Sermons That Work

In the Rural County…, Ascension Day – 2006

May 26, 2006

In the rural county of Norfolk, England, there is a town known as Little Walsingham. Inside the town’s church, there are a number of altars — one of them dedicated to the Feast of the Ascension. It’s an unremarkable shrine, just a small table and few candles, but above it is a sculpture of clouds, carved in wood. From the midst of these clouds, there are two feet protruding, looking rather like the remains of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. As silly as it sounds, that’s the ascension: the resurrected Jesus is lifted up, and a cloud takes him out of sight.

This is the witness of holy scripture — of the very apostles themselves: while they were watching, Jesus was taken up, out of sight. They may very well have seen the bottoms of his sandals — as imagined at Little Walsingham — as he disappeared into the cloud. The Ascension of Jesus is one of only two recorded in sacred scripture, the other being that of Elijah. As improbable as it seems, the Ascension is a witnessed event, an actual phenomenon, a recorded fact — no metaphor here. As they were watching, Jesus is lifted up, and a cloud takes him out of their sight.

Imagine the testimony here, as if it were presented in a court of law today.

“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“I do.”
“Name and occupation?”
“Luke, Apostle.”

There can be no more unimpeachable a witness, can there? And — in spite of all the places where the Bible makes no sense to us, or contradicts itself, or isn’t entirely clear about the details — here is testimony where the meaning is plain, and clear, and obvious. Jesus disappears into the clouds.

We can have faith that the Ascension actually happened.

So, why is the Ascension important to us? You may remember several years ago, when the weekly news magazines all featured lengthy stories about the resurrected Jesus. One of these gave details of a so-called “scientific” criticism of Easter story. The scientist alleges that Jesus — like Shakespeare’s Juliet — had not actually died, but was drugged. According to this theory, the three days’ in the tomb were just another “bad trip,” from which Jesus presumably awoke with a nasty hangover. There were, the scientist rightly points out, no witnesses to the resurrection; no one was there when Jesus started breathing again.

The scientist, of course, has a point; and it is a great mystery that so fundamental a tenet of our faith should be unproved. As unimaginably ridiculous as it sounds to us, the closest disciples and our Lord could have conspired in a great plot and deception — one that, if true, would shake the foundations of the church even today.

But could the apostles, in their sorrow and fear at the death of Jesus, and in their confusion at his many resurrection appearances — could they have imagined him flying? We do not have to imagine human flight: we have accomplished it. But, honestly, can we really believe that some uneducated, rural first-century peasants would make up something like this? As the kids say, “Not!”

Now, the Ascension is not somehow more important than the resurrection — nothing of the kind. Rather, as important as principles like incarnation and resurrection are to us as Christians, they are but glimpses of a total reality. The Christian mystery is of one piece: a seamless garment, of which the Ascension is but one aspect. Yet not even a lowly midwife tells of Jesus’ birth, and no one witnessed the moment of resurrection, but the Ascension is the aspect that people observed and documented and proved. The Ascension is important to us not because Jesus could only have entered into glory by this means — but because God chose to reveal that glory to those people of Galilee, who stood there, looking up in amazement.

The Ascension reveals God’s glory to us.

And what does the Ascension mean for us? How can we revel in the very moment we can prove we were abandoned by God? How can we celebrate that Jesus has been taken up, out of sight?

Hear now a story of an Englishman, who, when a very young boy, was taken to nursery school by his mother. Attentive to his anxiety about being abandoned, the boy’s mother leaned down, kissed her son, and said, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.” Each day, his mother would bid him farewell with those same words. Too young to recognize the paradox, the boy embraced his new existence and quickly adjusted to new and frightening surroundings. Day after day, and week after week, his mother bid the same farewell: “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.”

The boy grew into adulthood, and as a mature man was confronted with the reality of having to place his mother in a nursing home. She — now elderly and frail, with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease — barely recognized him, often forgot to eat, and simply could no longer care for herself. As he departed from her, leaving her in her new and frightening surroundings, he remembered her words. He leaned down, kissed his mother, and said, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving” — words his mother recognized even as she no longer recognized him. A tear appeared in her eye, as she clasped her hand and repeated, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.”

This is Jesus’ message on his departing. “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving” He is departing from us, out of our sight. We find ourselves in the new and frightening surroundings of this life, in a place where we are uncomfortable and often feel ill-equipped to carry on. And yet, we burn the paschal candle to indicate his closeness, we covenant ourselves to seek and serve him in all persons, we sing songs that tell of the wonders of his incarnation, we feel his very presence in bread and wine, and we hear the story of how — as the apostles were watching — he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. As Leo the Great wrote, “Even the blessed apostles, though they have been strengthened by so many miracles and instructed by so much teaching, took fright at the cruel suffering of the Lord’s passion and could not accept his resurrection without hesitation. Yet they made such progress through his ascension that they now found joy in what had terrified them before.”

The Ascension helps us find joy in what had terrified us before.

These words carry particular poignancy in our time as we take fright at the cruel suffering we see in the world around us. Can it be that we who have been strengthened by so many miracles and instructed by so much teaching — that we may make such progress that we can find joy in what now terrifies us?

We can find joy, if we but follow the example of those blessed apostles. We can find joy, if we allow ourselves to have faith in the working out of God’s plan of salvation. We can find joy, if we believe that Jesus did rise up and vanish into a haze. That this unimaginable event was recorded — by the most reliable witnesses ever — offers proof of our faith. This Ascensiontide, we can find joy in what terrifies us and stretch our imaginations to hear Jesus, as his feet disappear into the clouds, say, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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