Sermon: Ascension Day
Ezk 1.3-28; Acts 1.1-11; Mk 19.9-20
+In the Name...
Where did Jesus go? The simple answer to that is "Up." Why else would we call this Ascension Day? "As they were looking on, he was lifted - up - and a cloud took Him - out of their sight." Then - where? To heaven, yes, but again: Where is that? How do you get from the place that is here to the place that is there? Where is that place in relation to this place? How did He get there? These questions occupy people in our time when they think about this event, and in the last century they gave many a skeptic yet another pretext for confidence.
I have to tell you that despite the fact that such musings still sound quite sophisticated to many, like an avocado refrigerator or Lady Gaga they will date us as vaguely entertaining primitives to people living 100 years from now. Ironically, we seem to have more of a problem with God incarnate making a stylish exit by going up now that a few of us have been to the moon - since we know now the sort of life support needed to get out there. So we can do it, but not God....
Yes I believe that a fully human Jesus continued moving from the moment he could no longer be seen by humans living on earth until the moment in which he was present somewhere else, still fully human and sat a fully human posterior on a throne built for a man roughly 6 feet tall located to the right, physically next to the throne of God the Father. Pretty soon someone brought him a snack and something to drink.
Donald Macloed at the free church college on the mound in Edinburgh Scotland says this in more exalted tones "The dust of the earth sits upon the throne of heaven."
So please don't misunderstand me when I say that that sort of ‘where' question - the spatial one - is an oddity of our time - a time when the profound idolatry of our culture insists on elevating the merely physical, visible and tangible as the only reality. All of this by the way while revolutions in physics have already completely destroyed that notion. Today's physicists and tomorrow's popular culture will be laughing at us for obsessing over something as obviously flexible as space and time.
I'm afraid there's laughter back over our shoulder, too. From the ancient world - who really knew what the meaning of ‘UP' is. If you go UP in the way that the ancient world understood UP, then the time and space stuff sort of takes care of itself.
Jesus being present at the throne of God is not a curiosity on which we speculate. It is the very definition of reality. The phrases that we have in our readings tonight are strange, at times even frightening, but they are also joyful trumpet blasts proclaiming what has arisen in the place normal once occupied.
"Immeasurable greatness of His power."
The up that is the up that the ancient world understood so well is not about place. It is about power. That is the vision that sends Ezekiel to his face in the dirt as 1300 miles away from a ruined temple in Jerusalem a throne like sapphire bursting with a solar halo appears in the sky; borne up by four living creatures moving with wheels within wheels beneath them. And on that sapphire throne a form like a human form yet with the appearance of fire. The preincarnate Son of Man was paling the hanging gardens of the palaces of Babylon and the temple of the High god Nebo and his son Nebuchadnezzar with his great glory. The message? I know for you it's long drive to Jerusalem, but if you have the power, place is just geometry and geometry is easy.
Now that power does have a place - sort of. If you're sitting on the throne of God the Father maker of all things (and you're not by the way) that place is at 90 degrees on the compass - just to your right. But if God is omnipresent that place can never be somewhere else to anywhere. I will stop trying to confuse you if you are willing to taste a tiny bit of what put Ezekiel under his kneeler. That power is here in all of its white hot glory and it is not diminished in comparison to its magnitude in any other place. It is our fallen creaturely blindness that obscures it from us but it is here.
"According to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ Jesus when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places"
That place is not in relation to here or there. It is in relation to other powers that are below him in the celestial hierarchy and are therefore his inferiors and servants. Above anything or anyone whose name can be dropped to invoke power over anything else.
That place is....
"Far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet..."
It's not a subtle point, nor can it be truly realized without changing one's perspective and approach completely. And that realization is the explanation for the explosion of the church throughout history. "All authority in heaven and earth is given to ME - go YE therefore into all the world."
By contrast, The lack of that realization is precisely what has many of us presently cowering in our corner while we let the gods of this age go about doing the serious business of running the world. Paul's prayer for the Christians in the throne city of the goddess Diana is that they will have the eyes of their hearts enlightened - so that they can see what Ezekiel saw in Babylon and what Paul knew was somewhere in the skies over Diana's temple in Ephesus. A sapphire throne bearing an unchallengeable monarch with scar tissue on his hands and feet.
Now for the warning label: This is the potentest of potent stuff, and deploying it in the face of the would be rulers of any age can have (and has had) unexpected, unintended and even unwanted consequences.
But having attempted to uncover this billion-candlepower light a bit this evening, we should take the opportunity to shine it on a few places that may be a bit luminosity challenged.
Although I will leave this next subject quickly, I would not be true to the saints and martyrs through the ages if I did not point to the elephant presently wandering about in the living room. I will attempt discretion in the hopes that in my final years I do not look back on it as cowardice. I think it would be a good idea to quote someone else, of all people someone who holds the distinction of being an ethics professor at the University of Texas and also of having a last name that makes mine sound almost normal - Dr. Budziszewski.
"After his resurrection, Jesus first told his followers that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him, then he commanded them to go and make disciples of all nations. Thus through the action of the Holy Spirit the people of promise have entered a radically new phase that will only end with messiah's return... Although the members of the redeemed community are to respect earthly governors and human institutions, their former commonwealths can no longer command their final allegiance. You see the problem."
80 year old Jeremy is telling me that I must tell you plainly what I mean: The State is not God, and when the State asserts itself as God, we may not say Caesar is Lord or throw our pinch of incense on his altar. There you have it. End of chapter - for now.
Now - I suspect each of us have something of the experience of exile and abandonment by God in our lives right now. It might be the thing that's drawing the eyes of your heart away tonight. Even if all else seems well, I'd lay odds that something in each of your lives looks like God has taken his marbles and gone home. If you walk this road long enough you will turn a dark corner where you most need God but can least perceive him.
The most ancient book in the Bible - maybe by a longshot - might sound like you wrote it this morning:
"O that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me...
‘If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him."
Where did Jesus Go?
But then this text which was ancient to Moses predicts something astonishing: "I know that my redeemer" - in Hebrew my Goel - the one who will straighten this whole mess out and make it right some day! "I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last, He shall take his stand on the earth"
A battered and bloody Jesus stayed silent as the kangaroo court by which we condemned that our last and only hope to death on a cross was in session; until they tried to find out if he was actually crazy enough to think he was the Son of Man that Ezekiel saw enthroned in the skies over Babylon.
‘I AM; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.
Was Jesus gone when St. Stephen knelt in the gravel at the feet of a young man named Saul, and between the blinding flashes as people hit his head with rocks he looked up to the sky and said "I see - the heavens opened, and the Son of Man at the right hand of God - up off his throne and standing in respect - for me"?
Jesus did not ascend to leave the cosmos and us, he ascended to govern it for us - to be its head and fill all in all, even the peninsula, even tonight. He ascended through the heights to claim every inch from the earthworms to the furthest edge of infinity. He ascended to carry the form of a slave once sacrificed for all and seat that form at an absolutely unchallengeable height.
And that my friends is the new normal.
Jesus as Very God of Very God ascended and Very God of Very God the Holy Spirit descended to continue manifesting the earthly body of Jesus here in us.
"And has made him head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all."
With what fear would Ezekiel have approached an overture from that Sapphire throne over the skies at the Chebar River in Babylon if the human form blazing like the sun had spoken to him and said "this is my body given for you - eat it - this is my blood shed for you - drink it all." Yet of a truth I tell you we base men stand here at the threshold of that very invitation from that very figure on that very throne - Oh how our idols should cower and our passions retreat and our fears dissolve - and Oh how our hearts should sing....
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.