Psalm 47
Acts 1:6-11

We’re taught as children that there are proper ways to go about life. If you clean up your Legos, then they don’t get taken away. If you ask nicely, you get extra Goldfish. This extends to adulthood, conditioning our daily patterns. If we turn in a project on time, we don’t get chastised by our boss. If we put money in savings, we achieve financial security. If we do x well, then y is achieved. We become accustom to a way of doing things, a way of ordering our world. If a new way of doing things comes along, it is natural for us to stiffen our backs, brushing off the notion that there might be another way. The more set in our ways we get, the harder it is to break free, especially when something comes to us new and startling and without warning.

Imagine back with me to that moment when the disciples realized Jesus Christ was going to leave them yet again. It had been 40 glorious days, basking in the divine light of the Resurrected One. He’d gathered them back up, taught, ate, commissioned. All the while, we hear that Christ was telling them about the kingdom of God – about how God’s rule came as gift, came to reorder the entire world. But the disciples didn’t seem to hear this or fully grasp what he meant. They were stuck – stuck in how things used to be. See, for so long, the disciples’ brains and bodies and beings had been conditioned – conditioned by the system that surrounded them.

Living under the rule of Rome, it was nearly impossible to fathom living under the rule of God, living under a new world order. The only kingdom they functioned in was the kingdom of Rome – of oppression and power that was out of reach. The kingdom of God is all fine and dandy but it is up there, in the clouds, full of love and grace and mercy and buzzword, buzzword, buzzword.

The disciples wanted something hard and fast, something they could sink their teeth into. Only twice in history has Israel been a kingdom: “first under David and his dynasty and later under Hasmoneans. Babylon destroyed the first kingdom, and Rome put an end to the second. [But] Nevertheless, hope still smoldered among ordinary Jews of the first century. With God’s help, they believed, Roman rule could be overthrown. So the disciples looked to Jesus, who had miraculously survived even Roman crucifixion: ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’”[1]

The disciples aren’t daft but rather are a dangerous mix of hopeful and conditioned, wanting to want something different but unable to imagine beyond the dreams they’ve developed and passed on generation to generation. There is a way of doing things, of fulfilling what is necessary and to do so, it looks like x. It can only look like x. Jesus, make it look like x.

To bring the kingdom of God to earth, they thought, then the kingdom had to be restored to Israel and put back in place. See, what the disciples craved was power – power to orient their lives in Christ’s coming absence. Power to lay everything out, neat and perfect. Power to know what was expected and meet those expectations.

As he always does – then and now – Christ hears beneath the question to the real question at hand – “Will you give us the power we need to put everything in its right place? Will you ensure our safety and security and sanity in the chaos of this mess that is before us?” In my mind’s eye, Jesus looks at his friends as a parent does when she knows that answer will feel like a rejection but is intended as care and compassion. He answers, “Sure, you’ll get power. You don’t need to know when but you will receive a power – a power beyond what you’ve ever known – the power of the Holy Spirit. I will give you what you asked for but it is not what you expect.”

We don’t like it when things don’t go as we expected, do we? I imagine the disciples didn’t either. When Blair and I got married, I charged a group of aunties and cousins to decorate our reception venue while I was getting ready. I had diagrams and photographs and marching orders in a perfectly organized folder. It was magnificent, as I’m sure you can guess. When we got to the reception, I walked in and could see from the lobby that so many things were not as I had planned. The gift table sign was off-center. The centerpieces were at an odd angle. The craft table – yes, we had a craft table – was disorganized. Thanks be to God for Blair Hartman because if he had not been there to squeeze my hand, I would’ve turned into a Bridezilla of epic proportions. But instead, I took a deep breath, graciously thanking God for all those women who spent their afternoons fussing over minutia all so I could relax and enjoy my wedding day. To heck with proper order, I could feel my body say as I breathed in and out. There was a plan far more perfect than I could’ve imagined – a plan just to be and be present to the gift of all our loved ones gathered together. I mean, I would’ve liked things not to have been all caddywhompus but still – there was a better way, a more beautiful way if I could just let it in.

Oh, but how hard this is, isn’t it? I could count on my hand the number of times I’ve given way to a plan not of my own making. I, like the disciples, crave things to be as I expect them to be – perfectly in order, as I think I need, with clear boundary lines and known results. I know cognitively that the kingdom of God is far better than what I could ever muster but I struggle to know that here, in my heart. Christ says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes,” which sounds great and all but I know full well that I’m not really into the kind of power that comes with the Spirit. I want Christ to restore the kingdoms that reign in my life: make our family budget work, make my work-life balance reasonable, make me worry less about my children, make my grandparents healthy. I want the kind of power the disciples were after – restoration of an ideal, restoration of a dream, restoration of my own plans.

