my family was nowhere in sight. I panicked. Here I was miles away from my hometown of Fayetteville, NC. In fact I was states away, in a mall in a city I barely knew. And I not only didn’t know where my family was. In a time before cell phones and texting, I had no clue where to find them or, if I couldn’t, how to get home from there.
I’d now spent what seemed like an eternity looking for them, and they were not in sight.
I was certain I’d been forgotten, lost to wander an un-known mall in Georgia forever…
Clearly, we found each other, and all eventually ended up well. That horrible sinking feeling, though, … feeling that I am abandoned, forgotten, left to fend for myself in over my head, is something I’ve felt many times since myself. I bet you have too.
Arriving at work, getting that pink slip telling you the steady work you rely on to pay bills and support your family is gone can feel like you have been rejected, forgotten. “Oh no,” you say to yourself. “I’m alone. I’ve been forgotten”.
We can feel it when a relationship of many years comes apart despite our best efforts saying “they’ve left me. I’m alone. What lies ahead?”
We certainly can feel it when we hear the words “it is cancer” or some other life-threatening disease that we or someone close to us is facing. “Oh no,” you may say. “God’s left me. I’m all alone. How can I face this on my own?”
In such moments, we can feel stranded, stuck in a situation we would never have chosen. We can find ourselves scanning the horizons of our lives for some sign that what has happened simply is not so. We can feel in those moments as if God has left us alone, wandering our own unknown halls, far from the comfortable scenes where we feel at home.
As the disciples stand dumbfounded, staring up into the sky above watching their Jesus whom they had just recently been reunited with depart above them all, I can imagine the disciples felt some strong emotions. Some of them too might have wondered if this meant they were abandoned. Some might have been tempted to turn to each other and whisper, “Oh no. We’re all alone. Christ has left us. He’s abandoned me”.
Though at first glance this scene may look like Jesus abandoning the disciples, I want to suggest that the meaning of “the ascension” is in fact the opposite: an answer to their fears, to their feelings of abandonment & loss, and to our own. It is an answer to such deep heart ache because the ascension is an announcement that God has through Christ united God’s self to us in a way where we need never fear we will be plucked out of God’s hand. It also is a reminder that what is true for us individually is true for all people, and the whole world. It invites us not to despair, but to know the courage found in becoming Christ’s agents through whom he can do more now than when Jesus was physically with us.
The message of the ascension is that in Jesus God has taken hold of us in love in a way in which we need never fear he will ever let us go.
One of the reasons the story of the ascension made it into our Bibles and into the early Christian creeds was to answer a then common misconception about Jesus. Many early Christians had trouble really believing that God had actually come among us in flesh and blood, as one of us, in Jesus. These Christians called the Gnostics said that instead God just appeared as if he was a person, sort of like you might appear in a play as if you are a lion by putting on a lion costume you can later take off, without ever really becoming a lion.
Seeing Jesus ascend, flesh and blood, scars and all, into heaven as the disciples made it clear Jesus was no costume God might cast off. God wasn’t playing around. God really did become a vulnerable baby in Mary’s womb. God really did experience all the hurt, trials, joys, and pains we do in our struggles. God really went through the pain of not knowing what the future hold, tearfully praying in Gethsemane, just as we do in our darkest moments. In Jesus God really tasted friendship and love, as well as abandonment and forsakeness. Jesus ascending, body and soul, into heaven sent the message God really has thrown God’s lot in with each of us. God has sealed God’s fate with us, so that our future is bound up in God’s and God’s future with ours.
This is why Jesus can make bold promises right before his ascension, saying in Matthew that surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. This is why Paul, having experienced the ascended Christ revealing himself to Paul, can promise us saying Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?7 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is why Jesus can promise us in John nothing can tear us from his hand.
Friend, you may feel forsaken. You may feel forgotten. But the message of this Ascension Sunday is clear: God has not forgotten you. God will not forget you. Nothing you face, no matter how dark or dreadful can separate you from God’s love. And no sin you commit is so big to cause God to turn God’s back on you.
