Ascension Day: How We See Things
One of the most mind-boggling spectacles I’ve ever seen is a short science movie titled “Powers of Ten.” Many of us no doubt saw this movie in a high school physics class. More recently a new version of this came out for IMAX called Cosmic Voyage (narrated by God himself, which is to say Morgan Freeman!). Both films accomplish the same thing and in the case of the original movie I saw in high school, the first scene shows a close-up view of a young couple spreading out a picnic blanket on a grassy section of Chicago’s Grant Park. Then every ten seconds thereafter the camera pulls back, each time increasing its distance from the couple by a power of ten.
First the camera pulls back just one foot; ten seconds later it pulls back ten feet; ten seconds later it pulls back one hundred feet and then one thousand feet and then ten thousand feet and so on. At first you can still see the young couple. But soon you can pick out only the small square of their picnic blanket in the midst of the larger Grant Park. Seconds later Grant Park itself has been reduced to a small green patch as you can now see all of Chicago and the southern curve of Lake Michigan.
Next Chicago disappears as you see the whole United States. Then you see the whole planet earth, then even our own sun starts to shrink into an ordinary looking star. Within just a couple of minutes the picture has pulled back to the outer limits of the Milky Way galaxy and soon thereafter to the edge of the known universe. Once the edge of space is reached, the camera then quickly hurtles back through space, finally zooming back in on the couple in Grant Park. All in all the film is a stunning reminder of how small we are compared to the vastness of the universe.
As part of this week’s celebration of Ascension Day, I invite you to take a similar trip of the imagination. Let’s begin somewhere out in the vastness of space and then let’s start zooming in. We enter the bright spiral of our Milky Way galaxy, zooming past millions of bright suns. Then we enter our own solar neighborhood, zipping past Pluto, the rings of Saturn, and the red planet Mars, finally seeing the bright blue marble of Earth. Then we narrow our focus to Europe and Africa, descending more specifically to the Mediterranean Basin. Finally we see the region of Palestine, focusing on the country of Israel (itself no larger than Vermont). Then we move down to the modest city of Jerusalem, to the little hill known as Mount Zion, and finally we come in for a landing at Solomon’s Temple long about the year 900 B.C.
Then, having made this cosmic journey to this little pin-prick on the face of the earth, we witness a group of ancient Israelites singing Psalm 47 and thereby declaring to all who hear, “This Temple is the center of the universe! This is the throne of the Most High God–of Yahweh who is so mighty, so exalted, and so great that from this location on Mount Zion he rules every nation, every king, every speck of the cosmos!”
From the outside looking in, we cannot help but see this claim as ridiculous. It seems the height of audacity! Even if you limited your gaze to the then-known-world, Israel was a very small, middling nation. Compared to the vast empires of Persia and Egypt, compared to the splendors of Babylon’s hanging gardens and Egypt’s towering pyramids, Israel was a pimple on the face of the earth. So on what possible basis could the Israelites claim that they alone mattered, that they alone were the headquarters for the Sovereign of all creation?
Yet there it is in Psalm 47: Israel shouts its ardent belief that they are the theological center of the universe. Most scholars believe that Psalm 47 was sung when, as part of a worship service, the Ark of the Covenant was carried up into the Temple. That’s probably why verse 5 refers to God’s ascending amid shouts of joy–since the Ark was God’s throne on earth, seeing it ascending into the Temple was the same thing as seeing God going up. The only true God lived in Jerusalem and was in charge of every other ruler on earth.
When we read Psalm 47, we see lovely poetry that gives eloquent expression to our beliefs. But if back then you had been some atheistic king in Babylon or the Pharaoh in Egypt (yourself regarded as a god by the Egyptian people), then Psalm 47 would hardly strike you as lovely. How dare those puny Israelites huddle together in their pathetic little capital city and point their fingers at the kings of the world to say, “You’re nothing! Our God could buy and sell you! You, O mighty Pharaoh, and you, O lofty Emperor of China, and you, O exalted king of Persia, you all are the property of our God!”
Of course, within the confines of Israel the people did not have much opportunity to see the Egyptians or the Babylonians getting angry about such rhetoric. International communication was pretty minimal back then–Israel’s worship services were not beamed via satellite to other nations. Israel didn’t have its own Facebook page on which they posted such claims as their status updates. Nobody sent Tweets for #ZionIsKing. So it’s possible that the people who would have been the most offended by Psalm 47 never saw the worship services in which this was proclaimed.
