I checked the records and I haven’t used a Harry Potter illustration in quite some time, which means that I am about to use one now. One of my favorite moments from the third book, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” is when Harry and Hermione use her time turner – a device that lets you move through time. They used the time turner in order to rectify and right certain events that had taken place in one day and to save Sirius Black, the prisoner of Azkaban and Harry’s godfather.
The climax of their time travel is watching a scene earlier in the evening when Harry, Hermione and Sirius were surrounded by dementors. I’ve loved both the books and the movies, but in the movie telling of this it is just Harry and Sirius surrounded the dementors. In the book, Hermione is also with them. I’m working from the book version. In the original moment, they are surrounded by the dementors – these evil, horrific guards of the wizard prison Azkaban, who don’t use capital punishment as the ultimate sentence, instead they suck out your soul. They are pretty awful. And they have surrounded the three. Harry tries desperately to conjure up the one thing that dispels them – a patronus. But this is advanced magic, and he does not yet have the power to create a patronus strong enough yet. Or so he thinks.
Just as they are about to be completely overwhelmed by the dementors, something large and silver comes galloping at them across the lake. It charges at the dementors and casts them away. Harry and Hermione both pass out and are taken to the hospital wing; Sirius is taken to the tower to await a second and final meeting with the dementors.
So, now we come back to the future Harry and Hermione watching this happen to the past Harry and Hermione. Harry realizes that it was a full-blown patronus who dispelled the dementors. And just before he passed out, he got a glimpse of the wizard who came to their rescue. But when he tells Hermione who he things he saw, she thinks he must be delusional. You see the person Harry saw send the patronus was his dad. Only Harry’s dad, James, was dead; long dead. So who was this wizard? From whom had this powerful patronus come? Harry and Hermione watch the scene at the lake unfold, and although Harry knows he must not be seen, he has to see the wizard who saved them. He rushes down to the edge of the lake looking for his dad. But as the dementors prepare to deliver their deadly kiss, he realizes who the wizard actually was … is, pulls out his wand, and cries out,
And this amazing, splendid, powerful stag springs forth from his wand, gallops across the lake and charges the dementors, scattering them in every direction away from Sirius, away from Hermione, away from Harry. A stag was the animal Harry’s father became to help his friend, Sirius. A stag, the symbol of his father, came to help Harry when he needed it the most, but it was Harry who made it happen. It was Harry who realized what he had to do, and did it.
What does any of have this have to do with Jesus ascending into the heavens? What does any of this have to do with the apostles continuing to look up, even after Jesus had disappeared into the clouds?
Just as two men in dazzling clothes appeared to the women at the empty tomb in Luke’s gospel, two men in white robes appear to the apostles in this first chapter of Acts. The two men at the tomb asked the women,
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
These two men asked the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
As I have always understood it, the ascension of Jesus as it is written in Acts clearly points to the second coming of Jesus. The second coming is a big deal to a lot of people and a lot of churches today. It certainly looms large in our particular theology. The second coming was a big deal in the church of my childhood. The second coming was a big deal to my grandfather and to so many members of my extended family. It still is. My father told me that every New Year’s Eve, his father would gather them all together and they would pray that in this New Year, the Lord Jesus would come. But I’ve wondered for a long time now if this isn’t missing the point. I wonder if we haven’t gotten way too caught up in looking up when instead we should be looking out.
I had never really considered the reason why Jesus did not ascend immediately into heaven after his resurrection. Why does it take 40 days before he ascends? Like the Israelite’s 40 years in the wilderness, and Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, the number 40 signifies a time of preparation. Jesus’ earthly ministry might have been over with his crucifixion and resurrection, but his preparation of the apostles was not. There was still 40 days of preparation to be done. Now, at the end of those 40 days, Jesus ascended. He had done all that he could on this earth to prepare his followers for their work, their ministry. He could ascend because the time of preparation was completed. If the apostles fully understood that though, it’s hard to know. I wonder if that’s why the men in white robes or the angels show up in this scene just as they did at the empty tomb. They had to prod the witnesses on to the next step. The women had to be prodded into the realization that Jesus was not among the dead, but among the living. The apostles had to be prodded into the recognition that their work was not focused on looking up, waiting for Jesus’ return, but on looking out. Their ministry was to go out, to reach out, to set out, move out … into the world, into the midst of the brokenness and the hurting and the chaos. Their ministry, their call was to bring the good news of the gospel to the world, to be Christ’s body, hands, feet, mouth, mind and heart in the world.
