Taken Up: Sermon by Laura, Sunday 5.16.10, Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23

This Sunday, we will name and honor young people who are graduating from high school. Giving thanks to God for their accomplishments, we will bless them in their future endeavors. I hope, in the “pomp and circumstance” of caps and gowns, the receiving of diplomas, and the celebratory parties afterwards, our graduates and their families experience the joy of accomplishment. But happens after the celebrations are over? Some have plans: family vacations, going to college, starting jobs, even getting married. To move toward these plans, each one must also close a door on a period of life. The experience of letting go of high school reality can be bitter-sweet. Friends may move away or become preoccupied with new tasks. Graduates everywhere must ask themselves, what now will I do and be? It is a transition, an in-between place, when many things which were clear-cut have become uncertain, where the influence of the old dream lingers, and the new dream has yet to unfold.

Human life is a series of transitions. Some of them we view as “happy” ones: Graduation, new jobs, weddings, and new babies. Others are more mixed: moving from one home to another, waking up to a “nest” emptied of grown children, going into retirement.  Still others we might face with dread: the loss of a job, the passing of a loved one, the approach of our own death. In all of these transitions, we must leave one part of our lives behind to begin something new. And in all of these transitions, we often feel as if our lives have gone “up in the air.”

“Up in the air.” At the end of the recent movie by that title, you can hear a song a song written and performed by Kevin Renick. He was unemployed when he wrote it, and it depicts well what it feels like to be “up in the air.” Here are a few verses:

“I’m up in the air,
Choices drifting by me everywhere
And I can’t find the one
That would help me do the work I’ve left undone,
‘Cause I’m up in the air.

I’m making some plans,
Finding out there’s always new demands.
And I can’t be precise
When people ask me what I’m doing with my life.
I say, “It’s up in the air.”

I’m thinking of my past,
The comfort in my home that couldn’t last.
Now my family tells me work for your success
And they want to see me find some happiness.
But I”m not sure where that is
‘Cause I’m up in the air.”[1]

When our lives are “up in the air,” our faith may also feel like less of a comfortable, happy home than it has been in the past.  It may feel as if God has left us hanging out in this uncomfortable place. We may be wondering, where has God gone, and what will I do now?

This morning, in our scripture from Acts, we find ourselves in a transition space. We find ourselves with a group of people at a moment when everything they have dreamed and worked for seems to be going, rather literally, “up in the air.” On the one hand, it is a pinnacle moment. The disciples are privileged to witness a miracle, the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry, as he is glorified and taken up into heaven, where he will be, as the Apostle’s Creed says, “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” On the other hand, Jesus is the one to whom they have tied all of their future hopes. As he seems to be leaving them behind, hidden from their view in the cloudlike divine presence, they’ve got to be wondering, “What now?”

Like all pinnacle points, this moment casts in sharp relief what came before and what comes after. First, we take a quick look at what came before. It includes all that Jesus “began to do and teach,” his life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all his acts of healing and his controversial teachings. It also includes the forty days after his “suffering” in which he appeared, shared meals, and instructed the disciples. But what will come after? In the moment of the Ascension, it seems as if everything has ended. It’s hard to imagine anything else might be possible. At first we have only hints and promises that there might be something more.

All transitions involve a period of waiting, and Jesus has commanded them to stay in Jerusalem to wait upon the gift promised by God—the baptism of the Holy Spirit. So they wait, but they are not very patient! On the final day of Jesus’ earthly presence with them, the disciples cannot hold back. They ask a question, burning with the urgency of long anticipation, not only theirs, but that of generations of ancestors. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus’ answer at first disappoints and frustrates them. “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” The truth is, they are asking the wrong question. We often spend the early days of transition wishing for the old days to return. And they are stuck in the old dream, fantasizing being servants to a Messiah who will restore Israel’s political independence. But as grand as that dream seems, God has something grander in mind. 

“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority…but” Jesus says, using a little word one preacher notes is one of the “biggest little word in the Bible!”[2] In that one word, Jesus begins to shift their focus, from their old, too-small fantasies to God’s surprising and larger-than-life vision. “But…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It is hard for them to imagine, but we know now that in the coming of the Holy Spirit, these humble men and women will receive a power greater than the political might any nation has ever mustered. As the writer of Ephesians notes, they will receive the “glorious inheritance” of the power by which Jesus was raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand as Lord of all creation.

Transformed by that power, they will take on a role more exalted and more exhilarating than any disciple of an earthly teacher or any servant of an earthly Lord. It is a role which will stretch them beyond their current capacities, which will call out all of their skills and talents, which will challenge them to go further and endure more than they dreamed possible. They will be Christ’s witnesses, Christ’s apostles, sent out to Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, sent to lands they didn’t know existed, sent even to the ends of the earth. It is an astonishing promise, and it is more than just a promise. It is even now coming true.  

With the disciples’ focus trained in the right direction, it is time for the moment of Ascension. What those people saw must have been nigh indescribable. The author of Acts doesn’t overanalyze it, simply saying, “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”

If, in the moment, the disciples initially felt “up in the air,” later on they recognize the Ascension as the pivotal moment when the promises God has made in Jesus Christ begin to be realized. The transformation of their lives has begun. It may take a little while for them to experience it in their daily reality. But “as the eyes of their hearts” are “enlightened,” they will recognize that their lives are not “up in the air,” but have instead been “taken up” into God’s glory with Jesus. Taken up into the limitless power and presence of God, taken up into a new reality and a new role which has already begun and will continue to transform…Everything! Everyone! In all times and all places! A new chapter of God’s story is just beginning.

Our story, too, begins again right here. Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging in mid-air when he is glorified. As our fully human Savior takes all of humanity up into the very heart of God, we know that, no matter what transition we are going through, we also have a glorious future. [3] As those who are “taken up” with Jesus, no matter what happens to us in our lives, nothing can ever keep us “down.”[4]  However powerless or limited we might feel in our current circumstances, as we trust in Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit, we will be empowered to confront every new challenge we face. Most amazingly of all, “taken up” with Jesus, we find that we have graduated from student-hood to become partners in the ministry the eternal kingdom of God.

How are we to live out this partnership? Though we have been “taken up” with Jesus, the answer is pretty down to earth. We are to become witnesses. We are to be fully present in this world. We are to pay attention to the events of our lives, eyes and ears wide open. Watching and listening, aware of and waiting on God’s promises, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are to recognize and declare, in our words and deeds, the wondrous things God is doing, even here, even now. It may sound simple, but do not forget, the word for “witness” in Greek is martyr.

It takes courage to be a witness, to speak and live out of the transforming truth of salvation in Jesus Christ. And it takes time to graduate into the fullness of our vocation. But by the grace of God, we are in transition, because we are in transformation, coming ever closer to that day when Jesus comes again, filling all in all with the fullness of his glory. Together let us pray: Come, Lord Jesus!

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

[1] Lyrics found on  http://www.wikio.com/article/air-entire-soundtrack-lyrics-movie-clooney-156398689

[2] Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad, http://day1.org/937-footprints_on_the_earth

[3] John McClure, http://www.pcusa.org/today/believe/past/may02/ascension.htm

[4] Rev. James B. Lemler,  http://day1.org/1092-you_cant_keep_a_good_man_down

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