One of the most mind-boggling spectacles I’ve ever seen is a short science movie titled “Powers of Ten.” Many of us no doubt saw this movie in a high school physics class. As the film opens, you see a close-up view of a young couple spreading out a picnic blanket on a grassy section of Chicago’s Grant Park. Then, every ten seconds thereafter, the camera pulls back, each time increasing its distance from the couple by a power of ten.
First the camera pulls back just one foot; ten seconds later it has pulled back ten feet; ten seconds later one hundred feet, and so on. At first you can still see the young couple. But soon you can pick out only the small square of their picnic blanket in Grant Park. Seconds later, Grant Park has been reduced to a small green patch as you can now see all of Chicago and the southern curve of Lake Michigan. Next, Chicago disappears as you can now see all of North America. Then you see the whole planet, then even our own sun shrinks to an ordinary looking star. Within two minutes, the picture has pulled back to the outer limits of the Milky Way galaxy and soon to the edge of the known universe. Once the edge of space is reached, the camera then quickly hurtles back through space, finally zooming back in on the couple in Grant Park.
When pondering the meaning of Ascension Day, I invite you to take a similar trip of the imagination as a way to frame your thinking. Let’s begin this trip out in the vastness of space and then zoom in. We enter the bright spiral of our Milky Way galaxy, zooming past millions of bright suns. Then we enter our own solar neighborhood, zipping past Pluto, the rings of Saturn, the red planet Mars, finally seeing the bright blue marble of Earth. Then we narrow our focus to Europe and Africa, descending more specifically to the Mediterranean Basin. Finally, we see the region of Palestine, focusing on the country of Israel (itself no larger than Vermont). Then we move down to the modest city of Jerusalem, to the little hill known as Mount Zion, and finally we come in for a landing at Solomon’s Temple long about the year 900 B.C.
Then, having made this cosmic journey to this little pin-prick on the face of the earth, we witness a group of ancient Israelites singing Psalm 47 and thereby declaring to all who hear, “This Temple is the center of the universe! This is the throne of the Most High God, of Yahweh. He is so mighty, so exalted, and so great that from this location on Mount Zion, he rules every nation, every king, every speck of the cosmos!”
From the outside looking in, this claim is ridiculous. It is the height of audacity! Even if you limited your gaze to the thenknown- world, Israel was a very small, middling nation. Compared to the vast empires of Persia and Egypt, compared to the splendors of Babylon’s hanging gardens and Egypt’s towering pyramids, Israel was a pimple on the face of the earth. So on what possible basis could the Israelites claim that they alone mattered, that they alone were the headquarters for the Sovereign of all creation? Yet there it is in Psalm 47: Israel shouts its ardent belief that they are the theological center of the universe. It is a gutsy, audacious claim.
When we read Psalm 47 today, we see lovely poetry that gives eloquent expression to our beliefs. But if back then you had been some atheistic king in Babylon or the Pharaoh in Egypt (regarded as a god by the Egyptian people), then Psalm 47 would hardly strike you as lovely. How dare those puny Israelites huddle together in their pathetic little capital city and point their fingers at the kings of the world to say, “You’re nothing! Our God could buy and sell you! You, O mighty Pharaoh, and you, O lofty Emperor of China, and you, O exalted king of Persia, you all are the property of our God!”
Of course, within the confines of Israel the people did not have much opportunity to see the Egyptians or the Babylonians getting angry about such rhetoric. International communication was pretty minimal back then–Israel’s worship services were not beamed via satellite to other nations. So it’s possible that the people who would have been the most offended by Psalm 47 never saw the worship services in which this was proclaimed.
Today our situation is vastly different. These days we live in an international marketplace of ideas and religions. Now what we Christians think about Jesus gets put into print and distributed far and wide. What’s more, today you don’t even need to leave home to encounter people of other ethnic and religious backgrounds. Attend any major university and your roommate is as likely to be a Buddhist as a Methodist. Have a donut and a cup of coffee in the breakroom at work, and the co-worker sitting across from you could as well be a New Age devotee as a Roman Catholic. And none of those people is going to like it if you present them with some version of Psalm 47.
