Jesus said, “See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” [Lk 24:49]
Each and every one one of us yearns to feel God’s power working in and through our lives. Each and every one of us desires to be Spirit led; to have a Holy GPS system that will help us navigate the twists and turns of life. Each and every one of us longs to be “clothed with power from on high,” just like those first disciples.
Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of this wonder-working power: an illness we’ve been battling is finally healed. A confusion we’ve had in our minds suddenly becomes crystal clear. A financial crisis we’ve been facing is lessened because of an unexpected check that comes in the mail. A sign we’ve been praying for appears in bright neon colors, leaving no doubt what we need to do next. Each and every one of us longs to be “clothed with power from on high,” just like those first disciples.
But before this power can come to us there is always a time of waiting, and we don’t like waiting! We don’t like the anxious, expectant times between crisis and resolution, between panic and peace, between prayers sent and prayers answered. We want to be “clothed with power from on high” but we want it now, right this instant. No waiting in the check out line. No “please take a number and we’ll get to you when it’s your turn.”
We all want to be “clothed with power from on high.” But until it comes, the waiting can be excruciating. Those of us who have had to endure difficult life circumstances know exactly what I’m talking about! The period of waiting for answers to prayer, for doors to open, and for empowerment to arrive can seem like an eternity.
This brings us to our gospel lesson where the disciples enter into a time of waiting. It marks the beginning of a time of transition in their lives between having the presence of the resurrected Christ with them and receiving the power of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. This story is unique to Luke who tells it twice. The first time is at the end of his gospel. The second time is in the first chapter of Acts where be begins the sequel to his gospel by recapping the ending of the first.
For modern believers the story of Jesus’ Ascension is a strange story indeed. However, I would argue that once we understand what Luke is trying to tell us, the story of Jesus’ Ascension speaks powerfully to those of us who find ourselves in times of waiting and transition. So let’s explore the story in greater detail and see what wisdom is has to offer us.
We begin with verse 49 where Jesus says “See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” After Jesus says this, he leads the disciples from the house where they were staying in Jerusalem out into the hill country of Bethany. Bethany was a village on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about 2 miles east of Jerusalem. When they reach Bethany, Jesus lifts up his hands and blesses his disciples. Then Luke says that “While he was blessing them, Jesus withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” [Lk 24:51]
What this means from a literal perspective, we will never know for sure. We call this the “ascension” but what does that mean? Did Jesus ride a holy elevator or perhaps climbed Jacob’s ladder from the flat earth, up though the sky until he reached the top of the dome and made his way into heaven? This is what first century people would have thought had happened since this is the way they viewed the world: a three tiered universe with the waters of the deep or Sheol below us, a flat earth in the middle, and the dome of heaven above.
But ever since the time of Galileo, we have understood the universe in a very different way. Therefore, this description of Jesus’ ascension seems antiquated at best and a flight of fancy at worst. Was Jesus beamed up by God like James Kirk in Star trek? Or did he float out into space past the known universe to some unknown dimension we call “heaven”? What exactly is Luke trying to tell us as he describes the Ascension of Jesus?
John Shelby Spong thinks that Luke wrapped the story of the prophet Elijah around Jesus in order to say something powerful about what happened to Jesus after his resurrection. The connections between these two tales are rather surprising. It leads me to believe that Bishop Spong is correct. So let me share a portion of Elijah’s story with you and see what you think.
Elijah was the greatest prophet Israel had ever known. 2 Kings 2 tells a story about the prophet that sounds strikingly similar to what is being said about Jesus in our gospel lesson for today. Elijah and his protégé Elisha left the city of Gilgal and went out into the hill country of Bethel. As they journeyed Elijah spoke to Elisha and tried to prepare him for what was about to happen. Two times he said to Elisha “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And Elisha said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” [2 Kings 2:3, 5]
Elijah and Elisha then arrived at the barrier of the Jordan River. In a scene reminiscent of Moses and the Red Sea, Elijah removed his cloak and struck the water with it. The waters parted and the two walked through on dry land. When they had crossed the river, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” [2 Kings 2:9] Elijah responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you,
—It will be granted .” [2 Kings 2:10]
Then there appeared “a chariot of fire and horses of fire” that separated the two of them. Elijah was then transported up to heaven on a whirlwind, a mighty rushing wind, never to be seen again in the Hebrew Scriptures. After Elijah’s ascension, Elisha received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. He returned to the Jordan River and parted the waters just like Elijah did. Elisha then went on to become a mighty prophet to the nation of Israel.
Sound familiar? It should. Jesus and his disciples left the city of Jerusalem and went into the hill country of Bethany. Earlier, Jesus had tried to prepare his disciples for what was about to happen to him. We see this in the gospel of John who picked up Luke’s narrative and ran with it: “I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.” [Jn 7:33-34]
He also told them what to expect after he had departed: “See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” [Lk 24:49] Jesus then ascended into heaven and the chariot of fire and whirlwind from Elijah’s story were carried over into the Pentecost story where the disciples received their power with “the rush of a violent wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire.” [Acts 2:2-3] Then, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples went out into the world spreading the good news of Jesus.
Are these connections a coincidence? Hardly! I believe Luke wrapped the story of Elijah around Jesus because he was trying to say something powerful about the Jesus that the church experienced after he left his earthly form and ascended into the spiritual realm. Elisha received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit after Elijah ascended into heaven. The disciples received the power of the Holy Spirit after Jesus ascended into heaven: A power that is a thousand times greater than that received by Elisha; a power that was poured out on many, not just one; a power that continues to be felt and experienced by followers of Jesus to this very day.
Friends in Christ, the Ascension of Jesus is an important story in the life of the Church. It is not old and antiquated. It speaks of a Jesus who had to transcend the boundaries of his physical form in order that we would receive “power from on high.” The ascension of Jesus is that moment of his entry into a new realm in which he would bring his purpose to a new fulfillment. He ascended beyond the limitations of his physical body, and made his Spirit power available to all who call on his name. This is what Luke was trying to tell us by the way he wrote the ascension story. Those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see recognize that this is good news, indeed!
So what do we learn from today’s gospel lesson? I hope it is the good news that the power of the Holy Spirit is available to all of us to guide, to heal, to encourage, and to strengthen. However, we do not always receive this power instantaneously. Sometimes we have to endure the whirlwinds and fires of life before we receive a double portion of God’s Spirit. Sometimes we have to wait until we are “clothed with power from on high” just like those first disciples.
It’s not easy to wait but we are sometimes called to wait nonetheless, knowing that Jesus will help us to rise above all our trials and temptations. So wait patiently, pray expectantly. Trust that the Ascended Christ will fill us richly with the power of the Holy Spirit so we may rise above whatever challenges or roadblocks we are currently facing. AMEN
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck