"Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Of course they would ask this! Jesus' friends, of course they would ask this question, after all that they had seen and heard and experienced, the good, the bad, yes, the very bad, the darkest of times. Of course, they would ask, "Is this the time?" But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's rewind the tape a bit. After all, though this mountaintop scene appears to be the opening scene of a story - one that we know as the Acts of the Apostles - the fact is that we are entering a saga already in progress. Acts is, a sequel, a really good sequel. Like The Godfather, Part II or The Empire Strikes Back, not like Jaws 2 or (worse) Jaws 3-D!
In the earlier installment, the Gospel of Luke, we encountered one plot twist after another, as the protagonist subverts and overturns the expectations of everyone around him - including his friends.
He was, those friends believed, Israel's promised Messiah. People were going to love him. People were going to love them. It was going to be smooth sailing ahead for all of them. Yet,
- when Jesus preaches in the synagogue to a hometown audience, his message is provocatively about how God had in times past shown favor to outsiders. The audience is ready to turn on him.
- when a centurion, an officer in the despised army of occupation, asks for help, Jesus offers it without hesitation, and his opponents notice and begin to plot.
- when a woman with a notorious reputation reaches out to him, he welcomes her, blesses her, absolves her, and his friends shake their heads.
- and, when it finally looks like everything is going right and his friends enter Jerusalem with him in great triumph, Jesus proceeds to say and do things that, quite simply, provide his enemies with even more ammunition to use against him.
Suddenly, it all spirals out of control. These friends panic as the one in whom they had placed their hopes suffers under Pontius Pilate, is crucified, dies, and is buried. And they, in turn, descend into the hell of despair.
Then comes the ultimate plot twist. Dead men are supposed to stay dead - but once again Jesus subverts and overturns expectations! This is not simply the old continued; this is something wonderfully new and unexpected. This isn't just resuscitation; this is resurrection! Still, perhaps because it is new and unexpected, Jesus' friends don't quite know what to do with it all.
So now, we come to the opening of this really good sequel. These friends, who for three years have been through so much, have experienced such emotional highs and lows, who are undoubtedly tired of having hopes dashed - these friends now stand on the mountain with their resurrected rabbi and mentor. And of course, what they blurt out is, "Lord, is this the time when everything will be made right, when everything will finally be the way it should be? Lord, is this the time?" They don't want a sequel. They want a happy ending!
The response they get is NOT what they are looking for. "It is not for you to know the times or seasons." What?! These friends, these followers who have been through some dark moments, now finally caught a glimmer of light with Jesus' unexpected return. Can't this moment last? Can't this be the turnaround point? Can't this be when the good times will finally come? "It is not for you to know the times or seasons." Ah, to make matters worse, he suddenly leaves them. He's taken out of their sight. We call it the Ascension. They might well have called it abandonment. He had been with them, then he was gone, then he returned, and now in a different way he's gone again. It must have felt a bit cruel.
But Jesus' response is not cruel, it's real. Their problem then, like that of untold number of followers since, involves buying into a fantasy that life is somehow meant to be fair, meant to be smooth, meant to be prosperous, meant to be without trial or travail. When bad things happen, when expectations are overturned, when hopes are dashed, sure, it's awful. It all seems so unfair. How easy then to lose one's way, to run and hide, to resent others whose lives appear to be more trouble-free, to cry out "Why me?!" or like the author of Psalm 22, "Why have you forsaken me?"
Jesus does not say, "Yes, this is the time, it's all going to be fine now. No more struggles. No more worries." That's pablum, a mirage, it's not real. However, neither does Jesus simply say, "Life is hard, you're on your own." That would indeed be cruel. No, he follows up on his first reply with something far better than an easy answer. Jesus offers a promise: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses." Power - dunamis - the Greek root for dynamic, dynamo, dynamite. This is no mere placebo of wishful thinking, no empty assurance of a life without struggle. No, it's about power to press on, strength to stay the course, no matter what.
This power that Jesus promises is grounded in presence, the Divine Presence, Immanuel, God-with-us - not just in the good times, the times of smooth sailing, but precisely when the wind and the waves threaten to overwhelm us. God's presence is never so important as in those moments when God seems most absent. Jesus left - Jesus HAD to leave so that the Spirit of Jesus could come and fill them - fill us. In the wilderness, the presence of God was symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant that traveled with the Israelites through all their journeys and all their struggles. When they wept, God was there weeping with them. When they shook their fists towards heaven, God was there too, not giving easy answers, but not leaving them comfortless either.
During these ten days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost, many Christians throughout the world are pledging to pray for others, that they may come to know Jesus, may come to discover the Divine Presence in their lives. It's part of something called Thy Kingdom Come, born out of the Church of England, promoted by The Episcopal Church, but this call to intentional prayer is for all Christians, for all who even now would be Christ's witnesses.
In Acts 1, Jesus promises, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you, and you will be my witnesses." The Greek word for witness, marturos...martyr. We are empowered so that we might bear witness to the presence of God. The other day I received a call from a dear friend who, in recent years, has been hit with one awful situation after another, each more devastating than the one before. It is truly heart-wrenching. Yet despite Job-like sufferings, despite the dark nights of the soul that threaten to overwhelm her, she presses on, she stays the course. My friend said to me, "When I feel most forsaken, somehow I get a reminder that God is still standing here, standing right with me." That's right. That's right! The reality is that life is hard, truly hard. But the deeper reality is that, despite how it might at times appear, we are never alone. The Psalmist who grumbled, "Why have you forsaken me?" in the very next Psalm proclaims, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."
Life often may not be smooth, or fair, or prosperous. We may very well find ourselves straining our gaze heavenward, wondering where God is, when is the time when it all gets easier. In some ways, this Ascension time almost forgotten between victorious Easter and Spirit-filled Pentecost, this period of the "not yet," is what we experience, what we live in, most of the time. Take heart. The time of ease is not yet here; this is the time of power - power to press on, the time of strength - strength to stay the course, the time of God-with-us, even when - no, no, especially when - God is somewhere just out of range of sight.
Let us pray.
O God of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven. Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.