Easter 7/Ascension: Sit here for the present

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.(Ephesians 1:15-23)

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)

When I was growing up one of my favorite books was the Beverly Clearly classic, Ramona the Pest. In this book, Ramona Quimby, a precocious, curious, and unintentionally mischievous young girl, begins kindergarten.

On her first day of school, she walks into the classroom and meets her teacher, Miss Binney, who leads her to one of the classroom tables, telling her, “Sit here for the present.” Ramona mistakenly believes that she has been singled out to receive a special gift, and refuses to leave her seat, all morning. She brags to her new classmates that she has been chosen for a special present. She keeps her bottom firmly planted to her seat, even when the rest of the class moves about, because she waiting for the present that she believes has been promised to her. Poor Miss Binney finally has to break the news to Ramona that the expression “for the present” means “for now,” and has nothing to do with getting a gift.

“Sit here for the present” is an apt phrase to describe our readings today that tell the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. It is forty days after the resurrection, and Jesus has spent many of these days with the disciples, teaching them, opening their hearts to the scriptures, and charging them with the task of proclaiming to all the world repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name.

When the time comes for Jesus to depart from the earth, he leads the disciples out and gives them some last instructions. In so many words, he tells them to “sit here for the present.” Except that when Jesus says, “Sit here for the present,” he means both sit here for now and sit here to receive a gift. Both Miss Binney and Ramona Quimby would have been satisfied.

Jesus tells them, “Stay here in Jerusalem for now, because you are about to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Don’t leave the city until you have been clothed in this power. John may have baptized you with water, but hold on tight, because when the Holy Spirit shows up, you will be baptized in the spirit. Remember earlier when I told you that you would do great things, and that you’d do even greater things than I did? This is what I was talking about. When you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, you will have the power to spread my good news not only to the city, not only to the region, but to all the corners of the earth.”

Sit here for the present.

Jesus’ message to the disciples and to us is that God and God’s gifts are accessible to us, here and now. God and God’s gifts are accessible to us, here and now. But I think that the hard part about this good news, both for the disciples and for us, is believing that God would choose to move and act in this present world, because this world is still broken, still longing, still unfulfilled.

The disciples struggled with this. Sit here for the present, Jesus says, and they respond, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Is God’s kingdom about to reign on earth? When you leave, will all now be restored?” The disciples weren’t quite ready to accept Jesus’ message of “sit here for the present.” Their feet might have been planted firmly on Jerusalem soil, but their minds and hearts had already left the scene, skipping ahead to the end of the story that Jesus had told them about, when God would come to reign and the kingdom of this world would pass away. And for good reason! They looked around their world, saw pain and injustice and oppression and fear, and wondered if it was yet time for God to restore the world.

One temptation that comes with following Christ is the desire to skip ahead to the end of God’s story. An entire Christian pop culture industry has been built around such a focus on the end times. At its best, a focus on God’s new heaven and new earth can be profoundly hope-giving. But at its worst, such a focus on the end times can lead people of faith to skip ahead to the end of the story and to see it as an escape from this world and this life. This sort of escapism leads to things like rapture theology and the heartfelt, earnest, albeit mistaken urgency with which people like Harold Camping proclaim the apocalypse.

I understand this temptation. I flip on NPR only to hear in-depth reports about war-torn villages, homeowners facing foreclosure, and environmentalists worried about the sustainability of food or energy sources. I watch the local news and see stories of missing children, domestic violence, and murder. I read the newspaper and find anxious tidings of slow economic recovery. It doesn’t take much effort to find out that, despite technology and progress, hungry people are still hungry, sick people are still sick, and poor people are still poor.

And I suspect I’m not alone when I feel overwhelmed by all of this bad news. On overwhelmed days, any one of us might feel tempted to give up on in this world, disengage, and decide that it’s best just to bear with this life, hide out where we can’t see the pain of the world, and bide time until we get through to heaven.

On a smaller scale, there’s a certain amount of this “grit our teeth and get through to heaven” mentality that defines our daily lives. How many mornings do each of us wake up, take stock of the business – and busyness! – of our days, and soothe our anxious minds by telling ourselves, “only ten hours until I will be on my way back home…all I have to do is survive ten hours…” Maybe it’s ten hours, or eight, or fifteen for you. Or maybe your waking thought on Wednesday is, “I am halfway there, I only have a few days left until the weekend.”

But when the anxieties and tasks of the day seem too much, and when your to-do list keeps you awake at night; when the stuff of life feels overwhelming; when your days seem mostly all about survival: these are the moments when we most need to hear again the good news of Jesus via Miss Binney: “Sit here for the present.” Stay here for now. Keep engaged in this world, in the present moment, in the stuff of this world.

Because God isn’t hanging back, waiting until the end to act in beautiful and miraculous ways in this world. God isn’t biding his time, saving all his best stuff for when we get to heaven. God is active, here and now! God doesn’t wait to be present until after all of your meetings are done. God’s doesn’t store up his work and only unleash it on the weekends. God doesn’t hold back blessings until life slows down and anxiety dissipates.

God simply shows up. In the present. And God acts. Here and now.

God sends people into our lives at those perfect moments when they can be blessings to us. God sends sparks into our hearts that lead us to organize a second Feed My Starving Children MobilePack here at St. Timothy, or to ship ourselves halfway around the world to support life-giving medical care and see a few giraffes along the way, or to bring a bike and a dog along to worship alongside the trees and the birds and even the freight trains. God leads us to the edge of the pool where the kids splash around and where a deck chair and a good book are sacred symbols of Sabbath.

God whispers into our ears words of permission to slow down, to stand still despite the madly spinning world outside, to breathe, to give up anxiety about what we cannot control. For God is here, God is now, God is in the present. And when we start really trusting that God is in the present, then we will start to see, more and more, the gifts that God pours out into our lives every day.

Jesus promises us that God’s kingdom will one day come to reign. He promises us that there will come a day when we no longer need to pray, “thy kingdom come.” We wait in faith for the day when we will no longer have to pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” because the needs of the world will be met; when we will no longer have to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive others,” because all will be reconciled; when we will no longer have to pray, “save us from the time of trial” or “deliver us from evil,” for brokenness and sin and death will be no more.

But in the meantime, we live as people of the promise. People to whom much has been given, and people to whom much more has yet been promised. We sit here in the present, knowing with confidence that God breaks in and acts, even in our imperfect world. We sit here in the present so that we have a front-row seat from which to see God’s daily blessings. We sit here clothed with the gift of God’s spirit that moves us to be blessings in our world.

For the Spirit that has been poured out upon us is the spirit of wisdom and revelation that Paul talks about. And this gift of the spirit enlightens the eyes of our hears to that we daily “may know the hope to which [God] has called [us]” and the “riches of [our] glorious inheritance” as God’s chosen saints, and feel in our bones “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

Sit here for the present.

Miss Binney’s words are God’s blessing to us and our charge. They are our hope and our call to action. No more skipping ahead to the future. No more giving up on the world. No more keeping God’s blessings at arms’ length. Because our present is God’s present. This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice, and be glad in it!

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