May 13, 2018

“A Friend in High Places”

Acts 1:1 -11

There are many moments in life that are mundane, routine, and normal. Our morning routines certainly fit in to this category, if yours is anything like mine. - My morning routine - get up every weekday at same time,(except on Tuesdays when I get up earlier to get to a morning Rotary meeting, or Sundays for the 8:00 service) - use the facilities, shower, get the dog up, get the paper, look at my phone for a bit, make breakfast, read the paper, and head to work.  We all experience the everyday stuff in the routine temporal earthly day to day lives we lead.


Yet there are those days when suddenly the routine is broken up by mystery, when the earthly temporal routine is turned upside down as God breaks into our lives with some event- a coincidence that can’t be explained or rationalized.


A few years ago I did a wedding for a wonderful young couple- It was an outside wedding on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. The weather was a bit windy, but we got through the ceremony. In all the activities, pictures, and reception that followed, unfortunately I wasn’t paid the remainder owed for my services. Now I would never make a fuss over something like this, but I do remember saying, “Well God, this one is in your hands,” as I was trying to put any extra funds I received away for our family vacation to Disneyland.  Then I let it go- Well, a couple of weeks later, I got a check in the mail, for the exact amount I was owed, from a totally unexpected, non-related source. I remember thinking- “Wow, God, you are good!” It was a spiritual moment breaking through my routine day, and helped us make it to the happiest place on earth for vacation.


Just as we have both temporal and spiritual events in our lives, we also find such moments in the Bible. There are those everyday moments- herding sheep, harvesting grain, fishing, mixed right in with the sound of angel wings, abundant blessings from God and miraculous catches. This morning’s story of Jesus’ ascension is one of those unexplainable, God breaking in through the temporal mundane routine stories- One of those stories we wish we had seen for ourselves, for we might find it a bit easier to believe.



We celebrate Jesus’ ascension today, when God broke in mightily with a spiritual event-although Ascension Day was officially this past Thursday. Somehow, I doubt we’d have had many takers on a Thursday service...Traditionally, this is the Sunday to honor and exalt the Risen and ascended Christ, known as Ascension Sunday. This is a traditional long held celebration in the life of the church. Let’s unpack this traditional event and dust it off to see what meaning it has for us today.



Now today’s passage really speaks of this event, Jesus’ ascending in a great cloud towards heaven as a secondary theme. The real message in this passage has to do with the pending arrival of the Holy Spirit.  The passage begins by mentioning the name Theophilus- which is Greek for “One who loves God”- most likely a proper name.  This is the same Theophilus who is mentioned at the beginning of the book of Luke- you see Luke wrote a two volume set on the beginnings of Christianity with Luke and Acts- first the life story of Jesus, followed by the sequel- the beginnings of the church.


The first 5 verses written to Theophilus in Acts are a bit of review of Luke’s first book- Jesus acts and teachings, his suffering and death, his 40 day period of showing himself to others after he had risen, and his message about the pending gift of the Spirit. This is a promise from Jesus- God’s Spirit is soon to be made in fresh new ways. Luke uses the familiar idea of baptism as an example- you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit from on high.


It is interesting to note that In Verse 6, the disciples ask him, “Lord is this when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”  This question tells us that not even the events of Easter and succeeding 40 days had stopped them from thinking that Messiah would restore the kingdom of old, reliving the glory years of the Davidic monarchy. They still had hope that Jesus would wipe away Roman rule, and restore Israel, with all the disciples on thrones of power. They still had a bit of zealous, “let’s wipe out all the bad guys” vision mixed in with all that Jesus had tried to teach them. Jesus tells them- “It is not the restoration of the kingdom of Israel that will give you power, or where you will find hope- Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”


This gift of the Spirit brings us wisdom and guidance, direction for our lives, courage to stand against injustice, and the ability to know right from wrong. But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves, as NEXT SUNDAY is Pentecost SundayJ So, more about that in next week’s sermon!


