Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Little Ole was walking home in the rain with his mother one Sunday. It finally stopped raining as they rounded the corner to their house where to their surprise appeared a vivid double rainbow in the sky. “Oh, my goodness,” the mother exclaimed. “Don’t that look just like a real artist painted that rainbow? Ole, I bet God painted this just for you!” “Ya, mama,” Ole replied. “And to think, God painted it all left-handed.” Confused, his mother asked him, “Ole, what makes you say God did this with his left hand?” “Well,” said Ole, “we learned in Sunday School today that Jesus sits on God’s right hand.”
If you were to list the important Christian holidays, you would no doubt begin with Christmas or Easter. At Christmas, we’re reminded of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ to dwell with us, while at Easter we remember Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection for our salvation. Some of you might add next Sunday’s celebration of Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the list of important days. Together, these holidays represent our past, present, and future. I imagine very few here would count Ascension Day as an important Christian holiday. But perhaps we should.
The early church fathers certainly believed that Ascension Day was important. They believed that it was so pivotal that they included it in the confessions of the church and celebrated each year as a part of the Easter season. Even today, it is commemorated as a national holiday in many Europe countries. And yet, for most of the world, it has disappeared from the calendar all together. It is an unusual day. Perhaps, more surprising, is that we read that when Jesus was taken from the disciples sight, that they weren’t sad at all. Instead, they worshiped him and they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, continually blessing God in the Temple. Obviously, there is something about this day which we have overlooked. Farewells are supposed to be sad occasions, aren’t they? My friends, Jesus’ ascension to heaven offers something new and that is what I would like to share with you this morning. Christ’s ascension is all about joyous farewells and new horizons.
For the disciples gazing upward on the wind swept hills of Bethany, Jesus’ ascension was a glorious wonder proclaiming his final victory. Everything was now complete. Jesu was crowned and enthroned in heaven and his earthly work of salvation was truly finished. There was nothing more that Jesus could or needed to do to make them sons of God. Practically speaking, the ascension should remind us as that if there’s nothing more for Christ to do, then there’s nothing more for us to do either. Our salvation with God is secure.
Unfortunately, Ole was still convinced that he had to do something, so he decided to learn Hebrew. When his curious friend Sven asked him why, Ole answered, “When I get to heaven, I want to speak to God in his own language.” To which Sven responded smugly, “Ya, well, what if you go the other direction?” Ole answered, “Well, I already know Norwegian.”
For the early Christian church, Jesus’ ascension was also filled with profound good news if the resurrection as well. Jesus didn’t simply return to heaven in spirit, but his disciples witnessed him returning in a physical, bodily form. That would be their ultimate destiny and destination as well. A Church writer once said, through Christ’s ascension, “we have our own flesh in heaven.” The ascension proclaims Jesus’ promise that he has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. We have a destination before us and Jesus will one day take us to himself where we will enjoy his abiding peace forever.
But if learning a new language isn’t necessary, what are we supposed to do here on earth until that day we gather in heaven. My friends, that is ultimately what makes the celebration of Christ’s ascension so challenging. We are not intended to gaze and meditate on heaven day and night. Christ’s ascension is all about joyous farewells and new horizons. We are to be witnesses of these things, and we are to proclaim them to the ends of the earth.
The early Christian Church understood that Jesus’ ascension gave them that sense of purpose and mission. They were called to be witnesses of love to the ends of the earth. From that day on there was no longer a specific holy land. After Jesus’ ascension- every beautiful, troubled, broken, glorious inch of this earth became Holy Land, rich with the presence of God because we’re in it. That is what has allowed people to move with confidence from place to place, and across oceans.
It is still true today. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, every one of us gathered here carries the presence of God with us- and this is meant to be a blessing for every person and nation in the world. Of course, we can be blinded by breath of these possibilities. Several years ago, I was invited by home Church to translate the early records of our Norwegian speaking congregation. It was heartening to read of the early struggles with pastors and parishioners. But I was struck in one report with the loss of the Jesus’ ascension knowing no boundaries. The Church record included this paragraph. St. Olaf Church, 125 souls and three Swedes. It wasn’t that the early Norwegian pioneers considered their Swedish neighbors, as less than divine or human. They merely felt that the Swedes weren’t their responsibility.
It’s not surprising. This was the same Norwegian church, where one pastor proposed that the church should purchase a new chandelier. This caused a great stir at the annual meeting. The Church Council president thoroughly disagreed with the pastor. “Pastor, we don’t need no chandelier. First of all, nobody knows how to play it. Second, nobody knows how to spell it. And third, what we really need is light.” Jesus’ ascension reminds us that there is no single “holy space or box, or people or city of God.” All the earth is Holy Land we have been given new horizons.
Perhaps that is what we have learned over the past three years of the pandemic. We’ve learned new things about Jesus’ ascension and what it means to be the church. We’ve also learned about the power of the Holy Spirit. I’m grateful for the ways the Spirit nurtured us into our new sense of what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world and embraced a new horizon with new means. Like that first generation of disciples, who lived with the promise of a glorious heaven above, where Jesus has promised to prepare a place for us, we need not fear sad farewell. .And like every generation that has been empowered by that same Holy Spirit we have moved beyond the comfort of Bethany, to a new horizon- as God’s faithful witness. we have worked to share the gospel in a new place.
So my friends, do not simply gaze to heaven. Embrace the ascension’s joyous farewells and new horizons. For every place God has created has the potential to become a Holy Land. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.