Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Most people enjoy inspirational stories of first steps and fresh beginnings. How many of us waited into the night for the Apollo 11 lunar landing and Neil Armstrong’s crackly announcement, “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind?” Or perhaps you were challenged by the words of artist Vincent Van Gogh, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” Of course, there are the less positive statements of footprints as well. “Preachers’ kids” it is said, “usually go one way or the other. Way wild- or reluctantly in their father’s footsteps.” And it all begins with first steps.
When a child is born you discover that, “There is no foot too small to leave an imprint on the world.” Or perhaps more sentimentally, “The first steps your baby takes are into your heart.” Even the beloved Dr. Seuss seems to know something first steps and footprints. “You have brains in your head, You have feet in your shoes, You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
It is not just a baby’s feet, however, that capture our imagination. Shortly after Jesus’ ascension, his followers began gathering in a small cave on the Mount of Olives to commemorate his life and teaching. Interestingly, they gathered on the very hillside where he took his last steps. In the 4th century, St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine visited the Holy Lands and during her pilgrimage she was led to the historical places tied to Jesus’ life and death. She visited Bethlehem, Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives, and on a place not far from the ancient cave where the early Christians worshipped, she was ushered to a legendary stone with a foot print on it, which was reported to her, to mark the very place of Jesus’ ascension. St. Helena ordered that a church be built upon the site, just as she had ordered a church to be built in Bethlehem to commemorate the place of Jesus’ birth and in Jerusalem the place of his death and resurrection. The church on the Mount of Olives, however, was unique. There was no roof atop the church. It was a rotunda, open to the sky, surrounded by circular porticos and arches- and at the very center was the stone bearing Jesus’ footprint. After the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 during the Crusades to the Muslim leader Saladin, the Church of the Ascension was abandoned, and yet, since Muslims too believe in Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the church was converted to a mosque and a roof was placed over the rock bearing Christ’s footprint.
Now you may be wondering, so why was that stone footprint on the Mount of Olives so important to the early church? After all the celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven often goes unnoticed in our modern world. Certainly, it is confessed in the Apostles’ Creed. But it’s always on a Thursday, and for much of the world, it’s always a work day. St. Luke alone seems to be enchanted by the story of Christ’s ascension. So enchanted, in fact, that he describes the ascension twice. First, in the closing chapter of the gospel of St. Luke, and then again in the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. In the latter, he even adds a few details that he overlooked in the former gospel telling. There are the descending angels who greet Jesus on his homeward journey, and then ask his disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
It’s an important message. There are many people today, who gaze off into heaven, expecting to catch a glimpse of Jesus, hoping for some perfect miracle in their life. But my friends, the story of Christ’ ascension reminds us that that is not where we will find him. Instead, we are told that Jesus’ footprints will be found in new and wondrous earthly places. He is going to be found among the poor- and the rich- the comforted- and those who are seeking.
That one lone footprint reminded the early church that there was work to be done to which they had been entrusted. And often the work would need to be done on the Thursday’s of life. Witnessing to the hope and faith in Jesus would be hard work, but the stone reminded them that they could do it if they moved forward one step at a time. As the motivational speaker Tony Robbins suggests, “Setting goals is the first step to making the invisible, visible.” And on that path, we experience what the apostles experienced- joy.
That is, of course, the surprise we all discover on Ascension Day. After all, we wonder: How could the disciples be so happy? How could they have developed such a lilt in their step? 40 days earlier on Easter morning, they were empty and anxious at the sad farewell they had spoken to their master. They were overwhelmed by grief and despair. But now 40 days later, they could say farewell and indeed, celebrate their master’s homeward journey with wonder and delight. How you might ask? They had grown to understand that Jesus would still be with them, though they would no longer see him. But that one day they would see him again face to face.
My friends, that is your assurance as well. In the moments when it is seems that God is in his heaven and unaware of you and your cries, be assured that the ascended Lord is with you and his footprints are ever near. He hears your prayer. Even when it seems that everyone has abandoned you, and you are battling the world alone. Yes, the loving hands and feet of Jesus with their nail-prints, still stand outside the gate and knock at the door of your heart. Those same pierced hands, with the deep marks of love, beckon you to enter into his joy here and now.
The great 19th century English evangelist Charles Haddon Spurgeon once preached a sermon on an allegorical walk on the seashore with God. This in turn inspired the familiar story “Footprints in the Sand.”
One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord, “You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?” The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”
But there was something else the early Christians knew. Jesus’ footprint on the Mount of Olives gave them the assurance that they could venture into the world with a new sense of direction unafraid. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole stair case.” That is true for all of us our Christian journey as well. It all begins, one step, one footprint after another following Jesus. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.