Ascension A, 2011
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “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.”
Before their better-known screen pairing in Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, the first movie Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made together was a little - remembered but wonderful cinematic parable entitled Joe Vs. The Volcano. Tom Hanks plays Joe Banks, a firefighter who, after nearly being killed rescuing children from a burning building, goes to work in the basement of a rectal probe manufacturer. His life and work are dull and depressing, and he goes to see a doctor who tells him he is dying from an incurable “brain cloud.” Told he only has six months to live, Joe quits his job and tells off his boss. The next day he meets a multibillionaire who knows about his disease, and offers him an unlimited credit card if he will sacrifice his life by jumping into a volcano on a South Pacific Island, to keep the island from exploding and killing all the natives. With nothing to lose, Joe accepts the offer. The story, about his voyage to find his soul, is hilarious, poignant, and surprising. I won’t give away the ending – rent the movie (or borrow it from me).
What would you do if you were told you had six months to live? Suppose Harold Camping is right this time – that the universe really is going to explode October 21st? What would you do? Would we still have the Fall Festival two weekends before? Would you quit your job? Would you go back to school in the fall? Would you tell someone you loved that you love them – or would you tell somebody else off?
As Jesus stands on a hillside forty days after the resurrection, once again telling the disciples that this time he really – no, really – is going to leave them, they ask him a question they’ve asked before: Is this the time when you’re going to restore the nation of Israel? After three years of being with Jesus, who kept telling him that he wasn’t going to be the King of Israel, overthrow the Romans, and make them territorial governors, after rising from the dead to show them that God was doing something completely different in the world, after spending forty days after Easter going over the last three years, explaining what he wanted them to go out into the world and do, the disciples are stuck in exactly the same place: Is this the time when you’re going to restore the nation of Israel? We shouldn’t be too hard on them, because many Christians – from Harold Camping and Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye on down – are still fixated on the same mistake: that the kingdom of God means creating, or recreating, a political reality here and now. Whether it’s throwing the Muslims out of Jerusalem and rebuilding the Temple, or transforming the United States into some pristine ideal of a “Christian nation” that we never were and never will be, both the Bible and two millennia of history are clear: the Kingdom of God is not of this world. Jesus said it was in the midst of us.
So, after what I expect was a very long sigh, eyes rolled to heaven and a silent prayer to his Father asking to beam him up, now, Jesus responds to his clueless disciples, It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
It is not just that no one knows the day and the hour: it is not about the day and the hour. It is not about the day and hour because today is the day and now is the hour. Stop watching the clock and checking the calendar, because it’s now.
Instead of knowledge, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will give his followers power. But it’s not random power, to leap tall building in a single bound, or to pass the SOLs or to heal sick loved ones. The power that will come with the Holy Spirit next Sunday, on the Day of Pentecost, is the power to witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth. That’s what Jesus had meant years earlier when he had said that the Kingdom of God was in the midst of his followers: when you and I live out the love of God, extend God’s mercy, and call out the idols of this world, then we are the incarnation of the Body of Christ and we are the Kingdom of God. The word eternal, as I have explained before, does not mean on and on and on. It means outside of time. It is a quality of life that breaks all the boundaries of the clock, just as God lives outside the clock and outside time. When you and I incarnate the love of God in this moment, we participate with Jesus and all the saints past, present, and future in eternity, just as, this morning, when we break the bread and share the cup, we do so eternally, in the same out-of-time moment with Jesus and the disciples and the saints and our great-great grandparents and everyone out in the cemetery and with our great-great grandchildren. It’s not about when, you see: it’s about being empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses, today and tomorrow and forever.
And then, Luke says, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him from the disciples’ sight. Clouds, in the Bible, are symbols of God, like the cloud in the wilderness and on Mt. Sinai. It’s not that Jesus went way, way up in the sky, one of my teachers explained – it’s that he went out to fill the whole world. Which, again, is why we need to get off the clock in our lives and in our relationship with God: Jesus is right here, right now. The hour for receiving him, and the hour for following him, isn’t next week or month or year – it’s right now. It’s always right now. And now. And now.
So, what would you do differently if you had a brain cloud, or if the world were ending October 21st, or if you knew today were the day? Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? It’s not about when, because it’s always now. Live the Jesus life. Now.