The Presence of Absence
| Luke 24:44-53
|Sun, May 24, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|(Voices United #192 "Forsaking Chariots of Fire")
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
the call to turn the world around,
to end the self-destructive behaviour
that wastes lives and the earth's resources.
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.
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.
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,
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
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,
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.