Today our situation is vastly different. These days we live in an international marketplace of ideas and religions. Now what we Christians think about Jesus gets put into print and distributed far and wide. What’s more, today you don’t even need to leave home to encounter people of other ethnic and religious backgrounds. Attend any major university and your roommate is as likely to be a Buddhist as a Methodist. Have a donut and a cup of coffee in the breakroom at work, and the co-worker sitting across from you could as well be a Hindu as a Roman Catholic. And none of those people are going to like it if you present them with some version of Psalm 47.
At the interfaith services that have followed things like the tragic shooting in Newtown or the Boston Marathon bombing, the Christian pastor or the Jewish rabbi who participates in the service would, of course, always be welcome to read Psalm 46. In fact, Psalm 46 usually gets read. That’s such a comforting psalm, after all. “God is our refuge and strength.” But if anyone at such a service moved one psalm more and read this 47th psalm . . . well, the spirit of religious unity might unravel live on CNN.
Yet here we still are in the year 2021 gathered for worship to do what really we do every week: we come here to sing and shout our New Testament version of Psalm 47 by proclaiming that our Jesus has gone up amid shouts of triumph. Jesus has ascended to God’s right hand and is, right now, the King of kings and Lord of lords; the President of presidents and Prime Minister of prime ministers. Jesus, we say on Ascension Day and at all times, Jesus rules. Jesus is in charge whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not. Jesus is The One in so cosmic and galactic a sense as to offend anyone looking for mushy, half-mumbled affirmations that all religions are equally true. If what we came together to sing about this morning is true, then every faith system, every religion, and every person who claims another lord is wrong. Period.
These are not modest claims! Every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed and say “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” we are talking in huge, galactic terms. If our claims are true, then they affect everybody. If our claims are false, then no one could say, “Well, at least their faith serves some kind of purpose in their little lives!” If we’re right, then no one and no thing is excluded. If we’re wrong, then we’re wrong so devastatingly as to evacuate all meaning from our faith. “Jesus is Lord,” we say. But Jesus cannot be Lord kind of, sort of, here and there, now and again depending on your point-of-view.
It’s a little like some scientist who grabbed headlines by claiming, “My calculations show that our sun will go supernova in six months, evaporating all matter from the sun’s center out to the orbit of Mars.” A person could not be just a little bit right or a little bit wrong about a claim like that. Some claims simply don’t brook much middle ground. Ascension Day, the Lordship of Christ: this is how we see things. It’s how we see all things.
Of course, believing that we are not just locally right about Jesus as Lord but universally so does not give us license to abuse or bash those who disagree with us. But a claim as grand as Ascension Day will have some pretty big effect. So what might that be? Perhaps we are called to do the same thing the Israelites were called to do 3,000 years ago: namely, live as authentic witnesses to what we believe to be the truth.
We, too, must acknowledge that what we say and sing every Sunday when we gather in our little churches looks ridiculous. If it’s centers of power and influence you’re looking for, check out Hollywood, Wall Street, or Washington D.C. Even as Israel did not look like the center of the universe way back when, so the average church doesn’t look like much today, either.
The story is told that near the end of World War II Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin were observing a military parade of tanks and infantry units. At one point Churchill mentioned to Stalin that he was hoping that perhaps the Pope could have a good influence on their efforts at putting Europe back together after the war. Stalin leaned over and cynically answered, “Oh yes? How many divisions has the Pope got?” Most of our world cannot conceive of power and influence any other way.
The only power some people recognize is the power that comes from the barrel of a gun. At the outset of the film Grand Canyon a young street tough from South Central Los Angeles is roughing up a motorist whose car had stalled on the gang’s turf. When a black tow truck driver arrives to bail the motorist out, he begins to bargain and plead with the head of the street gang, asking that they let the motorist go unharmed. At one point the thug asks the tow truck operator, “You bargaining with me because you respect me or because I’s got a gun?” The driver answers truthfully, “Hey, you don’t have the gun, we ain’t talkin’!” “That’s what I thought,” the gang member replies. “That’s why I always carry the gun!”
The church doesn’t carry a gun, or isn’t supposed to, though some comments by some religious leaders lately make you wonder if everyone really knows this. We don’t have divisions of tanks. We don’t have that kind of clout or power. Nor, by the way, should we want it. We’re like Mount Zion of old: little pin-pricks dotting the landscape of a much bigger world. Worse, it’s a world whose headlines almost every day seem calculated to challenge the idea that any kind of a good, loving God is in charge of things.
Some years ago when the worst of Rwanda’s genocide was taking place as one ethnic group hacked another to pieces with machetes, Time magazine featured a quote from a U.N. observer on its cover: “There are no devils left in hell– they are all in Rwanda.” But when was the last time there was such a large outbreak of goodness and peace that, with stunned amazement, anyone wondered if there were any angels left in heaven seeing as shalom was popping out all over? No, ours is a world of hatred and strife, of children shooting children on playgrounds, of cancer and leukemia, of homegrown terrorists shooting up campuses and Christmas parties. It doesn’t look like a world ruled by a good Lord.
