Comedy in Motion
A Liturgy of Creation
Hespeler, June 4, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Trinity Sunday
Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20
Many people, even faithful believing Christians, will argue over the passage that we read this morning from the Book of Genesis. Many will ask the question, is it true? By which they usually mean, is it true that God really created everything that exists over a period of six 24-hour days. Many of us, perhaps rightly so, are a little bit skeptical about that idea.
But I actually think we are too quick to ask that question of this story. I would argue that you cannot say whether a piece of literature is true or not until you decide something else first. You have to decide what kind of literature it is.
Different Kinds of Literature
This is actually something that we all know, it’s just that we don’t usually talk about it. Every different kind of literature operates according to its own rules that we use to judge whether or not it is true.
For example, when you read a newspaper article and you ask whether it is true, you are actually asking whether all of the things that the article says happened actually happened as it says that they did. A true journalistic article is one that is properly sourced, that quotes people accurately and tells you what happened.
Fiction and Poetry
When you read a book of fiction, on the other hand, you know very well that the events that it narrates never happened and the characters it describes never existed. But why, then, do you read fiction? Is it because there is no truth in it? Of course not! I think that I can honestly say that some of the deepest and greatest truths I have ever learned about humanity and life in this world, I learned from some of the fictional novels that I have read. They are a great source of truth, just not literal truth.
And then you pull out a poem, let’s say, a much-loved poem by Robert Frost. And you read the part where he says, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” How would you judge whether that poem was true? Would you insist that, unless somebody could show you the actual roads that diverged in a wood somewhere where Robert Frost once stood that that was a false poem? Of course not. The truth of the poem does not depend on the existence of any roads because the road is a metaphor for the course of the poet’s life.
What Kind of Literature is it?
So, I hope you will agree with me that every different kind of literature has different rules for their truthfulness. And the Bible is not just one kind of literature. It is a collection of various types of literature. And so, if you want to know whether and how certain passages are true, you need to know what kind of literature you were dealing with.
So, what kind of literature is the creation story? I suspect that most of us would agree that it was not intended to be a journalistic account of what actually happened at the beginning of all things. It predates the invention of journalism by many centuries. Therefore, the truth of it does not depend on everything having happened exactly as it describes. Nor would we call it a scientific textbook, which would mean that it’s truth would have to be demonstrated through repeatable experimentation and observation. But what sort of literature are we dealing with?
I am going to make a suggestion that might not necessarily occur to many people. I am going to suggest that the story of creation in Genesis chapter 1 is actually a liturgy. A liturgy is a very specific kind of literature. It is a document written to guide a community through an act of worship. Our Sunday morning bulletin, for example, is a very simple kind of liturgy.
And there are some pretty good reasons for thinking that Genesis 1 could be a liturgy. It is very repetitive, and you can easily imagine how it might have worked as a sort of call and response. You can imagine, for example, the worship leaders calling out, “And there was evening and there was morning.” And then all the people responding, “the first day, the second day, the third day, and so on.”
The Enuma Elish
But, even more important than that, we know that there were worship services in the ancient world that were very similar to what we see in Genesis 1. I mean, extremely similar. In Babylon, during the Neo Babylonian kingdom, there was an annual New Year’s festival. And as a key part of this worship festival for the Babylonian gods, the great epic story, called the Enuma Elish, was recited.
And guess what the Enuma Elish was. It was the story, told in seven tablets, of how Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians, created the world and everything in it. And there is a lot in common between the two stories.
How Marduk Created
Marduk creates, in fact, following almost exactly the same steps as the Lord God does in Genesis. He separates the waters above from the waters below. He creates lights in the dome of the sky to organize the passage of time and seasons. Step by step, the creation takes place in pretty much the same order.
So, there is a lot in common. But there is also a lot that is different. In Genesis, how does God create? By a word. God speaks and everything in all creation is put into its proper place.
