If we look at the Ascension story through the lens of a modern understanding of how the cosmos operates, it sounds utterly ridiculous. Luke says that Jesus “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” He repeats this description in Acts 1, saying, “Jesus was lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight.” Then two angels appeared and told the disciples “Jesus, who has been taken from you—This same Jesus will return, in the same way you watched him go into heaven.” Mark, who was one of the sources for Luke’s gospel, says that Jesus “was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” [Mk 16:19]
I know! It sounds utterly ridiculous! In a universe that is infinite and expanding, where quarks and atoms come together to form the building blocks of life. Somehow, Jesus riding in a cloud elevator up to heaven in order to sit in a rocking chair next to God just doesn’t cut it! It sounds utterly ridiculous.
The flaw in analyzing the story this way is that we’re asking the wrong question. We are asking if the story is historically true. We are looking at what I call the “little t,” the factual, “did it happen exactly as it’s described,” kind of truth. If this is all we’re bringing to the Ascension story, we’re going to be profoundly disappointed.
We are left with a world that consists of a flat earth, with a sky dome whose top touches heaven. We are left with Jesus who rides a cloud elevator to the top of the dome, just like Jacob’s angels climb a ladder to and from the same destination. So instead of asking if the Ascension story is true, with a “little t,” we need to ask if it’s true with a “big T.”
In other words, what over-arching Truth does the story contain? What wisdom, lesson, or point is it trying to convey to us? What is the gospel writer telling us about Jesus that we need to know? So, let’s not try exhaust ourselves trying to figure out the “little t” of the Ascension story. Instead, let’s look at the “big T” it contains. Amen?
At the beginning of this week, I read the Ascension story to myself multiple times. I let it percolate and simmer in my brain. The phrase I kept returning to, again and again, is “Stay here (wait) until you have been clothed with power from on high.” It appears in some form in both our gospel and first lesson. After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and before the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the disciples on Pentecost, there is a period of waiting.
I don’t know how you feel about waiting but I absolutely HATE it. I get impatient when I get behind slow drivers in the left hand lane on I-240. I feel the tension rising up within me when I’m in a long line at the grocery store. I loose my mind when my flight at the airport is delayed again, and again, and again. Perhaps you can relate! Waiting is not exactly my strong suit. It may not be your strong suit either! Waiting drives my heart crazy. But my head knows it’s a part of the human experience.
Unfortunately for us, the Bible suggests that there is virtue in waiting. It strengthens our character. It serves a holy purpose in our lives. Dang it! Psalm 40 says, “I waited patiently for the LORD; who inclined to me and heard my cry. God drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog.” Couldn’t the Psalmist wait impatiently? Doesn’t he want God to fix all of his problems RIGHT THIS INSTANT? I know that’s how I operate sometimes! Waiting is hard work. It’s a difficult thing to do.
Turning to the prophet Isaiah, we learn that we ar enot the only ones who wait: “Therefore God waits to be gracious to you; God will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Almighty is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for God.” [Is 30:18] When I hear this verse, I start saying to myself “Why can’t grace, mercy, and justice show up in our lives ALL THE TIME? Why is waiting so important?”
Finally, James 5 provides the best image I could find that gives us a reason why waiting serves a holy purpose in our lives. “Be patient, therefore, beloved, (UGH!) until the coming of the Lord. The farmer WAITS for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” [James 5:7]
O.K. I concede. Waiting is important. We can’t have those juicy summer tomatoes, picked fresh from our garden, until they have time to grow and mature. Am I right Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that there is a time and place for everything.If you look at the list, it’s clear that there is a time for waiting as well.
If we take this wisdom, and apply it to the Ascension story, we learn that not everything can be a mountaintop experience. In fact, the disciples had been on a rollercoaster ride for the past two months. They went from the joys of Palm Sunday, to the horrors of Good Friday; from the wonder of Easter, to the fear of persecution that led them to hide behind locked doors; from the exhilaration of encountering the risen Christ, to that same Christ being taken away from them.
So, when Jesus tells them, “Wait until you have received power from on high,” perhaps he is giving them space to breathe, to slow down the pace of their hectic lives. Perhaps he is giving them permission to go fish on Lake Galilee, or spend an evening with their friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Perhaps he is suggesting that a power nap would be appropriate and restorative. And if this is the purpose of waiting, I get it! The disciples had been on a rollercoaster ride for the past two months. The highs were exhilarating and the lows were absolutely devastating.
I know we’ve all experienced a similar rollercoaster ride at some point in our lives. As you know all too well, I’ve been on one this past year with every member of my immediate family experiencing some kind of crisis as well as creating wonderful memories together. Perhaps, the Ascension story is there to remind us that waiting is holy, whether we do it patiently or impatiently. Waiting is a gift that helps us to get through the valleys of life until we reach the mountaintops, once again.
Another lesson about waiting the Ascension story teaches us, which is hard for us to hear, is that waiting may last a long time. In fact, in our first lesson, Luke says there were 40 days between Easter and Ascension. This is a theological number instead of a chronological number. It appears all over the Bible. After Noah entered the ark, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. In Exodus, Moses goes to the mountaintop to meet God, but it is 40 days until he receives the 10 Commandments. The Israelites, who experienced the elation of being freed from slavery, wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, until they reached the promised land. After his baptism, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days.
The number 40 tells us that mountaintop experiences don’t happen every day of our lives. There will also be times of heartache and tragedy, as well at times of waiting where NOTHING SEEMS TO BE HAPPENING AT ALL. During the dark valleys, as well as the times waiting, the Bible tells us to have faith in God; to trust that God is at work in our lives and in our world, even when we can’t see it happening.
Psalm 37 reminds us, “Be still before God, and wait patiently; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.” [Ps 37:7] Proverbs 20 says, “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for God, and God will help you.” [Pr 20:22] In our times of waiting, in our times away for the mountaintop experiences of life, we are called to trust that God is with us.
We see this happening in the Ascension story. The disciples are told to wait because Jesus knew they would be anxious and worried after he was no longer with them in resurrected form. He also knew that the Holy Spirit was coming, with the rush of a mighty wind and tongues of flame. This Spirit would give them the power they needed to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching the world everything Jesus had taught them. But they weren’t quite ready for this…yet. They could not make the leap directly from the mountaintop of Easter to the mountaintop of Pentecost. So Jesus told them to wait. And wait they did.
If we can learn one last lesson from the Ascension story it is that waiting is not passive, it’s active. Luke tells us that during this time of waiting, The disciple “returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple praising God.” In our times of waiting, in our times when we are in a holding pattern until we receive power from on high, our job description is to praise God.
I understand this to mean we are given the task of reminding ourselves, and each other, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. [Rm 8:39] We are called to testify that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. [Ex 34:6] We are challenged to hold fast to the truth that weeping may last for a night (or 40 days), but joy comes in the morning! [Ps 30:5]
Waiting does not mean doing nothing. In fact, the exact opposite it true. Waiting provides us with an opportunity to catch our breath, to rearrange our priorities, to recharge our batteries, and be ready to move when God gives us the green light. My dear Friends in Christ, don’t get bogged down in the science of the Ascension story. Instead, think about the overarching “Big T” Truth it contains. There are valuable lessons we can learn about the role waiting plays in the lives of those who follow Jesus. So whether we wait patiently, or impatiently, may we never forget that God waits with us. God is also working behind the scenes to prepare us for what’s coming next. AMEN.
Copyright ©2017, David Eck