(Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 23:44-53)
A friend who lives down the street from me once told me that she thought I was mad at her because I didn’t wave when we drove by each other on the street. I reassured her that I was not angry with her. I explained that I hadn’t recognized her car because I have what I call “car blindness.” I don’t register makes and models of cars unless I make an effort to do so. I just don’t care enough about cars to pay attention to them.
Ask me about movies, however, and I know all about them. I even know about movies I haven’t seen! I have loved movies for a long time, so I pay attention to them even if I don’t plan on seeing them.
I suspect that most people are like me: We pay attention to the things we’re interested in and ignore the things we’re not interested in. After all, there are many things going on in our world and we are bombarded with information about them all, so we select – consciously or unconsciously – what we pay attention to. Our brains weed through everything around us and highlight what’s of interest to us so we can focus on those things. In the garden of life, our brains scan the environment to find flowers to pick for us, leaving behind the weeds.
When Jesus’ time on Earth was ended, he gathered with his disciples, gave them final instructions, and then ascended to heaven. While he was ascending to heaven, his disciples stood gazing after him. My guess is that their eyes and mouths were wide open in astonishment! It’s no wonder they were transfixed at the sight of Jesus being lifted up in a cloud! It was an astonishing sight.
Suddenly, though, “two men in white robes” – that is, angels – stood next to them 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). Even though it was understandable that the sight of Jesus ascending to heaven would transfix the disciples, the angels came to remind them that they needed to redirect their focus. It seems they were saying, “Yes, yes, we know that what is happening is astonishing, and we know that Jesus will return in the same way some day, but right now you need to attend to what is next for you here on Earth.” In other words: pay attention to that which Jesus asked you to pay attention.
Luke tells us that the next thing they did was to return to the temple and continually bless God (24:53). The disciples’ way of paying attention to that which Jesus asked them to pay attention was to continually bless God. They continually thanked and praised God in gratitude for who God is and all that God gives them.
Remember that before he ascended, Jesus explained to his disciples “that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk 24:46-47). The disciples returned to the temple to continually bless God knowing that – through Jesus, the Messiah – forgiveness of sins was available to all who would repent: to all who would turn away from whatever had drawn their attention from God and turn back to God. Forgiveness of sins was available to all who would pay attention to God.
The process of what happens to us when we pay attention to God is outlined in the Letter to the Ephesians. When we pay attention to God, we come to know God more fully and receive a spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know that hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power among we who believe (1:17-19). Let’s unpack that a little: 1) We pay attention to God. 2) We come to know God more fully. 3) We receive a spirit of wisdom and revelation. 4) The eyes of our hearts are enlightened. 5) We know that hope to which he has called us. 6) We know the riches of his glorious inheritance. 7) We know the immeasurable greatness of his power among his believers.
When we pay attention to God we come to know God so fully that we enter into the kingdom of God while here on Earth. Jesus stated that the kingdom of God is among us (Lk 17:21). It is here, but we don’t see it automatically. We have to look for it. We have to pay attention to the signs of the kingdom.
We pay attention to the signs of the kingdom when we do as the disciples did: continually thank and praise God in gratitude for who God is and all that God gives us. Gratitude is the key to seeing signs of the kingdom on Earth. Gratitude is the way that we weed through the garden of life so that we can focus on the flowers. Those whose eyes of their hearts are not enlightened will see mostly weeds; those whose eyes of their hearts are enlightened will see mostly flowers. We all are exposed to the same things, but we pay attention to different aspects of what we see. And what we pay attention to shapes our experience of life. Mr. Rogers famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’.” Bad and scary things happen. But, when bad and scary things happen, there are those who help the victims of the bad and scary things. The helpers are signs of God’s kingdom on Earth. Pay attention to the helpers.
Not only does what we pay attention to shape our experience of life, it shapes how we live our lives. As disciples of Jesus, we have to acknowledge the bad and scary things, but we don’t have to dwell on the bad and scary things. Instead, as disciples of Jesus, we are to be those who help the victims of the bad and scary things. We are to be signs of the kingdom of God among us. We pay attention to the helpers in order to recognize signs of the kingdom of God on Earth, and we become helpers in order to be signs of the kingdom of God on Earth. We see and then we become signs of the kingdom of God among us. In the garden of life, we not only see the flowers among the weeds, we also plant them and gather them and give them to others in beautiful bouquets of love and light.
Every week we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven,” when we say the Lord’s Prayer. We hope and pray that God’s will be done on Earth so that God’s kingdom can come on Earth. When we pay attention to God and to the signs of God’s kingdom, and when we do God’s will, we are participating in answering our prayer. We may want to gaze into heaven, waiting for Jesus to return as he went but, instead, we are to turn our gaze back to Earth and pay attention to that which Jesus asks us to pay attention. We are to continually bless God so that we are prepared when the Holy Spirit descends upon our hearts and minds and spirits and inspires us to act.
I may not pay attention to cars, and I may pay attention to movies, but neither really matters, in the long run. The only thing that really matters is that I pay attention to God and the signs of God’s kingdom among us. For “God is the king of all the earth” and Christ is “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” (Eph 1:21). When we pay attention to God and God’s kingdom, we pay attention to Love (with a capital “L”), we pay attention to Life (with a capital “L”), we pay attention to Light (with a capital “L). We enter the flow of eternity, becoming one with the Word through whom all things came into being (Jn 1:3); the one who is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Rev 22:13); the one who fills all in all. Apart from him, there is nothing; with him, there is everything. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 13 2018, Ascension Sunday.