Ascension Sunday – Lessons from the Hiking Trail

Read Acts 1:1-11, Romans 8: 1-11

Today as you may see in our bulletin is Ascension Sunday. Today is the Sunday that we recognize and celebrate the Ascension of our Lord Jesus into Heaven. According to the scripture, Jesus after he was raised from the dead made himself known and seen to the disciples for a total of 40 days. Traditionally in the church, this ascension feast day is commonly celebrated this past Thursday, which would have been the 40th day after Easter.  During those last 40 days, Jesus was showing himself to his disciples to continue his teaching and finishing his ministry to the world. Jesus, after instructing the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for their baptism of the spirit, then ascends up into the clouds.

Although incredible as it may sound, Jesus lifting up off the ground and floating through the skies is less important than what actually is taking place here. Jesus has left the disciples instructions about waiting for a second baptism, one that is not of water, but rather a baptism by the Holy Spirit. The word here, ‘baptism’ may bring about some confusion because we commonly still think about the traditional Christian sense of the word, Baptism to mean brought into the church and given the Grace of God through the Holy Spirit. However, the 1st century use of this word simply means to immerse, it would have been used by the common person. In this understanding it could be just like saying I have baptized my glazed donut into my coffee. The word has taken on a different meaning through the life of the church. SO, Jesus has announced to his disciples on the top of Mount of Olives, If you go and stay Jerusalem, in a few days, you will be baptized or immersed with the Holy Spirit, the gift and the power in which you have heard me speak about before.

I can imagine here the disciples were may be a bit confused as to what was happening. I mean for the last 40 days, things were starting to get back to the way things used to be. Jesus was back, Jesus was in charge of leading things again. Jesus, the man whom the Romans and the Leadership of the Jews had crucified was alive and they were maybe thinking it must be now that God has decided to liberate the kingdom of Israel over the nations of the world! What does Jesus mean that we are to go and wait? Does the gift of the Spirit mean that the kingdom of Israel will be restored, they began to ask Jesus.

Jesus replied that you will not know the times nor the dates when God will restore the kingdom, BUT you will receive power when the Spirit comes, and you will be the witnesses for the whole earth of my Name and all that I have taught you. After this was said to his disciples, Jesus was taken up into the clouds. The cloud that hid their sight from Jesus ascending could be said to be a metaphor for the presence of God. If you may remember when Moses was on top of Mount Sinai, God’s presence was in the form of a cloud, and so as Jesus ascended into the cloud, Jesus returned to God still in human form. Jesus has finished his earthly ministry,  but has taken the human form back into heaven making it possible for us to enter into the divine as humans, as it was in the beginning of creation.

After Jesus had disappeared into the cloud, the disciples were still standing there, unsure of what to do just stared up into the clouds. Probably thinking to themselves, what are we supposed to do now? I don’t know how many of you heard, but this past week Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off into space for its final mission. I can imagine as people stared up into the sky, trying to watch the space shuttle as long as they can before it disappears, so the disciples too stood on the top of Mount of Olives watching Jesus as long as they could. After a while, even after they no longer could see Jesus, they may have still been staring up into the sky trying to process all that has happened to them in the last 3 years, especially in the last 40 days. Then suddenly, two men dressed in white or as the Gospel of Luke accounts for it, two men dressed in clothes that gleamed like lightening, appeared before the disciples. These men, probably suspected to be angels, spoke to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

In other words, these men are watching these disciples look up into the skies and questions them, “Men of Galilee, Followers of Jesus, Why are you still standing here?!” Jesus has given you instructions, you are to go and wait for the Spirit, and when the spirit comes upon you, you will be given power to go and be Jesus’ witnesses! What are you waiting for?!

This past week, I was able to do something that I have wanted to do for a while now. A friend of mine and I took a 30 mile hiking trip on the AT from Elkton to Luray. Our packs weighed about 50 lbs each. As we were hiking I took along with me my Bible and these scripture lessons to meditate on. On the third day of hiking, I was thinking to myself, I have been working on these texts now for three days and I still have nothing to say for my sermon this coming week. And then about lunch time, as we were about to walk up Pinnacle mountain it hit me, Christ was raised up by the Spirit, and still the disciples were grounded, they weren’t moving, they were stuck. I have been carrying this heavy pack now for three days and at times I would forget it was even there, but still I felt the tension on my shoulders, the pain of the weight was present in my knees. And I begin to think about what kind of things are we carrying around with us in our daily lives that has us stuck like the disciples or in pain because of the weight on our shoulders. They have been told to go and wait for the spirit and when the spirit comes, they would have power to go and witness to Jesus’ grace and love.

And here, today we have been given the Spirit, the power of Christ who raises us up and who has given us power, and yet sometimes we are still grounded, unmoving. We may not even realize that there are things standing in our way, but the tension is still there on our shoulders and the weight is making our knees sore. What is it that you may be carrying that keeps you from being fully in love with God, what is it that it may be that keeps you from doing a loving deed for a stranger? I can’t say it is the same for everyone, but as I hiked along on the trail I had a lot of time to think, I began listing things in my head that may be things that are keeping people from God: is it because you are too busy? Is it because you have lost hope in the people who call themselves Christian? Is it maybe because you feel that there are too few people to do anything in our local church? Could it be that you have placed your faith in money rather than in God? Maybe it is that you feel that you are too ill to do anything wonderful? There is all sorts of things that can keep us grounded or weighed down. Maybe, over the years you have lost your sense of calling or forgot about what brought you into the church in the first place? Maybe the questions around why someone had to pass away has kept you from bearing the gospel message? Maybe you feel unworthy or guilty about some thing that you had or continue to do that keeps you from God? Maybe the injustices around the world make you think how could a good God allow such evil things? Maybe you are too prideful to admit that there is even any pain at all?

There is a plethora of weights that we may carry that keep us grounded, that keep us looking up into the sky wondering how can we get rid of these weights and be risen with Christ? What must we do to get this heavy pack of pain staking things off our backs, and be lifted up in Christ?

Our text from the Epistle of Romans today answers these questions, It is “because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”…”The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you!”

In other words, when you accept Christ’s Spirit into your life, and make the mind of the Spirit, the mind of: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control, the same as your mind, then these stumbling blocks, these weights no longer will have any hold on you. When you begin to think like Christ, the things of the earth no longer weigh you down. And how does this begin to happen? It may be best for me to share with you how the weight came off my back this past week hiking to explain how you do this. I un-clicked the belt that fastened it to me, and I took it off. You must first take action and accept the grace of those weights being lifted off. You must accept the gift of the Spirit that is freely given in order to begin to take off those weights, hand them over to God, let Go and Let God be God.

The final ascension, when all the weights are taken off is also mentioned here in this text from Acts. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into Heaven.” Our final Hope is when Jesus comes again. And when he does, all the bonds that have this world weighed down, will be set free. All the tyranny and injustices of the world will be made right, and God’s kingdom will prevail over this earth. All of this if you may imagine may be like being lifted up, without any weight bearing down on you after carrying a heavy pack all your life. It is an unknown sensation of freedom. Glory be to God! Let us Pray.

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