Marduk, on the other hand, has a very different approach to creation in the Enuma Elish. Marduk creates almost everything through violence. When he separates the waters above from the waters below by creating a solid barrier, he doesn’t do it by speaking like God does. He does it by defeating a great monster named Tiamat and then literally ripping her in two from top to bottom.
When he creates humanity, he does so by killing another god and creating the human beings, as slaves to the gods, out of the blood of that dead god. So, while it is remarkable how the two stories are alike, it is in many ways even more remarkable how different they are.
Story Originated in Babylon
The connections between the two stories are so significant, that most scholars today believe that the Genesis account was influenced by the Babylonian creation story. And, by far, the most likely time when that would have happened was while the people of Israel were living as exiles in the land of Babylon.
While they were there, many of them living as servants in the homes of the Babylonian elite, they would have been exposed to the Enuma Elish. And, in the midst of that harrowing experience, some of them may have been inspired by God to create this liturgy of creation.
Why they Needed this Story
Put yourself for a moment into the position of those poor Judean exiles in Babylon. They have been subjugated and defeated by this terrible violent people. They have been robbed of their homeland by them and reduced to being their servants and slaves.
And every year, at the Babylonian New Year, they are forced to listen to a story that affirms that the Babylonians are the greatest and that they deserve to rule over the whole world. And why are the Babylonians so great? Well, obviously because the Babylonian gods are the best. And we know that the Babylonian gods are the best because look at all of the other gods and monsters they killed and slaughtered and tore into pieces in order to create the world. That was the message.
A Better Story
And can you not imagine some poor Judean exiles getting together one day and saying, “No, that’s just not right. The world was not created to be a place of violence and slaughter and death. It was not created merely so that the strong could exploit the weak. It was created to be a place of hope and life. And so, it couldn’t have been those violent Babylonian gods who made everything.
“It must have been our God who is the creator of all. And our God did not create everything by violence and slaughter and tearing other beings in two, our God brought order and meaning to the universe with… with just a few words. And God made it good. That’s how powerful our God is!”
But, of course, it wasn’t enough to just say that. Who would care what a bunch of powerless slaves and exiles said. They needed a powerful way to express it so that people would remember it and have hope. And what better way to do that than to start to gather as a Jewish exile community. Over a week they would gather and celebrate their God as the true creator of the universe.
And let’s just guess what exactly they may have worshipped over those seven days. Day one: God the creator of light. Day two: the creator who separated the waters above from the waters below and created the barrier of the sky. Day three: The creator of dry land and growing plants. Day four: The creator of the sun, moon and stars and, well you get the idea.
Just a Basic Outline
So what we seem to have in the first chapter of Genesis is the basic outlines of the worship that was carried out over this weeklong festival. Of course, there would have been more to it than that. There would have been hymns to sing and we might even have some of the lyrics: “So God created humans in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” I can imagine a choir singing that, can’t you?
I’m sure there must have been dancing and feasting too. What better way to celebrate the creator of growing things than with a feast of fruits, for example. But the basic outline is right there in the seven days of creation story.
The Seven Days
Of course, you realize what this means? All of those people who tie themselves up in knots about how the Bible says that God created the world in seven days and that therefore all of the scientists who say the earth is millions of years old are wrong despite having all of the evidence on their side, may have completely misunderstood what this passage is actually saying. The seven days is not intended to be an indication of how long it took God to do it. It is only an indication of how long it took for the people to celebrate it.
An Act of Resistance
But, more important, this means that this story is about a whole lot more than how the world came to be. It is all about how a subjugated and exploited people can stand up for themselves and resist their abusers. And that is an aspect of this passage that we definitely need to recover given what is going on in our world today.
So, what can we draw from this story to help build a better world? Well, think of it this way. The exiles in Babylon lived in a world where everyone believed that violence and power were the solutions to every problem and that only the most powerful could rule. The Babylonian Enuma Elish reinforced that view of things.
