Friday, May 02, 2008

Sermon for May 4, Ascension Sunday

Ascension 2008, Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Thursday was Ascension Day. Ascension Day used to be a major holiday. Now I understand the city is considering transferring the alternate-side-of-the street exemption from Ascension Day to some Muslim holiday.

Two hundred years ago, Ascension Day was about as big as Christmas, and you got off from work to go to church. That’s no longer so, and now we mark it on the Sunday following. We still mark it because the Ascension is one of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith and one of the major mysteries mentioned in the Apostles Creed.

It’s not coincidental that Ascension Day has almost disappeared while Christmas has gotten so big. The last three centuries of modernity have been about narrowing the role of religion to something only private, and Christmas is where God gets very small, while the Ascension is where Jesus gets very big.

The two events are almost opposite. At Christmas, a great God in heaven comes down to earth and enters humanity. On Ascension Day a human being goes up to heaven to enter the presence of God. The first is very touching, we all can relate to a human birth, and to animals, and visitors. The second is abstract and supernatural, and instead of animals and shepherds it’s cherubim and seraphim, and who knows what they are.

The Ascension is where the story of Jesus crosses over into what feels mythology. It departs from that very human side of Jesus that we love in the gospels, his down-to-earth emotions and affections, how he talked about human life and what human life should be upon the ground. But the ascension feels like Wotan rising up to Valhalla or like Hercules being brought up to Mount Olympus because he’s been made into a god. It’s like going from Puccini to Wagner.

The devaluation of Ascension Day tells us that its themes and applications don’t mean as much to us. We have developed modern life to make it rational, predictable, insurable. The risks of life we’ve learned to calculate and manage. We don’t depend on having one of our own on the throne of heaven who is taking care of things on our behalf.

We believe that in order to get things done it should depend on what you know, not whom you know. What we believe in most is freedom, our own freedom, and the risks that come with that. We don’t want to hold our lives and our cultures and our nations and our economies accountable to another human being, no matter how highly exalted he may be. And our lives are not such that we look for comfort there.

The main theme of the Ascension is that the Kingdom of God is now invested in the Kingdom of Jesus, that the general sovereignty and providence of God is now focused in the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah. Well, for evangelical Christians, Jesus is more like a friend. Jesus is defined as your personal Lord and Savior who is enthroned upon your heart. Jesus is kept down here and actually made quite small. For liberal Christians, Jesus is the teacher, and the kingdom of God refers to all the good things that we good people do in the world, our own good deeds and our Christian institutions. In both cases our Jesus is domesticated. So neither evangelicals nor liberals much feel the need for what the ascension means.

The Ascension means that the general power and authority of God in the world, going back before the Big Bang, is now invested in a particular way for particular purposes in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Someone is in charge. And we to a large extent are accountable to him. And we know by his teachings and example his standards and his expectations. About the poor, about the prisoners, about the orphans and the widows, we know what his judgments are and on what basis we are judged. Not just personally, but on what basis the nations of the world are judged.

On the other hand, the Ascension means God’s power is self-limiting. God doesn’t do things now which are outside the character of Jesus. There are things God did in the Old Testament, for example, which God won’t do anymore. Earthquakes and tsunamis are simply from the laws of nature working out, they are not the judgments of God, and that’s because of the character of Jesus. Disasters like 9/11 are not God’s ideas or even messages, and that we know from Jesus.

Those are positive themes and applications of the Ascension. You can know them and be comforted by them. At the same time, the Ascension has its mysteries that we cannot understand. We are tempted to gaze up into heaven, like the disciples, trying to figure out what happened, trying to make sense of heaven from the perspective of the earth, trying to make sense of eternity from inside the boundaries of time. The angels warn them not to stand there gazing up, but to get on with it, to be future directed, for the ascension is upward in the sense that the sunrise is upward, it’s up, but more, it is ahead, and we’re approaching it.

It means that we must live content with great aspects of mystery in our lives, that there is more that’s going on than we are privy to, and that’s all right, because of who’s in charge, and we know what his character and judgments are. It means that there is much beyond our view, but also that we know enough to be secure, and comforted. And yet that we’re accountable, and that we have to answer for ourselves and for our nations, and that this is actually very good for us.

I was at a Reformed Church meeting up in Ossining this week, and for our devotions on Thursday morning, the leader played a recording of the "Hallelujah" Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. He pointed out that by its placement in the oratorio it’s clear that Handel intended it to be about the Ascension. It’s the anthem of the angels at Jesus’ coronation, it’s the answering chorus of the faithful departed at Christ’s inauguration. As Jesus ascends to heaven and takes his place upon the throne, this is the official music going on.

But when do you here it on the radio and in the concert halls? During Christmastide. This goes back to my earlier point about how Christmas is more congenial to our culture than the Ascension is. Alright, so let’s not fight it, for that’s not the character of Jesus. The character of Jesus is always to tell the whole story, tell the whole truth, and then go with what you have.

So the kingdom of Jesus is like a little mustard seed. Small and weak, but powerful in its life-potential. Or as Jesus said himself, the kingdom of Jesus is like a little child. I suppose it’s true that even with the Ascension being true, the kingdom of Jesus is like a baby in a manger. Self-limiting, humble, claiming everything, taking nothing, waiting to be held, waiting to be loved.

What better way to express it than with the baptism of a child. When the child is a little infant, the child expresses that the kingdom of Jesus is like a mustard seed, and that the power of Jesus is made perfect in weakness, and the sovereignty of God is fragile, and the power of the resurrection is like a springtime flower that is so beautiful and gives you hope and then it fades.

And when the child is a three-year-old she represents the souls of all of us, that this little bit of water may be too much for us, and that the Lordship of Jesus demands too much, as weak and small as it may seem, as ephemeral its signs be, like water on our heads.

By the grace of God we will baptize a child today. As you look at her, I want you to put your own soul in her place. Let your soul see what she sees, let your soul feel what she feels, her fears and her uncertainty. Her clinging to her father as her security who also brings her to her challenges.

On this Ascension Sunday I don’t want you gazing into heaven trying to figure it out. I want you looking at a little child to see what kind of soul this Lord Jesus wants for his warriors and accepts as his officials. He’s got enough angels around him for brilliance and perfection. What he wants from you is that you express his own humanity.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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