May 20, 2012
What goes up must come down.
It was my internship year in a church in Chester, Virginia. I, along with other advisers and parents, had taken the senior high youth on a ski trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My only problem was that I had never been skiing before.
So when we got to the resort, I took a ski lesson. It was a helpful thing to do. The most important thing I learned was how to stop. I figured that was a good thing to know when I was riding two waxed sticks down a mountain. The instructor said we were ready to go down the bunny slope, so we got in line for the lift. Joe, my other youth adviser, rode up the lift with me. He had never been skiing either. We were excited about our first venture on the slopes until we realized we had one problem – we didn’t know how to get off the lift.
Many of the youth and other parents were already heading down the slopes, so we started yelling out to them, “Hey! How do you get off the lift?” The other people in our group would smile up at us. They’d wave. They’d give us the thumbs up. But they didn’t answer our question. So we kept yelling at any person on the slopes we recognized and probably even a few we didn’t.
“Seriously, how do we get off the lift?”
Seriously, how do we get off the lift?
Even though we never got an answer to our question, we managed to get off the lift without killing ourselves. But I remember that I was more scared of the prospect of getting off that lift than I was about skiing itself. I thought that going down that mountain couldn’t be nearly as frightening as just taking that first step off a moving chair.
I was right and I was wrong. Going down the mountain was daunting to be sure, but at least I’d had some instruction. I had some idea of what to do. That wasn’t true about getting off the lift. Even with the lift operator waiting there, I still felt very unsure, very alone, very uninstructed about how to proceed. But what goes up must come down. I went up that mountain so I had to come down. I got off the lift.
I wonder if that’s how the disciples felt when they watched Jesus make his final ascent. Did they have one more question? One more point they wanted clarified?
The scene that Luke describes at the end of his gospel sounds beatific and serene. Jesus has opened the disciples’ minds to the scriptures. He’s told them once more how he is the fulfillment of all the prophecies. Jesus declared to them what the crucifixion and the resurrection meant and how it was essential that it happened. He declared to them that they were witnesses of all these things. He told them that he would send to them what the Father promised, which we know is the Holy Spirit. He instructed them to remain in the city until they have been clothed with power from on high. Then he took them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands and blessed them. Luke writes that “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
Luke’s words paint a lovely picture. The disciples have come a long way since Jesus first called them. But as I often do when I am trying to get a better understanding of a particular passage or story, I put myself into that scene. As much as I’d like to believe that I would be there soaking up Jesus’ final blessing, worshiping him, praising God, I also know myself better than that. I would be the disciple with one more question.
“Okay Jesus, I get that we’re to be witnesses of these things. But does that mean that I witness to people I know first or should I go to stranger’s houses?”
“How do I start the conversation? Should I just tell them about this guy I know or do quote scripture?”
“Did you leave a list?”
“Seriously, how do we get off the lift?”
I know me. And I’ve also gleaned a few insights into human nature. I can well imagine that these questions, whether I asked them out loud or not, would have been running through my head as I watched my teacher, my friend, my mentor leave me. I probably would have felt unprepared and completely unskilled for the task that lay at hand. I would have wanted to know, specifically and in great detail, exactly what I was supposed to do next.
I wonder if at least some of the disciples weren’t feeling this as well. In our verses from Acts, the disciples do ask Jesus if this is the time of Israel’s restoration. But the answer they get feels far from satisfactory.
“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In other words, wait. Power from on high is coming to you through the Holy Spirit and you will be witnesses, so wait.
Like I said, if I were one of the ones standing there, I would have wanted a few more details. Waiting is all very well and good and knowing that this Holy Spirit you speak of is coming is fine. But how do you get off the lift?!
When I dropped off Phoebe at choir rehearsal the other night, I walked through the choir room to go to my office. A question was put to me about the title for today’s sermon. I’ll be honest with you. I hate titles. The best titles come from what I’ve written. But like other pastors I know, we don’t have our sermons written early in the week. And even though I’m doing a lot of thought work and reading for my sermon on Tuesdays, I rarely have a concrete idea of where the sermon is going yet. So creating a title is hard for me.
Regardless, I didn’t have a set title in my head yet although I knew I was preaching on the ascension. When I got the question about my title I jokingly replied, “I don’t know, ‘Going Up’”. So I stuck with that, thinking that was as appropriate for today’s worship as anything else I could come up with. After all, when we read about the ascension we read that Jesus goes up into the clouds, into his Father’s realm, into heaven.
But just as I realized with the story of the resurrection on Easter – that I don’t have to have the ability to explain it in literal terms, just grasp as best I can what it means for us now – is true for the ascension as well. I don’t think it matters if Jesus went up, down or sideways. I don’t think it’s essential for our understanding to know for a fact if he went up into heaven or disappeared or blended into the background of clouds. I realize that many people take the angels’ words to the disciples literally. Why are you looking up? He’ll be coming back to you the same way he left you. So a lot of folks stand around watching the heavens, waiting. I don’t think we need to do that. I don’t think we’re called to do that.
I do think and believe that in one way or another Jesus, the physical human being, left. He left the disciples. But before he left he gave them instructions. No, it wasn’t a complete to-do list with every step spelled out in exact detail. Yet they were instructions nonetheless. The disciples were to be witnesses of these things.
Two of the preachers that I read this week in preparation for today referred to this as the “passing of the baton.” Jesus leaves and when he leaves he passes the baton to the disciples. It’s up to them now. They have to take the message forward. They have to proclaim the kingdom of God. It’s up to them. Jesus goes up. Now they have to go out.
Go out into the world. Go out into Jerusalem. Into Judea. Into Samaria. Into all the world and preach the good news. That’s what the ascension is. It’s passing the baton. It’s putting the responsibility on the witnesses to go and do and tell.
When I think about the disciples being told to go out, I think of a wonderful scene from the movie Bruce Almighty. Bruce Nolan is a cynical human interest reporter in Buffalo, New York. He blames God for all his bad luck. Finally God has enough of this. If Bruce thinks being God is so easy, then let Bruce do it for a while. God, played brilliantly by Morgan Freeman, gives all of his powers to Bruce. Bruce doesn’t handle this well. He uses the powers he’s given to further his own interests first. As you can imagine, things don’t turn out well. So he has another meeting with God. At the end of the scene God is going to leave him again, but he reassures Bruce that he has all the ability he needs to do God’s job. Bruce wants to know, though where he can find God if he needs him. God tells him to stop looking up for God. Too many people spend their time looking up, thinking all the answers will just magically come from the heavens. If you want to know where God is, if you want to find the answers, look here (point to head and heart). Look out there (point around the sanctuary and towards the outside). That’s where God is.
That’s where God is. Here and out there and all around us. Jesus has left this earth but we are not left empty-handed. Jesus goes up but the power of Holy Spirit is about to come down. And when that happens, the disciples are never the same people again. Neither are we. We don’t have to wait until next Sunday, the day of Pentecost, to feel the power of the Holy Spirit. All we have to do is trust in the good news that we are not alone, that we have all the abilities and skills we need to pick up that baton and go out. Jesus went up. The Holy Spirit comes down. And we are called to go out. Let all God’s children say “Amen!”