During the 1978 British firefighters strike, the army was enlisted to cover emergency services. Among the many major crises it helped to avert, there were also hundreds of smaller calls, including one from an elderly woman whose cat seemed stuck high in the tree in front of her home.
The burly squad that came in response seemed comically overpowering as the big soldiers maneuvered ladders and ropes to rescue poor kitty. Neighbors gathered to watch the spectacle, and the woman called out encouragement from the front steps. At last, however, the shy and anxiously spitting cat was brought back to earth and restored to its quavering owner.
The woman knew her rules of hospitality and would not allow the men in khakis to depart before she blessed them with a cup of tea. Into her small parlor they crowded, tipping dainty china cups while she doted on them in deep appreciation.
But all good things must come to an end, and finally the rescuers begged their leave. Mounting armored vehicles with waves and cries of good cheer, they pulled away from the curb -- and in so doing ran over the timid cat that had sought shelter from the commotion under these large tires! (Book of Heroic Failures; Futura, 1979).
Sometimes the best-laid plans just don't get the job done! That cannot be said for the grand exit strategy initiated by Jesus after his universe-rattling, death-defying work on earth was finished. Luke records in careful detail, twice over, the specifics of transition set in motion when the Master commissioned his handpicked cadre to carry on, and Paul writes about the celebration that followed the exaltation of the Savior. This is Ascension Day, and a grand game plan is afoot, on earth as it is in heaven!
Luke is midway through his story, set down for Theophilus. Who was this fortunate follower of Jesus so honored as to have a new gospel record and an entire history of the early church dedicated to him? Likely he was a recent Gentile convert (as his very Greek name implies), perhaps under the ministry of Paul (since Luke was sidekick to the great apostle). Laudatory hints raise him to the level of at least minor Roman government official ("Most excellent..." is a typical public recognition of social service rank, somewhat like "the honorable..." for mayors and judges and others in contemporary society). And the name "Theophilus" itself might be an alias designed to hide him from recognition by his superiors, since it means "Friend of God."
More we cannot say. But thankful we are that he was the human catalyst to Luke's investigation of the greatest story ever told, and the production that eventually caused the good doctor to become the dominant author of the New Testament in terms of sheer literary volume (although Paul's letters are more numerous than Luke's two-volume work, the latter exceeds the former in word- and page-count).
As Luke picks up the story midstream, it is clear that the tale continues to be about Jesus. Whereas the gospel volume revolved around the life of the Savior while on earth, this companion piece tells of Jesus' continued work through the Holy Spirit in the mission of the church. It was and remains the ministry of Jesus, as Luke makes very clear at the start.
Jesus' disciples now understand fully that their Master is the divine deliverer and Anointed One (this is the meaning of the descriptor "Messiah" in Aramaic or "Christ" in Greek). But they do not yet comprehend what this means in heaven's long-term strategy or initiatives. They believe that a powerful interruptive deliverance is in the offing, parallel to that experienced by their distant forebears during the days of Moses. Rome, like ancient Egypt, shall soon fall, ripped apart by plagues and celestial firestorms. The remnant of Israel, now found in the minority nation of the Jews, will rise once more to become God's witness to the nations. All will cower in awe before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and come looking for the divine decrees through the Holy Scriptures so faithfully transcribed and preserved by the house of David.
Jesus' response to their queries catches them off-guard. "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons..." Jesus tells them. And then he orders them to "wait" while he makes a quick exit.
Why wait? Wait for what? Two things. First, the empowering. As Luke noted near the beginning of his gospel record, John baptized with water, but the One who followed him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 3:16). Luke clearly has this in mind as he writes this introduction to the Pentecost experiences of the next chapter. There the fire will fall from heaven and announce the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus' absence from his disciples had to be coupled with a broader divine presence. This was the promise Jesus had made in his farewell testimony to his friends (John 14-16). Apart from the infilling of the breath and power of God (the Greek means "spirit," "breath," and "wind"), the disciples would remain scared and skittish without their Master. But once the Spirit came, it was as if Jesus moved personally into the heart of each, and knit them together as an actual body.