The men in white robes appear at that moment, when the apostles are staring up at the heavens – as one commentator put it mesmerized or paralyzed we aren’t sure – to move the apostles into action, to prod them into their calling.
“Why are you looking up? You should be looking out.”
Why are you looking up? I struggle with looking up. It’s not that I don’t believe that we should turn to God in all things. I do. It’s not that I don’t believe we should trust in God’s presence or moving in our lives and in God’s world. I do. It’s that I think our looking up has become symbolic of what I see as a privatized faith. It is about my personal relationship with Jesus. It is about my belief in God. It is about my salvation. It is about the relationship between God and me. It is an individualized, privatized faith. I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and I know that when he comes in again in glory that I will be okay, so I am going to spend my time looking up.
I am not trying to make other expressions of our faith into a caricature or stereotype. But I feel strongly that our tendency to individualize our faith – not personalize, individualize – is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it makes us forget that Jesus came not just to save individuals but to usher in the kingdom. That kingdom was community. Jesus modeled what it means to truly be human, and time and time again he modeled that humanity in community. He was not human in isolation, just him and God. He was human in relationship, in community with others. And they were not the others in the “in crowd.” They were the others on the outside, the “least of these.” He came in the most vulnerable of ways to be with the most vulnerable of people.
Jesus spent his earthly ministry and 40 days after his resurrection preparing the apostles for what it would mean to carry on without him. He taught them and demonstrated what it meant to do God’s work, to be in God’s kingdom, and to live God’s love. So when he ascended, in some ways, he gave the reigns to them. I know that the men in white robes did not ask the apostles the question, “Why aren’t you looking out?” But to me it is implied.
“Why are you looking up? You should be looking out.”
The reason I used this illustration from Harry Potter is because Harry kept waiting for his dad to show up. Harry was so sure it was his dad who had sent the patronus that he almost missed the moment to act for himself. I realize that this is an imperfect illustration. To try and make this an analogy of God and us would stretch it to the breaking point. It could become a slippery slope of saying, “Hey God, I got this. I don’t need you to save me. I can do it myself.”
The biggest mistakes I have ever made in my life have been when I have told God, “Don’t worry God. I’ve got this.”
We need God. We need to know that God is calling us, not the other way around. One of the things that we talked about in last week’s session meeting, and we will continue to talk about – in those meetings and with all of you – is that this is God’s church, and we are invited to follow God on God’s mission in the world. We need God. It isn’t that we shouldn’t look up. It isn’t that we shouldn’t put all that we are and all that we have in God’s gracious and merciful hands. It’s that we cannot look up to the exclusion of looking out. It seems to me that God requires both.
Look up, look to me, trust me, believe in me.
Look out. Look out, look at my children made in my image, how are you caring for them? Look at the world I have made. How are you caring for it? Look up to me, but also look out to them.
Why are you looking up without also looking out? God requires both. We cannot look up without also having an outward vision. We cannot look out without also knowing that our strength and our power come from God, from looking up.
In Latin the words, Expecto Patronum, means “I await a guardian.” When Jesus ascended into heaven after 40 days of preparation, he did not leave the disciples completely alone. A Guardian, an Advocate would come to them. So as we observe the ascension, as we look up, know that we too have the power of our Guardian, our Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers us to look up to God, to trust in God, and to look out into the world and do the work of love we are commanded to do.
Look up and look out and do the work of the Lord. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.