The text for this sermon is Acts 1:1-11.
Pastors are a hard bunch to please. We complain that the secular world has claimed our most sacred holidays. Christmas has been overtaken by commercialism. Christmas carols are sung in the malls in October. Easter baskets, Easter eggs and colorful jelly beans are identified more with this holiday than the bloody cross or the empty tomb. Santa and the Easter Bunny are more recognizable than Jesus by our children. Even though we grumble and groan about this, we gleefully count the crowds that come to worship on Christmas Eve and Easter. While reluctantly admitting that people remember these holidays because the culture has made them so important.
When the third most important festival day rolls around and no crowds show up, we complain about that, too. For Pentecost, which is celebrated next Sunday there are no carols or reindeer, no baskets filled with chocolate doves or tongues of fire. No one remembers this important holiday. We had parking headaches on Easter morning as 800 or so people worshipped here. What I wouldn’t give for a parking headache next week. The world has let us down.
I was in a conversation like this with other pastors, full of grumbling and groaning, that I stumbled upon a connection between Easter and Pentecost that I had never made before. Ascension Sunday, the Sunday before Pentecost is a lot like Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. There were no parades today full of children waving tree branches and adults wondering how long they have to wave these silly things, too, but it is the parade on Palm Sunday where the connection lies.
The Palm Sunday parade was a coronation that the peasants of Jerusalem gave Jesus. They thought Jesus was going to march into Jerusalem that day and seize the throne from Rome and become their earthly king. They hoped for a good and just rule from the promised Messiah.
Of course the people were wrong. Jesus did not come into Jerusalem that day to be crowned King of Israel. He was executed that week by the real King of Israel, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. We replay the farce yearly in our churches as a reminder of how even the most faithful people sometimes get the mystery of God wrong.
Honestly, I had never cared much for Ascension Sunday. I ignored it as the world has ignored the Sunday it prepares us for, Pentecost. I didn’t like the premodern feel of it, the whole idea of Jesus going up to heaven on a moving cloud. The writer of Acts, Luke had a vision of heaven up there and hell down there and rain coming when the dome that protects the earth from the chaos of space is cracked open by a gracious God. Even with my limited understanding of science and the cosmos, I know that is not how the universe works. Jesus boarding a cloud and leaving, always left me wondering, where is that cloud taking him?
Plus, it is hard to get excited about a Sunday that marks when Jesus left the earth. What is the good news about Jesus leaving us behind? How can we sing songs of praise as we watch Jesus’ backside drift away like a balloon getting smaller and smaller in the sky?
This year as I was grumbling to friends that we would be lucky to have 300 in worship on the second most important Sunday of the church year since it was the middle of June, it hit me, the cloud thing made sense. It is a parade. It is a coronation parade like the one that Jesus was in on Palm Sunday. Just as the week before Easter there is a parade, the week before Pentecost, there is a parade, too. Only this parade is for real, it is not a sad farce.
The ascension story is not about Jesus going to heaven on his motorized cloud to prepare a place for us. Jesus is not up there, out there, waiting for all of us to catch up with him when the Father decides it is time to make heaven and earth one. Jesus is not on a well deserved break after the harrowing experience on the cross.
Jesus is the second person in the Trinity. He is the Son. He rules over the creation. He is the Word that brings life into the world. Jesus the Son is the King of heaven, which is not just up there or out there, but right here, too.
He is the King and we are his subjects. Jesus came not to save just the few that he could personally teach, touch or heal. Jesus came to save the entire creation that he rules at the right hand of the Father. In the world, he can only influence the few that know him. From the throne of heaven, if his subjects are loyal to him the creation can be redeemed.
This is what the two men in white were talking about. While it is obviously cool, a little mind blowing really, to see Jesus board a cloud and drive it to heaven, time was wasting. The two men in white tell them Jesus came so they would be witnesses, martyrs is the Greek word, and tell their story of Jesus first around there in Judea, then in poor messed up Samaria to the North and eventually everywhere in the known world. Quit staring and start preparing for the job you have to do.
Now, they weren’t ready for this job, yet. Even though Jesus had taught them, they would need more than thorough lessons to share the Good News. Jesus promised his presence always, the Holy Spirit. So, they prayed, preparing for the gift of the Holy Spirit to travel with them as they go out into the world to be martyrs, witnesses of the revelation of God and God’s plan for our creation, that Jesus is King. They needed the gift of the Holy Spirit in order to hear the commands of their king in heaven.
The Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday is a confused worldly coronation of Jesus before he is crucified then resurrected. The Sunday before Pentecost, Ascension is the true coronation of Jesus before we receive the fruits of his kingdom the Holy Spirit. Jesus is king. He has not left us because heaven is not ready for us yet, but because the creation is not yet healed. He is gone to his throne to direct us by the Holy Spirit to do the important work of creation, reconciling all to his love.
Jesus is King. His throne is in heaven. On Pentecost, next week we celebrate the blessings of his rule, the Holy Spirit. Who cares if there are no Pentecost Children’s Cartoon specials to excite the unchurched or parades down Main Street in New York City to capture the world’s attention? We know the story. We will celebrate his coronation today. We will return next week in joy, decorating our church in regal red, with flags and special music and an abundance of flowers on our altar.
The world does not know about Pentecost because there is still so much work yet to do by King Jesus’ subjects. I need to stop my complaining and listen to those two men in white, get to work Karl. Let people know about the good gifts of King Jesus. Work we can only accomplish with the Holy Spirit gathering us as Church. Amen