Yet on Ascension Day, Christians again claim the truth that Jesus has gone up amid shouts of triumph. Jesus has ascended to God’s right hand and is, right now, the King of kings and Lord of lords; the President of presidents and Prime Minister of prime ministers. Jesus rules. Jesus is in charge–whether people know it or not, whether they like it or not. Ascension Day is not a day for modest claims!
If our claims are true, then they affect everybody; if our claims are false, then no one could say, “Well, at least their faith serves some kind of purpose in their little lives!” If we’re right, then no one and nothing is excluded. If we’re wrong, then we’re wrong so devastatingly as to evacuate all meaning from what we celebrate in the Ascension. “Jesus is Lord,” we say. But Jesus cannot be Lord kind of, sort of, here and there, now and again, or depending on your point-of-view.
It’s a little like some scientist who grabbed headlines by claiming, “My calculations show that our sun will go supernova in six months, evaporating all matter from the sun’s center out to the orbit of Mars.” A person could not be just a little bit right or a little bit wrong about a claim like that. No one could say, “Well, even if he’s right, it won’t affect me. Maybe he’s just partly right!” Nor could one say, “Well, even if he’s wrong, I’m sure there is something worthwhile about what he’s saying.” Some claims simply don’t brook much middle ground. Ascension Day is like that. The Ascension of Christ (and his subsequent Session) is the lens through which we see things as believers. It’s how we see all things.
Of course, believing that we are not just locally right about Jesus as Lord but universally does not give us license to abuse or bash those who disagree with us. But a claim as grand as Ascension Day should have some pretty big effect in our lives. So what might that be? Perhaps we are called to do the same thing the Israelites were called to do 3,000 years ago: namely, live as authentic witnesses to what we believe to be the truth.
We, too, must acknowledge that what we say and sing every Sunday when we gather in our little churches looks ridiculous. If it’s centers of power and influence you’re looking for, check out Hollywood, Wall Street, or Washington D.C. Even as Israel did not look like the center of the universe way back when, so the average church doesn’t look like much today, either.
The story is told that near the end of World War II Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin were observing a military parade of tanks and infantry units. At one point Churchill mentioned to Stalin that he was hoping that perhaps the Pope could have a good influence on their efforts at putting Europe back together after the war. Stalin leaned over and cynically answered, “Oh yes? How many divisions has the Pope got?” Most of our world cannot conceive of power and influence in any other way.
The only power some people recognize is the power that comes from the barrel of a gun. At the outset of the film Grand Canyon a young street tough from South Central Los Angeles is roughing up a motorist whose car had stalled on the gang’s turf. When a black tow truck driver arrives to bail the motorist out, he begins to bargain and plead with the head of the street gang, asking that they let the motorist go unharmed. At one point the thug asks the tow truck operator, “Are you bargaining with me because you respect me or because I’ve got a gun?” The driver answers truthfully, “Hey, you don’t have the gun, we ain’t talkin’!” “That’s what I thought,” the gang member replies. “That’s why I always carry the gun!”
The church doesn’t carry a gun. We don’t have divisions of tanks. We don’t have that kind of clout or power. We’re not even as popular as the average shopping mall most weeks. We’re like Mount Zion of old: little pin-pricks dotting the landscape of a much bigger world. Worse, it’s a world whose headlines almost every day seem calculated to challenge the idea that any kind of a good, loving God is in charge of things.
Some years ago when the worst of Rwanda’s genocide was taking place as one ethnic group hacked another to pieces with machetes, Time magazine featured on its cover a quote from a U.N. observer: “There are no devils left in hell–they are all in Rwanda.” But when was the last time there was such a large outbreak of goodness and peace that, with stunned amazement, anyone wondered if there were any angels left in heaven, seeing as shalom was popping out all over? No, ours is a world of hatred and strife, of children shooting children on playgrounds, of AIDS and leukemia. It doesn’t look like a world ruled by a good Lord.
