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It's time for a new song of praise and thanksgiving to the risen Christ, and I quote the lyrics of one from a singing group of that very name, New Song...
"He said goodbye to the angels of heaven and he came to earth as a common man. There were those who believed and followed him, and there were those who wanted him dead. They thought the grave would silence him forever. But they found out instead...You can't keep a good man down. "They nailed him to the cross by hands and feet, and they put him in the ground. Three days later everybody found out that you can't, no you can't...keep a good man down. No you can't, no you can't, no you can't keep a good man down."
There you have it, a new song extolling the resurrection of Jesus Christ....
Everything had been thrown against him. Everything had worked to silence him. Indeed they held him down. They nailed him down. They murdered him. But...they could not, they could not keep him down. He rose from that grave and brought life to the very place where there had been death and only death before.
The Scripture which we hear from the Acts of the Apostles today includes the story of the final post-resurrection appearance of the man whom they simply couldn't keep down. It is the final appearance and the point of departure for the risen Christ to the unending and eternal glory of his resurrection. It is the narrative of Christ's ascension into the heaven. And, as such, it is the story of the in-your-face, wild and wonderful, cosmic and glorious event, the icing on the cake, if you will, of the resurrection life and power of Jesus of Nazareth.
Now please don't get stuck here. I know and you know that we live in a modern, scientific world where we understand that God is not sitting on the next cloud over one. We don't have the same view of the cosmos that ancient people did, but that is not the point here. The story of Christ's ascension is not a page from an astronomy text book. Rather, it is a word song and description of a resurrection event and of the meaning of the resurrection itself...and it is this. "No you can't, no you can't, no you can't keep a good man down."
That's the proclamation of the Acts of the Apostles as it tells the story of Christ ascending high into the heavens. Nothing could keep him down...not even gravity, not even grave-ity could keep this man down. Up he went...up he went, overcoming death and everything that tries to keep us tied down to the ground, that attempts to grind us into the dirt of loss, sadness, and despair. He ascended. He overcame all the weight, all the heaviness, all of the gravity of this life. "No you can't, no you can't, no you can't keep a good man down."
The 47th Psalm is often paired with this reading from the Acts of the Apostles as an ancient hymn of praise for this event and its meaning. "God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of the ram's horn." I believe that there were actually two shouts. The first, from the people who were standing on that hillside, praising God and thanking God for the victory of life over death. And the second...the second was God's own shout...It punctuates the story of Jesus' moment of earthly departure..."You will receive power." "I am with you always." "I will come again." "Go, preach, teach, baptize...proclaim."
In reading or hearing the story of Christ's Ascension you will notice that the disciples are a bit nonplussed by it all. They stand there gazing up, shouting, yes, but with mouths wide open in amazement and awe. But the angels who are on the scene bring God's message to them, and it is this, "Get on with it!" They are not to be stuck in the mystery of the event. Rather they are to live it. They are to discover the gift of new life, new hope, and new beginnings in themselves. Indeed, they are to discover the power of the resurrection that will move them in their own lives from the things that hold them down, the things that grind them down, to a new and renewed life, a grand and hopeful life in God.
"God has gone up," and so can we. God has ascended into the place and reality where life will always trump death, and so can we. God has overcome the things that try to keep life tied down and tied up and so can we.
The truth is that there is a lot that does try to hold us down in our lives, in the church, and in the world. There is violence and war in this world, in our own cities, and in the human heart. There are oppressive systems that keep people tied down in grinding poverty and hopelessness. There is sickness, sin, and sadness in our own experience and lives. There is dissension and dissonance even in the Church of God. And these things connive and plot to keep us down, just as they tried to keep Jesus down. "But you can't...but you can't." That is the message of Christ's resurrection and that is the meaning of this remarkable story of Christ's ascension. Try as you will, try as you will, you simply can't...God will not be held down, kept down, tied down by any of these realities. No, God's life and love are stronger.
God did a grand and powerful new thing in the resurrection of Jesus, and God sealed it in the ascent of Jesus to God's own center and heart. It is the purpose, work and mission of God which continues in us today. God has given us life, hope, and love. God has given us victory and glory. God has given us a new beginning for our lives, and God wants us to get on with it. There is an urgency to the event on the mountain top. Jesus notes that urgency with a promise and with a call...the promise, "You will receive power, because the Holy Spirit has surrounded and enfolded you." The call, "And you...you are to be witnesses to the very ends of the earth, to all places, in all circumstances at all times."
We are not tied down any more, but that has a consequence for us. We are the bearers of the message and reality of God's love and life. We are called to witness to it and grow it in the world and in our own lives. God has gone up in victory, and so do we, but that means we need to live that way, reflecting that power and that hope. God has made us partners in the mission and victory of life itself.
I have seen this partnership at work in a church, when a congregation decided that it was not going to settle for being tied down to the things that kept them dispirited, declining, and despairing. I have witnessed a local community of faith come alive and come off the ground with new hope, energy and vision because they believed in the power of Christ's resurrection, decided to "go for it," and launched their renewed mission towards the skies. I have seen it in individual people's experience too. I have witnessed the change in people when they discovered that they didn't have to be held down in their own life, even though the challenges they faced were real. No, they were released for something new, something higher, something that drew them out of themselves into the life and power of God. I have seen it in my own life. Like anyone, there are times I have felt overwhelmed and oppressed by adversities or challenges. But I, too, have discovered the lifting love and grace of God, taking me from the ground to the new heights of God's presence.
Oh, the ground is very real. Gravity is heavy stuff. The grave exists. There is a lot to keep human beings down. But the questions for this day go like this. Are we going to settle for being tied down to the ground? Are we going to settle for the grave and gravity of being held down to the ground?
Or...indeed are we willing to let go and ascend up higher? Are we willing to be released for something new? Will we claim a new beginning and a new destination? Are we willing to go where Jesus has gone, to be released and lifted up to the heavens with Jesus.
Oh...how they tried to keep him down, using everything at the disposal of evil and hopelessness...trickery, betrayal, violence, murder, death itself....
But you can't, no you can't, no you can't...Jesus rose and went up so much higher than could ever have been imagined or hoped for. You can't hold the good man down.
Oh...how things try to keep us down as God's beloved children, sickness, uncertainty, anger, poverty of goods and spirit...so much, so much, so much would keep us down.
But you can't, no you can't, no you can't keep us down...for the love of God lifts us to new life and new hope, to God's own self.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, keep us from getting bogged down, held down, kept down. As you have risen and ascended, so may we. As you have overcome death and the grave, so may we. As you have gone home to God, so may we. Lift us, we pray, to your love and your glory that we may be with you forever and ever. Amen.
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