Do you like heights? Not just a visit to the top of the Empire State building at 1,250 feet. But do you seek to be a member of the Seven Summits Club, who love to conquer some of the highest peaks of the world? Think of it: There’s a company called Everest Flash Expedition, that claims that what once took two months to scale the 29,020 feet mountain, now with hypoxic tents, more sophisticated equipment and better delivered oxygen, they can get you up and back to earth in four weeks –half the time --for a mere 95,000 dollars.
If that’s a bit too much of a hit on your wallet, why not try Kingda Ka at Six Flags. At 456 feet, it’s the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world. It may leave you nauseous and dizzy, but the torture will be over in minutes instead of weeks.
There seems to be an inner pull in the human heart to ascend the heights, to soar with the birds, to conquer space – to enter the abode of God. Even though we know in our minds that God is here, there, everywhere -- yet heaven, the home of God, is often viewed in popular understanding as in the sky, expanding out infinitely through the cosmos. “Heaven is my throne,” God declares through the prophet (Isaiah 66:1). “Tear open the skies and come down” Isaiah begs the Holy One (64:1). Paul reminds us: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:1-2).
While we yearn for the heights, the great feat of Jesus was coming down to earth, emptying himself, becoming human, one of us—as the Lord reminds us: “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Now on Ascension Day, observed last Thursday, the holy act is reversed -- Jesus was taken up to heaven. Jesus has come full circle. He brought us Good News. He conquered sin. He defeated the Devil. He destroyed death. Now Jesus is welcomed home and is seated at God’s right hand, the place of highest honor.
Ascension Day doesn’t get a lot of press. Tucked in between Easter and Pentecost, it’s kind of like the Preakness to the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. One reason the Ascension gets the short shrift is because it represents another letting go, an in between time, saying goodbye but not knowing what’s next. We know from Scripture that Jesus told the disciples and explained over again, that he would have to leave them. And Jesus tried to prepare them. He said abide in my love. He said love one another as I have loved you. He said, don’t be troubled. He said God would send them the Helper, the Spirit of Truth. Jesus opened their mind to the scriptures. He assured them all prophecies had been fulfilled. So, Ascension Day is when the rubber meets the road. Jesus physically lets go, and now the disciples must now walk in faith.
The disciples are, not surprisingly, confused. They saw Jesus alive after he was crucified, but they didn’t know what to make of it. What did it all mean now? So, after all Jesus taught them, what was the very last question they ask Jesus before he leaves earth? They ask, “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? They retreat to the past. Back to square one. “Is this the time that you will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?" Now is the time? Is this what it’s all led up to? After all they have been through with Jesus all those years, they reverted to earthly solutions to spiritual problems. They relapsed to thinking like an ordinary, pious Jew – as if they never heard the gospel. Will you restore the kingdom of Israel now Jesus? Before you go, Jesus, can you kick out the Romans? Can’t you appoint a new earthly King of Israel, restore the kingdom – which hasn’t existed for centuries? They began to gaze into the glories of the past, when Israel would have a kingdom on earth like the Kingdom of David.
This is what happens when we are about the face the unknown future. When the stakes are high. When we have to let go to move on. We withdraw. We find comfort in the certainty of the past. We reminiscence about the triumph of the past when church was full, kids didn’t have soccer or swimming on Sunday, the stores were closed. There were plenty of people to staff the committees, fill the choirs, run the programs, there was not an empty pew to be had. We yearn for those days. We want to reach those heights again.
So, Ascension Day reminds us that as we are to prepare to move to the next stage of development we often revert to old, safe ways. It’s the two steps forward one steps back phenomenon. Like the people of Israel who couldn’t let go of the past as they trudged through the wilderness, we are tempted to see our future through the lens of the past. Jesus says, no. See the future through the lens of the Ascension. To making peace with the past, letting go, and reaching for the new spiritual heights Jesus has in store for us. Yes, it is now time.
An arrow can only be shot forward by pulling it back. So, if life is dragging us down with worries, it means we’re doing to be launched into something great – so keep focus and keep aiming. So, it is natural to be pulled back, like the disciples, to the past. It means we are being prepared to be launched. As long as we let go, and let God carry us forward.
As the disciples fixed their eyes upward, watching Jesus ascend, angels-like-men had to jar them out of their dreams and ask them “why do you stand looking up to heaven?” Their focus needed to be on earth. They needed to turn and look around at each other. Thus, began the hard work to form real, Christ-like community. A community based on what Jesus taught. Luke, in his Gospel account of the Ascension, describes what happened next saying, “And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
So, Jesus tells them that something grander, more important, something more earth-shaking and astounding is about to happen: God's Spirit is about to come down on them to empower them to become his witnesses. They had to prepare. Not by pining for the past that is gone. But through worship. Experiencing great joy. Blessing God. Through acts of worship. Experiencing great joy. And Blessing God. That is what launches the arrow forward. The Ascension was key stepping stone for them to understand that Jesus was not an earthly king – but King of the Cosmos – and their marching orders was not a conquest of land, or conquering their foreign rulers, but of the triumph of the human heart for the love and reconciliation offered by God.
The Ascension prepares us for new beginnings, the next step, deeper insights and understandings, miracles. For Pentecost, the coming of the Helper, the Spirit of Truth. We are the Arrow God shoots into history, to bring forward the message of Jesus Christ to the depths and heights the encompass us.
It is time. God releases us from the captivity of the past. The future stands before us. In the heart of our worship, as our soul becomes filled with great joy, as we continually bless our God, we will bring heaven to earth, we will spread the kingdom of God here, in our midst, we will discover heights yet unscaled. It is time – to take that step into the future as we worship and bless God with great Joy, awaiting the promised great outpouring of the Spirit upon us all. Amen