(Acts 1:1-14; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53)
Imagine being one of Jesus’ original disciples. They went through a lot in their three years with Jesus: He called them to be his disciples and they followed him. They journeyed with him for three years of preaching, teaching, healing, and conflict. They witnessed his betrayal, arrest, trial, conviction, crucifixion, and burial, then retreated in fear and dismay to the upper room behind locked doors. They were surprised by his resurrection and appearances to them, which continued for forty days. Finally, after all of this, at the end of the 40 days of appearances, they gathered with Jesus as he told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit baptized them as the Father had promised would happen. The disciples, still hanging onto the idea of a worldly kingdom, wondered if this was the time when Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel, but Jesus replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
After he said this, while they were watching, he was taken up into heaven and disappeared in a cloud from their sight. Well, of course, the disciples stood gaping at Jesus while he was being lifted up and continued to gape after he disappeared in a cloud. I mean, it’s not every day that we see someone lifted up into heaven and disappear in a cloud. One minute they were conversing with Jesus; the next, he was miraculously traveling into the sky until he disappeared. Had we been there, we too would have stared into the sky, mouths open, dismayed and surprised.
They didn’t have long to be shocked and surprised, however, because soon two angels appeared (men wearing white robes who appear suddenly are always angels in the Bible) and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11). In other words: “Hey, he’s gone and isn’t coming back for a while. Stop standing there like you think something else is going to happen right now. Get back to being faithful disciples!”
All of those who followed Jesus at that time had entered an in-between time. The power of God in Jesus they had been living with for the past three years had gone, but the power of God in the Holy Spirit Jesus’ promised had not yet arrived. (Of course, the power of God in the Holy Spirit had been present since the beginning of time, but it would be present in a new way when it arrived after Jesus ascended.) What were Jesus’ disciples to do during this in-between time?
The disciples turned to devotional acts to sustain and guide them during this in-between time. They went back to Jerusalem to the upper room and were in constant prayer along with Jesus’ mother Mary, Jesus’ brother, and the women. Also, they were continually in the temple blessing God according to the Gospel According to Luke (Lk 24:53). So, they were either praying together in the upper room or blessing God together in the temple. As we can see, during an in-between time, a time in which they did not have access to the power of God in Jesus or the Holy Spirit, the disciples turned to devotional acts.
I can imagine that the disciples had all sorts of feelings after Jesus ascended. They were likely sad, scared, anxious, frustrated, angry, and confused. Jesus said he would send the Holy Spirit to them, but what if he didn’t? What if they were never baptized with the power of the Holy Spirit? What if this was the end of what they had begun with Jesus? What if they had to return to life as they knew it before Jesus?
Despite their desire to trust Jesus, I can imagine that the disciples felt sad, scared, anxious, frustrated, angry, and confused. We modern-day disciples, despite our desire to trust Jesus, often feel the same in reaction to what we experience in life. For example, this past week we learned of another deadly school shooting, this time at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX. Nineteen elementary school students and two teachers were killed by an 18-year-old man wielding an semi-automatic rifle. Of course, this event has caused devastation and increased disagreement. Those who lost loved ones are devastated. Their lives have been shattered. Meanwhile, the politicized and monetized disagreement in our country over gun control has heated up once again. While families grieve the loss of their children, politicians, gun manufacturers, and gun lobbyists argue over gun control. The level of fear, anger, frustration, grief, and cynicism rises in our country. We cry with the psalmist, “How long, O Lord, how long” (Ps 13:1)? When will this madness end?
Disciples throughout the ages have cried out in this way. Sin and evil have created madness since time immemorial. And we humans must live in the midst of the madness. How do we do so and remain grounded in God? Sometimes, it feels impossible, but the reading from the Letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we can. It states, “God put [the immeasurable greatness of his] power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:20-23). The short version of what these verses communicate is, “Jesus is Lord over everything.”
What does it mean that Jesus is Lord over everything? The apostle Paul expressed what it means when he stated in his letter to the Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39). Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord – nothing, because Jesus is Lord over everything.
Of course, it often feels as if things can separate us from the love of God, but the reality is, nothing can because Jesus is lord over everything. Our experience is: worry, fear, anxiety, doubt, physical illness, death, financial hardship, natural disasters, human-made disasters, and so on. There’s the reality, and there’s our experience. The challenge, then, is for us to remember the reality while we have our experience. Currently, the experience is, “Oh no! Another deadly school shooting just took the lives of innocent people and all that is being done about it is arguments over gun control.” The reality is, “Jesus is Lord over everything.” The experience is, “Oh no! I am ill.” The reality is, “Jesus is Lord over everything.” The experience is, “Oh no! My loved one just died.” The reality is, “Jesus is Lord over everything.” The experience is, “I am suffering.” The reality is, “I live and move and have my being in God’s love all the time because Jesus is Lord over everything.”
The challenge is to remember the reality even while we are going through the experiences. If we remember the reality, we are comforted, supported, encouraged, enlightened, guided, and inspired while we are living here on earth. If we remember the reality, we know that Jesus is Lord over everything even when it doesn’t seem as if he is. He has already defeated sin, evil, and death, and he is with the Father in the kingdom of heaven overseeing all, ever-present to us because we live and move and have our being in God. If we keep turning to God, God will lead us.
And, so, in reaction to the recent deadly school shooting, I ask that each of us turn to God and asks, “God, what are you calling me, personally, to do about gun violence?” Some will be called to activism, some will be called to compassionate care for those in need, some will be called to fervent prayer, and others will be called to something I haven’t thought of. Only God knows what each of us is called to do in response to the sin and evil we experience. So let us turn to God to discern our individual calls.
During a time in which the disciples felt sad, scared, anxious, frustrated, angry, and confused, they turned to devotional acts to sustain them. We can do the same. Regardless of what else we feel called to do, we can pray and worship God. These devotional acts will prepare us to receive whatever it is God wants to give us. After all, the prayer and worship the disciples engaged in prepared them to receive the Holy Spirit. Ten days after Jesus ascended, the Holy Spirit descended while the disciples were together in prayer and worship. The Holy Spirit then inspired and guided them into the future. By engaging in devotional acts, the disciples not only received sustenance; they also prepared for the arrival of the Holy Spirit Jesus had promised.
Let us end with questions: If we truly remembered and believed that Jesus is Lord over everything, what would change in our lives? What would we do differently? How would we feel differently? What in our lives would change if we accepted and embraced that Jesus is Lord over everything, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that we live and move and have our being in God? Let us ask ourselves these questions, be in prayer and worship, listen for the answers, then take a leap of faith and live the reality that Jesus is Lord over everything – despite any evidence to the contrary. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 22, 2022, Ascension Sunday.
*Image by falco from Pixabay