We still live in a society that believes that today. Think of all of the stories we tell – the stories that come out of Marvel Studios for example. But the Jewish exiles told a very different story of a God who created with words, not violence. It was a powerful witness that the world could be different!
Valuing Human Life
The exiles in Babylon lived in a world where human beings like them were considered to exist only to serve the interests of the powerful and wealthy. This was reinforced by the Babylonian creation story that declared that all humans had only been created as servants to the gods.
And make no mistake that we also live in a world that values human life in much the same way. All of us everyday are constantly being judged in terms of what we can produce, what we contribute to the economy. And those who do not produce, or who do not earn enough from the fruit of their labour, are increasingly abandoned and treated as worthless. The Babylonian Creation story’s message is still powerful!
But the Jewish exiles were bold to proclaim in their story that the purpose of humanity was very different – that “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” They dared to tell a story of God giving dominion over the land to all people and that the goods of the earth were gifted to all humanity by God for their sustenance.
A Subversive Sabbath
And, if the people who celebrated this story were essentially slaves, what do a slaves need more than anything else? They need time off! And this story of creation is all about taking time off, isn’t it? That is why the whole thing is built around a seven-day cycle! It is all about getting us to the seventh day, the day of rest!
And in this liturgy, what were the Hebrew exiles saying? They were saying that their time off was not a gift of their Babylonian masters. They were saying that it was a gift of their God – indeed that God had built the entire universe around their need for a break! That was a dangerous thing to say in Babylon, but the Jews told this enduring story, and a good story has a way of getting through to people. The story stuck.
The Genesis creation story is a worship liturgy. But, more important, it offered a way to tell a story that went against the narrative of the world. As such, it had a powerful and enduring impact. Let’s think about the stories that we tell about this world. They can also have the same kind of impact. And let’s also consider how our acts of worship can also transform our understanding of this world. That is where the deepest truth and greatest power of the story of creation can be found.
Community of Creation
Now you’re talking my language!
Hespeler, May 28, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Pentecost
Numbers 11:24-30, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21, John 20:19-23
You might not know this about me, but I have a degree in Linguistics – the study of language. And that has always meant that I look at the famous story of the Day of Pentecost in the Book of Acts a little differently from most preachers.
I cannot just turn off the Linguist part of my brain when I read it. I cannot help but notice, for example, that, on one level, the miracle of people speaking in different languages was not really necessary for comprehension.
Everyone Spoke Greek
It is true, of course, that various people who lived in various places spread all over the known world at that time had their own local languages. But it is also true that, because of the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, many people had also learned at least one other language.
If you traveled or traded or dealt with government officials, you learned to speak Greek. You had to just to get by. And so, even if expatriate Jews and some Gentiles had travelled to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost, and even if they spoke the local language back home, they all had a very easy and convenient way to communicate with each other: just speak Greek.
What is the Point?
So, what is the point of these members of the church suddenly speaking in all these local languages from back home? What is it supposed to accomplish? It can’t be about comprehension, so what is it about?
Ah, but any Linguist understands that language isn’t just about comprehension. It also serves several social functions. So, I suspect that something else is going on in this story. But, to understand what it is, you may need to put yourself in the sandals of one of those outsiders who had come in for the festival that year.
A Visitor from Parthia
Shimeon was a Jew, but he was a Jew who had lived all his life in Parthia. And, for almost all of that life, the King of Parthia had been at war with the Emperor of Rome. Even though it was practically required of all Jews that they should travel to Jerusalem every year for the three main festivals, everyone understood that those who lived elsewhere could only make the trip rarely.
But when you live in a place at war with Rome, when you literally have to cross a demilitarized zone to get from your home to the temple in Jerusalem, you can imagine that even doing so rarely could become impossible.