In fact, though physically Jesus’ body is out of view, the ascension means Jesus is no longer confined to one place but instead everywhere present. In Ephesians, Paul tells us that in his ascension, Jesus rises to fill all things with His presence. No matter where you go, what you are experiencing, Christ is now closer to you than the air that you breathe, nearer than the heartbeat in your chest. And full of love for you. In today’s text, Jesus tells the disciples to wait for the power we know as God the mothering Holy Spirit to come and fill their heart and minds. This Spirit makes Jesus not just present out there in the world, but in here, working in your heart, mind, and life. Because of ascension day you can know Jesus as closer to you than words can express.
This promise is not just some personal assurance for you or me alone. It extends to all of humanity and all of creation.
Near the end of the last century, writing out of his experience battling apartheid in South Africa, then-Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote
“I have a book of cartoons entitled, My God… In one [cartoon] God watches the awful deeds of His earthly creatures and with some exasperation God says, “Stop it or I’ll come down and thump you”… I can picture God surveying the awful wrecks that litter human history – how the earth is soaked with the blood of so many innocent who have died brutally. God has seen two World Wars in this century alone plus the Holocaust, the genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda, the awfulness in the Sudan, Sierra Leone, the two Congos, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East, and the excesses that have characterized Latin America. It is a baneful catalog that records our capacity to wreak considerable harm on one another and our gross inhumanity to our fellow humans. I imagine God surveying it all, seeing how His children treat their sisters and brothers God would weep as Jesus wept over the hard-hearted and unresponsive Jerusalem, where he had come to his own people and they would not receive him. If God ever wanted to consider the folly of having created us, we have provided Him ample cause to do so…”
We could add to this list of reasons God might have to throw up Her hands and wept over us now Ferguson, Baltimore, Gaza, ISIS, and the many many transgender youth I have heard die from assault or suicide this past year. We all know the truth of Tutu’s words – we would give up on this world if we were God.
Ascension day reminds us God will not. In Jesus God has thrown God’s lot in with all humanity. Just as a mother who chooses to have a child throw hers lot in with the lot of the life now within her womb, so our life has been placed within God through Jesus. God has woven God’s own future inseparably into our own.
This is why the apostle Paul can say that just as in Adam all have died and been condemned, so in Christ now all people everywhere have been saved and given life eternal. None are excluded. There is no one God has given up on, nor will there ever be. This is why Paul can say that we look to all things in heaven, in earth, and under the earth being reconciled. Ascension Day means Jesus will not give up on any one of us, or any part of creation.
This is why the angels who appear beside the disciples can tell them that just as Jesus ascended on the cloud, so Jesus will return. This promise is not about us rapturing away from this hurting earth and its problems. Instead, it a promise that Jesus will not give up on this earth. As sure as the sun will rise in the morning, Jesus will heal this creation. Through Jesus’ ascension we know one day Julian of Norwich’s words in her Revelation of Divine Love will ring true: “all will be well, all manner of thing be well”.
Which leads to the final message of Ascension day. Even on hearing such good news, we are tempted to stand, mouth gaping, astounded not just at the sight of the clouds but also their message. Yet the angels tell us to realize this amazing message means we have work to do.
One of the messages of Ascension day is that Jesus now is not done working. He ascends to the right hand of the Father because He has taken the steering wheel of human history into His own hands, to send it into the right direction. He has ascended to fill all things with Himself so that He can do more to heal this world than He ever could in the few-miles distance he could walk in Palestine.
But Christ chooses to not do it on his own. Christ chooses only to bring this future about with us. You and I are called to embrace the power from on high that Ascension day offers us to be his witnesses, his partners in healing this broken world.
Think for a moment – what is broken in your sphere of influence? Are there injustices like systemic racism, homophobia, or unfairness where you live or work? Are there hurting, depressed, suffering people you know in your neighborhood or family? Do you know those you can lift up who are struggling just to get by? Are there broken relationships in your life you can work to mend? Jesus calls you, calls me, to be the change we hope to see in this world. To join him in his ongoing work of healing this world. None of us can do everything, but if each of us do our part as partners with the ascended Christ, what a difference we can make!
Let it be so. Amen.