Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for Ascension of the Lord.
Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, 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 end of the earth.”
After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”
Spring is such a joyful season.
Erron and I have been spending a lot of time walking around our subdivision lately, enjoying the weather and looking for the latest round of baby fauna to make their appearance.
The robins on our back porch have come and gone. We had three this year, but they only stayed about a week before mama kicked them out of the nest. We’ve got baby squirrels in the tree outside our window—including one albino white squirrel who’s a treasure to watch. We only saw mama for a few days with the squirrels, although the babies are still around, growing fast and exploring more and more of the neighborhood each week. And then of course there’s the ducklings down by the pond, little yellow fluffballs that flump and skitter around. Their moms will hang around the longest, far after the ducklings really fit under their wings anymore, but eventually even the ducklings will go their own way. And, of course, it’s graduation season, and more than a few anxious human mamas are prepping for their own kids to leave the nest, too.
We love watching out for the babies because, of course, they’re darn cute; but they also make for great comedy. They tumble and stumble and jump around awkwardly and race to catch up to their siblings. They are graceless and adorable and fall down a lot. Whether or not mom and dad hang around for a long time, animal parents can only teach their wild babies so much. Animals learn by doing; there’s no degree program for getting your Bachelor’s in Squirrelery or your certification in Duckhood. And so we watch the squirrels jump for branches, miss and fall; we watch robins make hopping leaps around the yard that don’t quite amount to flying; and we watch the ducklings flip themselves upside down trying to reach worms at the bottom of the pond they aren’t yet big enough to grab. Their missteps and flailings are amusing now; but as they grow, they’ll get it. They’ll jump, they’ll fly, they’ll dive. They’ll learn.
Our scripture today takes us to springtime in Jerusalem, to Jesus’ ascension, forty days after he rose from the dead. It is a bittersweet moment. It is the day Jesus returns to heaven, and we celebrate his eternal reign; but it is also the day he leaves us. To use a metaphor, this is the day that our mama bird flies away, leaving us to figure out the world for ourselves.
Acts informs us that Jesus instructed his disciples in the way of the kingdom before he left them, but frustratingly, those instructions have not come down to us. And knowing Jesus, I question how precise even those were—Jesus of the parables, the riddles, and the paradoxes. How prepared were the disciples for life after Christ? Jesus offers them a blessing, and a mission, but certainly nothing like a five year strategic plan with graphs and actionables. He leaves the disciples to make their own way in the world, accompanied by the gift of the Holy Spirit but without his own physical presence to lead the way.
I can only fathom the desperation the disciples must have felt as they realized their time with Jesus was coming to an end. The million questions that must have risen up—how precisely does one heal leprosy? Is it a different process than healing a fever? What cities do you want us to go to first? Are we supposed to focus more on preaching or more teaching? Where is our funding going to come from? Can you explain the resurrection one more time?
In Acts, only one desperate, anxious question rises to the surface aloud: “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
But Jesus, rather than go over the instructions again, rather than pass out his contact information, rather than remind them of the plan, rather than give them all the information they think they need, offers what at first glance seems like a somewhat discompassionate rebuke:
“It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority.”
I’ll admit, I don’t like this.
I don’t like not knowing things. I like it even less when I know that someone else knows something and they won’t tell me. My hackles have always risen at this seemingly cavalier statement from Jesus—why aren’t God’s plans ours to know? Wouldn’t that be helpful? Wouldn’t it make us better disciples? Wouldn’t it make this whole life of faith more efficient, more effective, more successful?
Imagine if we had all the answers. Imagine if we knew—really knew—whether Jesus preferred hymns or praise music, Presbyterians or Methodists, red wine or grape juice, preaching from notes or a manuscript, green carpet or blue in the sanctuary. Imagine if we knew—really knew—how Jesus wanted us to vote, and what to do about racism, the death penalty, foreign affairs, robots, and the stock market. Imagine if we knew—really knew—every word we were supposed to say and every thing we were supposed to do.
There is a part of me that is tantalized by that idea. A world precisely shaped by God’s exact desires, carrying them out in divine lockstep. A world of perfect knowledge.
And yet there is also something horrifying in the idea. A world where there is no curiosity, no faithful discernment, nothing but perfect Christian drones living out their perfect lives. Unless, of course, someone decided to misbehave even though they knew better, which of course never happens. Perfect knowledge does not always lead to perfect love.