A Wonderful Opportunity
The fact of the matter was that Shimeon had never been able to make the pilgrimage, not even once in his entire life. So, he had been so very excited when things had worked out and he was able to come down for the Festival of Passover this year. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with the heritage and traditions of his people that had always been so hard to hold onto in far off Parthia.
As a Jew, a member of a minority community, he had always felt like an outsider in Parthia. He was excluded from all religious festivals and most other social gatherings in the mainstream society. So, of course he had been looking forward to being in a place where he was surrounded by Jewish people and by Jewish practices and worship. He had thought that he might find himself here. But, things had not quite gone as he had expected. A lot of it had to do with language.
Jews in Parthia
When the small Jewish community in Parthia gathered in synagogue, they sometimes did some prayers and rituals in the old Hebrew language. But the old language didn’t mean much to them. When the elders read the scriptures, they occasionally read from the few Hebrew scrolls that they had, but then they had to explain what they meant to the younger people in Greek. So, it was usually much easier to read from the popular Greek translation known as the Septuagint. These scrolls, that had first been published some two centuries earlier, were also easier to obtain in far-off Parthia than any Hebrew scrolls.
So, while Shimeon had heard some archaic Hebrew, he really wasn’t comfortable using it. But he hadn’t expected that to be a problem on this pilgrimage. Wherever he had traveled before, he had always managed to get by in Greek, surely things would be the same in Jerusalem.
Treated like an Outsider
But it had not worked out that way. As he dealt with the native Judeans – bartering for a place to stay or for food in the marketplace or even just asking for some directions – when he spoke to them in Greek, he could tell that they could understand him. When he asked for the price of the figs, for example, they looked right at the basket of figs in the booth, but then they stubbornly answered him in the local dialect of Aramaic.
Aramaic was somewhat related to old Hebrew, so he was sometimes able to work out what they were saying, but then, when he tried to answer them in the language that he had heard in the synagogue back home, they laughed at him, calling his accent strange and ill-tutored. They then used this as a ready excuse to overcharge him or deny him the goods he had been looking for.
Understanding the Judeans
You see, the Judeans, who had so long felt like outsiders in the big world of the Roman Empire, tended to make up for that by treating those who came from other places like minorities and outsiders. They refused to speak common Greek to them. They doubled down on the local Aramaic dialect and were only too happy to make fun of the way that the outsiders spoke.
They did this to all of the outsiders who came down to the festival, even those who only came from as close as Galilee. Galileans, in many ways, were the most like the Judeans, especially in their dialect. But the Judeans went out of their way to make fun of their strange northern accent.
So, even though participating in the events of the festival had meant a great deal to him, ever since he had arrived, Shimeon still felt as if he didn’t belong here either. It made him wonder if he really belonged anywhere.
A Sudden Disruption
The greatest day, the climax of the festival, was the day when the people brought their first fruits to present in the temple. It was a chance to give back to God from the very best that God had given to them over the year. And Shimeon was excited as he joined the throng moving through the streets. If he didn’t speak, no one looked twice at him and, for a few moments he could feel as if he was part of something much bigger than himself.
But suddenly, as he passed by a side street, he heard some shouting. It sounded… different. It didn’t have the same cadence and rhythm of the local Aramaic language. It seemed strange and out of place here, and yet the thing that really struck Shimeon about it was a strange familiarity. There was something in it that felt like home to him, as if he were suddenly back on the streets of the city in Parthia where he had grown up and played with the other local boys.
Galileans Behaving Strangely
And so, he turned aside, as did a number of other worshippers in the crowd. They soon came upon a small group of men and women who had gathered outside of a house. It was quite plain that all of them, by their clothing and their mannerisms, were Galileans. But, amazingly, they weren’t speaking like Galileans. To his wonder and amazement, Shimeon noticed that one of them, a young man, was shouting out praises to God in the local language of Parthia – the very language he had grown up speaking on the streets.
