The ascension of Jesus into heaven is an odd event. Artists, not knowing quite how to depict this event, have come up with some really goofy-looking pictures of Jesus floating in the sky with slack-jawed disciples looking up after him. I’ve also pictured the scene in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard returns to Kansas in his hot-air balloon and the people of Oz are all shouting, “Good-bye! Good-bye!” The question we ask today in reference to Jesus’ ascension is, “What really happened?” Luke tells us that Jesus was taken up into heaven, and the disciples were left staring up into the sky until two men in white robes told them to stop staring and go home. But where did Jesus go? We moderns have flown in the heavens and can say with certainty that there is no physical God figure sitting on a throne in the sky with Jesus at his right hand. This leaves us wondering: What is heaven, then, if it is not physically up in the sky? We grasp for answers from science-fiction books and TV shows, as well as what we think we know about physics. Is heaven some kind of alternate dimension that we can’t see? Was Jesus “beamed up” somewhere, like on Star Trek? We simply don’t know, and in the end, it’s not important. The two men in white robes say, “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.” In other words, “All right, guys, Jesus is gone. Show’s over. He will come back one day, but not right now. So, stop staring into the sky and waving goodbye. You all need to get to work here on earth carrying on with what he taught you to do.” And what is the work which Jesus has given us to do? The answer to that is just a few verses back: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
What does it mean to witness? What do you think of when you hear that word? Do you think of people standing on street corners handing out pamphlets and talking to people about Jesus? (In my younger days, I did do that, by the way.) Or, maybe you think of knocking on doors and inviting complete strangers to come to church on Sunday. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to do either of these things, unless the Holy Spirit is moving you in that direction. Those things strike me with fear and trembling, too. However, there are other ways to witness to people about who Jesus is and how Jesus has acted in our lives. And one of those ways is by telling stories.
From the time that we are young, we want to hear stories. Mom, tell me the story of how you named me. Dad, tell me the story about the fish that you caught that was THIS BIG. If your parents read stories to you at bedtime, you always knew if they skipped a part and would say, “Wait a minute, Mom, you forgot to read the part about. . .” Each family has stories about the people in their family and funny things that happened to them, and we delight in telling and in hearing those stories over and over again. Well, it should be the same way when we tell stories about how Jesus has acted in our lives. I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked me to tell the story of how I heard God’s call on my life to become a pastor. And I’m not going to tell it now because the complete story would take too long for the time allotted for a sermon. For now I will say that, as I look back on my life story, I can see God there at every bright place and every dark place, and every twist and turn. Have you ever reflected on your life story and looked for God’s hand guiding you? And if you have, have you shared that with others?
As Lutherans, we believe that God has called each one of us to a vocation. And being a pastor is not any holier than being a teacher, or being a printer, or being a mother or a father. Each person has been called to serve God in a different way in his or her life. But we’re not always very good at reflecting on how God has called us to serve in our vocation, much less telling other people about how God has acted in our lives. And the people around us, especially those who don’t go to church very often or at all, need to hear our stories. They need to hear how the love of Jesus has affected us. They need to hear why we do what we do. And they need to hear that Jesus loves them, too, and is also calling them to love him and serve him.
So, what is holding us back? If we think that Jesus is the most important part of our lives, and if we think that Jesus should be an important part of other people’s lives, then why aren’t we better about sharing this great good news with other people? All of the answers I’ve heard come down to one word: fear. I’m afraid that people will laugh at me. I’m afraid that someone will ask me a question that I don’t know the answer to. I’m afraid I’ll sound stupid. I’m afraid that people won’t want to be my friend anymore. It all comes down to fear.
It’s a natural human reaction to be afraid. And it’s okay to be afraid at times. But we have a Lord and Savior who conquered death for us; who rose from the dead and who ascended into heaven (however that happened!) and now sits at the right hand of God. And this Lord and Savior, this Jesus, has promised us that we, too, will have eternal life through him. We have nothing to be afraid of and wonderful good news to share with everyone we meet. There should be nothing that holds us back from telling our friends and family, and people whom we have just met, why we are Christian, and why we follow Jesus.
But, if you notice in today’s story in Acts, the disciples—once they stopped staring at the sky hoping in vain for Jesus to come back—did not immediately go out and start witnessing to people. Instead, they went home and devoted themselves constantly to prayer. They immersed themselves in prayer, waiting for the moment when the Holy Spirit would arrive and show them where they should go next. And I bet they also prayed for courage—that judgment that something—the stories that they would tell others about Jesus—was more important than their fear.
We, too, the people of St. John’s and Salem, are in that in-between time—that time of waiting. I don’t think God is finished with us yet, because if he were, I wouldn’t be here. I see signs of life in both of our congregations like new shoots of green coming up amidst the dead grass of last year. But like those new shoots of green grass, we are still untried and need to be strengthened. And the thing that will strengthen us is prayer. And so, I would like to call on both of our congregations to immerse ourselves in prayer and to listen for the Holy Spirit whispering to us which way we should go. The Holy Spirit can speak to us in many different ways: in times of solitude, through other people, through the Holy Scriptures, and probably any other way that we can think of. In prayer, the Holy Spirit can show us where God has been at work in our lives and can help us find ways to share our stories with others. And in prayer, the Holy Spirit can show us the gifts which God has given us that can be used for the benefit of others. Through prayer, the Holy Spirit will strengthen us and unite us as one body so that we can bear witness to the community of God’s love for us through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Another way, besides prayer, that we can be strengthened during this time is by studying our Holy Scriptures. I mentioned before that one excuse that I’ve heard people use for not sharing their faith with others is the fear of not knowing enough about the Bible. Well, I can tell you that I have been studying the Bible for many years now, and I still have questions about the stories of our faith. I think we always will, even if we study the Scriptures every day for the rest of our lives. While this should not prevent us from sharing our faith, this can also motivate us to be in a Bible study and learn more about how much God loves us, so that we can feel better equipped to share our stories with others. Currently we have a Bible study at 10:00 am on Thursdays at Salem. If your schedule does not allow you to come to that study, please let me know what time and day would work for you. We can always set up an additional time so that those of you who work can also have the opportunity to learn more about our faith story.
Like those disciples on that long ago day when Jesus ascended into heaven, we still look around us and wait for Jesus to return and to set all things right. And that day will come. But Jesus doesn’t want us to sit around twiddling our thumbs while we are waiting for him. He wants us to listen for his direction, to come together for worship, study, and prayer, and to witness to everyone about how he has wonderfully acted in our lives. So let’s be enthusiastic about sharing our faith stories with one another. Let’s look for opportunities to share our stories with a broader audience. Let’s tell others how much Jesus loves them and invite them to come and worship with us on Sunday mornings. And let us daily remember that Jesus was crucified, died, resurrected, and then ascended into heaven, all for love of us. What great and marvelous love that is! Amen.