by Timothy Weisman
God is gone up! God is gone up! God is gone up with a triumphant shout -- with sounding trumpets' melodies! Edward Taylor composed these words based on Psalm 47 and Gerald Finzi famously set them to music.
Sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises OUT -- unto our God sing praise like the seraphim! And according to today’s Gospel for the Ascension, the disciples did “sing praise” from Bethany all the way back to Jerusalem, continually blessing, praising, and exalting the Son of God who returned to his Father in heaven by rising -- by ascending --
But also by leaving them -- in Jerusalem -- amidst civil unrest and, if not religious persecution, at least ritual intolerance -- and, if nothing else, a healthy dose of uncertainty about what exactly happened some 40 days prior in that emptied tomb.
“What are we supposed to do now?” “And what are we supposed to say about it?”
In his meditation, Edward Taylor offers the dominant image of the Ascension, complete with trumpets, angels, and various cosmological improbabilities. But in Luke 24, the evangelist leaves quite a lot to the imagination: Jesus very simply withdrew from them -- more like backed off or backed away -- and was carried up into heaven without any trumpets, angels, or heavenly gates. He simply backed away -- was carried up to heaven -- Jesus seeming to leave his disciples to their own devices.
While we have Edward Taylor’s interpretation in our imaginations, we have Luke’s account before us -- and I for one would have to wonder why the disciples kept so much joy at the end of this pericope. “Sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises out, unto God King sing praise -- like the seraphim!” But really?
Jesus’s disciples had many reasons to return to a rather joyless state of mind, for it was only 40 days -- and a few weeks of lectionary readings earlier -- that the disciples had locked the doors of the home in which they met -- simply out of fear.
Why hasn’t their joy turned back to fear? I can’t imagine Peter was all that excited about this --
he’s the one that tried to build Jesus a tabernacle just to keep him around after the Transfiguration!
I often have to remind myself that this one chapter of Luke -- that is, Luke 24 -- represents about 40 days and 40 nights worth of time from resurrection to ascension.
I might remind us of some of the familiar “40s” in the biblical narrative:
40 days and 40 nights of the Great Flood;
40 days and 40 nights Moses spent on the mountaintop;
40 days and 40 nights of Jesus tempted in the wilderness.
40 days and 40 nights I have waited for a call since receiving my regional assignment—
oh wait, I guess that’s not in the Bible.
Whether we’re talking about time in the water, the wilderness, the mountaintop;
time under the microscope of candidacy committees, field education committees, regional coordinators, bishops, and call committees,
time with doctors and pathologists;
time with yearly employee evaluations or tenure review panels,
or time at the local unemployment agency wondering if the funding is going to run out—
these 40-day periods are ones in which individuals develop -- and discern -- and, quite frankly --WAIT -- until it seems like they just can’t take it anymore.
When I first began to write the sermon I preach here today, I remember that I was counting down the 40 days -- not even kidding -- from the beginning of January to February 23 -- regional assignment day.
And when February 23 came, and I received my assignment, I was so excited. I knew where I was going to go! However, the next day, I wasn’t so excited anymore: I now had to wait over two weeks for my synodical assignment. Doubts crept in. Anxieties, once more. I realized that I really didn’t know where I was going. To borrow Dr. Satterlee’s maxim: “All you end up finding out is where you’re NOT going.” And that proved to be true -- and I was a lot less excited.
But then March 13 came around -- and I learned my synodical assignment! Once again, I was so excited, so thankful, so grateful for this opportunity to meet bishops and assistants and my future colleagues. But here I am, one month later -- it didn’t even take me 40 days this time -- and fear and uncertainty have crept back into my life. I know my synod -- but where am I really going?
Where are any of us really going? Is the Holy Spirit really guiding us?
Oh, these periods of 40 days. They may start off all well and good—optimistic – confident -- if we’re lucky -- but by the end of them, everyone’s had just about all they can take. Just ask Noah, Moses, Jesus, any one of the disciples -- or your neighbor.
The Ascension comes at the end of another period of 40 days.
Even after the joy of the resurrection at Easter, doubts and fears returned -- and right before we pick up Luke’s Ascension narrative, Luke tells us “they were [again] startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”
They had been WITH JESUS this entire time -- and doubts STILL arose in their hearts! He was right there! But at the Ascension, something incredible happens. Something new. I don't think it was the seraphic fireworks of the Ascension event—fireworks which are more of our creation than God's. I don’t think it was some miraculous change of heart in which they finally talk themselves into believing in something. No, this was NOT their doing -- but God’s.
Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scripture,” according to the text. It’s a small little phrase -- with big consequences. Jesus didn’t just give them a little insight -- he opened their minds fully, stretched wide -- open.
As all of this was happening, at the climax of 40 days, at the climax of new doubts and new fears, something incredibly new happened, the Ascension of Jesus, preceded by the revelation of Jesus the Word -- and the disciples never said a word -- perhaps because they never got a chance -- perhaps they didn't know what on Earth to say about an apparent cosmological improbability -- perhaps for even another reason.
For once in Luke’s Gospel, I think the disciples remained silent because something incredibly new -- something only possible by the unexpected grace of God -- really did happen:
I think the disciples actually believed Jesus.
Here at the very end of the Gospel account -- the final pericope in this whole sweep of known as Luke -- after so much quibbling, anxiety, and doubt -- now, faith.
And the only possible response to this new faith offered to the disciples by Jesus was not more words, which would only lead to more questions, which would only lead to more doubts -- No, the only possible response was praise. Praise of Almighty God.
So yes. “Sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises out, unto God sing praise—like the seraphim!” God is gone up.
Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, it’s only a matter of time.
Seriously, the disciples will enter another period of 40 days, and their songs of praise will quiet once again. Or perhaps you’re muttering under your breath to me that MY 40 days will come again as well—for in a few weeks, I’ll probably get a phone call, with hopes for a first call interview, and I’ll get all excited again, and then doubts and fears will return, in some form or another.
Am I truly ready for this?
Will God work through me?
Will this job work out?
Will the doctor have good news?
Will our elected officials come through for us?
“Nothing has changed” -- “nothing WILL change” -- you might be saying to yourself -- If the empty tomb didn’t do it for the disciples -- or for me -- the Ascension surely won’t do it either --
just give it another 40 days -- and we’ll all be back to our usual skepticism of God’s will for our lives. But Jesus not only opened the disciples’ minds to the Scriptures that day -- he also made them a promise:
“See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised” -- the Advocate -- the Holy Spirit -- “so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” And the Spirit promised to the disciples is that same Spirit promised to us -- that same Spirit which dwells within us—that same Spirit which (whisper) creates faith in us.
At the Ascension, as Jesus went away from the disciples, the promise was sealed. Pentecost would come. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine fears and doubts in the Easter season. This is THE great season of the Church year -- We’re supposed to be all happy, right? Lent was one thing --but Easter is another?!
But it doesn’t work that way. Even in the Easter season, tragedy – brokenness -- failed relationships -- Easter people still approaching the boundary line of despair.
The Ascension is a moment to recognize that even in the midst of the Easter season, we might be back where we started -- still feeling like we’re out there in the wilderness -- tempted as much as we ever have been -- turning in toward ourselves, succumbing to our doubts and fears once again.
But the Ascension is also a moment to recognize that in the midst of these doubts, God is revealing Jesus the Word to us -- God is working to open our minds to the Scriptures, through the Holy Spirit and the means of grace -- and the Triune God is creating faith in us. Faith to face these fears -- faith to counter these anxieties.
Through his own death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has redeemed us from the power of sin, renewing our relationship with God the Creator -- that is the Easter message. Jesus ascended into heaven and took his place at the right hand of God -- that is the Ascension message.
From the right hand of God, Jesus Christ intercedes for us through the work of the Holy Spirit, speeding grace throughout the cosmos. From the right hand of God, Jesus Christ offers his body and blood to all nations in one Holy Communion -- so that we can all taste and see the goodness of the Lord. From the right hand of God, Jesus Christ calls and enables our service in his name. And all this, my friends, is Good News.
Celebrate the Ascension -- not just a description of Jesus lifted toward the heavens -- but the entirety of the event! -- that Jesus opened the disciples’ mind to the scriptures, that Jesus promised the Spirit, and that, in their faith, the disciples sang their praise!
Sing your praise!
Take this time for worshipping God, knowing that the Spirit has come and will come again at Pentecost—knowing that Jesus has come and will come again, bringing about the new heaven and the new earth. And then in that space carved out with praise, in that space ripe for faith and trust, the Spirit of God will take root, entering into our lives in a renewed Pentecost.
For God is gone up with a triumphant shout -- with sounding Trumpets' melodies!
And now, with our voices and our whole beings, let us sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises OUT -- unto our God let us sing praise -- Amen!