As he looked around at him, he saw many other pilgrims has been drawn to the spot. They, like him, had traveled from many places to be here for the festival – Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia. Oh, there were too many to name! And he could see by the looks on their faces and by the tears that they were wiping from their eyes that they were reacting much as he had. They also had felt completely excluded up until this moment, but they all suddenly felt that they belonged.
But they were not the only ones who had been attracted by the disturbance. There were also some local people too, some Judeans. And they were moved by what they heard as well, but not in the same way. Many of them were furious. For, in and amongst all of the various languages and accents that had been emanating from the group of Galileans, there were also words spoken in the local Judean dialect.
The Judeans in the crowd felt as if they were being mocked by these crude Galileans. Why, the very idea that their language, the language obviously favoured by God, could be counted merely as one among so many others was unacceptable. And so, they, for their part, began to shout out against these Galileans. “Don’t listen to these country Bumpkins,” they cried. “Here it is. Only nine o’clock in the morning and they are already drunk and raving like lunatics!”
A Galilean Speaks
But then the crowd fell silent as one of the Galileans stepped forward. Everyone wanted to hear what he might have to say about such wonders. “Fellow Judeans, and all who live in Jerusalem,” he said, speaking specifically to those who had been criticizing them. He spoke in very poor Greek, mixed with many Aramaicisms and a heavy Galilean accent. “Let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these people are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” And so began the very first Christian sermon ever preached.
Something about the Early Church
When the writer of the Book of Acts started writing his account of the beginnings of the Christian movement, he knew a number of things about the earliest church. He knew, for example, that one of the practices of the church from near the beginning (and perhaps it continued into his own day) included believers speaking in strange languages.
It worked like this. Some believers, while they were gathered with the community in worship, would enter into an ecstatic state. This is something that human beings have been doing for a very long time. They get all worked up in a frenzy until they lose all ordinary control of themselves. It is something that still happens to this day in various settings including worship services and raves and even some practices that use psychotropic drugs.
Speaking in Tongues
In this state, the believers would sometimes speak in unintelligible languages. These were not actual languages, but more like ecstatic utterances. In his Letter to the Corinthians, Paul insisted that they could only be understood through a similar act of ecstatic interpretation by another believer.
But the act of speaking in tongues, as it was called, could be very moving and had the effect of deepening the worshipper’s connection to God and the community through the Holy Spirit. As a result, those who engaged in it seem to have sometimes thought that they were somehow better Christians than those who didn’t. The Apostle Paul saw that as a problem.
The Author of Acts Makes it Mean Something Else
The author of the Book of Acts obviously knew about this practice. But when he came to write the story of the origins of the Christian Church, he decided to present it in a different way. He decided, for just this one occasion it seems, to transform this speaking in tongues into something that wasn’t just ecstatic and unintelligible. He had the first Christians on that first day speak in the local languages of people from every corner of the known world.
Why did he do this. I think he was trying to say something – something that was probably more symbolic than it was literal.
A Writer who Knew About Being an Outsider
We don’t actually know who wrote the Book of Acts. Christian tradition says that it was a man named Luke, but we can hardly be sure of that. Whoever he was, though, he was almost certainly a man who spoke Greek as his first language. His Greek is excellent.
So perhaps he had had the experience, as a Greek interested in the God of Israel, of going to a festival in Jerusalem and being treated like an outsider. He knew what it was like to be the outsider who the locals thought talked funny. I wonder if that is why he reimagined the practice of the early church of speaking in tongues as something that could overcome that kind of prejudice and mistreatment.
If that’s what he was doing, he was putting forward something very hopeful. He was drawing a compelling picture of what the church could be – a community where there really was a place for anybody and nobody ever got treated as a second class citizen. That is an idea of the church that I still cling to and aspire to. If we could all aspire to that, I think that God would do some amazing things among us.
A bible reading for this week.
Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
Hespeler, May 21, 2023 – Ascension Sunday
Acts 1:1-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11
On October 14, 2012, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner got into a helium balloon and flew straight up into and beyond the atmosphere. He climbed 39 kilometres (or 24 miles) into the stratosphere. The blue sky turned black and the stars came out. He was wearing a specially designed pressure suit, of course, or he would have been dead before long.
He stood there at the door of his capsule and looked down. The curve of the earth’s globe was plainly visible beneath him. He leaned forward and then he just fell. Well, he didn’t just fall; he hurdled to earth in free fall. He fell for 4 minutes and 19 seconds before eventually deploying his parachute. During that time the black sky turned blue, the whole earth spun, and he moved so fast that he is the first and only human being to ever break the sound barrier without an engine.
A Stunning Event
The whole event was absolutely stunning and awe inspiring. All over the world, people watched the video of the feat in shocked amazement. And if you had been present in New Mexico, where the whole event played out, you would have stood there staring into the sky. Your eyes would have widened in shock when you heard the sonic boom and realized that a man had just made that. You would have been filled with wonder and relief to see the man land safely.
I could not help but think about that incredible stunt that took place over a decade ago when I read our passage this morning from the Book of Acts. “When [Jesus] had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The connection between the two events seems inescapable. Jesus takes exactly the same route as Felix Baumgartner, just in the opposite direction.
An Amazed Reaction
Even more important than that, the reaction is much the same. While he was going, the disciples were gazing up toward heaven. And they are clearly so amazed and shocked by what they are seeing that they barely even noticed the sudden appearance of two men in white robes. These men, who appear to be angels, then criticise them for staring up so fixedly saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
There is so much that connects these two stories. They both follow the same route. They are both extremely awe inspiring. But, in many ways, when you look at the question of what these two events mean, they really couldn’t be more different.
What it means?
Baumgartner’s jump was many things. It was a publicity stunt engineered to promote the Red Bull brand. It was a successful attempt to set a world record. But it was, above all, a scientific experiment. And, as such, it confirmed many of the things that we know about our planet. It dramatically demonstrated the shape of our planet and the form and substance of the atmosphere and stratosphere.
But if the story of the ascension of Jesus into heaven means anything – and it obviously means a great deal – that meaning seems to depend on a denial of just about everything that has been demonstrated by Baumgartner’s jump. Because, if all that Jesus did was to rise up from the earth in order to enter into the stratosphere – if all he did was travel upwards until the blue sky turned black, the stars came out and the oxygen ran out – that would have been amazing. But it would have had none of the meaning that it is meant to have in this passage in the Book of Acts.
How they saw the Universe
The meaning of this story is entirely dependant on a first century understanding of the universe. The disciples of Jesus lived in a world that they conceived of as a layer cake. There were three basic levels of their universe, and the meaning of those levels was more spiritual than it was physical. The earth was sandwiched between an underworld below – a place of death and possible damnation – and heaven above. Heaven was where God lived, and it was just beyond the clouds and on the other side of what looked like the blue dome of the sky.
And the meaning of Jesus’ ascension is all found in the spiritual shape of the universe. This story is about Jesus departing from a physical presence with his disciples to take his place at the right hand of the Father so that he can watch over and intercede for his beloved followers on the earth.
A Theological Idea
Now, as a theological idea, I have no problem with that. The amazing story of the gospel is that God so loved this world that he gave his only begotten son to live among us. What that means is that, in Christ, the very nature of God broke through into this world. Somehow Jesus was able to show us the true nature of God (that God is love).
In addition, Jesus brings humanity together with God so that God may understand all of our failings, temptations and weakness. And yes, it is only fitting that the risen Jesus must stand before God to plead for us and support our needs to the great ruler of the universe.
So as an idea, it is absolutely beautiful and wonderful. It means the world to me. But when you tell me that this had to be accomplished by Jesus doing a reverse Baumgartner, you kind of lose me there. Because I know that the universe doesn’t work like that.
