I have had more than my fill of end-of-the-world Sunday School lessons and doomsday sermons. In the sixth grade, I had a Sunday School teacher who talked about the end of days and the imminent return of Christ every Sunday for a year. She clouded my head with charts and graphs, all indicating that Jesus was certainly going to come back before my high school graduation.
In seventh grade, our youth minister took us to see the movie The Late Great Planet Earth. Like the recent Left Behind movie with Nicolas Cage, it was about all these people disappearing in the rapture. Planes, trains and automobiles were all of sudden without drivers. I watched in horror as planes crashed into crowded cities, trains derailed, and automobiles collided on every street.
And if that was not enough to permanently scar me for life, it seems like every revival preacher I ever heard would preach that the Lord was going to return in their lifetime. This always bothered me, especially since most of these revival preachers were retired, and to me, looked like they only had two, maybe three good years left.
Today, you can find preachers on TV who are still preaching the imminent return of Christ. They point to world events—ISIS, Iran, North Korea and Russia—as signs that the end is near. If you took some of these preachers to heart, you’d never plan anything a week in advance. You sure wouldn’t be freezing strawberries, and you’d never buy green bananas!
This is where today’s scripture lesson offers us a little bit of sanity.
For months, the risen Christ had been warning his followers that he would one day leave them, but he had reassured them, “I will not leave you orphans.” He told them that when he left they were to return to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
In today’s lesson, the time that they had been dreading for weeks had come. But before he departed, they asked him what my Sunday School teacher and those revival preachers seemed to already know: “When will you come again and restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He replied: “It is not for you to know the time or the period…But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After those words, he ascended into heaven, vanished from their sight, and left them standing there, gazing into the sky. They just stood there, looking up into the clouds.
And while they were gazing up toward heaven, while they had their heads in the clouds, suddenly, two men in white robes stood by them. They 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.”
Jesus’ followers were instructed to get their heads out of the clouds. They didn’t need to be alarmed about the departure of Jesus, for Jesus would one day return to them. They don’t know when, but they don’t need to know. In the words of Jesus, “It’s not for them to know the time or the period.”
“All you need to know,” said the angels, “is that he is coming.” It’s a certainty; he’s coming, so you can stop looking into the clouds, and start living for him by doing what he has commanded, and being his “witnesses to the ends of the earth.”
I believe this wonderful Ascension story teaches those of us who are obsessed with the second coming of Christ, that we need to stop obsessing. We need to get our heads of the clouds and start living the way Jesus commanded us to live.
There are too many Christians who regard faith as some ticket to heaven. Their salvation is something to be possessed, held on to, not actually lived, or shared with others.
I believe this scripture reminds us to get our heads out of the clouds, get our minds off of heaven, and come back down to earth. Come down and go to Jerusalem. Come down and go into all of Judea and even into places that we do not want to go, like Samaria. Go and be a witness to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere. Don’t go to church for the assurance that you possess something spiritual that others lack. Go and be the church by giving yourself to others who are the very image of God.
The story also teaches us that if we truly want to see God, if we really want receive the power of the Holy Spirit, instead of looking up in the clouds, all we have to do is to look around us.
In the play, Inherit the Wind, one of the characters says: “He got lost. He was looking for God too high up and too far away.”
The truth is that we find God when we redirect our gaze from the heavens toward people, and toward the world around us. We find God when we understand that grace, salvation, and the love of God are not mere tickets to heaven, but something that is to be shared with all people every day here on earth.
And we find God through mirroring God’s love, a sacrificial, self-denying, self-expending love—a love from a God giving all that God has to give, for God so loved this world more than God’s self. Thus, our faith is about honoring a God who died for all.
Here in Enid, Oklahoma, our heavens are blessed with the roar of aircraft piloted by men and women who possess this same sacrificial, self-denying, self-expending love—a love that is willing to give all, for these men and women we see in the skies above us love their country more than self.
Tomorrow, we remember those who did give all, as they paid the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedom, but we also honor all who are willing to lay down their lives at a moment’s notice. And in Enid, living in the shadow of Vance Air Force Base, named for Leon Vance Jr. who heroically gave his all during World War II, all we have to do is walk outside and look toward the heavens to be reminded of these men and women.
But as our eyes are focused upward, we need to pay attention to the voice of angels: “Men and women, boys and girls of Enid, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Get your heads out of the clouds and share this love—the love that you see in the jets flying overhead—share this love throughout Garfield County, across Oklahoma, and even into those places that you may not want to go.
This is the reason it has been such a wonderful blessing to welcome members of the 3rd and 33rd Flying Training Squadrons into our church the past two weeks to prepare and serve a hot meal to some of the the most impoverished men, women and children living in our community (last they week they served 60). The sacrificial love we hear and see in our skies literally came down to earth.
For when I walked into our church’s kitchen the last two Sunday afternoons, I saw none other than the very presence of the risen Christ. He had not disappeared into the clouds, but was right here in our church through the love of these service men and women who sacrificed a Sunday afternoon to feed the hungry. And there was no doubt that the risen Christ was also there sitting around those tables. You could see him clearly in the smiles, in the sincere gratitude of the ones who were being fed, accepted and embraced by selfless and unconditional love.
This is why the angels told the disciples to redirect their gaze, to get their heads out of the clouds. Stop looking for Jesus in the heavens. The angels said to them and says to us: “Look around you. In Jerusalem and Judea. But also look beyond you, even into Samaria, even in places that you may be afraid to go, places that may make you uncomfortable, places that may be painful, risky, dangerous. Look, go, and live for Jesus, and you will find him.
Moshe is a prophet in Elie Wiesel’s book entitled The Oath.
Moshe was speaking with Azriel, the narrator of the story one evening after a meeting at the synagogue.
“You go to school?” asked Moshe. “To what purpose?”
“To learn,” said Azriel.
“To learn what?”
“Torah,” the boy said uneasily (That’s the first five books of the Old Testament).
“Torah is life,” said Moshe, “and life must be lived; it cannot be learned from books, between four walls.”
“I thought,” said Azriel, “that Torah is more than life, since God himself submits to its commandments.”
“God too must be lived, my boy,” said Moshe. “You must live God, not study God in books, between four walls.”
Let us pray together.
God, help us to get our heads out of the clouds,
out of books,
out from these four walls,
and go out into the world to live Christ,
around us and even beyond us.
Help us to go and be the body of Christ,
be a community of grace,
of self-expending love,
and wholeness in our fragmented world. Amen.