An advertisement for a trip to Yellowstone National Park

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on June 5, 2011.
Acts 1:6-14

Psalms 68:1-10, 32-35; John 17:1-11; I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Ascension Sunday

Depending on what kind of camera you use, photographs are either miracles of chemistry blasted onto film or mass amounts of seemingly insignificant numerical data arranged significantly in a meaningful way on your computer. But mostly photographs are miracles of time. They capture a moment and freeze it for as long as it’s kept. Captured in the photo, the world stops spinning on its axis, the universe stands at attention, and even the sub-atomic particles appear to stop their constant quivering. All at the command of the one snapping the picture.

Photographs are great reducers of reality. They take the four dimensions of length, width, depth, and time and reduce them by ignoring two of the four dimensions. Photographs capture the reflection of light off the subject and zap the 4-dimensional visual image by freezing it in time and space, thus forming an image that is “a thin slice” of reality.

With all visual images, by rearranging the digital information, reality can be expanded or contorted or minimized or enhanced. A few years ago, my parents gave me a “new” copy of a family portrait we had taken where the love interest of one of my nephews was neatly erased. To which we would say, Welcome to the family!

I

These nine verses in the first chapter of Acts are a freeze frame. It’s a still photograph of a memorable event. It’s a frozen moment in time of the kingdom caught in limbo between what was to what it would be once the mysterious Spirit, the Advocate, would come to abide with the church. Admittedly the fifty days following the resurrection of Jesus were 50 days of highly unusual events as the Resurrected Jesus was with them, then he was gone.

First, there’s the appearance of Jesus in the Garden to Mary the Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women. Then Peter ran to the tomb so he could see with his own eyes and found the tomb both open and empty. Then there were two believers on the trail from Jerusalem to Emmaus, recounted what had happened earlier in the day and who were joined by a mysterious fellow traveler who they did not recognize.

[Maybe they didn’t recognize him because their last vision of Jesus was twisted in the pain of his torture or perhaps he had the mangled look of death on his face as they released him from the cross and quickly wrapped his body as night was falling on Passover Eve. Removing the look of death, even today, is a significant part of the preparation for burial.]

Jesus then met the disciples hidden from the public in a room not unlike the Upper Room where they shared a sweet moment before the night of his Passion. Thomas, called the Twin, was not present and, disbelieving his friends, insisted on seeing and touching Jesus before he would believe them. Jesus did not punish him for his need for physical proof, but opened himself up to Thomas’ inspection and thus offered a blessing upon believers who could believe without having the opportunity to be up close and personal with the risen Christ.

A few days later, Jesus found the disciples on the Sea of Galilee fishing, just like he had found them a few years earlier … and in the same easy way, he invited them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat where they caught more fish than they could haul in. And then he ascended back into heaven leaving the disciples who watched him leave.

II

Then everything froze … it was as if time stopped while the disciples faced the sheer emptiness of Jesus’ departure! There was a great emptiness in place of his powerful presence. It’s as if there was a gaping hole where Jesus had once stood, a space that was filled with his energy and life.

In the 50 days past the Resurrection, he ranged from Jerusalem and Bethany all the way up to the Sea of Galilee. And then he left them! He simply climbed onto a cloud and took the fast train to Heaven. With this description of Jesus’ departure from the earth, we begin a transition time … a time between the leaving of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit of God.

The hardest waits are those transitional times in our lives between endings and beginnings when some major event, good or bad, throws everything up in the air for a while. Graduating from school after years of waiting. Leaving home. A new job. Getting married… Getting divorced. Waiting for a child to arrive…  Waiting for them to grow up.

With this description of Jesus instructing the disciples to go back to town and to wait, we are pointed toward Pentecost a week from today. In the turning of the page from the last page of each of the gospels to the first page of the story of the church told by Luke in Acts, there is a holy hush. There is the holding of the breath where the pounding pulse of your heartbeat is the only thing you feel. The disciples wait anxiously for the promise to come true. The simple truth is we’re not good at waiting…

III

I have two minister friends who are brother and sister to one another. Both of them pastor small churches. Both were created as an act of love by the same mother and father. Both are the first pastors to fall out of the family tree. Richard, the eldest I’ve known for a long, long time. He and I were seminarians together in Fort Worth and we’ve stayed in touch for three and a half decades. Tracy, the youngest, came along behind us and I never really knew her until she was making her mark in ministry. They’re both very fine pastors and its fun to be around them as they compare themselves to one another, who can preach better than the other, and to observe them sharing a deep love for one another and for what they do.

But six years ago, grief came to visit them because their dad died the week before this Ascension text came before them. Thus, their grief showed up in their preaching for this day when we recognize it as a moment frozen in time. In the week before they were both preparing to preach this Ascension text from Acts, Tracy, the youngest, said to Richard, the eldest:  “For the first time in my life, there’s someone on the other side I want to talk to. For the first time in my life, the idea of crossing over to the other side is strangely appealing.”[1]

Richard went on to write this in his sermon:  “…When you start reading this passage, it turns out that ascension is just about the last thing indicated for those of us who remain. Ascension is for those of us who have departed, and ultimately for us (who remain). But until we pass from this life, or until the Lord returns, there is still work to be done, and we are the ones to do it.”[2]

These first words in Acts are a freeze frame for the moment, giving us a quick look at the circumstances of the church just before the Spirit of God invaded the world of human believers. Our task is to be ready when the winds of the Spirit begin to blow.

We are to be busy being faithful so that when the winds pick up, we can go with them. We are the carriers of the Spirit in our world and God wants us to be ready when the answers come.

[1] Tracy Dunn-Noland, “Jesus Will Come in the Same Way,” Fellowship of Believers, Hereford TX, 5/8/05

[2] Richard W. Dunn, “Time to Move On – Extraordinary Faith,” Cornerstone Baptist Church, Enid OK, 5/8/08

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