Acts 1. 1 – 11
Ephesians 1. 15 – 23
Luke 24. 44 – 53
“God has gone up with a merry noise, the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.”
In many ways the Ascension feels like the fulfilment of Palm Sunday; these two great moments of the earthly life of Christ framing the momentous events of Holy Week and Easter.
In both we see the entry of the king: in one, to the earthly city of Jerusalem; in the other, to the heavens.
Like the triumphal procession of Palm Sunday, we’re encouraged to celebrate the Ascension as if it’s Christ’s victory march, the culmination of his earthly ministry, celebrated with shouts and trumpets and triumph.
But unlike the entry into Jerusalem, this is a victory celebrated in obscurity, amidst the olive groves on the mountain outside Jerusalem. Only a handful of people witness it; his disciples and his mother.
Imagine getting a few friends together and going up to an isolated spot on the Moor, away from anyone. It doesn’t really feel very triumphant, when you think of it like that.
But when we look at the events of Christ’s earthly ministry, we see that when the crowds are there, it’s usually bad news.
It starts off ok doesn’t it: everyone gathered around hearing his teaching, and witnessing his miracles.
But then they want to take him and get him to kick out the Romans; or they pull him this way and that to get him to perform his signs; or they try to stone him, when he goes a bit too far for their liking.
And when they gather around shouting for him on Palm Sunday; soon they will all fade away, and the shouts of ‘Hosanna’ will be so easily turned into shouts of ‘Crucify him.’
The important stuff – the work of our salvation – happens in humility, obscurity, lowliness. Witnessed only by a few.
Think of his birth, in the lowliness of the manger. The Last Supper, in an upper room with his friends. His crucifixion, abandoned by nearly everyone; witnessed by thieves.
Even his resurrection, that universe-changing moment, isn’t witnessed by anyone. Just a few sorrowful women see the empty tomb in disbelief, and then see the risen Christ walking calmly in the garden.
And it’s the same sort of thing today. So what’s the point of all this hidden-away grace? What is God’s plan all about, if only a few can witness it?
It’s all about raising up what seems lowly, insignificant, unimportant: gathering it into God, and giving it the greatest dignity.
The Ascension shows us that even our own small, individual lives, seemingly of no significance in the vastness of time and the cosmos: even we are of the greatest significance to God.
The Ascension shows us that human life has eternal value, eternal significance – that our world is intended, is destined, to be grafted into the life of God, rooted into the heart of heaven.
Because Jesus, in a human nature like ours, has moved beyond the last barrier. He has crossed the last threshold which separates humanity from the divine.
And we believe that what we celebrate in his going to the Father, is the guarantee and the assurance of what is intended for all human life. The glory of the ascended Christ is the meaning and the destiny of our lowly human existence.
In short, life is leading somewhere. Life is leading to God.
I have the enormous privilege of ministering to the dying – just yesterday I was with someone who is very close to their final hours. It is difficult, and painful, and in some circumstances tragic.
But I am always struck so powerfully, even in the most distressing situations, how much the presence of God fills the room. That the whole atmosphere is saturated in love. In that small space, only one or two gathered together: I can feel God filling that situation with his peace; bringing wholeness where lives are torn apart.
This is proof, to me, of the promise of the Ascension. Because in someone’s final moments, the heavens are opened; the veil between earth and heaven is drawn away for a space, and we catch a glimpse, like those astonished disciples, of our own future. Eternal life, eternal peace, gathered up into the love of God.
But it’s not just something nice to look forward to. As the angels say to the disciples, ‘Oi, why are you standing around gawping?’ (Or at least, words to that effect.)
There’s work to be done. We must go by the same way Jesus went – the way which holds steadfastly to God in love and trust, no matter what darkness or distress or uncertainty may overtake us. The way of compassion and forgiveness.
The way of the Spirit. Jesus’ last message to his followers, as we heard, is that the Spirit is coming to equip us to witness to Christ throughout the world.
We will end tonight by accompanying the disciples down off the mountain – or off the Moor – and join them in expectant prayer for the coming Spirit.
So pray for the gift of that Spirit; that by witnessing to Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life, we might at the last come to the place where he has gone before, and where he waits for us to join him there. Amen.