Perhaps you’re with me on this. Perhaps you think that the only way to keep on living is to keep on as you’ve always done – to put your nose to the grindstone, to clean the house, to work harder, faster, stronger, better, to get your kids in the best schools so they can get the best jobs one day, to organize your retirement plan so nothing can go awry, to safeguard your family against any pain…Perhaps you’re also tired of it, tired like me. Tired of longing after kingdoms of this earth – of status and wealth and security. Maybe you don’t know how to long after the kingdom of God promised by Jesus. Perhaps you’re tired but you don’t know what to do with the exhaustion so you just get back on the hamster wheel, hoping but not hoping that something will knock you off and set you on the right path.

I think that’s where the disciples were on this Ascension Day. Jesus Christ was born, lived, died, rose, and now ascended and they were left with this dual pain of wanting him to change everything yet wanting to know they would be ok. So often, I think that the Christian life can be found in this tension that Chris talked about a few weeks ago when the disciples saw the Risen Lord for the first time – while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering (Luke 24:41). Yes, Lord Jesus take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord, to thee but – but only if this whole thing is real because I’m just so unfinished, my heart is still so unsure. This space between – this liminal, betwixt, between space is where we find ourselves today on Ascension. We can proclaim with certainty that Christ ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God but with the same breath, we speak the truth beneath that claim: that we aren’t sure if we really want what comes next. Next Sunday, we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church on Pentecost. But in the meantime, we’re stuck here, our necks craned back looking up at the sky like the disciples, our mouths agape wondering – now what?

If the now what is the Spirit, then what does that look like? We know that the power of the Holy Spirit is disruptive and we don’t like disruption, generally speaking. Will Willimon reminds us, though, that to be a follower of Christ, then we must give into to this kind of power that Christ himself promises. He writes, “A Christian is someone who’s submitted to an unbalanced, instable life, a life out of control, driven by and accountable to someone more interesting than ourselves or even our church, i.e. the third person on the Trinity, God in action.”[2]

That sounds like a tall order, or rather, a really terrifying order. And truth be told, I’m not sure what the Holy Spirit’s power in your life would look like. I imagine it is beyond anything I can dream. I imagine it looks like an inbreaking of God into the darkest recesses of your soul and that sounds like really difficult work. I imagine it looks like letting go of some well-thought out and duly-earned power and order and that sounds like it could be a kind of newness that you might not think you have space for right now. I imagine it looks like waiting – waiting and breathing and hoping and standing still and I for one cannot say that such discipline is easy.

But I also imagine for you, my beloved friends, that the Holy Spirit has something stirring for you that you need, that answers the question beneath the flurry of questions you ask yourself daily: am I doing enough? am I enough? will there ever be enough? Yes, I hear her saying, Yes but you’re going to have to wait here and see. Stay. Listen. Lay down what you’ve built up and held onto for far too long. Lay it down and let it be. I will give you the power you need – not the power you seek. Just wait and see.

And in this waiting time between Ascension and Pentecost, know that you are not alone. I invite you to close your eyes as you hear this final word, a poem from artist Jan Richardson:

Stay
A Blessing for Ascension Day

I know how your mind
rushes ahead
trying to fathom
what could follow this.
What will you do,
where will you go,
how will you live?
You will want
to outrun the grief.
You will want
to keep turning toward
the horizon,
watching for what was lost
to come back,
to return to you
and never leave again.
For now
hear me when I say
all you need to do
is to still yourself
is to turn toward one another
is to stay.
Wait
and see what comes
to fill
the gaping hole
in your chest.
Wait with your hands open
to receive what could never come
except to what is empty
and hollow.
You cannot know it now,
cannot even imagine
what lies ahead,
but I tell you
the day is coming
when breath will
fill your lungs
as it never has before
and with your own ears
you will hear words
coming to you new
and startling.
You will dream dreams
and you will see the world
ablaze with blessing.
Wait for it.
Still yourself.
Stay.[3]

May it be so. Amen.

[1] Walaskay, Paul W. Feasting on the word. Ed. David Lyon Bartlett. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 501-503.

[2]Willimon, Will. “Preaching: Acting Up with the Holy Spirit.” Journal for Preachers XXXIX.4 (2016): 3. Print.

[3] Richardson, Jan. “Ascension/Easter 7: Stay.” The Painted Prayerbook. N.p., 07 May 2013. Web. 27 May 2017.