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Sermon preached June 5, 2011 at Temple Lutheran Church.
In Jerusalem, at the site of the Mount of Olives, stands a building called The Chapel of the Ascension. It’s considered by many to be a sacred site and is often visited by people traveling through the Holy Land.
The centerpiece of this chapel is the Ascension Rock, which is said to bear the imprint of the right foot of Jesus as he ascended. It is regarded as the last footprint of Jesus on Earth. The story of the “Ascension Rock” is based upon Acts chapter 1. Jesus is having a conversation with his disciples about how God’s kingdom will unfold. As the conversation comes to its culmination, Jesus says:
“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]
The passage then tells us:
“when Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” [Acts 1:9]
And, even today, we can travel to Jerusalem (either in person or via the instant access provided by the internet) and look at “Ascension Rock”. We can look at the last footprint of Jesus on Earth.
Now, if your mind follows the same path that mind does, there are questions that might arise. The questions you will have might include:
- How do we know the specific rock?
- Why would there be footprint in a rock?
- Was the Mount of Olives preservation society pouring a new cement sidewalk that day and Jesus messed it up?
To be honest, I’m pretty sure it’s just an ordinary rock. Even so, it does provide us with an important invitation: it invites us into the story of Jesus, and a pretty important part of the story, to say the least.
The story of the ascension, it appears, Is the story of Jesus leaving the world. Forty-three days earlier, it seemed as though the story was over as Jesus went to the cross and died. Those fears were overcome three days later when the tomb was empty and the savior was risen. But here we are, once again, witnessing the disciples bidding farewell to Jesus as he is again lifted up off of the ground. Not on a cross this time, but on a cloud, as he ascends. Carried away like a released balloon until he is out of their sight.
The “Ascension Rock”, even if it is just another ordinary rock, invites us to struggle with a question that is always present. A question those disciples certainly could feel surging through them as they stared at the sky watching the ascension:
What happens next?
Where does the story go if that is the last footprint of Jesus?
What happens now…if Jesus has “stepped off” of the earth?
What happens now…if Jesus has left?
Jesus knew that day was coming. Jesus knew that he would not always be there in the way the disciples were used to. Jesus knew that this was part of God’s unfolding plan. We hear it as Jesus prays for them—for us—in John chapter 17. Think about that for a moment: Jesus prays for us! In the midst of seeking God’s involvement in our lives, Jesus prays:
“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” [John 17:11]
Jesus’ prayer makes it clear that there is more to come. Jesus makes it clear that God’s story will continue to unfold.
There is a reason that Jesus did all that Jesus did.
There is a reason that God became a human being.
There is a reason that Jesus came and proclaimed a new world.
There is a reason that Jesus showed a different way of living in the world.
There is a reason that Jesus suffered and died on a Roman cross.
There is a reason that Jesus was raised three days later.
And there is a reason that Jesus stepped back off of the earth and ascended.
Jesus does all of this so that we may know God.
Jesus’ prayer defines the purpose of God’s son in the world, and that is
“to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” [John 17:2-3]
Jesus does all of this so that we may know God.
But it’s not just so we can know God…there’s more. Jesus does all of this so that we may do God’s work on earth. That’s right. Jesus leaves, but we stay. Why? To continue the work God first entrusted to Jesus.
The prayer in John 17 continues, and just a moment later, Jesus prays:
“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” [John 17:18]
Jesus speaks the very same thing directly to the disciples just before he left that final footprint on the “Ascension Rock.” After reminding us of the promised Holy Spirit, Jesus tells the disciples, including us today, that
“you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8]
Jesus leaves, but we stay.
The next chapter in God’s unfolding story is the part where we do God’s work with our hands. It’s the part where we live as people who know Christ and make Christ known.
It turns out that the story of the ascension is not just the story of the moment when Jesus stepped off of the earth, It is actually our stepping off point. It is where our participation in God’s story truly begins.
The footprint on the “Ascension Rock” is not the final footprint of Jesus on the earth. It is not the last place that Jesus left an impact on this world. Each one of has been called to leave footprints in Jesus’ name. We have been called together to impact the world–to continue the new way of living that Jesus proclaimed.
Jesus has not left the world behind. Jesus has not left Japan behind. Jesus has not left Joplin, Missouri (or Alabama or Massachusetts) behind. Jesus has not left Haiti or Darfur behind.
Jesus has not left those who suffer and struggle behind, whether it be in the middle of a disaster zone, or in a hospital bed or nursing home, or quietly in your own hardships while everyone thinks you’re doing fine. If you are suffering today, Christ is present here with you–truly present. Jesus is here with you because this congregation is here with you. We are the footprints of Jesus in the world today. And, as we are present with each other, we are called together to be the footprints of Jesus for the world around us.
There are so many ways that God invites us to leave footprints in the world. Some of them are obvious: we feed the hungry, we stand with the poor, we build a house together in Chester. But let me leave you with this reminder, too: most of the footprints that Jesus wants to leave in the world happen through things that you do every day and probably don’t even realize are connected to God’s unfolding story.
Just like Ascension Rock is just another ordinary rock that has been swept up in God’s story, we are all a bunch of ordinary people doing ordinary things. But we, too, become a part of what God is doing in the world.
It happens in the way you relate to another person: whether it’s the person in line at the soup kitchen or the person in front of you in the checkout line at the grocery store. It happens when a parent closes their laptop and spends time with a son or daughter just being together. The topic of the conversation may be important, or it might be silly, but the words don’t matter nearly as much as the relationship that happens. You become a part of what God is doing in the world when you show up at work, when you sit in the bleachers at a soccer field, when you break bread together at a diner, at home, or here during worship.
You become a part of what God is doing in the world when you trust the promise that Jesus has sent you into the world. You become a part of what God is doing in the world when you trust that God answers the prayer of Jesus so that you may know Christ and make Christ known.
The ascension of Jesus is a stepping off point, but it’s not about Jesus stepping off of the earth and disappearing. It is the stepping off point of our life as followers of Jesus. It is the stepping off point of our participation in God’s unfolding story. It is the stepping off point of the good news of the gospel. Amen.