If the disciples needed to wait for the Holy Spirit, why should the delay be so long? Why could not the Holy Spirit be sent later the same day or within the week? Why the gap of ten days?
This brings the second important part of the story. Jesus' death was connected with the Passover, since he was offering himself as the last and greatest lamb in this unique historical rite. After his resurrection, the next major Jewish festival was Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. On this occasion the people remember Moses' return from Mount Sinai bearing the Law or Covenant, the very word of God. When, as an agricultural community established in Canaan, this celebration fell after the early barley harvest and before the later grape and fig gatherings, it became symbolic of the promise of God's providence. The Creator of all things, who had nourished the earth for this first hint of bounty, the first fruits of the harvest, was sure to bring in the full return.
So the wait for the Holy Spirit's coming was tied also to Pentecost. Jews from all nations of the known world would be in Jerusalem. Whatever they experienced during the few days of the festivities was certain to be noised back to their communities when they dispersed and returned home. If the new era of "the kingdom" was to be a missional harvest, then its tie to the first fruits of Pentecost was an unmistakable sign.
Thus the "wait" ordered by Jesus was extremely strategic. So too was his disappearance that followed next. Ascending to his other home, Jesus would be crowned on the distant side of the gossamer veil that separated heaven and earth in honor of his triumphant victory (cf. Philippians 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 15; Ephesians 1:15-23). Yet as he left, Jesus posted sentries who announced to his disciples that he would return. This was a theological surprise. The prophets had long foretold that the "Day of the Lord" was coming (see Peter's sermon in Acts 2, based on Joel's very pointed prophecy about this). They assumed it would be a once-for-all event, an in-breaking of divine judgment that transformed everything into the joy and beauty of the eternal messianic age.
Now Jesus' leaving was coupled with a brand-new hope: the "Day of the Lord" was split in two, bringing an early realization of its blessings before the awful judgments it also anticipated were to be realized. The grand and terrifying single event was made an extended process, during which the mission of the church could bring in as many as possible before the wrath of God would be revealed. It was a startling declaration, and changed biblical history forever.
When Judith Grant published a book of articles and essays by Robertson Davies in 1979, she called the collection The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (McClelland and Stewart). The Canadian novelist expressed himself so often in superlatives and excesses that Grant's title was entirely fitting.
Ephesians 1 might similarly be titled "The Enthusiasms of Paul." Those who read Greek will know that the sentences of this letter run on and on in complex combinations of enthusiasms, heaping superlatives upon comparatives like a boy explaining his first fish catch or homerun. Louis Pasteur claimed that "enthusiasm" was the most beautiful of all words; it meant to be "breathed into" by forces larger than ourselves until we were energized beyond what we could achieve on our own.
That certainly fits with the enthusiasms of Paul in today's New Testament reading. While writing a letter to his friend Philemon, pleading for grace when sending the slave Onesimus back to his owner, Paul also penned a word of instruction to the church in Philemon's neighborhood (Colossians), and this general missive intended to be circulated among the area congregations. (For a clear explanation of the background to these letters, read pp. 223-228 in Covenant Documents: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time [Cognella, 2009].) Although Paul was in prison in Rome, awaiting vindication before Caesar against the false charges heaped against him in Jerusalem (Acts 20-26), he felt free in his spirit, soaring on the winds of grace he found in Jesus.
Paul's prayer, one of many in this short letter, is that his readers might fly with him on the currents of heaven, experiencing the enlightenment and strengthening that comes from seeing the world from God's vantage point, and knowing the power of Jesus' resurrection and ascension promises. In verse form, Carl Daw Jr. has transformed these ideas to an amazed and amazing hymn:
God of grace and God of laughter,
singing worlds from naught to be
sun and stars and all thereafter
joined in cosmic harmony:
give us songs of joy and wonder,
music making hearts rejoice;
let our praises swell like thunder,
echoing our Maker's voice.
