Opening The Old Testament
Speculators or Witnesses? Reflections on Ascension Sunday
And so it is with the event of the ascension of Jesus. As the Messiah floats above them, ready to be drawn upward into a cloud on the way to heaven, he warns the assembled apostles not to leave Jerusalem, the center of all divine activity for Luke, but await the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which will follow, as promised, John's earlier baptism by water. To their question about the possibility that at last the "kingdom of Israel" is about to be restored, Jesus retorts tartly, "The times and the seasons that the father has reserved to his own authority are not yours to know" (Acts 1:7). Even after the resurrection it is apparent that the earliest followers of the faith are in danger of asking the wrong questions! God has God's own time for restorations, says Jesus. We have other work to do, as will now be made clear.
Jesus then gives them, and us, our marching orders. "You will receive a power from the Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). And Luke follows that general geographical outline as he tells his series of dramatic tales, beginning with the Spirit's fall in Jerusalem (Acts 2) and ending with Paul's open preaching in Rome (Acts 28), the "end of the earth" of the Roman world in which Luke lives.
But do they, or we, head off to fulfill the command? Hardly! We are too enamored of the ascending Jesus, our necks strained as we peer upward, hoping for a further sign, for a magic act, for a cloud spelling out "I love you." Suddenly, two men "stood near them." Just as in the gospel where two men attempt to explain to the women who are looking for Jesus' dead body that they are looking in the wrong place, since living beings are not to be found in graveyards, so now two men tell the stiff-necked (in more ways than one!) apostles that their eyes are not looking in the right place. "Why do you stand looking into heaven?" Did you not pay attention to him just a few moments ago? He said, 'Go,' and you are rooted on this spot, looking longingly for some further word from him. He will come back in the same way that he went, but you need ask no further questions about when, they imply. "When" is simply not the right question to ask.
Why in heaven's name (I mean that quite literally!) do so many Christians then spend vast amounts of time, inordinate amounts of energy, immoderate amounts of speculation, asking precisely that very question? We have been asked to be "his witnesses" to the world, not his calculators for his return. It remains a thorough mystery to me why this is so, and has been so throughout Christian history.
But I suppose I do know the answer. It is far safer, far less demanding, to be a speculator than a witness. Speculators write books of calculations, hold seminars that attract thousands, rake in untold piles of loot, while prognosticating a certain time for Jesus' return. Witnesses, on the other hand, just witness to the truth of the gospel: the truth of justice for the whole world, the love of enemies, and the care for the marginalized and outcast. As Acts 1 makes so clear, the world needs far fewer speculators and far more witnesses.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.