Littlewell
Christ Centered Church Resource Site

The Presence of Absence

Luke 24:44-53
Acts 1:1-11
Sun, May 24, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
(Voices United #192 "Forsaking Chariots of Fire")


Ascension Sunday.

Is it highlighted on your calendar?

Have you been waiting with bated breath for this day?

I thought not.

In the season of Advent we count down the days

and decorate the house in anticipation

of Christmas carols and gifts.

Lent brings forty days of patient waiting

in the wilderness for Easter news.

But the Ascension of Jesus

to his location at the right hand of God

goes as unnoticed by us

as did his arrival in a cattle stall two millennia ago

to all but an unlikely few.


There are reasons, of course.

Good reasons.

Or so they seem.

After all, how are we to explain

a miraculous levitation

to a world that demands to know

how the trick is done?

And even if we could make sense of the cloud

that carried him away,

what of Christ's new heavenly locale?

Our Moderator is not the only one

who would turn our gaze earthward,

leaving such other-worldly speculations

to be pondered by others.


But today, Ascension Sunday,

we stand beside the disciples

whose eyes are raised skyward,

watching as Jesus exits the material world.

Perhaps a moment as mysterious as this

cannot be captured in the carefully constructed argument

of an academic paper

or of a logically argued sermon.

Maybe we can only see the Ascension of Christ

through the eyes of an artist

or of a poet ...


Forsaking chariots of fire and fanfared brass,

as strangely silent as he came,

the Saviour leaves and God,

with heaven's caress, the Son receives.

A chariot of fire.

At least Elijah had the courtesy to leave this earth

in a chariot of fire.

And Moses ...

Moses, too, was assumed bodily into heaven.

Imagine living in a world where such mysteries

could still be contemplated ...

a world where everything was still possible for God.

Maybe,

just for today,

we can allow ourselves to re-enter such a world ...

a world in which the miraculous is still possible

and in which the heart

as well as the mind

ponders the work of the Divine.

On a university campus

in a world of reason

this means 'suspending disbelief' ...

pretending that the world is different than it appears

to the rational mind.

But for us

who have inherited the ancient stories of faith it means rediscovering belief ...

belief that there is more going on than meets the eye

of the telescope and microscope ...

something that can only be seen through eyes

that gaze at the ascending One.

He has to go, as from the grave he had to rise:

in order to be everywhere

he must depart to live,

not in one place, but in each heart.



We forget.

We forget that the Resurrected Christ existed.

True ... he was not a rescusitated corpse.

He was not the person he had been.

But he was not some ethereal unearthly spirit either.

For a time

he was present on the earth

beyond the grave.

Present to the disciples

in ways that they struggle to describe ...

but present nonetheless.

For how long?

For forty days says Luke.

Forty days.

Does he mean forty days on the calendar ...

forty mornings and evenings?

Or does he mean forty days like

the forty days of the Flood and

the forty days of Moses on the mountain with God and

the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness with the Tempter?

The Risen Christ walked the earth for forty days says Luke.

But then he had to go.

He did not remain to lead the mission he had begun.

He absented himself

and left the disciples on their own.

We know this reality.

It is ours, too.

Ascension Sunday helps us to name it.

We live in the presence of the absence of Christ.

The mission he was given

has been given to us:

"repentance and forgiveness of sins

is to be proclaimed in his name

to all nations,

beginning from Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47)

The first disciples wonder

why they have been left on their own

with such a daunting Mission Statement:

Repentance ...

the call to turn the world around,

to end the self-destructive behaviour

that wastes lives and the earth's resources.

Forgiveness ...

the healing of relationships broken by sin,

even the most well-intentioned sin

of the most well-intentioned community of sinners.

All nations ...

a mission that is mandated

not just for one time and place,

but for, and to, all people.

We know their struggle.

We, too, are overwhelmed

by the complexity of relationships

and by the ambiguity of history.

So we draft Mission Statements

with more modest goals.

But look.

Jesus ascends.

He is not located on the earth.

He sits at the right hand of God.

He is God's 'right hand man'.

All 'left-handers' everywhere know what that means.

In a world of right-handers

this is a simple code to break.

Jesus ascends

so that the mission which seems so impossible

can become a possibility.

Jesus is God's right hand ...

the One who does God's will.

He leaves the world,

paradoxically,

to become more accessible to the world.

No longer is he present only to

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John ...

or to Salome, Martha, Mary and Mary.

Whenever, or however, it occurred

the Ascension of Christ

is the one thing

and the one thing alone

that made possible the mission of healing and reconciliation

that continues to this day

and to this place ...

So, Christ ascends; air cradles him, disciples stare.

Their Easter joy, his seven week's stay

seem now to end. But no!

The Spirit's sending they portend.

The absence of Christ's presence.

This is the stark reality faced by the church.

Easter comes. And Easter goes.

He is risen. And then he is gone.

And without the presence of the living Lord,

the One who calls others to follow,

how can the church dare to act?

Suddenly the marking of Ascension Sunday

seems somehow strangely fortuitous.

We, too, wonder how the church dare act.

In an age of diminishing numbers and budgets,

a time of shrinking energy and courage

we imagine that the church,

like some rare species, faces extinction.

So we grasp after marketing schemes

dressed up as 'Growth Programs'.

Like the society around us

we place our trust in the 'quick-fix'

of an earth-bound solution.

The Ascension marks that time between

the presence of the Risen Christ

and the presence of the Holy Spirit of God.

It is the season of the presence of absence.

Too many of us

and too many of our churches

know this season all too well.

So well, in fact,

that we begin to believe

that the absence of the presence of God

is to be expected ...

that such a barren time is all that we can hope for.

But Ascension is the necessary prelude to Pentecost.

Absence must make way for Presence.

In between times, the disciples live,

not in anguished despair

bemoaning their bleak future,

but in eager anticipation of the potent Spirit of God

that has been promised

by One whose promises can be trusted.

Here is the reason to take delight

in this particular community of faith.

We are no model church,

embodying the best of strategies for institutional growth.

Nor are we always the gracious, faithful Christians

we intend.

But here one often senses a living hope

in the power of God.

It is not a rational hope

based on a careful analysis of the data

that leads us to trust in the Holy Spirit.

It is, instead, a hope grounded

in the heart which is open to the wonder and mystery

of God's determination

to be present in the world.

'The Spirit's sending they (and we) portend'.

Let angel harmonies resound, let trumpets blare;

let heaven's banquet guests applaud

the welcomed word

and earth anticipate her coming Lord.


We dare to rejoice on a day that recalls

Christ's flight from this world.

Not grief of ending

but anticipation of new beginning

is the tone we set in our life together.


There is joy in heaven

at the safe return of the One

who lifted the Word of God off of the written page

and lived it in a human life.


On earth there is expectation.

The church lives its life

expecting the return of the Word made flesh,

God's right hand, before its very eyes.

It is an act of faith

that draws our gaze away from the clouds

and directs our attention to the earth

where we watch expectantly for the coming of the Christ.


Because the ascended One is absent

and has promised to be present again

we are always watching in expectation.

Mother Theresa names this expectancy ...


"Because we cannot see Christ [in the flesh],

we cannot express our love to him;

but our neighbours we can always see,

and we can do to them what,

if we saw him,

we would like to do to Christ ...

In the slums,

in the broken human body,

in children,

we see Christ,

and we touch him."


For those with eyes to see,

the ascended One re-enters history

moment by surprising moment

as incognito as ever.

No throne. No chariot of fire.

First a manger. Then a cross.

Now a stranger's face.


So it is that we live life expecting ...

expecting that the ascended Christ

will come close ...

close enough to see

and to touch.