Ascension Sunday: May 24, 2020



What are you looking at?

What are you waiting for?

Why are you just standing around?

Stop wasting time.

We have many ways of keeping and marking time. According to our most common method, the moment I am speaking these words, it is a bit after 11 am, May 24, 2020.  Today is the day before Memorial Day, my fourteenth Sunday as a part of this community. According to the church calendar, it is also the 7th Sunday in the season of Easter, often called Ascension Sunday. Ascension Day itself was this past Thursday, but most Presbyterians don’t pay a lot of attention to that particular liturgical date, so if you missed it, that’s ok.

We call this year 2020, but without the work of two monks, we would probably call it the third year of the Presidency of Donald Trump. We don’t, because one-thousand four-hundred and ninety-five years ago, a monk named Dionysius decided that it had been 525 years since the Incarnation. If you are wondering if Dionysius calculated the Incarnation from Jesus birth, Christmas, or conception, or the Annunciation, we don’t know because nobody thought to ask that question, nobody was interested in drawing that distinction, until Dionysius had been dead some 300 years. Speaking of which, Dionysius also offered no defense or explanation of how he came up with 525 in the first place. Working backwards, scholars have come up with two different theories, but they do generally agree that, however he calculated it, he was wrong, and that Jesus was actually born between four and six years earlier, that is, between four and six BC.

Dionysius’ work might have remained relatively obscure if it hadn’t been picked up by an English monk known as the Venerable Bede some two-hundred years later. The Venerable Bede, in addition to helping to popularize the anno domini dating scheme, figuring out that ocean tides are related to the moon, and writing the hymn we sang a few minutes ago, helped the various branches of the Roman Catholic church to finally agree that Easter would be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, though it’s worth noting the church has decided that the vernal equinox is March 21 no matter what the sun is doing.

Once you have a date for Easter, other portions of the church calendar start to fall in place—you count forward 40 days from Easter to get to the Ascension…which is why it’s always on a Thursday. And you might think we get to Ash Wednesday by counting 40 days backwards from Easter, but if you were to try that, you’d land on the Tuesday after Ash Wednesday, because our theological forbears decided that Sundays are always celebrations of the Resurrection, and therefore shouldn’t count toward the 40 days of Lent, so we take Easter, count back 40 days, then add six, one for each Sunday, and get to Ash Wednesday.

So here we are. three days after the Ascension, forty-three days after Easter, a date which, while not the same each year, everyone agrees on. Right?


Dionysius came up with his system in 525. Bede helped to popularize it and the system for calculating Easter two hundred years later, but it wasn’t until 1422 that Portugal, the last holdout in Western Europe, got behind the anno domini dating system. Parts of Eastern Europe took another few hundred years to get  on board, and while the Roman Catholic church and most of the Protestant churches to come out of the European Reformation agree on the date of Easter, the Orthodox traditions still have their own computus and frequently celebrate Easter a week after we do.

We create systems and ways to divide and measure time, based on orbit of the earth around the sun, or the moon around the earth, or the earth’s rotation around its axis, or the vibrations of a cesium atom, or the movement of light.

We fantasize about time machines and time travel, whether magical, like Hermione’s time turner in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, or through advanced science, like Doctor Who’s T.A.R.D.I.S. or the Time Machine from the H.G. Wells story…and in the meantime, while we don’t have access to those, we buy clocks and watches, set timers and alarms. We tell ourselves and each other that we “need me-time” and complain when people “waste our time.” Countless products are advertised to us under the promise they will give us more time, from time-saving devices and appliances that at least do let us do a given task faster to some sort of task-tracking cube that the internet seems to think I might be tempted to buy if they promise it will somehow help me to better organize or track my time. And, since this sermon is streaming to you over the internet, and the video, audio, and text will eventually be posted online, maybe some advertiser or algorithm will hear this: stop it. I won’t buy it. I just clicked on it once to see if it really was as ludicrous as it sounded.

We do all these things because, deep down, we want to control time and since we know we can’t we try to create the illusion that we do, that time belongs to us. We even read Genesis and try to tie God’s time to our perception, reading the creation as occurring in six days-as-we-measure-them, even though God did not separate the day from the night until the fourth day.

This notion that because we can divide and measure time we can control time is one of two core misunderstandings between Jesus and the disciples at the beginning of today’s text from Acts. It has been forty days since the Resurrection; forty days since the women found the empty tomb and Jesus came to the upstairs room; forty days since two of the disciples decided they weren’t sure what was going on but they wanted to get away from it and Jesus walked with them on the road to Emmaus until the recognized him and turned around.

