Jesus is taken up into heaven
2 Kings 2 : 1 - 11 and Acts 1 : 1 - 11
The Book of Acts was written by Luke. Luke was from the city of Antioch in Syria which was in what we call Turkey - to the north east of Cyprus and where the modern city of Antakya is situated. You can visit there if you holiday in Turkey and can take yourself away from getting a sun tan on the beach. Luke as you know was a doctor and was well educated in Greek language and culture. He became a Christian and was the companion of Paul on some of his missionary journeys. Luke’s Gospel is beautiful with its own character and it gives a prominent place to women. He became the first Church historian and testifies that he made thorough investigations of the claims of Christianity and found them to be true. Scholars affirm that Paul’s references to Luke in Colossians and Philemon prove that Luke was with Paul on his journey to Rome and remained there to help him. The last verses of Acts describe Paul’s two year house arrest at first hand. There is a tradition that Luke remained a faithful Christian, did not marry and died at the age of 84.
These are important facts to note because what is described in Acts 1 does not fit with the scientifically influenced age in which we live today. For those hostile to Christianity, Acts 1 belongs in the categories of fiction and fantasy and even of the psychological category of primary delusion. So too does the somewhat parallel story of the death of Elijah which we heard read to us. But what happens in Acts 1 is not without precedent although it too makes little sense to people without faith today. Faith is not accepting and believing what is impossible against our better judgement. We do not have to suspend our critical faculties to be Christians. But we do have to think about what is described to us in the Bible and try to make sense of it and understand it alongside the present wisdom of the age.
Luke testifies that Jesus gave many convincing proofs that he was alive and that this lasted for 40 days. This was a definite time and was limited and the resurrection appearances ended. Why? In John’s Gospel we learn of Jesus’ explanation for his departure. 'I tell you the truth; anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father… But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you…Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you , but if I go, I will send him to you…But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth'.
It was necessary that God’s saving work should no longer be localised in Jesus’ single incarnation. The release of heaven’s powers was to be so great that it would be carried by many witnesses and this presence of the Holy Spirit would always testify to Jesus and witness for him through those who responded and became Christians as people still do today. So - there had to be an end of Jesus’ particular resurrection appearances and the Church had to become his body instead. We should remember what that means - the Church is the Body of Christ. At least - it is meant to be. We are meant to be channels of the power of heaven’s blessings first and foremost. We are meant to be a rejoicing and victorious people.
We learn in Acts 1 that Jesus gave clear and definite instructions to his disciples and to those who formed the embryonic first Church, 'Stay in Jerusalem' - do not disperse - don’t give up and don’t go back home - 'wait for the gift my Father promised, which I told you about. For John baptised with water but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit'. The disciples and followers of Jesus who of course included women did just that. They waited together, still anxious and fearful - in effect an illegally constituted company hiding behind closed doors with passwords for entry. They held together which is amazing. Christian groups are not that known for their unity. But - these ones held together while they waited and waited and waited. But they must have been imbued with a great sense of expectation and anticipation. Mostly they prayed and worshipped. They had met the risen Jesus and knew that they were part of something life changing and extraordinary in their personal lives and in human history.
They conversed with Jesus and asked him questions. It seems bizarre to us but that is what happened. Jesus must have appeared very human to them. Verse 4 says 'On one occasion while he was eating with them'…So they were relaxed enough - but - they still did not know what was to be expected of them. Verse 6 says 'Lord at this time are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?' They still imagined that Jesus would use his resurrected power to re-establish the middle east Kingdom of David and preserve it for all time. Jesus knocked these aspirations back. In fact, he knocked them down. He put them to rest. That was not going to happen and if it was to at some future time, only God knew when. Jesus then explained what they were to do instead. 'But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth'.
Far from being a local nationalist Messiah, Jesus’ message was to be spread across the whole world. And that has come true. And that should help us with any doubts we may have. How could a spiritual message survive and prosper in the centre of such enmity and opposition, and then increase and multiply? It did. Without an army or political power. A sheer spiritual force. The Holy Spirit, the life of God the Creator, in time reaching you and me.
This is all clear and straightforward - if you believe. But it is difficult stuff for today’s National Secular Society to take on board. Their mean-spiritedness knows no bounds. They want schools to announce that pupils are free to leave assemblies where there is an act of worship and free not to attend religious education classes. The majority of parents most of whom are not practising Christians want the children to learn as much as they can and that would include hearing about humanist views. You would not hear them demanding that the majority of pupils be exempted from humanistic ideology and politics - they’d not be much at school if they did.
So now we come to the heart of Acts 1. Verse 9 says After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. In the context of all the supernatural and divine powers that Jesus demonstrated, this was consistent. It was also consistent with the God of Israel who led the Children of Israel out of Egypt and across the Negev by means of a cloud. A cloud, of course, in the middle east was a sign of blessing and a joy - it meant the possibility of rain. But if the sky was otherwise blue the appearance of a cloud would be seen as a supernatural sign. How could it exist and not evaporate? In the story of The Transfiguration of Jesus, in Mark 9:7 the text says 'Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud, ‘This is my Son whom I love, listen to him’.
For the followers of Jesus the cloud was evidence of God’s presence and activity. It could be trusted. In the Old Testament lesson we heard earlier something similar occurred at the death of the great prophet Elijah. Elijah was not a literary prophet who wrote prophecies down. He was not even a great preacher. He was an action man prophet, a kind of Rambo or James Bond type of prophet taking on all and sundry on their own terms and defeating them in the name of the living God. He was dynamically and organically connected to God and fought God’s battles for him single handed. His prayers counted. He could ask for drought and it happened. He could ask for rain and it came. He could ask for lightening to fire up the altars of sacrifice and it did so. But he was very human and lost heart and lost hope and be came disillusioned and broken-hearted. His passing was shrouded in mystery. Elijah asked his disciple Elisha what he could give him before he died. He answered, 'Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit'. Elijah replied, 'You have asked a difficult thing, yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours, otherwise not'. The text says that Elisha saw a spiritual vision of a chariot and horses of fire and then a whirlwind appeared and took Elijah’s body away. Elisha was left bereaved and distraught. He picked up Elijah’s cloak and went home but the company of the prophets recognised that something had happened to him and said 'The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha'. Elisha became a great action man prophet too and served God all his days.
There were plenty of people in Israel who were not very good Jews. They were not pious or prayerful or generous and they were not good neighbours either. But the Bible speaks of those who were exceptional and whose lives demonstrated the existence of God. So too in Christianity there have been many exceptional people who offer evidence and encouragement for faith. It is exceptional to have a profound relationship with God and it is obvious that it stretches the bounds of our imagination and understanding. How could it be otherwise?
The ascension of Jesus belongs in this rarified atmosphere of the direct activity of God. Whether this was a spiritual cloud or a physical cloud or a mixture of both we do not know. It would seem that it was physical because there was an angelic communication, 'Men of Galilee - why are you standing looking up into the sky? They added, This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven'. These words have not yet come true in human history. Jesus’ words about the coming of the Holy Spirit did come true shortly after he said so.
Our task then is not to be gazing up into heaven looking for Jesus to come back but to be witnesses for Him wherever we are and to live out our Christian life in his service and for his sake. He is worth it. There is a parallel brief account of all of this at the end of Luke’s Gospel. There he adds, They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. That is an important testimony. Christianity became popular because it is joyful living faith. Nothing on earth was like it then and today it is the opposite of our personal depressions and the social despondency. Jesus is alive and brings joy to those who love Him.