Whenever you crack open a bible, something you’ll likely notice as you read is that there are a lot of stories in the bible that get told multiple times in different ways. Usually these stories are written by different authors, relying on different written and oral traditions, who are telling the story in a way shaped by their own particular communities and agendas and perspectives. Usually. Unusually, you get stories like the ones we read today. Our readings for this morning include two different accounts of the ascension of Jesus, but – plot twist – both stories were actually written by the same guy: the evangelist Luke.
Insofar as the major details of what happened, both stories are pretty much the same. But the tone in which they’re told is quite different.
The first time Luke tells the story of the ascension, it comes at the very end of the book of Luke, as he is wrapping up his gospel account. And this version of the story has a very hopeful, feel-good kind of vibe to it. It’s written as a happy ending: there is understanding and blessing; there’s joy and continual praise in the temple, and they all lived happily ever after, the end!
But then Luke opens the Book of Acts – which is basically the sequel to the Gospel of Luke – by telling the story of the ascension again. Only this telling of the story doesn’t give off that same kind of happy ending vibe as the gospel version. In this version, the disciples seem to be a lot more confused and troubled and anxious. They assumed that they had gotten to the happy ending part with Jesus’ resurrection – and that the next logical step would be to raise the kingdom of Israel from the ashes and to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression – but now they don’t seem so sure.
So they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” But Jesus doesn’t just give them a straightforward answer. Instead, he cryptically tells them: It’s not for you to know. “It’s not for you to know the times or periods that God has set.” And then, with no warning, he hops on a cloud and just peaces out into the sky. It’s no wonder that the end of this version of the story leaves the disciples standing there bewildered, staring up into the sky like, “What in the world just happened??”
It’s such a weird, fragile, uncertain time in the early church – this period of time between the ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And even though Jesus promises them that there is more to come – that there will be more to the story – and that the way forward will be made clear, it’s pretty easy to imagine that his disciples were still left feeling a bit abandoned.
After all, these disciples’ hearts have been through the wringer: at first the growing excitement of following Jesus and the amazement at his teachings and healings, but then the building threat of the tension his ministry created, the fear and worry as Jesus began predicting his own impending execution, the terror of Jesus’ arrest and torture, and the deep grief of his death – followed by more terror and more amazement at the empty tomb, and eventually joy in Christ’s victory over death. It has been a LOT! They have finally come out on the other side of this whole ordeal. And now – now that Jesus has risen from the dead – and they finally feel like they’re getting close to that happy ending they’ve been waiting for – Jesus himself abruptly disappears.
And what keeps echoing in my heart is this question that the disciples ask: “Lord, is now the time when you will restore the kingdom?” These disciples belong to a people who had been crying out for generations, “How long, O Lord?” How much longer must we wait for the promise to be fulfilled? How much longer must we wait for justice? How much longer until all is finally made right?
There is such a strange, bittersweet ambiguity to the Feast of the Ascension. And I find it resonating with me this week, especially in the wake of the horrific shooting in Texas (which itself came on the heels of the horrific shooting in Buffalo). Twenty-one people dead and many more injured, most of them children under the age of twelve. I am so filled with grief at the staggering nature of this loss – and even more so because nothing about it is surprising anymore; this is the violence our nation has collectively decided it’s okay to live with. I’m fed up with hearing the same arguments played out over and over again on the news and over social media. And I’m so ANGRY knowing already that none of the people who actually have the power to make meaningful change will choose to do so.
All this leaves me crying out, “How long, O Lord???” How long must we and our children continue to live in fear of such violence? How long must we wait for justice? And please, please, O Lord, can this be the time when you restore your kingdom?
Our hearts have also been through the wringer in the last few years: through the grief and conflict and exhaustion of a global pandemic, and before that the hardship of the floods. We’ve been through the agony of a national reckoning about race, reopening wounds that go back to the founding of our nation. We’ve weathered the brutal divisiveness of contentious and just plain ugly elections at the state and national level. And now this: the slaughter of nineteen elementary school children and their teachers.
And like the disciples, amidst all this chaos and carnage and calamity, it’s easy for us to start feeling like maybe God has abandoned us. It can be hard to perceive God’s presence in the midst of events like these – hard to see how God may be forging a path forward when it feels like we are just trapped in the same endless cycles of violence and division.
But Jesus knows the hearts of his anxious disciples. He knows our hearts. And he says to them, ‘Listen, remember that these are the words I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ And then he gently opens their minds to understand what has been written in the scriptures. He reassures them as he did on the night when he was betrayed – when he told them he would not leave them orphaned. He now tells them again; I am sending to you what my Father promised: the Holy Spirit – the Advocate – the transformative and holy power that will give you the strength and hope you need to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
And God keeps God’s promise. Ten days later the disciples will be gathered together to observe the Jewish Feast of Weeks when the Holy Spirit blows in like a hurricane. Through the sound of rushing wind and flame, the Spirit will give them this glorious revelation of God’s mission – and of their part in it – a vision of salvation and mercy that is more expansive and amazing than they had ever imagined. And the Spirit will gift them with different languages, equipping them for the work they are now being called and sent out to do. From an uncertainly happy ending to an anxious and ambiguous time of waiting, the disciples will joyfully set forth on the new path laid before them, eager to participate in God’s redemptive work for the whole world.
But for today, these disciples still stand just outside Bethany – confused and a little crestfallen – still staring at the sky and trying not to feel like they’ve just been abandoned by the one in whom they placed all their hope.
And today we acknowledge the truth that God is sometimes frustratingly beyond us – that God sometimes seems most absent in the moments when we need to feel God’s presence the most; that all too often God is ambiguous and mysterious when we just want answers we can wrap our brains around.
Yet today we also remember that God is faithful, even in those moments; and that God never leaves us abandoned. When God’s time table is not our time table – as is usually the case – God asks us to trust, remembering how God has been faithful to us in the past; God asks us to wait and watch expectantly, and to pray. And through faith we find that, little by little, God opens our minds and our hearts to understand – as Jesus did with his disciples – leading us not only into understanding, but into our calling as partners in God’s saving mission for the world.
Today I feel in my heart this prayer that the author of our second reading writes to the members of the church at Ephesus: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give us all a spirit of wisdom and of revelation as we continue to grow deeper in our knowledge of God – so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which we have been called… and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.
Today may not be the day that God’s kingdom comes; it may not be the happy ending that we long for. But we can trust that the whole story is in God’s hands, from beginning to end. We can remember that God is faithful and keeps God’s promises. And we can have faith that, with God, there will always be more to the story – no matter how the story is told.