I know that if you go straight up, you do not somehow pass through a solid blue dome and find yourself standing in the physical presence of God in heaven. Astronauts have been up there. Felix Baumgartner has been up there we know that that is not how the universe works.
Where is God?
That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean that heaven doesn’t exist. Oh yes, they probably exist in a way that doesn’t quite fit into the three-dimensional space that we’re familiar with, but they still exist. But if I have to embrace the concept of the universe that was held by the first century disciples in order to accept the meaning of the story of the ascension, I have a problem. I know that, in order to take a place at the right hand of God, Jesus did not have to literally fly up into the stratosphere.
Stories about what they had Experienced
Here, then, is how I have come to see all of this. As far as I’m concerned, there is no denying that the disciples and followers of Jesus experienced something extraordinary in this person. They experienced God in him in some truly irresistible ways. They tried to pass on the truth of what they had experienced to us by telling stories of his incarnation, his transfiguration and other extraordinary events.
After he had been crucified and died, they experienced him alive and with them again. They passed on the incredible news of what they had experienced with the stories that they told of his resurrection. And sometime after he had been raised, they experienced something that convinced them that he had moved on to another plane of existence from which he would intercede for them before the Father. They passed on the truth of this with their accounts of the ascension.
The Challenge of the Ascension
But they had a challenge in telling the stories of the ascension. Stories of the incarnation were extraordinary of course, but at least they could relate them to things that they had already seen. They had all experienced things like conception and birth, and they knew that Jesus’ birth had to be something like that, just more divine.
In the same way, they could talk about the miracle of the resurrection using terms that everyone could understand because everyone could at least imagine what it was like to see someone again after they had died. Yes, in the case of Jesus it was far more amazing than that, but it did relate to everyday life.
But they didn’t have the words to describe an experience of Jesus taking this new place at the side of God. And so, they had to resort to doing the best that they could, describing it in terms of the three-layer universe as they understood it. And so, I don’t think that we can know exactly what they saw and felt and knew on that day. The best that they could say was that it was like watching Jesus go up and into the stratosphere.
What it Means Today
That all leaves us with the question of what we do with all of that, and what it means for the faith that we profess today. The thing that particularly strikes me about it today is the way that, in that moment – as they stand there staring into the sky – the disciples are given an incredible new insight into the relationship between themselves and God – an insight that they can only describe in terms of Jesus going up into the sky.
And we are all given such insights from time to time – moments when heaven and earth come together and it all makes sense. These are powerful moments. But they come with a temptation. Such visions can be so overwhelming that we stand there in awe of what we have seen. We are just so impressed with our own insight.
Our Response to Insight
That is exactly what the disciples are doing in this passage, and it is exactly why the two men in white call them out. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Yes, we have been shown the secrets of another existence. Yes, we can take comfort in knowing that Christ will intercede for us from the right hand of God. Yes, we know the hope that he will return some day and finally bring justice and equity to the whole world. But none of that is a reason to stand frozen in inaction.
The day of ascension is all about what Jesus has done and will do for us. But the point of it is not to stand there amazed by what we have seen. Jesus has already been clear about that when the disciples asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”
In other words, he is saying that, even though God is going to do it, you can’t know when. Therefore, there is no point in standing around looking up to the place where God was thought to abide.
What to do Instead
So what, then, were they to do instead of standing around and staring? Jesus had told them that too. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And I think it is very significant what they are asked to do instead of waiting around. They are told to be witnesses. It is not up to them to make it happen – that is up to God. But they can be witnesses – they can tell other people about what they have seen and experienced of God in Jesus Christ.
So, what you have experienced, the deep insights that God has given to you over the years, the sudden realization of God’s love and grace that have come to you, you can and should share them. They will be blessings to many others. But they are not an end in themselves, don’t become stuck staring at them and contemplating them. Expect more from God, and in your expectation be bold to share what you have experienced. That is how hope spreads. And that has to be what Ascension Sunday is about.