Surely 40 days is enough time to get moving. When Noah built the ark, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. After Moses killed an Egyptian, he spent 40 days in the wilderness before he encountered God in the burning bush. At the beginning of Lent, my first Sunday in this pulpit we read the story of Moses spending 40 days on the Mt. Sinai in encounter with God and Jesus spending 40 days facing temptation in the wilderness. Goliath taunted the Israelites for 40 days before being slain by David. God has brought Jesus back from the dead, surely after 40 days it is time to put a stop to Rome’s taunting.

And so they ask Jesus, “Is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” The second misunderstanding is, of course their belief, still strong after everything Jesus had tried to teach them, that Jesus had come to begin a military overthrow of Rome, to start an armed revolution and bring Israel to dominance. This is not what Jesus came to do. Jesus did not come to turn the wheel, but to flatten it, but Jesus leaves that unsaid in this moment, answering only their question about time, saying “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set.”

Time does not belong to you.

Jesus continues that they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon [them]; [they] will be [his] witnesses in Jerusalem” but not only Jerusalem, “all Judea and Samaria” as well, and even more “to the ends of the earth.”

God is doing something new, it will come in God’s time, and so they need to get ready. They won’t be able to miss it.

Time does not belong to them. Time does not belong to us. Time is not ours to rush.

And at this moment, just as Jesus has finished speaking, they watch as he is lifted up by a cloud. Fourteen weeks ago, I told you that we needed to be ready to step into the cloud because we need to be ready to trust that God will reveal to us what we need to know when we need to know it. I do not think that any of our clouds will bear us bodily into heaven: Jesus is one of only two figures in scripture to get that treatment, but it adds to the moment to realize that for God, that is a possibility.

And as the disciples are standing there, probably gaping, since not since Elijah had anyone gone bodily into heaven, two angels appear and say to them “Why do you stand looking up towards 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.”

Now, I first heard that, and thought, “What? If he’s coming back, let’s keep watching. It’s going to be a show. I don’t want to miss it.”

But then I remembered. Time does not belong to the disciples; time does not belong to you or to me. Time belongs to God. God has plans for these disciples. Jesus already told them what they were: they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. The angels are not asking “What are you looking at?” The answer to that is obvious. They are asking

What are you waiting for?

Why are you just standing around?

They are telling the disciples to stop wasting time.

In our culture and context we tend to hear these words in a specific way. We may hear these words and think we need to run outside, to get to work, to go to the store, to engage in economically valued activity. We might hear that it is time to get our country, our state, or our county open. We need to remember that money is among the oldest and strongest idols and “the economy” is just a way of saying “money-that-does-not-belong-to-you.” I have quoted Paul Tillich and said that an idol is anything that becomes our object of ultimate concern and is not God. I can put it another way:  anything that might tempt us to look past or to look around the image of God in another person is becoming an idol. Anything for which we are willing to make human sacrifice has become an idol. God calls us to love God, to love our neighbor, and to be stewards of creation. The angels are not calling the disciples to go into the marketplace, but to return to the upper room.

They need to prepare themselves for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Last week we read from the Gospel of John that Jesus would send an advocate, a helper, the Spirit of Truth to them. This week we read that the Holy Spirit would come upon them. They need to get ready, and so they return to Jerusalem and the upstairs room they have called home these past forty days and they pray so that when God does equip them, when God does prepare them, they will be ready. How do they get ready? By following the instruction of the Psalmist who sings “Be still and know that I am God.”

They don’t need to watch the skies, because as the angels assured them, when it comes, we won’t be able to miss it. They cannot stop to watch the skies because time is not theirs. They need to get ready.

They need to pray and to grow in the confidence that will later enable another leader of the faith, the author of 1st Peter, our second text for today to write “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God so that God may exalt you in due time.” The author of 1 Peter, he knows that time belongs to God. He knows that we are not alone, that today and every day, whatever it is we are struggling with, there are others around the world who are feeling the same things. We are learning this lesson ourselves right now. Some may want to return, some may be eager for June 14, others may be dreading it and planning to stay home. I know there are some of you who don’t care so much what the decision we ultimately make just so long as we do make a decision. Wherever you fall, however you feel, the author of 1 Peter has the same answer: “Put your anxieties on God.” Our friends and siblings in Christ around the world are wrestling with these same decisions, the same conflicting and missing information, the same concerns about how we can love one another best right now.

And we know as well that putting our anxieties on God is not a license to behave recklessly. Jesus also said “do not put God to the test.” We need to trust God, not test God: so whatever we do, we will still need to be careful.

We need to remember that the angels in our text today did not call on the disciples to go out, but to go in and pray. We need to remember that our ideas of productivity, of staying busy, are themselves ways we try to take control of time. The disciples spent the nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost in prayer. Because we are posting these online, I do not know when you are listening to me, but as I speak these words, we have nearly 7 full days between now and Pentecost. Seven days that are, like every day, a gift to us from God. Seven days that do not belong to us. How will we use them?

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