May 4, 2008
7th Sunday of Easter
There's something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
It may come cannonballing down through the sky,
Gleam in its eye,
Bright as a rose!
Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something's coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something's coming, I don't know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great!
Can’t you just feel it? The suspense so thick you could cut it with a knife? At the end of our reading from Acts we find eleven apostles—and of course, eleven is the wrong number for apostles, as you may know. It’s a number-in-waiting, a number wanting. These insufficient apostles, plus an undisclosed number of women, are gathered in a room waiting for something, and, you just know, it’s ‘gonna be great.’ They are waiting for a promise to be fulfilled, the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus. They are fearful, anxious, hiding in a second-storey room, waiting, hoping, for the gift of God’s power.
At last, the reading we have for today actually matches the timeline of the church year. On Thursday we marked forty days from Easter, our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. And on that fortieth day, it is the tradition of the church to lift up this story, unique in the New Testament, the story of Jesus being lifted up to heaven in a cloud.
There is something so strange, so odd about this passage. In a collection of gospels and letters where little girls and grown men are raised from the dead, where lepers are made suddenly clean, where a stormy sea is made still with the utterance of a few words, where demons are driven out of people and into herds of wild pigs… this is still a weird story, this story of Jesus the Cloud Rider. On the fortieth day after the resurrection, Luke tells us, Jesus and his disciples are standing on the side of a mountain together, and he makes them this promise: “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8]
And then, while they are still talking to him, he is lifted up, and a cloud takes him from their sight and into the sky, into heaven. Only Luke tells this story, here and in the gospel bearing his name. And the story has the feeling of a kind of strange folk tale. But there are precedents for this sort of thing in the ancient world, and in our religious tradition.
In 2 Kings, the prophet Elijah is taken bodily out of sight and into heaven in a fiery chariot, apparently the most appropriate send-off for a man who stared down kings and queens and prophets who had strayed from the one true God. In later Jewish writings, Moses also departs this earth by ascending bodily into heaven, even as he continues to teach and preach to the people. But the most likely reference here, the layer of Jewish tradition we are supposed to hear, is the story of the strange, enigmatic figure of the Son of Man from the book of Daniel.
Daniel is a prophet from the period of the Babylonian exile. The first half of the book bearing his name shows Daniel to be faithful to the God of Israel, even as his life is threatened for not worshiping the king of Babylon. The second half of the book is given over to apocalyptic visions. The passage I’m going to read comes from the first vision:
As I watched… I saw one like a [son of man] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. ~ Daniel 7:13-14
The eerie spectacle of Jesus riding on a cloud evokes the promised return of “one like a son of man,” and the two white-robed men who ask the disciples, “Why are you looking up?” confirm that understanding by promising, yes, this is how Jesus will return. The cloudy departure of Jesus evokes all these same qualities… dominion, glory, a kingship that shall never be destroyed. The disciples’ response is to get ready. They retreat to the upper room to pray. And wait.
Strange as this story is to us, the idea of a man coming or going in clouds was not unheard of in the ancient world. The idea of God’s presence in a cloud was a familiar and compelling one to those steeped in scripture, reminiscent of the forty-year sojourn of the Hebrews in the wilderness. As they wandered, God went before the people in a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day [Exodus 13:21]. The cloud becomes a paradoxical thing that somehow both reveals and conceals the presence of God… Jesus goes, the Son of Man comes, all on a cloud.
It’s a powerful image; God acting in history, even interacting with human beings… but in or behind a cloud. It’s a wonderful image to relate to our own experience of God. We believe God is active, involved in human affairs, even our own little lives. But we don’t often have a clear sense of when that is happening, or how. It’s often cloudy to us.
Sometimes it feels as if we can say, “God did that!” when a good thing happens. (I have one friend who gives the Holy Spirit credit for good parking spaces; I don’t think I’m prepared to defend the theology behind that!) But what about those other times, times when, instead of coming together, things, our lives, our bodies, even, are falling apart? Sometimes we can’t see God’s hand in things. God operates behind a cloud… still present, still powerful, but somehow obscure to us.
In our Confirmation class a couple of weeks ago we read that story I shared during the children’s message. Remember how it went…
Many, many years ago there lived a faithful man named Jacob. He had twelve sons.
[Oh! That’s good!]
No, that’s bad, because he favored one son in particular—Joseph, and that made his other sons jealous of Joseph.
[Ooh! That’s bad!]
No, that’s good, because Joseph was a young man who was more concerned with God and with understanding God’s plans for him than with his brothers’ bad feelings.
[Oh! That’s good!]...
It’s hard to tell, sometimes, what exactly the hand of God is doing in our lives. When something painful or frightening happens… a bad diagnosis, the loss of a job or a relationship, an untimely death… we are not so eager to ascribe these things to the hand of God. Or, if we do, it’s to ask God, Why? Why me? What have I done to deserve this? God is present to us, but God is also hidden from our vision, deep in that cloud.
Like the characters in the story of Jacob and his sons, we’re always ready to ascribe value to the things that happen—“this is good, that is bad.” We are always, in some sense, waiting for God’s next word to us. Here’s the good news: that word is always, in the end, a word of healing, salvation and redemption, even if it’s not readily apparent to us. This is a fine Reformed notion known as the Providence of God. Our Presbyterian Study Catechism has this to say about God’s providence:
God not only preserves the world, but continually rules over it. God cares for every creature and brings good out of evil, so that nothing evil is permitted to occur that God does not finally bend to the good. ~ Question 22
Nothing evil is permitted to occur that God does not finally bend to the good. This is a powerful tool for anyone’s faith toolkit. God does not set about testing or torturing us. God is a God of joy and power, who wants our healing and joy and empowerment. Whenever we baptize babies or receive new members, we invoke that healing, joy and empowerment by the Holy Spirit with this prayer:
O Lord, uphold this person by your Holy Spirit. Daily increase in him your gifts of grace: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.
Trusting in the God who comes and goes in a cloud means that we are ready and waiting for the Spirit’s gifts. Trusting our Lord who is both revealed to us and concealed from us means that we are willing to suspend judgment on the events of our lives, good or bad or indifferent, because the one who lights our way has not finished speaking to us, or dealing graciously with us. Trusting the Holy Spirit means being ready to be sent, wherever that Spirit leads us… even to the ends of the earth. Could be! Who knows? There's something due any day. We will know right away, soon as it shows. Thanks be to God. Amen.