This is a sermon I gave in May, 2016, a few days after Ascension Day. This is the day when Christians recalls Jesus’ return to heaven, forty days after his resurrection. The Bible readings that day were two Biblical accounts of the Ascension: Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11.
Today we heard two very interesting passages from the Bible, both written by the same author: Luke. They read slightly differently, not because of anything wrong with the historical accuracy of the record but because one comes at the end of the first volume of his ‘good news of Jesus Christ’ and the other at the beginning of his second. Much could, and has been said, about both passages.
We could note how the apostles – the people who had been closest to Jesus throughout his ministry – only fully understood who he was and what he was doing at the very end of his ministry. We read that Jesus then, “opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” (Luke 24:45), in a similar way as he had done on the road to Emmaus (24:25-27). This is something that is picked up in Acts too: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:6-7) It reminds me of the moment at the end of a book or film, when you suddenly cry out, “Ah, that’s what he meant!” and all the pieces of the plot finally fall into place. These verses are a clear warning against scriptural dogmatism and a reminder that we now see “only through a glass darkly” and perfect knowledge will only come at the end.
We could also note how the apostles are effectively handed the baton by Jesus. In other words, ‘over to you’! “You are witnesses of these things,” (Luke 24:48) Jesus tells his friends, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The responsibility to tell the good news of what Jesus has done for the world is OURS – not just ministers or elders or church workers but all of ours.
Most importantly, we could note the promise that Jesus makes before the Ascension that he is going to prepare a place for each of us in his heavenly home and that he does not leave us alone and bereft. “See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). And, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). Pentecost, which we celebrate next week, will fulfil the promise Jesus made earlier in ministry: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me” (John 14:18). This is a vital reminder that we continue to encounter the risen Christ through the work of the Spirit: we have not been deserted.
We could talk about all these very important things, but (typically) I want to talk about something else: bluebells! On Wednesday I had lots of other things to do but I decided that it was important to make time to visit Dockey Wood, in Ashridge, near Berkhamsted. If didn’t go then, I knew wouldn’t see the famous bluebells at all as I was busy this weekend. As I walked round with my partner, we saw not only a wonderful carpet of bluebells but also several beautiful trees just come into bloom. It caused me to half-remember a poem, and when I got back I looked it up. It is one by A.E. Houseman and comes from his series of poems, ‘A Shropshire Lad’:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Together, the bluebells and the blossom reminded me that the Ascension of Jesus is a crucial reminder to treasure ‘the now’ that God has given us.
The gospels tell us that Jesus frequently reminded those around him to treasure him whilst he was still with them. John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus why his disciples did not fast, as was the custom at that time. Jesus replied: “You cannot make wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” (Luke 5:34-6) The story of Martha and Mary has a similar moral (Luke 10:38-42). As does Jesus’ warning about worrying about tomorrow, and the birds of the air and flowers of the field – though he didn’t mention bluebells! (Luke 12:22-32)
It is a lesson that I need to heed myself. I am going on retreat shortly and I know that I will find it almost impossible not to fret about all the things that have to be done, instead of enjoying the time alone in the beauty of a rural retreat centre.
I was pointedly reminded of the lesson too this week, when I was in hospital with a man who died yesterday. He knew that his end wasn’t far away and he was being given excellent care by both the staff there and by his family, who were all around him. Each time one of them left, even to go to the toilet, he’d say, “I love you”. He wanted to use every moment that he still had to do and say the things that really mattered. I came away wondering if I used all my moments with such wisdom.
Now this does not mean that you should go home and stop paying the gas bill, stop doing the food shopping and start spending money like there’s no tomorrow! Nor does it mean that we should ever be reckless about how we use our resources or the world’s – giving no thought for those who come after us. It is about valuing THE NOW that God has given us: the bluebells, the gifts of nature, the people around us. It’s about taking time to look at the blossom; to sit and listen to someone patiently instead of dashing off to the next thing; of telling someone how important and valuable they are to you.
This is not blind optimism. This is not saying just live for today and stuff the rest. This is a call to value the now because we have the certainty of God’s love – that ends can be beginnings as well. Most importantly it is a call to remember that Jesus is present with us now, will always be present with us in our lives, if we care to let him in and that he will waiting to welcome us home, when our journey is ended. Amen.
Images: Author’s own photos of bluebell wood. ‘Ascension of Christ’ – Benvenuto Tisi (1481–1559). Web Gallery of Art. Public Domain. Via Wikimedia. ‘The Ascension’ – from Illuminated Armenian Gospels with Eusebian canons. Shelfmark MS. Arm. d.13.By Unknown – The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, CC BY 4.0. Via Wikimedia.