Near the end of World War II, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin were observing a procession of tank divisions. As they watched, they also discussed the prospects for post-war Europe. At one point Churchill made some comments about how he hoped the Pope would have a good influence in putting Europe back together. Stalin leaned over, gestured toward the procession in front of them, and cynically asked, ”Really, how many divisions has the Pope got?” Stalin, like much of our world, could only conceive of power in one way: brute force. The only power which most people recognize is the one which comes from the barrel of a gun. Near the beginning of the film Grand Canyon a young street tough from south-central Los Angeles is roughing up a motorist whose car had stalled. When a tow truck driver tries to bargain with the thug, the young tough asks him, ”Are you bargaining with me because you respect me or because I’ve got a gun?” The tow truck driver answers truthfully, ”Hey, you don’t have the gun, we aren’t talkin’.” ”Heh,” the kid replies, ”That’s what I thought. That’s why I always carry the gun!”
In a world where weapons mean power, is it any wonder that Jesus left many people cold? After all, he started out in a feedbunk, ended up on a cross, and in between attracted only a modest following of society’s losers. On Ascension Day, we celebrate Jesus’ ascension — the crowning moment of His work. But even this was essentially a hidden act. The disciples saw it, but most people did not. Even people living near the Mount of Olives had no clue that something cosmic had just occurred in their neighborhood. From start to finish Jesus did not dazzle this world with power as the world reckons power.
Yet, as with so much else in Jesus’ life, so too with the ascension: there is more here than meets the eye. In fact, speaking of eyes, if you see the ascension and understand it correctly, it will affect the way you look at everything else — because, the ascension is how we see things. It is the lens through which we view our work, our families, our friends, our leisure, our worship. The ascension affects them all. To give an example of what I mean, let’s go back to ancient Israel and to the words of the psalmist who composed the poem now known as Psalms 47.
Psalms 47 is an ”enthronement song” which celebrates the cosmic Kingship of God. Throughout the book of Psalms you can find numerous songs which sing out the belief that Yahweh is the universal King who has made Jerusalem (or ”Mount Zion”) His chosen dwelling place on earth. Psalms 47 was probably a song which the people of Israel sang as they went to worship. Today we sing songs only after we get to church, but in early Israel people on the way to worship sang songs.
The specific occasion for this song may have been when the priests carried the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple. Since that Ark contained ”the mercy seat” or throne of God on earth, there was a sense in which the people could ”see” God ascending to the Temple. That is probably what lies behind Psalms 47:5: ”God has ascended amid shouts of joy.” This was a song to get them ready for worship. This was a song to remind them that the God they would meet in their worship was the King of all nations, and this was the God whose chosen people they were.
But let’s take several giant steps back and consider this from a slightly different angle. We’re talking about the nation of Israel, but Israel was very small — puny compared to other empires then in existence. Jerusalem was not much compared to other cities in the world at that time. Although the psalms love to sing the praises of Mount Zion, the holy ”mountain” of God, in reality Mount Zion was just a hill. There were a lot of other much larger mountains around Jerusalem; mountains which, the prophets say, looked down upon and mocked tiny Zion. ”You call yourself a mountain,” the other mountains scoff, ”why, I’ve got foothills bigger than you!”
We tend to picture ancient Israel as gigantic, awesome, fearsome. Because the Bible focuses on Israel, we tend to think that Israel was obviously the center of the universe. But by all worldly appearances, Israel could have been little more than a footnote to world history. Compared to the empires of Babylon or Persia or Egypt, Israel was miniscule. Even today, the entire nation of Israel is about the same size as the state of Vermont. Secular Middle Eastern history books frequently mention ancient Israel only in passing.
And yet, the Israelites had the audacity, the unmitigated gall, to claim that they held the dwelling place of the King of the entire universe. The Israelites, with straight faces, made the claim that ”Mount” Zion was God’s chosen home. They had the temerity to claim that the little golden box they carried with them was the throne of the universe’s Sovereign Creator.
Every time they sang Psalms 47 they were saying to the whole world: ”This place is holy ground. This is where Yahweh, the only true God, lives. This is the most important place on earth and no other empire, no other ruler, no other king could possibly make a claim more awesome than this. We, lowly Israel, are God’s people. This hill, Mount Zion, is the tallest mountain in the world — theologically speaking.”
To us, this compares with the Grand Rapids City Council passing a resolution stating ”Grand Rapids, not Washington, is the true seat of power in America.” To us, this compares to the claim that our city’s Mayor far outranks our country’s President. To us, this compares to the claim that the Christian Reformed denominational building in Grand Rapids is the headquarters of the entire Church of Christ on earth!
You see, the claim that God lived in the midst of puny Israel seemingly represented little more than religious arrogance. There was precious little that others could see to back up these far-reaching claims. In fact, most of what the other people could see pointed the other way: Israel was a cosmic speck of dust inhabiting a modest city on a little pimple of a hill. It’s hardly the first place where one would look to find the cosmos’ Creator God.
Of course, Israel was not ignorant of its status among the nations of the earth — they knew the land was comparatively small. They also were not blind — they could see that Zion was not the tallest of all mountains. But theologically Israel knew that all these claims were true. Their faith helped them see what no one else could: namely, that they were the dwelling place of the Most High God.