How then can we claim the truth of Ascension Day–the truth that Jesus is Lord and we are his people; that the church, all appearances to the contrary, is very much in touch with the theological center of the universe? How can we do this? We can do it only by letting our own lives bear out our ardent faith. We can do it only if Ascension Day is how we see things, is the lens through which we view our world, the nightly news, our decisions, our lifestyle choices, our everything. We have to let the Holy Spirit move us to live Jesus’ Lordship as consistently and boldly as we can. The shape of our lives needs to make Jesus as Lord more credible, not less so.
But perhaps that is why Ascension Day has not really “caught on” the way Christmas and Easter have. Outside the church, but alas even inside the church, Ascension Day doesn’t much register. Christmas and Easter are both big deals, but maybe that’s because on those two holidays it’s all done for you in a way that ensures you can get something out of it. Think of Christmas: Jesus is born! There he is. God’s got a gift for you, all wrapped up and lying in a manger! Or think of Easter: Christ is risen! There he is. God’s got a gift of new life for you that walked right out of the tomb.
But now think of Ascension Day: Jesus is lifted up. Where is he?! There’s no gift here–we’re left rather empty-handed. What’s more, wherever he went the last thing anyone heard him say was something to the effect, “You are my witnesses.” On Christmas and Easter we get Jesus given to us and so sit back to watch him act and speak. In the Ascension Jesus leaves and we are the ones left to act and speak for him! Small wonder our consumerist culture skips this one!
In the end it really does not matter how ridiculous we look when we sing sentiments like the ones in the 47th psalm. To those who only and always are on the outside looking in, faith always looks absurd. What does matter, however, is that if anyone bothers to get to know you, if anyone looks your life over more thoroughly to check out your professional conduct, your home life, your choices in the entertainment field, your care for the environment, your conduct as a friend or spouse or parent–if anyone scrutinizes all of that, then it matters very much that what they see in you is transparent to the truth of Jesus as the Lord of all. The church and our lives need to be the one place where his Lordship is visible.
And by grace it can be and by grace it is. This isn’t an impossible task for us because in a very real sense it’s not a task at all. It’s who we are by grace. Pentecost is coming up in two weeks. We are drenched in the Spirit’s presence now and as a result of that divine gift, everything changes. God has given us a new identity in Christ. Now the Holy Spirit empowers us to live that out every day and in every way. The Ascension and now the Lordship of Christ are how we see things because in our baptisms, we were given a new set of eyes.
In Maya Angelou’s classic essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” we see a vignette of what such new eyes may mean when we see Jesus as Lord. Set in the South back in the late 1940s, the essay tells of a time when Maya’s Momma was taunted and insulted by a group of white girls while Momma was doing no more than sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the small grocery store they ran.
The girls said nasty things to Momma, laughed at her for being black. One thirteen-year-old girl even did a hand-stand so as to let her dress fall down. She wasn’t wearing any underwear and so she mooned Momma with her bare bottom and front. Watching her Momma, young Maya was furious that Momma didn’t do something. Yet Momma stayed calm and as Maya moved closer, she heard Momma singing quietly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.” The girls tired of the show and left eventually, and as Momma left the porch to return to the store, Maya heard her singing again, “Glory hallelujah when I lay my burden down.” Momma could see deeper, farther than just those nasty girls and their despising of her. She saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and it changed everything.
We opened this sermon thinking about how quickly we can be dwarfed by the vastness of the universe. Given how big the cosmos is, isn’t it a bit audacious to claim we have the corner on ultimate truth? And yet we believe we do precisely because in our faith we know how well the cosmic touches us in our tininess.
Because once upon a time God’s Son took his own cosmic “powers of ten” journey. Long ago the Son of God zipped past galaxies, quasars, suns, planets, and continents getting ever closer to this world until finally he dove deeply into the confines of a virgin’s uterus. There, as a microscopic zygote, he took on human DNA, skin, organs, and blood, and was born in a small stable, all his vastness enclosed by no more than a goat’s feed trough.
Never before had the cosmic and the local, the vastness of space and the smallness of a single human being, mingled in so wondrous a way. And that is the God and Lord we serve; that is why we can be so sure that despite also our smallness, God is with us and does great things through us.
As the psalmist knew, this is a gospel too grand to be watered down–it needs to be sung with loud voices and the sounds of trumpets, inviting the whole world to “Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to the Lord upon his throne! Sing praises to God, sing praises! For he is highly exalted!” Amen.
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