(Warning rough draft ahead)
Children’s moments are precarious situations. You go in with a game plan, a direction, a goal in mind and you pray that you will eventually get there. More times than not, something happens and the conversation gets derailed with a random statement or question. But I do have to say my best Children’s moment came in 2005. I know it was in that year because it was it happened with one of my sermons I had to do for ordination and it was caught on tape.
The topic was about pride and bragging. For the Children’s moment I was going to talk being filled with the right things. I gave the illustration about being filled with hot air and as I talked about being filled with the wrong things I blew up a balloon. It got bigger and bigger and the kids were a little giddy trying to figure out what would happen next. I said something along the lines of, “if we fill ourselves up with the wrong things we cannot stay filled long.” Then I let the balloon go. It was suppose to simply fly around the sanctuary and come to rest somewhere. What it did instead was fly strait up in a circular manner and when it was empty it came to rest in my hand that just let it go a couple of seconds ago. All the kids looked at me in awe and I couldn’t do that again to save my life.
That balloon demonstrated the fact that whatever goes up must come down. Gravity holds us here on earth so no matter how hard we try, as long as we are still on earth, we will always come down. Whether you are a balloon filled with the hot air of a preacher, a kid trying to fly off their roof, a sky diver or even a rocket, if it stays on earth it will come down.
Today is Ascension Sunday and like I explained to the kids this morning this is the day that Jesus ascended into heaven. To ascend is to head skyward, to move or climb or rise in an upward motion. After Jesus was resurrected he continued to join the disciples every so often and help them along the way. He visited them on a beach after a bad night fishing. He visited them in an upper room a couple of times. But in this last visit with them, he gathers his disciples close and gives them his final directions before he leaves earth for his heavenly realm. Then he takes them as far as Bethany and blesses them. While he is blessing them he is taken up to heaven.
This is an interesting concept for our modern minds. We actually know what is up there. If you keep going up and up and up you will reach space. Once you hit space you can travel in any direction for trillions of light years and still be hitting ‘stuff’. So where is heaven in all that? We always look up when we talk about heaven but that is because we grew up thinking that heaven is up and hell is down. That kind of language is still in our vernacular too. I like how a person put in it one of the commentaries I read they week. Thomas Troeger said, “but I also think of the persistence of up-ness. The direction ‘up’ may have left our cosmology, but it has never left our souls. Stand up for justice. Look up in hope. Pull yourself up. I am feeling up today. Look up at the stars. The sun is Up. Reach Up. Up you go, up in the sky so blue. There is some resilience in the heart, some spring in the soul, some reaching beyond and above that will not dies, that will not go away, that keeps calling to us, that beckons us beyond ourselves and in doing so gives us strength to live faithfully here and now.” When we think about where Jesus is now, where it goes against what science and our telescopes have taught us, we constantly look up.
This is Christ’s final act on earth; he departs from it while blessing the disciples. I like that because he doesn’t stop blessing and then leave. There isn’t a final close up shot on Jesus who says some powerful last phrase and then ascends to heaven. The blessing continues all the way until he disappears from their site. Like following a balloon that was let go into the sky, the disciples stood there basking in the glow of Jesus’ glory and blessing as he ascended. Then it was over and Jesus was gone.
This was a moment of transitional leadership. For three years Jesus had walked with these disciples, told them what to do, taught them, prayed for and with them and now his time on earth was over. It was up to them to do God’s work. This had to be a stressful time for the disciples or soon to be apostles. Their leader is now gone and the responsibility has been placed solely on their shoulders. Their task is to transform the world and share the love of God with everyone they meet. Their true work was just beginning.
Jesus didn’t tell them to stand there with looking up waiting for him to return. There are those in this world that think that is exactly what it means to be a Christian today. They constantly look up to heaven and await the second coming. I constantly pass a church sign that had the phrase “Prepare for heaven in 2011.” I thought it was a nice rhyme and I waited to see what they would do after the new year. Now it reads, “Prepare for heaven in 2012.” Not as great of a tone. But there are people, churches, and even denomination that concentrate on the getting to heaven part of our faith. There is a time and place for that but reading today’s scripture I don’t see it as the focus our faith. How can we think that when some of Jesus’ last words are “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
With those words he doesn’t tell them to stand watch until his return and do nothing. He is telling them that they must go out and preach the Good News to ALL nations. That is a ton of work that is ahead of them. I wonder what they weight of that new reality felt like on their souls as Jesus ascended. Were they worried? Perplexed? Dumbfounded? Gobsmacked? Where they overwhelmed with this responsibility?
