Us and the promise of God

Luke tells us a very funny story, easily one of the funniest in all of scripture. The disciples were having a conversation with Jesus when suddenly he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. What are we supposed to visualize here? Jesus floating up like a helium balloon or zipping skyward like Iron Man? Then there’s the moment when the disciples are standing there, gazing up to where they last saw Jesus, when suddenly two men in white robes appear and ask them, “Galileans, why are you staring up toward heaven?” It’s a perfect Monty Python moment just waiting for a hilarious punch line to pop.

It’s so easy to dismiss the scene as too fantastic for our sober minds and not quite fantastic enough for our imaginations shaped by Hollywood’s power myths and their mind-blowing special effects. At a church in Kansas City, worship on Ascension Day calls for special props. Hours before the service, five or six people show up and begin filling up balloons. They pump hundreds of white balloons full of helium gas and stuff them into an enormous bag made of bedsheets. Eventually the pile of white fabric is transformed into this big fluffy thing, and with a few deliberate pushes by the prop artists, a cloud begins to take shape. The volunteer cloud squad pins the only remaining opening shut and releases the magnificent cloud to float about the sanctuary. It dips and rises over worshipers, moving wherever it wants to go. Some years the cloud takes on unruly behavior, accepting a few too many ceiling fan currents, and divebombing the candelabra. There have been cloud squads who decided to tether the gigantic white blob with ten-pound fishing line and walk it around the sanctuary like Snoopy in a Macy’s parade. All eyes, of course, are on the visual prop. Most of the worshipers tilt their heads skyward for much of the service, and the net effect of this soaring-cloud routine are stiff necks and pinched nerves.[1] Not exactly what the risen Lord envisioned for his disciples.

Luke’s story won’t tickle our funny bone, though, when, rather than watch the scene from a distance, we enter it. What we discover is the disciples moving through yet another season of change and loss. For forty days – in biblical lingo that means a good long time – Jesus had presented himself alive to them, appearing to them and speaking with them about the kingdom of God. His painful absence after his death on the cross had turned into the new life of his confusing and joyful resurrection presence, but just when they thought they knew him again like they hadn’t known him before, just when they thought their world was now ready for God’s kingdom to come in fullness, he slipped away again. No wonder they looked intently to where they had last seen him.

Now the scene is not funny at all, but heart-breakingly familiar. “One thing is for sure: there is no sense of absence where there has been no sense of presence,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor.

What makes absence hurt, what makes it ache, is the memory of what used to be there but is no longer. Absence is the arm flung across the bed in the middle of the night, the empty space where a beloved sleeper once lay. Absence is the child’s room now empty and hung with silence and dust. Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood, the house in which people laughed and thought their happiness would last forever.

Where do you turn when your sense of God’s presence suddenly vanishes? Where do you turn when the visible becomes invisible, the tangible, intangible; the answer, a question; the presence, an absence? Luke tells us that Jesus didn’t go away, but that he ascended to heaven. Paul tells us that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.[2] That’s all about a Jesus, but what about us? What are we supposed to do?

Jesus says to us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” The absence will again become powerful presence, and we will be witnesses of the love that has found us, we will be messengers of reconciliation, truth tellers and ambassadors of the Lord’s reign to the ends of the earth. “You cannot miss what you have never known,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “which makes our sense of absence—and especially our sense of God’s absence—the very best proof that we knew God once, and that we may know God again.”[3]

Our gaze is stuck on that spot behind the cloud where we last perceived God’s presence in the person of Jesus, and the angels gently redirect our attention down to earth. It’s no use looking up if we want to see him. He will come to us. Our attention needs to be where his attention was when he walked on the earth. On the margins of our communities where life is far from flourishing. On the poverty of purse and of spirit that drains us of life and keeps us from recognizing each other as brothers and sisters. Our attention needs to be directed by his, and to the degree that we know what Jesus notices, we act, and to the degree that we don’t fully know where he wants to direct our gaze, we wait. He will come to us. We will be clothed with power from on high.[4]

Or so he told them, so he told the few who would become his apostles. But those were different times, simpler times, we imagine. They didn’t have Pew polls relentlessly reporting the declining numbers of believers; for them, then, it was just natural to believe in the promises of God and they, of course, weren’t nearly as busy as we are—or so we like to think. Annie Dillard wrote beautifully about this odd assumption:

A blur of romance clings to our notions of “publicans,” “sinners,” “the poor,” “the people in the marketplace,” “our neighbors,” as though of course God should reveal himself, if at all, to these simple people, these Sunday school watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves in their tattered robes, who are single in themselves, while we now are various, complex, and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.[5]

No need, then, to paint the past in a rosy glow, whether it’s the days of the apostles or the years of innocence after World War II when tall steeples went up like grass after a spring shower. There is no one but us. There never has been. Us and the promise of God. Us and the promise that we are not on our own, but that God is at work in the world. Us and the promise that we will be clothed with power from on high and be just right – just right, you and me, just right to participate in Christ’s continuing mission to the ends of the earth.

We have our VISTA event today, immediately after worship. As we look back to evaluate and look around to assess and look ahead to make plans, the biggest challenge will not be our goal to be done by 2, but rather to let the angels gently redirect our gaze from the place where we last saw God powerfully present to the places where Jesus calls us to be present. The biggest challenge will be not just to use our best wisdom and judgment, but to trust the movement and work of God’s Spirit in the world and to offer ourselves to be part of it.

Paul tells us that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. Far above doesn’t mean far away. The movement of God is not away from the world, but deeper into its brokenness in order to heal and redeem it. The movement of God is not away from us, but always to us and through us to the world. Christ reigns far above all rule and authority and power and dominion opposed to God’s kingdom, and we have the privilege to let our lives be a witness to this reign. There is no one but us. There never has been. Us and the promise of God.


[1] See Peter Marty, “Up, up and away,” The Christian Century, May 15, 1996, 543.

[2] Ephesians 1:20-21

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Boston: Cowley, 1995), 76.

[4] Luke 24:49

[5] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 56-57