“What to Preach on Ascension Day?”
Ascension Day is tomorrow! What to say?
I like to break mysteries down into who, what, when, and why, not always in that order.
The “what” of the Ascension is Jesus’ bodily rising into heaven and being welcomed by God and seated at God’s right hand. In thinking about precedent in the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Elijah comes to mind. See 2 Kings 2:8 for a dramatic exit worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, involving chariots of fire, horses of fire and a whirlwind. The other tradition that comes to mind is the intertestamental tradition reflected in 1 Enoch 42:2 that the Wisdom of God, having been rejected by the inhabitants of earth, retreats to heaven.
There are accounts of (or references to) Jesus’ Ascension in the traditional ending of Mark (16:19-20), Luke 24:50-51, John 20:17, and Acts 1:6-11. There is no mention of it in Matthew. In Acts Jesus promises the disciples that the power of the Paraclete(Holy Spirit) will come upon them and commissions them to witness to the good news to the ends of the earth.
The “where” of the Ascension. Luke says Bethany. Acts says the Mount of Olives.
The when of the Ascension: In Luke it happens on Easter Sunday evening. In Acts it is 40 days after the Resurrection. Since Luke and Acts were written by the same person, this is odd. Maybe when Luke and Acts were broken into two, somebody tinkered with Luke? The number 40 reminds us of the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness and the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert.
And that brings me to a story. When I was a little girl, maybe 4, my parents took me to church every week at at Baughman Memorial Methodist Church (we weren’t “United Methodists” yet) in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, a little town on the Susquehanna River in Central Pennsylvania. It was a dark paneled church, built in the early twentieth century. On the back wall was a huge, 2 pane stained glass window. The left hand pane pictured Jesus kneeling in the Garden Gethsemane, his face anguished, a red blood-tear on his cheek. On sunny Sunday mornings, the sun would turn that tear into a glittering ruby. The right hand pane pictured Jesus ascending, his face serene and radiant, his hands at his sides, a faint, pinsized dot on each outstretched palm, his feet off the ground as he rose. Many questions ran through my four year old mind, among them “Who cries red tears?” and “Why isn’t he wearing shoes?”
Finally one day I was able to put my confusion into words, “Why won’t that happy man help that sad man?”
She answered me as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and maybe it is to everyone but me, but I don’t think so. She said, “They are the same man.”
I think that just might preach on Ascension Day.