The Ascension of Jesus shows us that sometimes we need to pivot and shift our focus. Sometimes we need a little nudge because we’re looking for Jesus in the wrong place.
Text: Acts 1:6-14
There they are, standing with their mouths gaping open, gazing up at heaven where Jesus has ascended.
And then *snap* — the moment is gone. Two men in white call them out of their heavenly stupor.
It’s almost a comical moment. You can imagine the heavens opening up, the sun beams glistening through the clouds as Jesus rises into the sky. The heavenly chorus breaks into ethereal singing. The disciples are enraptured.
But then it all stops like a needle dragged across the record.
“Okay, show’s over. Snap out of it!” they say. “Jesus is gone. He’ll be back. But in the meantime, you’ve got work to do!”
Sometimes we need to pivot and shift our focus. Sometimes we need a little nudge because we’re looking for Jesus in the wrong place.
The two men are prodding the disciples to move on and move out. They need to move on from this moment of rapturous glory. They need to move out from their inner circle because Jesus is about to send the Holy Spirit to and through them into all the world.
Of course, they have no idea what this means. They have no idea what’s in store for them. We know that Pentecost Sunday is next. We know that the tongues of fire are about to alight upon them and give them the power to speak in all languages and tell about who Jesus is and what he has done.
But all they know on this day of Ascension is that their time with the resurrected Jesus has come to an end.
Yet I think it’s dawning on them that their ministry is just beginning.
They go back to that upper room – the place where they shared their last meal with Jesus. The place where they huddled in fear after the crucifixion. The place where Jesus walked through locked doors and breathed peace upon them. In that room where they will soon receive the Holy Spirit, they are now devoting themselves to prayer.
Their numbers have increased just a little. The women are with them, along with Jesus’s family. They don’t know it yet, but their circle is about get real big, real fast.
Sometimes we need to pivot and shift our focus. Sometimes we need a little nudge so that we can see Jesus in a new way.
I think it’s also dawning on them that what they wanted from Jesus was too small.
They asked him on that mountain of the Ascension, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
See, the apostles wanted political and military power to restore their nation. You can’t fault them for that. They’ve been living under Roman occupation for so long. They yearn for a return to the good ole days when David was king and they had autonomy and power.
What they do not realize is that the world has already changed, and it can never go back to the good ole days. And, frankly, the good ole days in many ways were not all that good. Especially for people who suffered under the old ways.
We, too, long for the good ole days. You can see that in the rush to return to normal for some people after two and a half months of this pandemic. We long for the world we once knew. But we know that the world has already changed, and it can never go back to the good ole days.
I think it’s also dawning on many of us that the good ole days were not all that good.
Especially for people who suffered under the old ways. This pandemic has revealed just how broken our economic system is for the 99%. Just how ill-prepared we were to deal with a national crisis. It has revealed just how unfair life can be for those born into dark-skinned bodies or into certain zip codes. And it has shown us just where the weaknesses are in our democracy that have left us so vulnerable to corruption, ineptitude, and authoritarian rule.
Sometimes we need to pivot and shift our focus.
You would think after so many years, we would have learned the lessons and understand what kind of restructuring is needed. After watching the wildfires burn, the flooding waters rise, and the carcasses of birds dead from consuming so much of our plastic trash, you would think we’d get it. But humans are not always the brightest species on the planet. It sometimes takes a long time before our eyes are opened, our hearts are broken, and our minds are changed. Even then, it takes a long time for new habits to form, for better leaders to arise, for communities to rebuild.
The same was true for those apostles standing on the mountain of the Ascension gaping up at the sky.
You would think after three years of being with Jesus, the apostles would have understood.
After watching the way he healed bodies, and fed crowds of hungry people, and hugged children, and changed lives, they would have gotten it.
You would think that after seeing the way he challenged creaking, crushing institutions of religion, commerce, and government that it would have dawned on them what Jesus was up to. After seeing what it’s like to live in a community where the mighty are brought down and the lowly are lifted up, where there is enough food to go around, and everyone has access to healing, you would think they would understand.
But they are still clinging to the old ways. They want Jesus to bring down the hammer, crack open the heads of their enemies, and establish dominion from on high. But that is not what Jesus is about. So once again, Jesus has to redirect them.
“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 2:7-8)
Jesus is telling them that divine power is not going to come in the way that the world thinks power should come.
His power is not going to come in a top-down, military incursion upon the world. Jesus is not going to lead them into battle. In fact, just the opposite. He’s leaving. Exit stage-up. He’s not hanging around.
Jesus stayed just long enough to let them know that the power of the priests and Caesar was nothing more than that stone in front of his grave on Easter morning – tossed like a pebble to the side.
He showed himself to just enough people so that they would know he is risen, and that the transformative power of God cannot be kept in the grave.
And he gave them just enough instruction to know that they have the power to forgive. They have the power to understand scripture. They have the power to love and feed the sheep and lambs – the vulnerable ones. They have the power to establish the Realm of God, the Beloved Community not from on high but from below and from within. What Jesus has, he has given to them. And given to us.
He wants the apostles—and us—to prepare to receive power from the Holy Spirit.
He wants them—and us—to be his witnesses throughout world. He’s opening their eyes and hearts and minds to think deeper and wider. And he’s doing this with us as well.
Sometimes we need to pivot and shift our focus. Sometimes we need a little nudge because we need to see Jesus in a new way.
Church, as we are in this time of holy waiting in our own “upper rooms,” we have the opportunity to pivot and shift our focus.
We have the chance to ask, what kind of church shall we be, knowing what this passage models for us, and knowing what challenges we are facing?
Yes, we will be dealing with COVID-19 for a long time. We also have an election coming up with extreme political divisiveness. In the midst of that, we know of people who are struggling to make ends meet. People who are lonely and isolated. Folks who are dealing with illness. And just the anxiety and uncertainty of this precarious time.
With all of this in mind, how might we devote ourselves to prayer to prepare for the power of the Holy Spirit? And for witnessing to Jesus “to the ends of the earth”?
This week we’re going to set up times for prayer in the church’s Zoom room. I’ve already signed up to be a prayer partner for three of the slots. I hope some of you will sign up as well.
Who knows, maybe in one of these prayer times, someone will discover that they need to pivot and shift their focus. Maybe somebody needs a little nudge to see Jesus in a new way.
Above all, we can trust that Jesus’s voice is calling us above the tumult telling us that we will receive the power of the Holy Spirit. We will be his witnesses – from the Zoom rooms and “to the ends of the earth.”
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is also the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).