When our lives are torn by sadness,
heal our wounds with tuneful balm;
when all seems discordant madness,
help us find a measured calm.
Steady us with music's anchor
when the storms of life increase;
in the midst of hurt and rancor,
make us instruments of peace.
Turn our sighing into singing,
music born of hope restored;
set our souls and voices ringing,
tune our hearts in true accord:
till we form a mighty chorus
joining angel choirs above,
with all those who went before us,
in eternal hymns of love.
Luke's gospel begins and ends in the temple where people are gathered for times of celebration and worship. No more fitting end could be found to the stories of Jesus' coming, work, victory, and departure than a time of singing and prayer in the temple. Luke actually tells the story of Jesus' ascension twice, here in quick overview, and then again in theological precision at the beginning of his second volume, Acts 1.
Amazingly, in this first rendition the emphasis is on fulfillment. While everything that was happening around the disciples shouted "NEW!" and "DIFFERENT!" and "FIRST TIME EVER!" because of the sudden incredulity of the resurrection under which they were reeling (notice v. 41), Jesus launches into a history lesson that tells how all of this "newness" was actually predicted ages ago. It was essentially the grand game plan of God, stretching back to the dawn of human history. While many twists and turns had produced the history of Israel, these were but the warp to the woof of God's eternal plan of salvation, now finally revealed in Jesus.
It is precisely because of the certainty of this divine game plan that Jesus could suddenly leave and allow the next phase to unfold. In fact, there is an ancient legend first told by Christians living in the catacombs under the streets of Rome that pictures the day when Jesus went back to glory after finishing all his work on earth. The angel Gabriel meets Jesus in heaven and welcomes him home. "Lord," he says, "who have you left behind to carry on your work?"
Jesus tells him about the disciples, the little band of fishermen and farmers and housewives.
"But Lord," says Gabriel, "what if they fail you?! What if they lose heart or drop out?! What if things get too rough for them and they let you down?!"
"Well," says Jesus, "then all I've done will come to nothing!"
"But don't you have a backup plan?!" Gabriel asks. "Isn't there something else to keep it going, to finish your work?"
"No," says Jesus, "there's no backup plan. The church is it. There's nothing else."
"Nothing else?" says Gabriel. "But what if they fail?!"
And the early Christians knew Jesus' answer. "They won't fail, Gabriel," he said. "They won't fail!"
Isn't that a marvelous thing?! Here are the Christians of Rome, dug into the earth like gophers, tunneling out of sight because of the terrors of Nero up above. They're nothing in that world! They're poor and despised and insignificant! Yet they know the promise of Jesus: "You won't fail! You're my people, and you won't fail!"
This is the certainty of the game plan of God which Jesus told to his disciples that first Ascension Day. And so we celebrate on this one!
"Hannibal" Smith, leader of the irreverent fictional A-Team of television, comic book, and movie fame, was known for his cigar and his oft-repeated testimony, "I love it when a plan comes together!" Although others are surely better point-persons to follow, his delight in the coming together of blueprinted events is a very good thing, especially when it is God who drafted the design.
Few stories are as complex and surprising in their twists and turns and yet as deceptively simple as the grand design of redemption. Pulling together strands of promise to our first parents, conversations with a wandering Iraqi, miraculous changes of fortunes for a slave people, heartfelt songs out of the heart of a shepherd-king, incessant aching complaints from generations of prophets, the restoration of a displaced community, and a gripping ministry by a doomed itinerant preacher, God wove a tapestry that when viewed from a distance was simply a blanket of love.
Today the penultimate chapter of that profound and direct drama is told. Jesus, our Savior, culminates his journey to earth with a return trip to heaven. And his promise, echoed by Paul, is our own testimony: We're on our way too!
