Father Nicholas Lang
We never know what’s coming our way next, do we? We can plan well and plan far ahead. We can take precautions in advance of possible setbacks. We can map out our calendar. We can make the best investments. We can get to know the right people. We can eat the right foods and be faithful to our exercise routine. But we never really know what’s ahead—even maybe as soon as tomorrow. On a large scale our entire nation experienced this on September 11, 2001. Who expected when retiring the night before that the world would change in a matter of hours? Since then, other unexpected disasters have occurred. Our world changed again last winter when COVID reordered our lives. You may have a story or two that bears witness to the truth that we just never know what’s ahead. Two thousand years ago, a small band of women and men decided to follow a prophetic teacher, a rabbi, who preached a very different perspective about God and faith and life than the old-time religion to which they had been accustomed. They lived in community with one another for three years, witnessed the marvelous signs and healings Jesus performed, scratched their heads a lot after he had told a puzzling parable, and eventually trusted him enough to be sent out on their own to spread the Good News. Then, after an emotional Seder Supper, at which he blew their minds by getting down and washing their feet and feeding them with bread and wine that he said was his own body and blood, they watched him be arrested, tried, tortured and nailed to a cross. Three days later they would get the news that his tomb was empty and that he had risen—all confirmed by multiple appearances Jesus made to them over the next forty days. Our truth was their truth: We never know what’s coming our way next. I wonder what the confused followers of Jesus were doing that night before what we now know as “Ascension Day.” Were they throwing a going away party for Jesus? Were they still cowering in a hiding place for fear of meeting the same fate as he did? Was Jesus even there with them—or had they not seen him for several days? And did they even know he was going to be leaving them the very next day? I’ll bet the last possibility was their reality—that they had no idea, as they often didn’—what was coming next, not unlike all of us as we go through life. Luke tells the Ascension story twice today. In the Acts of the Apostles, which we think Luke may have authored, the story places the disciples in Jerusalem and opens the door for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. We get a different version in the Gospel where it is an intimate time for closure for Jesus and his companions. Here the ascension takes place in Bethany, a place where Jesus spent a lot of time with his best friends. In this tender story, Jesus departs from the neighborhood in which he loved to hang out. His friends gazed up into the sky wondering how far up or into what dimension of the planet he would now abide, but not for long before they are sent on their way back to Jerusalem—to wait. “Stay here in this city,’ Jesus commands them, “until you are clothed with the power from above.” Stay put. Wait. These are words most of us never like to hear. We value fast results, getting things done ahead of schedule, short lines at the bank or grocery store or DMV. Like the disciples, we want to know when we might expect God to establish the kingdom God promised. We don’t like to wait and we don’t like it when, after waiting any length of time, we don’t get what we expected. We have become a society that is all too familiar with road rage, airport rage, sports rage, office rage. Waiting is very un-American and seems too much like just wasting time. But the instruction “to wait” was among the last words, the parting words Jesus gave us, and although it is a word we may not like to hear, it reveals the uncomfortable truth that we are not in total control of our destiny, that we don’t always have things all figured out, and that, yes, we never know what’s coming our way next. Those first followers of Jesus didn’t; neither do we. The good news is that the Ascension is about promise—the promise that God’s power, not the world’s power, will reign. We wait, yes, but we wait in the wings of that promise and with eyes wide open to discover the evidence of the Spirit’s gifts all around us—often where and when we least expect them. Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello tells this parable: All questions at the public meeting that day were about life beyond the grave. The Master only laughed and did not give a single answer. To his disciples, who demanded to know the reason for his evasiveness, he later said, “Have you observed that it is precisely those who do not know what to do with this life who want another that will last forever?” “But is there life after death or is there not?” persisted a disciple. “Is there life before death?—that is the question!” said the Master unexpectedly. In our waiting, in our living of our days, in our engagement with each other and our sharing of our joy and sorrow, in our expectation and in our uncertainty, we are, in fact answering the Master’s question. What’s coming our way next may not be what we want or expect, it could be a surprise of God like a vaccine that let’s us get back to some degree of normalcy; but maybe, just maybe we’ll be clothed with power from above.