Jesus could have given us perfect knowledge, but I think he knew its limitations. If we knew every single thing God wanted us to think and say and do, I wonder—would we still want to know God? Would we know the difference between the decrees we so perfectly clung to and the one who issued them?
God is more than God’s rules. God is more than God’s will. And faith is more than obeying orders. Faith is reaching out through the mess and uncertainty to grasp hold of God.
Last week I mentioned Julian of Norwich, a mystic from the 1300s. That century was a particularly rich time for Christian mysticism, as a generation of faithful began to long for something more than the rules and regulations handed to them by the Catholic church. A hundred years before, Italian scholar Thomas Aquinas had argued for the existence of God with the kind of logical proofs that you find more often in a math textbook, but not everyone was satisfied with such pat answers. Mysticism offered a different path into God, one that was less about arguing and more about experiencing. And so around the same time Julian was alive, another English mystic, whose name we don’t know, wrote a little book called The Cloud of Unknowing.
It’s a guidebook, of sorts, to going deeper into the life of faith. The author insists that you cannot know your way to God—you can only love your way to God. Knowledge isn’t bad, he says, but it is insufficient. God is more than what humans can comprehend by mind alone.
Learn to sit with what you do not know, the mystic wrote. That is where you will find God.
“When you first begin,” he writes, “you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don’t know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, and this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God… Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love.”
Knowing closes doors. Longing opens them.
Knowing about God, the mystic insists, is a poor substitute for experiencing God. Having knowledge is a poor substitute for being caught up in the very expansive, powerful, otherworldly spirit of God.
In the very same breath as Jesus tells his disciples that some things aren’t theirs to know, he also promises them power—the power of the Holy Spirit upon them, to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
We have more power than knowledge. That’s a scary thought, but an exciting one too.
At the end of our story today, the disciples stand looking up to the heavens, to the cloud that took Jesus out of their sight. Angels come to stand with them, encouraging them to let go of knowing exactly where Jesus is now. Instead, they have a new task: to experience what it is to live as a disciple of the Lord. To experience the Spirit’s power in their life.
Last year, there was a duckling in our neighborhood that Erron and I fondly called “Last Duck,” because he never seemed to be able to keep up with his brothers and sisters. He stuck close to his mom’s side long after the rest of his siblings were going out into the world, fell backwards into the pond when he tried to climb out, and generally just didn’t seem to be getting the hang of things. Last Duck was precious, but we worried—how was he going to do when mom finally stopped babying him?
Last Duck had to learn—well—how to duck, just like our little white squirrel is learning how to squirrel, and the robins with their unfurling wings are learning how to bird. And eventually Last Duck did learn. One day early last summer, we realized we weren’t sure which adolescent duck was our favorite. They were all swimming around, out in the world. They’d all learned. They still had some growing up to do, but the characteristic grace of a mallard on the water was theirs.
After the ascension, the disciples must learn how to disciple. And, at times, they will be as graceless, as comical, and as full of failure as last duck tumbling off the rocks into the water. They won’t learn by knowing everything there is to know. They’ll learn by doing everything there is to do. And eventually, they’ll find some grace of their own.
Two thousand years later, and we are still learning how to disciple. We’re still stumbling around in the muck of all we do not know, making our best guesses about what Jesus wants, trying our best to cobble together a church that fulfills his mission and lives that reflect his calling. Some days we fail. My prayer is that God finds us as adorable as I find those baby critters in my neighborhood.
I’m learning to get more comfortable with what I do not know. Because the gaps that not knowing leave is where love can most easily flourish. As long as I do not know everything, I am forced to cling to God, to question, to wonder, to yearn, to pray. As long as I do not know everything, I am forced to rely on the Spirit’s power, and not my own perfect mind.
There’s a lot we don’t know. And God designed it this way. Designed us not to be robots carrying God’s will out to an unsuspecting world, but disciples witnessing to his perfect, perfect love. Part of the call of Christianity is going out into the world before we have all the answers, because the world can’t wait.
Jesus has flown the nest, but the Spirit is with us always. And while there’s a lot we don’t know, that’s okay. It’s in the unknowing that we find our way.
And in the unknowing that we find our God.
 Wolters, Clifton. The Cloud of Unknowing, 2018. p 51.