How then can we claim the truth of Ascension Day–the truth that Jesus is Lord and we are his people; that the church, all appearances to the contrary, is very much in touch with the theological center of the universe? How can we do this? We can do it only by letting our own lives bear out our ardent faith. We can do it only if Ascension Day is how we see things, is the lens through which we view our world, the nightly news, our decisions, our lifestyle choices, our everything. We have to live out Jesus’ lordship as consistently and boldly as we can. The shape of our lives needs to make Jesus as Lord more credible, not less so.
But perhaps that is why Ascension Day has not really “caught on” the way Christmas and Easter have. Outside the church, but alas even inside the church, Ascension Day doesn’t much register. Christmas and Easter are both big deals, but maybe that’s because on those two holidays it’s all done for you in a way that ensures you can get something out of it. Think of Christmas: Jesus is born! There he is. God’s got a gift for you, all wrapped up and lying in a manger. So we have also other gifts given to us in a season of indulgence and consumption to celebrate Jesus’ arrival. There he is!
Or think of Easter: Christ is risen! There he is. God’s got a gift of new life for you, a new life that walked right out of the tomb. So we give also other little gifts of chocolate eggs or fancy ham dinners to celebrate Jesus’ return. There he is again!
But now think of Ascension Day: Jesus is lifted up. Where is he?! There’s no gift here–we’re left rather empty-handed and so, not surprisingly, we have no gift-giving or extra-fancy meal traditions associated with this day. Jesus is gone. Where’d he go? Wherever he went, the last thing anyone heard him say was something to the effect, “You are my witnesses.” On Christmas and Easter Jesus is given to us, and so we sit back to watch him act and speak. On Ascension Day, Jesus leaves and we are the ones left to act and speak! Small wonder our consumerist culture skips this one! Small wonder even the church seems hesitant to make too big a deal out of it!
In the end it really does not matter how ridiculous we look when we sing audacious sentiments like the ones in the forty-seventh psalm. To those who only and always are on the outside looking in, faith always looks absurd. What does matter, however, is that if anyone bothers to get to know you, if anyone looks your life over more thoroughly to check out your professional conduct, your home life, your choices in the entertainment field, your care for the environment, your conduct as a friend or spouse or parent–if anyone scrutinizes all of that, then it matters very much that what they see in you is transparent to the truth of Jesus as the Lord of all. The church and our lives need to be the one place where his lordship is visible.
Because if even in your own life you have areas where Jesus is not present–if you restrict Jesus to your prayer time but keep him out of your finances, if you reserve an hour for Jesus on Sunday mornings but box him out of your leisure hours the rest of the weekend–if Jesus is not obviously the Lord of your entire life, then how can you expect anyone to believe that Jesus is the Lord of the entire cosmos? You see, singing Psalm 47 is one thing, living it out in the real world is a vastly more difficult matter. Believing the core truth of Ascension Day is one thing, making it how you see things every day and every place is a challenge.
We opened this sermon thinking about how quickly we can be dwarfed by the vastness of the universe. Given how big the cosmos is, isn’t it a bit audacious to claim we have the corner on ultimate truth? And yet we believe we do know the truth precisely because in our faith we know how well the cosmic touches us in our tinyness.
Because once upon a time God’s Son took his own cosmic “powers of ten” journey. Long ago the Son of God zipped past galaxies, quasars, suns, planets, and continents getting ever closer to this world until finally he dove deeply into the confi nes of a virgin’s uterus. There, as a microscopic zygote, he took on human DNA, skin, organs, and blood, and was born in a small stable, all his vastness enclosed by no more than a goat’s feed trough.
Never before had the cosmic and the local, the vastness of space and the smallness of a single human being, mingled in so wondrous a way. And that is the God and Lord we serve; that is why we can be so sure that despite our smallness, despite the fact that we, like ancient Israel, hardly look like the center of the universe, we really are. Because the Lord we proclaim as ascended and lofty once also came down here and even yet today comes down to each one of us so that one day he might lift us up to where he is, enthroned in cosmic splendor forever and ever. As the psalmist knew, this is a gospel too grand to be watered down– it needs to be sung with loud voices and the sounds of trumpets, inviting the whole world to “Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to the Lord upon his throne! Sing praises to God, sing praises! For he is highly exalted!” Amen.