Their faith helped them see beyond physical, geographical and political boundaries, and this, in turn, reshaped everything else. The result was that they were a distinctive community as they structured their communal life around the presence of God and specifically around the ”Torah” or Law of God. Torah told them what to do to atone for sin. Torah told then what to eat and what not to eat. Torah told them what to do with their money, their land, their sex lives. Torah regulated every jot and tittle of their lives.
Their faith that God was among them shaped the community. How could it not? If you believed God lived in our city, that would tend to influence most everything else you did, wouldn’t it? So it was in Israel: they made God’s presence visible by how they lived their lives. ”You want to see God’s kingdom?” they exclaimed, ”well, look at us!”
And so it is on Ascension Day. For on this day we are claiming that the Church of Jesus Christ is the most important ”place” on earth. We are claiming that Jesus is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. We are claiming that while rulers are powerful, they are as nothing compared to King Jesus. In fact, like the words of Psalms 47, we are calling on all people to recognize Jesus as the cosmic King.
Are we aware of how ridiculous this may look? Suppose you leave here and go out for coffee and pie with some friends. Suppose the waitress asks where you’ve come from, and you tell her ”we just got back from celebrating Jesus’ coronation as this world’s king.” Suppose she shoots back, ”Jesus is king, huh? How do you know? Show me some evidence!”
What would you say? Well, let’s first admit that those who doubt Jesus’ Kingship can produce some pretty damning evidence which points the other way. If Jesus is in charge, then why Bosnia and ethnic cleansing? Why the Holocaust? Why cancer and Alzheimers and childhood leukemia? If Jesus is in charge and if the powers of darkness have been smashed in the teeth, how come we still live in the shadow of death so often? If Jesus is Lord and King, why the nightly litany of woes recited by television news commentators?
You see, maybe you didn’t know it when you arrived here today, but to celebrate the ascension of Jesus Christ is a daring act of faith. It’s daring, outrageous, and audacious to claim that a Jewish carpenter’s son, born nearly 2,000 years ago and executed on a cross, is still alive and in charge as our Lord. We’re not simply saying that Jesus’ ideas or sermons are influencing us on a par with Lincoln’s speeches or Socrates’ philosophy. We’re claiming that Jesus Himself is still alive and is still watching over us and taking charge of us! That’s outrageous!
But that is what we are celebrating. How dare we say this? Well, we dare say it only if the rest of our lives show that it is true. We dare say this only if the truth of Ascension Day is so real to us that it re-shapes and re-casts everything else. For Ascension Day is how we see things.
Ascension Day tells us how to look at life and the world. As with Israel, so our faith must point us beyond the truncated boundaries and horizons of this world. Israel believed God lived in her midst and that changed everything. So for us who believe Jesus lives in the midst of His Church; that belief must change us into a distinctive community.
And how badly our world needs such a distinctive community, such a vision for life, for we live in a time of collapsed horizons.3 We live in a time when truths are dead. We live in a time when winning a moral debate usually means no more than that you out-shouted your opponent. We live in a time when a whole generation of young people seems to have no conscience. We live in a time when people have lost touch with the shape and purpose of life such that they just make up the rules as they go along.
That’s because no one has a larger scheme of things anymore. It’s a relative, helter-skelter, do-your-own-thing, find-your-own-truth world. The entire culture is summed up in the Nike slogan: ”Just Do It.” In a thousand ways every week, in ways subtle and obvious, this fragmented worldview is foisted upon us and our children.
But that is all the more reason for the Church of Jesus Christ to be a living embodiment of Jesus’ victory. Yes, it may look ridiculous and audacious to claim that the Crucified One is still in charge. But if we believe that Jesus is our Lord and our King, then we must make our belief real by how we live. We must show others the life of the kingdom through how we treat our children, how we treat our spouses, how we treat sexuality and money and everything else in our lives.
Because Ascension Day is how we see things. In a multitude of quiet ways, in and through our faithfulness to God and our imitation of Jesus, we conspire together to make visible the kingdom of God and the Lordship of Christ. The power of Jesus is not power as the world reckons it. So also our lives may consist mostly of quiet, humble acts of obedience. But taken together they add up to a radical obedience to Jesus our Lord and King. When people see that, they will be struck by the spiritual power of Jesus as they see His kingdom among us. Woe to us if we are such lukewarm, ho-hum Christians that we make it easier for people to believe Jesus is not Lord.
Only when we see things from the perspective of Jesus’ Lordship and then bring our lives and our churches into genuine submission to Him, only then can we pick up the words of Psalms 47 and invite the rest of the world to join the chorus. Only then can we say to our hurting and confused world: ”Sing praises to God, sing praises. Sing praises to the Lamb upon the throne. Sing praises to God, sing praises, for He is greatly exalted.” Of that we must be the living proof.
1. Nigel Hamilton, JFK: Reckless Youth, (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 720.
2. James A. Wharton, ”Psalms 47” in Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology. Vol. XLVII No. 2, April 1993, pp. 163-165.
3. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1989, pp. 18-19.