Good evening/morning! It seems that one of this weekend’s themes is surprises. In case anyone hasn’t guessed yet, the “surprise preacher” for today is me! Surprise! There are also some surprises in our readings for today. We read a surprising story about Jesus’ ascension, how he was taken bodily up into heaven. Most of us here have been church members a long time and we may not think about this as such a strange or surprising story. But even in a set of scriptures full of all kinds of mystery and miracles, bodily ascension into heaven is not exactly the kind of thing that happens every day.
The disciples in this story certainly don’t seem like they were expecting things to take this turn. They had some very different expectations for what was going to happen. When Jesus rose from the dead, victorious over the grave, they were beyond ecstatic. His resurrection proved to them beyond a doubt that he really was the Son of God, the Messiah that they had been waiting for, the one who would usher in God’s kingdom! Naturally, they were super eager for Jesus to start his divine reign over all creation and they expected him to take up his scepter at any moment. You can hear them asking about it in our first reading from Acts: they say to Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” “How about now?” “Now?” It kind of reminds me of the way that little kids are on long car trips – the way my siblings and I were when we were small – the one question they never stop asking is:
Are we there yet?
Jesus’ disciples and the whole people of Israel had been waiting generations for the kingdom to come. With the living Messiah raised from the dead, walking among them, it had to seem like they were so close to the kingdom. It’s no wonder that these eager disciples started asking Jesus:
Are we there yet?
But Jesus answers them and says: No. No, we’re not there yet. He says to them, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” To me, that kind of sounds like the divine version of what my dad used to say to my siblings and me, which is: “We’ll get there when we get there.” This must have been disappointing for the disciples to hear, when they had been waiting so long. But at least they still had Jesus with them, right? Then Jesus reassures them that they will receive everything they need when the Holy Spirit comes; and he tells them that he is sending them out on the biggest mission yet: to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And then, without warning, just as the disciples are trying to wrap their heads around the enormity of this commission, Jesus straight up leaves! He is taken up bodily into the heavens.
The disciples react to this turn of events in a deeply relatable, human way: they stand there, confused, staring at the sky. I mean, how else do you respond to something like that? Jesus’ sudden departure completely changes the way they understood themselves in mission. He had sent them out in mission before, but they always came back to him as their leader. Now he has charged them with mission to the whole world, and left them probably just when they felt like they needed him the most.
Then, as if things hadn’t gotten strange enough, two men in white robes suddenly appear out of nowhere. They reassure the disciples that Jesus will be back. But they are as vague as Jesus is about when exactly this will happen. So not only were the disciples waiting for God’s kingdom to come, but now they were also waiting for Jesus to come back! It’s pretty easy to imagine that the question on all of their hearts was the same one:
Are we there yet??
The ascension of Jesus leaves us in such a strange place in the Christian story. Jesus has been raised from the dead, but the Holy Spirit has not yet come to the disciples. It’s an uncomfortable little interlude of waiting between the joy of the resurrection and the fire and energy of Pentecost. Jesus tells the disciples to hang out and wait in Jerusalem until they have received power from the Holy Spirit. So the whole operation is kind of put on hold. And the disciples are just left waiting.
As the church, it’s pretty easy for us to skip right over the strange, bittersweet day of Ascension in the rush from Easter to Pentecost. But if we pause to reflect on this unusual day, I think we’ll find that there’s a lot there to relate to. We know what it’s like to wait for something with eager longing – we know how it feels for the hours to stretch into days and the days into years. For instance, I think of all the seniors who graduated this weekend. Their graduation marks the end of one period of waiting – and the beginning of another. Those who are headed off to college now have an entire summer to sit and wait and be patient before classes start, and even those who plan to start working will probably have to wait and hope and hang on waiting for a job to come through. I think about the farmers who are anxious to get their crops in the ground; with the wet, kind of rainy weather we’ve had, a lot of folks have had to sit and wait and be patient until the rain stops and the land can be planted. And I think of where I am in my own journey – I have been approved for ordination and will graduate next weekend, but it’s still a long process to be called by a congregation and ordained as a pastor. Like the seniors and the farmers, I, too, have to sit and wait and be patient – and like the disciples, I can’t help but keep wondering:
Are we there yet??
And like the disciples, we are waiting for much deeper things than college and crops and congregational calls. With the disciples, we are also waiting for the kingdom, and we are waiting for Jesus to come back. For some of us, that is a really hard wait. Most of you have known me since I was very small, and I’m sure you can imagine that Mothers Day weekend is not exactly a happy time for me personally. Mothers Day is usually a day that reminds me of this waiting; it reminds me of how much I long for the kingdom to come, so that I might get to see my mom again. We have probably all lost loved ones whom we long to see again in the coming kingdom. And beyond that, we live in a world so full of injustice and violence and intolerance that it can be unbearable to wait for the coming of Christ and for God’s kingdom of love and justice and peace. It’s hard to imagine how God could even stand making us continue to wait for the kingdom to come. It’s almost impossible not to keep going to God in prayer, asking:
Are we there yet???
This is where the two men in white robes who appeared to the disciples kind of come into our story as well. We can easily get caught up in impatience and frustration and anger over how slowly things move forward. We can get hung up on all the things we are waiting and longing for. We are often much like the disciples, watching the sky, standing still and waiting for something to happen. But these two figures come along to kind of snap us out of it. They remind us that Jesus isn’t going to come back any faster if we get all get a crick in our necks staring up into the sky. And they remind us that the mission that Jesus gave to the disciples is a mission that we share: a mission to be witnesses of God’s life-giving power and love and mercy in all the world. They encourage us to stop looking up all the time and to start looking around, to see the ways that our relationships with our neighbors have deteriorated, to see the ways that the world around us is in need, to see that there are people hungering for the good word of hope and grace that we can offer.
And we are given that good word of hope and grace by Christ himself, who promises us that we have not been abandoned. In fact, Jesus’ ascension into heaven was the very thing that made space for the Holy Spirit to come. With his ascension, the center of God’s power and action on earth moved from a single individual to the entire community. Jesus set the Holy Spirit loose on the world, so that we might encounter God in the hearts of every person that we meet. And he sent the Holy Spirit into the heart of our community, so that we might be transformed into Christ’s own body, to continue his redemptive work in the world. In the words of a prayer attributed to St. Teresa of Ávila,
God of love, help us to remember
that Christ has no body now on earth but ours,
no hands but ours, no feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.
Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
This is the Spirit that enables us to carry out the mission we have been given – it’s the Spirit that gives us hope to carry on even when we are sick with impatience and longing. God knows we will keep on getting bogged down wondering, “Are we there yet?” But through the promises of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can trust that this long car trip of life that we are all on together is firmly and forever in God’s hands. Amen.