Year B, Ascension Day Acts 1:1-11
“Why are there so many songs about rainbows/ And what’s on the other side?” You may recognize these words by one of our great modern philosophers—Kermit the Frog. I could not help but think about this song as I was preparing this sermon. It’s something about the question that the angels ask of the disciples after Jesus has ascended: “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.”
Is it just me or are the disciples doing the most logical and natural thing? Jesus, who was miraculously resurrected after a gruesome death is now floating up into the sky? Who wouldn’t stare for a little while? While the resurrection was a wonderful and exciting event, nobody got to see it. If I was one of the apostles, I would be a little bummed that I had not witnessed Jesus roll the stone away in that triumphant moment. After all they had been through, I think they deserved that. At this big moment of Christian history, they get front row seats. Any person in their right mind would keep watching…perhaps waiting for something like fireworks, or maybe even a rainbow, a renewal of the covenant that God had given his people after the great flood. In Genesis, God had provided a bow in the clouds to remind everyone that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood…a promise of God’s love for us. That would have been a nice touch after the Ascension of Jesus as well.
Instead they get two angels nagging them about what they shouldn’t be doing in this magical moment. I’m not clear on their logic. The angels said that they should not be looking up into heaven because Jesus would come back the same way he went up. Isn’t that a good reason to keep looking up? If you knew exactly where to look for Jesus second coming, it seems to me that you would have a hard time looking away. However, let’s not forget what Jesus told them earlier. The apostles had asked him, “‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.’” In other words, not only am I not telling you, but it’s probably not happening today.
The disciples must have remembered these words, because as soon as the angels shook them out of their state of awe and reverie, they returned to Jerusalem and began the ministry that they were called to do. Perhaps that is what the angels were reminding them. Sure they could continue to stare at the sky looking for a glimpse of heaven, but they had work to do on earth. They had people who needed them.
Christians are often criticized for ignoring the problems of today and instead trying to prepare people for the afterlife when all will be perfect. Most Episcopalians I know don’t spend a lot of time trying to save people so as to ensure their place in heaven, but it is easy to get preoccupied with things going on in our church or our families. Part of the reason we ge preoccupied with our immediate surroundings is because it is overwhelming to think too much about what is going on around us. In this age of social media, we are saturated–not just with pictures and text, but video coverage of every troubling thing that is happening in our world. We see the dead bodies of people lying in rubble in Nepal…we see it in real time. We see young African American men killed in our cities. We see police officers killed. We see images of caskets covered with the American flag emerging from planes, where there should be men and women in uniform disembarking to meet family. We see people who would rather blow themselves up then work for change. So yes, I would much rather stare at the sky then look at almost any form of media.
As Christians, we know that our world is broken and we know that there is a better world beyond our knowledge, a world where there is no violence and there is only love. Our awareness of these dual realities means that we are constantly trying to find the balance between them. We are children of the resurrection in that we live in constant hope of that time when Jesus will come again and make all things right. However, we are also called by Jesus to live out the Great Commission (to make disciples of all nations), to love our neighbors as ourselves, to make this world better.
I believe that we can find a balance. We can live in both worlds. We might not be able to do it all of the time, but sometimes we can experience heaven on earth. We can see glimpses of it, in our worship, in our music, in those moments when we truly connect with one another, in those times when we reach out to people who are not part of our church, and in those times when we let others reach out to us. Those are moments that we can cling to, that we can remember. We shouldn’t have to choose between one or the other. We can have both. And when we get overwhelmed by misery and despair, then we take time to stare into the sky and look for signs of God’s awesomeness as well as looking at one another so we can discover God’s awesomeness in our midst.
Why are there so many songs about rainbows? Why is it that even those who claim no faith still search for something bigger and more extraordinary than themselves? Is it is because we want to believe in God because it makes life easier, gives us reason to hope? No. When God created each one of us in his image, he gave us something that would always bring up hope, always bring us light, even in the darkest times. He wove into our being some piece that would never let us stop dreaming, stop searching for awe and inspiration. That piece is faith. It can be dormant or it can be alive. When it is alive, it will not only bring us comfort, it will give us strength, to make this world more like the world God envisions for us.
Why are there so many songs about rainbows? Because we’ve all seen them and they are glorious. Even though we cannot hold onto them, that doesn’t mean they were never there. So we sing about them, just like we sing about God. We can’t hold onto God, much like the disciples could not hold onto Jesus. They had to stop staring after him because they had work to do. They had prayers to say. So do we.
*The Kermit the Frog/rainbow illustration comes from a sermon by Robert Dyskstra in his book, Discovering a Sermon.