Sermon for Ascension Day – Years A B and C

I drafted this sermon in 1999 during what was for me a very dark time and this is reflected in its content. I don’t think I ever delivered it (it’s still in draft form) but have included it here anyway!

There are various topical references and, of course, was written before 9/11.

It helps me in prayer, meditation or in preparing a sermon to try and visualise a story and to imagine myself as one of the characters or as an observer.  I try to become aware of how I’m reacting, what I’m thinking and feeling and try to hear what God is saying to me through this story today.

This process is inevitably influenced by things that are happening in my own life and in the world around me and it was during a rather dark period that I tried to visualise the events of the ascension of Jesus.

I imagined walking up the mountain with Jesus and the disciples.  Unlike them, I know what is about to happen and I feel a sense of dread and reluctance to continue – I’m not ready for this.  What’s that about?

On Palm Sunday we were each given a nail to carry around with us during Holy Week and we were invited to think about this question “What does the Cross mean to you?”

I have been thinking about it and for me the Cross says that at the very heart of our world there is suffering of mind, body and spirit.  There is loneliness, isolation, pain and darkness.  There is human suffering in many hideous forms, both our own and what we see endured by others.

And there is something very important in the fact that we are hurt and moved by the pain of others.

I believe that the image of God in us is at its clearest when we long to reach out to help people who hurt, whether they are our friends or the refugees whose anguished faces  haunt us from our television screens.

If we can have compassion for others, how much more would a loving God be hurt and moved by the suffering of his creation, his children?

For me, the Cross says that Jesus, the Son of God, suffers both in the witnessing of human pain and in his own anguish and death.

So with my nail and these thoughts of suffering I reach the mountain top with Jesus and his disciples.  They ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

I have my own questions.

“Lord, isn’t this the time to bring your kingdom to our world and end all this suffering?

How can you leave us when so many people are still walking in the darkness of Good Friday and crying out to God in their pain, ‘why have you forsaken us?’ ?

“We need you to rule in this world:

in Yugoslavia and Kosovo where bombing and another holocaust is taking place;

in America where school children are gunned down by school children;

and in my own country where bombs left in a street market drive a nail into the head of a baby.

“Don’t go – we need you here – isn’t this the time for you to reign in justice and mercy?”

He answers that it’s not for us to know God’s plans but that we will receive power from the Holy Spirit to witness to his message and to continue his work throughout the world and throughout at least the next two thousand years.

That isn’t the answer I want to hear but as he speaks the sun shines more brightly on him, his face and figure become brilliantly white so that he becomes part of the light.  We turn away, our eyes unable to stand the brightness.  As the light begins to fade it’s as if it’s being drawn back up into a cloud and the figure of Jesus has also gone, absorbed into the light and taken up into that cloud.

I stand in awe and wonder but also with a feeling of being abandoned, of emptiness, of lost-ness and, yes, of anger too – what do I do now?

The disciples turn and make their way back to the troubled city of Jerusalem, uncertain what will happen to them.  They go to wait and to pray.

I turn and come back to 1999, to this troubled world, still clutching my nail, still experiencing the Ascension of Jesus as a desertion and wondering how to work through that feeling.

I got stuck at this point for some time and it may be that others here know something of these feelings.

Gradually I’m beginning to work towards some light out there in the darkness.

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus was tempted to take the power and the glory and rule over all the kingdoms of the world if he would do homage to the devil.  Is my plea to him to stay and take charge of our world an echo of that temptation?

Jesus answered, “You shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone”.  He resisted the temptation to take power in the world and to enforce his will.  That is not the way of the God who is Love.

Out of his compassion for our suffering God becomes one with us.  In our Gospel this morning we hear of Jesus coming from the presence and glory of God the Father where he was before the world began.

He comes to earth to make known to us as much of the nature of God as can be revealed in human form.  His ministry on earth was teaching, healing and seeking to win the hearts and minds of people through love and service and he experienced human life to the full.

Jesus was born as a baby, in poverty yes, but wrapped in warm cloths, loved and protected.

Throughout his life he shows the compassion of a God who enters into the sufferings of others and who is not indifferent.

By the time Jesus dies he also knows from experience what it is to be human with all its joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, health and illness.  The Jesus who ascends into heaven has laughed and cried, enjoyed friendship and known utter isolation, he has been loved and cared for but he has also been betrayed, tortured and killed.

If in Jesus the glory and compassion of God come down to earth then also in him the pain and suffering of this world are taken up into the glory of heaven.  The ascended Jesus bears the physical scars of his death and I also believe that he bears the mental and emotional scars of his living.

And the ascended Jesus prays for us:  “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I know what that’s like – Holy Father, protect them.”

The ascended Christ is for ever reaching out with scarred hands to protect those he loves, no longer limited by time and space.

The ascended Christ is alongside the refugee and the Red Cross worker, the victim of a bomb blast and the doctors and nurses, the lonely and the depressed and those who offer friendship.

As I said earlier, I use visualization and symbolism a lot and I have tried visualizing myself on that mountain top putting into the hands of Jesus a symbol of my anxiety or distress – a photograph, a newspaper cutting, my nail – anything which represents a concern of mine – and then visualize that being absorbed into the light with Jesus and being taken up into heaven with him where he can pray about it to God the loving Father.  It doesn’t take away the care or hurt but I am beginning to feel that it is being shared by God who can bring light into my darkness and who can change me if I allow him to.

We need strength from God to stand steadfast in faith and when we again celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit may he bring a new assurance and faith so that we may rejoice in the glorious ascension of Jesus, the uniting of the glory and compassion of God with the suffering of this world and may God himself restore, support and strengthen us.