Acts 1:1-11. British evangelist David Watson told the story of a self-important businessman who traveled constantly and spoke often at conferences and conventions. While receiving many accolades for his efficiency and mighty insights, it was actually his secretary who made it all happen. She arranged his travels, scheduled his appointments, and even filled in the details of his general jottings to create polished manuscripts in preparation for speaking engagements. Without recognizing her importance to him, the publicly lauded figure blithely gathered acclaim while failing to thank her.
One day he breezed through his office en route from one great public appearance to another. She handed him his travel documents and a folder with the pages of his next speech. As usual, he received these without even a nod or a word of appreciation.
When he arrived at the convention hall, he received words of praise and went quickly to his spot on the platform. After a rousing introduction that would have embarrassed lesser souls, our hero strode confidently to the podium, opened the file, and began to read his brilliant speech, prepared by the woman back in his home office.
After a great opening story, the central thesis he had scribbled on a notepad so long ago was clearly spelled out, along with the promise "We shall now consider this under seven headings" at the bottom of the first page. He slipped it aside to continue, but all he could see at the top of the next sheet of paper was a single phrase in large and bold letters: "YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN NOW!"
That man's shock and panic might well have been similar to what the disciples felt when Jesus suddenly left them on the first Ascension Day. They were just getting used to the idea of having their crucified friend back with them again, even if he seemed somewhat mysterious in the power of his resurrected condition. While they were beginning to plan a new and brilliant future with him, perhaps one which involved the overthrow of despised Rome and the restoration of the glorious kingdom of David, all at once Jesus threw them a few blessings and disappeared!
If ever there was a startled troupe they were it. It would take some time before they began to see the blessings of it all, and more years still until they could reflect on the occasion from the point of view of Jesus. Although they seemed to be left bereft in the departure of their Master, he, in these events, was reclaiming his rightful place in glory. Sadness on earth was coupled with homecoming joy in heaven. The moment of loss in this brief time before Pentecost was contrasted by coronation ecstasies in the world of the angels where trumpets shouted and galaxies danced in explosive fireworks. It was truly the return of the king, with more pomp than even J.R.R. Tolkien could later muster in description.
Today, with the New Testament writings to help guide us, we sing with both the trepidation of the disciples and the joy of the cherubim. The song, on the lips of all, can only be "Crown Him with Many Crowns!"
Preaching the Psalm
"Clap your hands, oh you people! Shout to God with songs of joy!"
A quick question for everyone: When was the last time you completely gave yourself over to joy? When did you last abandon yourself completely to simple and unrestrained joy? An educated guess about the answer would be that for most of the folks reading this, it's been a long time indeed. Unrestrained expressions of joy are usually found only in the very young or the very crazy. Sane adults don't jump around dancing and applauding God. We just don't. And isn't that a shame?
Our culture squeezes the joy from us as we allegedly mature and get serious about career and the trajectory of our lives. This spiritual harvesting leaves us moving through our days as dry husks, going through the motions of life. It's deadening. In fact, it is death. Yet the rhythm of the psalm beckons us to get up and start singing. No matter how we're feeling or what's going on, the words creep upon us and seize us by the collar.
"Clap your hands oh you people! Shout to God with songs of joy!"
No matter what struggles are weighing you down, no matter how tired you may be, joy is calling you. In spite of the many challenges and battles you face, God's consuming wonder will not abandon you. It's still there; it is still available. Are the days of our lives shattered by grief or broken hearts? Stand up. Clap your hands. Shout to God with songs of joy!
It seems na´ve, perhaps, to suggest it. But the sheer act of defying the gloom with unreasoning joy is a source of healing in itself. Laughter is indeed medicine. Some time ago a friend who was a comedian was putting on a show. His friend was sick with a horrible cold and flu but hauled himself to the performance out of respect for his buddy. By evening's end, two hours of continuing laughter had healed the cold, and the fever from the flu was gone.
Our joy isn't just something we should feel. It's an instrument of God's grace! So whatever the malady or complaint, give it over to God and risk the joy the Spirit offers. Life is too short for our deadening adult ways. So "clap your hands oh you people! Shout to God with songs of joy!"