In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
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. But 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.”Acts 1:1-11
What’s harder than writing a great story? Any great creative mind will tell you: writing its sequel. Very rarely does the sequel measure up to the promise, excitement, and novelty of the original. In every creative field the measure of an artist is not their first great hit, but whether or not they can follow it up with anything equally as impressive. In music they call this the “Sophomore album slump”, in literature sometimes the second novel in a trilogy will be referred to as “the Two Towers of the series” (referring to the least beloved of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy). Every year we get sequel after sequel in television, movies, games, and books; and every time one is announced you’ll get a chorus of fans cautiously optimistic, then supremely disappointed when they find it doesn’t quite have the magic that the series used to. Lightning doesn’t often strike twice in the same place, let alone getting caught in a bottle twice.
Not even Luke, our great evangelist and early Church historian can quite capture the mystery and stirring wonder of the original Ascension story. His depiction of the Risen Jesus, commissioning his disciples after spending weeks making appearances and teaching them the meaning of Scripture, in one line, Jesus gets pulled up into heaven. The disciples ask, “Jesus, does this mean that you are establishing your kingdom on earth!?” to which Luke describes Jesus as simply saying “maybe, but that’s not for you to know” before just up and leaving. Jesus goes up to heaven, then all the disciples are left with are two guys in white coming next to them saying, “what are you doing looking up at the sky? He’s coming back later, go home”. If I were a disciple, I couldn’t help but look to the men and white and say Did you just see what happened!?? Did you not just see Jesus, the son of God who was crucified and raised, just LEFT!? And you’re just telling me to go home?? I will admit, I have paraphrased some. I have to say though, Luke could have added a bit more grandeur to the whole thing. Frankly he really disappointed me with his sequel to the original Ascension story.
Now if you’re sitting and wondering to yourself, “wait, who else ascended into heaven?” I invite you to come back a thousand years before Jesus was born into the city of Gilgal: the Second Book of Kings chapter 2. Two prophets, a master and an apprentice, Elijah and Elisha are having a tense moment. They both know that Elijah’s time is coming. Though the author of Kings does not tell us how or why, they both know that God is going to take Elijah away; leaving the mission of redeeming the people of Israel to Elisha. But Elisha doesn’t want his master to go. He’s not sure if he’s ready. He loves his master and wants to spend every last moment they have together. Elijah tells him, “God is telling me to go to Bethel, stay here” Elisha says, “I won’t leave you”. So they walk 12 miles together and go to Bethel. When they get there, their friends and fellow disciples of Elijah whisper to Elisha, “You know he’s going to be taken away, don’t you?” “Yes, I know: keep silent” Elisha replies. This happens three times in three different city. Elisha will not leave his master’s side no matter how much Elijah tries to get rid of him. They come to the river Jordan, Elijah takes off his mantle, rolls it up, and strikes the water. The river splits and lets the pair walk across on dry land, like Moses at the Red Sea. Once they have crossed, Elijah tries to comfort his disciple by asking “what can I do for you, before I am taken from you?” Elisha asks for a “double inheritance of your spirit”, which is really an ancient Jewish way of asking to be almost as good as of a prophet as Elijah has been. He wants to make his master proud and carry on his legacy faithfully.
As they are walking and talking out of nowhere a chariot of fire and horses flies down and comes between them! Elijah is snatched up and taken away in a whirlwind into the sky, ascending into heaven. Elisha runs after his master, tears streaming down his face as he cries “Father, Father!”, hopelessly trying to keep up as the chariot is lost in the sunlight. When he can see them no more, he falls to his knees at the bank of the river and tears his clothes as a sign of his mourning. Slumped in despair he almost doesn’t see the cloth come falling from the sky. In the chaos of the whirlwind Elijah’s mantle must have fallen off. Elisha picks it up, rolls it up, and in anguish drives it into the water crying “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah!?”
The Jordan splits.
Elisha sees that the river has split, picks himself up, and walks across dry land. He has taken up the mantle, he now is the prophet of Israel.
That is how you tell an ascension story. In one short chapter we know all we need to know about the relationship between these two men, and the cosmic implications of what has taken place. To be fair, Luke devotes the entire book of Acts to show us the disciples picking up the mantle. In truth Luke is deliberately playing down the story because the final moment, the goodbye isn’t what it’s really about. Luke calls us back to Elijah’s story so we can remember the grandeur, but he wants us to focus on the ones left behind. Us.
The season of Easter is 50 days long, beginning with Easter Sunday and ending on Pentecost. This is the 40th day. Why would we mark today as a Principle Feast when another is coming in just ten days? I’m sure y’all don’t need me to remind you that 40 is a special number in the Bible. 40 days Noah spent in the ark, 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert preparing for his ministry. Now, 40 days the Risen Christ has made appearances to the disciples, “opening their eyes to scripture”. You may recall that at the last Sunday of Lent Jeff talked about our Lenten discipline. Lent is a season of self-preparation. However, if you failed to keep your Lenten discipline not to worry, you have a second chance, Easter. These past 40 days that Jesus has spent training his disciples to carry on the Mission of redeeming the world, we are also expected to prepare to share the Gospel. Pentecost is our commissioning to go forth into the world and make disciples of all nations, healing the world through the love of Christ. Now if this charge has put a little anxiety into you, good! You are sharing the feelings of a long and noble tradition of disciples taking up the mantle after the master has been swept into heaven. We are the sequel to Jesus’ story, and the whole world is waiting with bated breath to see if we can measure up to the original, or leave a hollow, disappointing follow-up to the greatest story creation has ever known. For all you procrastinators out there, if you feel woefully under-prepared be grateful for God’s mercy, you still have ten days left before your commissioning.