Easter has come and gone – and all the teaching and healing, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the confrontations with religious and political authorities, the cross, the tomb. Jesus has died and then risen from the dead. There were rumors of his resurrection, then surprise sightings, then bread broken together: the whole gang reunited at the table. (Well, almost the whole gang.) The disciples have been pulled in every direction by wonder and fear and grief and hope. To say that it has been a rollercoaster of a time for them would be putting it mildly.
But, after all the ups and downs of the journey they’ve been on, Jesus has emerged victorious. He has triumphed over death itself once and for all. So now what? The disciples ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” When are you going to stomp some Romans and throw down the emperor and take back the homeland? You know, Messiah kind of stuff! When can we go back to the glory days? When can we go back to the way things were before?
I can imagine this question is one that has become familiar to a lot of us in the last couple of months, if not all of us. When can we go back to the way things were before? It has been a rollercoaster of a time for us, with rising cases and a falling economy and a flood of information and guidelines from various sources that often conflict and contradict one another. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired, tired of being cooped up, tired of being afraid. We long to go back to the lives that we were living before.
All this actually makes Ascension a very relatable feast day. Of course, Ascension is a time to revel in Jesus at his most glorious, blessing his disciples as he is bodily lifted up into heaven. But for the disciples, it is also a day of waiting. Jesus tells the disciples to go back to the city, to go back inside and wait. The Holy Spirit will come later, at Pentecost, rushing through them with wind and fire, sending them out to all that is next. But Ascension is a time for patience.
Of course, that’s hardly what Jesus’ disciples – past or present – want to hear. They want to know when their hopes will be fulfilled. They want to know when things will go back to normal. And so they ask him: When can we go back to the way things were before?
But Jesus’ answer to this question is not as straightforward as we might hope. Instead of setting out a specific timeline, telling them exactly what to expect, he tells them that it is simply not for them to know. God’s schedule is in God’s hands – and God’s hands alone.
It’s also noticeable that Jesus doesn’t specifically answer their question about the kingdom of Israel. Jesus’ answer is much broader. He talks about witnessing in all Judea and Samaria and to the very ends of the earth! The vision of the future that Jesus is leading them towards is much, much bigger than the redemption of this one people. The future that Jesus has promised is grander, more inclusive, and more glorious than anything the disciples have imagined.
His disciples are just beginning to realize that Jesus’ great and miraculous victory over death is not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning. There is a whole new journey that now lies before them – because this has never been a story about returning to some golden period of the past. There is no going back. The kingdom lies ahead. It lies ahead of us and around us, not behind. Jesus isn’t interested in trying to help the disciples recapture the bygone glory days of the kingdom of Israel. He is inviting them to look forward, with their hearts fixed on God’s promised future.
This is something I have been thinking and wondering and praying about a lot this week: God’s coming kingdom and the future that God is working to bring into being. I watched parts of the Festival of Homiletics – an annual preaching conference – that was broadcast online this week. The theme for this year’s conference was “Preaching a New Earth: Climate and Creation.” I didn’t get to see all of the speakers, but the ones I did see spoke powerfully about God’s vision for the full restoration of both creation and humanity. They spoke about a future in which we join God in helping the earth to flourish. They spoke about a future free from division and inequality and prejudice; a future in which the economy does not depend on the exploitation of vulnerable people and a vulnerable planet – but where instead we prioritize the dignity, health, and well being of all people everywhere.
Unfortunately, this vision of the future throws our current reality into sharp relief. It’s hard to imagine ourselves living into God’s future when a rogue virus is running rampant all over the globe, sickening and killing people by the hundreds of thousands, including some of our own neighbors.
And even more than the virus itself, this pandemic has exposed some of the deep, persistent, structural problems in our society that we have long been doing our best to ignore. And these things tend to make an already dangerous situation even worse. Our intense political polarization has turned a public health crisis into a partisan issue, making it hard to know whom to trust and what the truth is, especially when leaders are more focused on hanging onto power than on working for the public good. Our broken healthcare system forces people to risk their health by returning to work, so they won’t risk losing both their job and their health insurance. A long national history of legalized discrimination means that this pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color. And our staggering economic inequality, as well as the realities of life in urban areas vs rural areas, means that there are wide disparities in how much access people have to adequate healthcare.
We may be tempted to try to cover up these problems again and to go back to the way things were – especially if we personally have not been directly affected by this pandemic. But we can’t just unsee what we have seen. And, to be honest with you, I don’t want to go back to the way things were before. The version of “normal” that we were living in left way too many people behind. Instead of picking up the pieces of what was and trying to stick them back together like they were, I want us to take this time to listen and to watch for the future that God is calling us into. I want to wait and to be patient while the Holy Spirit wells up from deep within us – like it has done in generations of the faithful before us – to show us the path that will take us forward toward God’s future and toward the kingdom.
And this is what we see in the story of the ascension that we read today. Jesus promises his disciples power through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And he tells them you will be my witnesses in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. I have called you to be agents and heralds of my kingdom.
This is the call that we inherit. And like the first disciples, we have been filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to witness and serve in the name of Jesus Christ. God is calling us and all creation toward God’s future. And we are called not only to wait for this future with patience and with joyful expectation; we are called to begin to participate in it here and now, to dream and to act for a world that looks more and more like the kingdom of God.
People of Schuyler, of Nebraska, of planet Earth, let us not simply stand looking up toward heaven. If we want to see Jesus – if we want to see the glorious future that God has promised – we won’t find it looking up, and we won’t find it looking backward. The kingdom we have hoped and prayed for is around us and ahead of us. And the voice of God is calling us, calling to our imagination and our creativity and our curiosity, calling us to wonder what God is up to next.