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Ascension Sunday, May 17, 2015

Waiting can be a pain. Lately, I’ve been dealing with the Social Security Administration. I filed an amended tax return last year. The IRS got it and changed it (they cashed the check), but the extra income has not made it to Social Security’s records. And Social Security won’t change it unless I do three impossible things before breakfast to give them what they want. So I wait and fume and go about what I usually do, until I can find time to devote to it.

Waiting can also be exciting. Last month I was anticipating with joy the wedding of my nephew and seeing my family. I was excited that I was going to officiate at this most important time of John and Phoebe’s life, and I was excited about Kristy and Evan coming to clean out his area in the basement, which they did very well. It was so good to see them. During this waiting time there was packing and getting directions and remembering to take my vestments and my prayer book.

Waiting, in the larger sense, whether it is difficult or exciting, gives space for things to happen (Douglas Farrow), for people to grow and change, for missions to be formed. It provides generosity of time, so that people may understand and process what they are to do. Sometimes the waiting is short and sometimes it is longer, depending on how long God needs to form ideas in our heads and hearts and convince us to do them.

The ascension of Jesus is about a time of waiting – waiting between Jesus’ resurrection, his leave taking and the promised coming of the Holy Spirit. It is a time of understanding and growth, of fear and faith. First the disciples are waiting in fear. The women have told them that Jesus has risen and they don’t know what to expect. They had all run away and betrayed him and they wonder if he will forgive their behavior. The disciples who saw Jesus in Emmaus and Peter, to whom Jesus has appeared, were talking about these happenings when Jesus appears to his disciples. He wishes them peace, forgiving them and reconciling them with him, but they are still terrified because they think they have seen a ghost. Jesus invites them to see his hands and his feet to look at the scars and to touch him. When they are joyous but still disbelieving, Jesus even eats a piece of fish to assure them he is flesh and blood.

This part of the waiting period is about the disciples believing in the resurrection of Jesus. Their faith must be shaped by this reality or else they will not be able to witness to the world what Jesus wants them to witness. They will not be able to become apostles. The disciples accept Jesus’ resurrection and rejoice in this wonderful and best surprise God has given them (Henry G. Brinton).

Then comes the time of instruction. Jesus has already done this once on the road to Emmaus, explaining how the Scriptures say the Messiah must suffer and die and rise again. Now he will do it for the disciples. Luke’s gospel wants to make absolutely sure that Jesus’ life and work is seen as a continuation of the work God has done for Israel. It is not rectifying a mistake God has made. So Jesus talks about the law, the prophets and the psalms predicting what will happen to him. He has to draw on various new pieces about the Messiah because the basic descriptions about a Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures are about a king who will come to set Israel free. Jesus sets Israel (and intends to set the whole world) free of sin and death. The disciples can now interpret the Scriptures in a whole new way to the people they are evangelizing. They will need this ability because neither the Jews nor the Greeks would believe in a Messiah or a god who would let himself be killed except with much convincing

Jesus gives them their commission, that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations. The disciples are to tell people the most important thing in the world: that there is a God who loves and forgives, that he walked on the earth and preached that message to the disciples; that he healed the sick, included the sinners, fed the hungry. He did the things a Son of God would do, the things that a loving God would want for God’s people.

And now once again they are called on to wait. Jesus wants them to wait in Jerusalem until the power from on high comes to them in not many days. John gave them water baptism, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit, which will be Jesus’ gift of his presence with them forever. In Acts, the disciples are looking to the end of the world and wondering if this is the time God will restore all the kingdom to Israel. Jesus tells them they must wait in their time and not worry about the apocalyptic time that only God knows. They must keep doing what they are told to do until God does come fully bringing the kingdom in.

The last thing the disciples see is Jesus blessing him as he leaves their sight. The importance of blessing cannot be overstated. It is part of salvation. Salvation is both deliverance and blessing (Claus Westermann). The Israelites were saved from the Egyptians and delivered to the Promised Land. Jesus delivered all people from sin and death with his crucifixion and his resurrection. But blessing is the day to day salvation we receive and give to others. When we bless someone, we say good things about them and want good things for them. God blessing us is part of the way we are shaped and formed in our faith as we wait for the coming of the kingdom. It is the way we are sanctified, able to grow into the fullness of what God wants us to be.

The waiting this time is joyous. The disciples return to Jerusalem as they were told, and spent time in the temple blessing God. Someone once asked me how we bless God. We bless God by saying good things about God, just as God blesses us by saying good things about us, by telling us how loved we are and forgiving us and sending us out in the power of the Spirit.

Jesus’ ascension takes up only a half a verse in the gospel. It is the instruction and the commissioning and the blessing and the waiting that are the important things to see here because that is how God works with us. We are the heirs of the apostles, and we have all been given a mission to tell the world that there is a God who loves us and forgives us, who makes us whole. Even though the gift of the Holy Spirit has already been poured out on the world, our life of faith includes a balance of waiting and acting. There are periods when we know exactly what God wants us to do, and then there are periods where we are in between particular missions, perhaps for rest and refreshment, for prayer and meditation on what is coming next. We may have an idea, but we have to wait on the Lord to lead us into the new part of life he wants for us, into the next new place, into our future.

We don’t always think about the waiting that characterizes our lives in that way. We think mostly about the little waitings – for soccer practice to be over, for dinner to be ready, for travel arrangements to be made, for medical appointments to happen. But overarching them all are the big waitings we feel – that it is time for a change, that we are called in a different direction. These waitings are not causes for fear and anxiety as the disciples first felt. Rather they are causes for rejoicing because whether the next phase of our lives is hard or easy, we know that God is with us and has a mission for us, even in the middle of pain and suffering. Let the waiting the ascension brings give your waiting its shape. Continue to be in the temple, in the church, blessing God for all that God has given us and waiting for the new outpouring of the Holy Spirit that is sure to come.

AMEN

     - Rev, Ann Barjer

 

Works Cited:
Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ekklesia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), cited in David S. Cunningham, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, Theological Perspective, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 522
Henry G. Brinton, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, vol. 2, chapters 12-24, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, p. 360.
Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and in the Life of the Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 1-14, Cited in Roger A. Paynter, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Vol. 2, Homiletical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 359