We did a passion play one year when I was in youth. I played a Roman soldier and Alycia was one of the Mary’s following Jesus to the cross. At the end of the production the person playing Jesus got into a cherry picker and ascended to the ceiling. At the very end as the music hit the crescendo, a button was pushed and up Jesus went with white cloths covering the cherry picker’s support. It was pretty breathtaking but it was also funny a little bit later. The stage where this performance happened was did not have a curtain because it was the place we worshiped every week. So after about five minutes you heard the cherry picker make some noise and down came Jesus from the ceiling. You remember, whatever goes up, must come down.
In Jesus’ final monologue with the disciples he tells them that he will not leave them stranded. He says, “I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.” He is sending something back down. Something with heavenly power to help them with their job of transforming the world. That something will come next week at the day of Pentecost. The day the Holy Spirit comes down to dwell in this place. The same Holy Spirit that is here right now in our midst. When Jesus goes up the Holy Spirit comes down.
Jesus goes up [point up] and the Holy Spirit is sent down [point down]…but for what? The work that has to be done on this earth is what Jesus had been preparing them for. The work of telling to world about God’s love and the joy that can happen when we follow God. But to whom does that news go to? Remember Jesus tells at the end of Matthew’s gospel when he talks about the least of these in our world; the hungry, the lost, the broken, the blind and…and…well…us. The disciples were to go out to ALL Nations, every single one of them. That is why we are here today because the news traveled half way around the world. It went form the heart of the Middle East to the belt buckle of the Bible Belt in the New World. It came to a place called Thomasville and to the people who made up a church called Trinity. That news, that wonderful news of what God has done in this world and what can happen in your own life if you decided to follow him came here because of what comes down.
Jesus goes up [point up] and the Holy Spirit is sent down [point down] in order that we go out that way [point left] and that way [point right]. Jesus goes up [point up] and the Holy Spirit is sent down [point down] in order that we go out that way [point left] and that way [point right]. [Do the motion again but a little quicker to demonstrate the sign of the cross] This is our purpose as a church and as followers of Jesus Christ. It is the blessing that has been laid upon our shoulders and one we need to carry.
Luke doesn’t end the story right there though. He goes on a little further and adds verses 52 and 53. He could have ended with Jesus ascending up but he ends volume 1 of his story by saying these words, “They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. And they were continuously in the temple praising God.” They heard their task. They felt God’s blessing on their lives and they were filled with the need to worship and were overwhelmed with joy.
When is the last time you were overwhelmed with joy by the grace of God? When is the last time you felt the Holy Spirit knock you over that all you could do was smile. Last Sunday as we welcomed in six confirmands and I had the privilege of baptizing two of them and then they helped distribute the communion elements…I don’t know about you but that was pretty powerful. Maybe for you it was during a time of prayer, a time of reflection or a time of personal devotion. Maybe you were moved by a random act of kindness or when you helped someone in need.
Another moment when I was struck by God’s grace was at this year’s cross walk. This is an annual event on Good Friday here in Thomasville when people walk from Memorial UMC through downtown and to Brown New Calvary Baptist off of Doak Street. During this walk people have the chance to carry the cross just as Jesus did. I was moved this year because of a lady in a wheel chair. I thought is was great for her to go on this walk with us but then when I saw this I was deeply moved. [picture] Here you can see her carrying the cross. In the midst of her brokenness she connected with Jesus who was deeply broken when he carried the cross. This is a moment I will remember always because look how powerful of an image. It didn’t feel me with dread or worry. It filled me with overwhelming joy, great joy.
It is moments like that which enable us to go out and serve God like we should. It is the blessings that we receive when we are doing God’s work that enable us keep going. It is when we are actively doing God’s work, teaching children in Sunday School, leading Youth on a retreat or mission trip, leading an adult Sunday School class or small group, or going out and helping the least of these in this world that we are knocked over by God’s spirit and filled with overwhelming joy. It is this joy that drives us back to this place of worship to celebrate those moments and continue to be fed by the God we worship and serve.
Today we recognize and remember the blessing in which Jesus gave the disciples as he ascended to heaven. It is the blessing of the one to come who will give us what we need to transform the world. Jesus goes up [point up] and the Holy Spirit is sent down [point down] in order that we go out that way [point left] and that way [point right].
And all God’s people said.