So what then does the ascension of Christ hold for us? Jesus’ Ascension really is an interim time- a time between, between promise and fulfillment. It is also one of those cosmic, non-temporal times in life, when the mystery of faith, the mystery of God is revealed. The ascension is an important image for us to hold onto today. For, like the gift of the Spirit, it too can bring us hope. Now let me say I am a strong believer in the purposes and intent of the Protestant reformation.  But at one point, when the issue of idolatry was tackled, and most or all forms of art work were banned in the sanctuary, so that one would focus solely upon God’s word proclaimed, we lost something. In a typical Protestant church in the late 1500-early 1600's, there would be no stained glass windows, no imagery from the Bible on the walls, lest it become an idol of worship.



That isn’t the case for many other branches of the Christian church in the world. Take for example, the Russian Orthodox church. Their sanctuaries are FULL of depictions of stories from scripture. I had the privilege to travel to Russia back in 1985, and saw many Russian Orthodox churches. I remember one amazingly beautiful piece of artwork at a huge Russian Orthodox church in St. Petersburg- up in the dome- Jesus whispering in God’s ear, seated at the right hand of God. This was a helpful reminder for those who worshiped in that place that we have a friend in high places.  The ascension is a helpful reminder for us that we have a high priest in the heavens who is our advocate- a supporter, who argues or pleads upon our behalf. Paul says, in Romans 8:34 - “Christ Jesus, who died- more than that, who was raised to life- is at the right hand of God interceding for us.” It is true that Christ’s spirit is present with us whenever 2 or 3 of us gather together. Yet Jesus’ ascension proclaims the following-it is also true that the spirit and presence of the ascended Christ is in heaven upon our behalf.


So, that means that when I’ve had a bad day, or have said something really uncalled for to another person, I at times remember that image of Jesus- whispering in God’s ear. “He didn’t really mean to say that, and he told me he was sorry.”.. Or, “You really need to go easy on him- he’s had a rough day.” For example, a few weeks ago, as Paula and I and our dog Angus were heading down Loop Road after being on the Bandersnatch trail, a young man came around the corner of the road at a high rate of speed and scared us. We jumped out of the way and  grabbed each other. He slowed down by the time he was near us, and I gestured for him to drive slower with my hands extended, moving downward. He responded that he was only going 15 miles an hour and not driving dangerously. As he kept driving I muttered something like “Maybe 25! Slow down…” and said something else not so under my breath. Let’s just say it was not my best moment of witnessing the love of Jesus Christ. Later that day, I expressed regret to God about my actions earlier, and hoped Christ was whispering in God’s ear at that moment…


 What a comforting image this can be for us! We are not alone in our struggles, and have someone who is there in heaven pleading our cause, led by grace, who has experienced the human condition and all of our foibles, and who also happens to be with us on earth in Spirit whenever two or three are gathered in his name. What a deal to have an advocate in heaven.


In just a couple of weeks, we will be heading into the month of June. June is always a bit difficult for me at the beginning, because it is the anniversary of our first child’s birthday, June 1, 1990. She died in 1992, and she would’ve been 28 if she were still alive. I remember when Sarah was born, and we spent a good 5 months at Oakland Children’s hospital.  There were myriads of meetings with doctors, specialists, panels of specialists - it was all overwhelming. At times it was as if we had no voice in how our daughter was to be cared for. Yet for us, we were blessed by God with a social worker, an advocate for parents and children in that Hospital. She would take us aside after all the meetings with doctors and specialists, and ask us what we needed, and what she could say upon our behalf. She then would go and advocate upon our behalf, so that we didn’t have to face all of those doctors and ethical panels. She gave us hope and support in an incredibly difficult time of our lives.


 It is my hope and prayer that as you leave here today, you will walk away with this image of Jesus, our ascended high priest, our advocate who pleads upon our behalf in heaven, that you might look to the skies and know that there is hope for every day, for every struggle in this life. Christ knows us, and our concerns, our fears, our desires, and our failures, and he is constantly whispering to God upon our behalf. Thanks be to the Risen Christ, whom we exalt in all praise on this ascension Sunday; our Advocate, our friend in high places. Alleluia! Amen.

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