Look Up! (May 24, 2020) – Ascension
When I’m jogging, when my legs ache and my chest is on fire, there’s a hill up ahead, I’ll sometimes throw my head back, all the way back. It has a fairly interesting effect. Suddenly houses and cars, fences and mailboxes, and especially the long stretch of road I have yet to run and the approaching hill, all just disappear. All I see is sky. Only blue fills my vision. It’s a metaphor for an approach to life that the Bible consistently calls us toward. Simply put, “Look up!” “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1).
We are in a race, and we will be tired and hurting right up to the moment the tape is broken. So often this world and the mess we’re in here – where we are always sinning and always dying – are all we see. What if we could learn to throw our heads back, spiritually speaking, to let heaven fill our vision, to have thoughts of glory be the deepest-worn paths in our minds, to long for the waiting joy, to focus outright on eternity? What if we fully embrace the reality of heaven and reveled in the inevitability of you and me being there through Christ? What if we let this become our resilience and our unforced smiles? Could we live for heaven to such a degree that we could rise above the disappointment here? Go even further. Could we live as if we are nobodies on earth – as if we’re not even here at all but are somehow already there? We have already been “seated with [Christ] in the heavenly realms” (Eph 2:6).
Is this the key to an effective life even now? Or does our upward gaze only make us rather useless here and look like fools besides? The disciples stood there, looking intently into the sky. Who knows how long they would have gawked there if the angels had not brought them back to reality, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” (Acts 1:11). It seems like the angles wanted to plant them back on earth, back to reality.
It’s often an accusation against Christians. Our heads are in the clouds. We only want to go to heaven, so we’re not up to doing the practical things that need to be done today. The heavenly minded are of no earthly good. One interesting thing about this objection is that it has no basis in reality. Think about our own country’s history. Just who founded the hospitals? Who established the great universities? Whose ideas were the great charitable institutions that have endured? Where have the arts always flourished? Where did the moral authority come from to end slavery? Where did the civil rights movement get its strength and compass from? Who is almost exclusively trying to save the lives of unborn babies? Who blesses marriage? Who heals the sick, cares for the poor, or repents that he or she is not doing so enough? The answer is people of the Christian faith.
This seems like a contradiction. The heavenly minded, those with their heads in the clouds, have so often been the ones making significant differences for good in this world. This seeming contradiction goes all the way back to the apostles, who said, “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is,” (Col 3:1) and with faces aimed at heaven, with eyes looking up, they changed the world.
You can find any number of examples from Scripture of Christians doing this. I think of Stephen, surrounded by men blinded by rage. Their hearts full of violence. Their hands grasping him and searching for the nearest stone. That’s when Stephen looked up. “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). In this moment of evil and violence, what we see in Stephen is what he learned from Jesus. He learned to live in an unearthly way. Not breathing out hateful words as he breathed his last. Rather, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
I’m sure you can find examples of this from your own life too, or people you know. I recently came across an article about a young lady who was tortured by an abortion she had over 20 years ago. Many triggers took her back to that day. Her grief never seemed to end, and it was magnified whenever she encountered things such as baby showers, newborns, and strollers. She couldn’t shake the feeling that the hundreds of days of sadness she experienced were the punishment she deserved. She saw no way out of her guilt and grief. Even her personal relationships were affected by the walls she built around her heart. She was unable to trust anyone. Grief tore at the fabric of her later marriage. She was even unable to shower affection on the son that she later bore. Yet, one encounter that led to many more encounters with a volunteer at a Christian pregnancy center eventually taught her to look up. She slowly peeled away the layers of shame, sadness, and regret. In time she learned to look up and see how much she needed Jesus. And with a heart filled by the Holy Spirit, she began to believe and hold on to God’s promise of forgiveness. Finally, no longer crushed in spirit, she could truly rejoice as a redeemed child of God. She finally had a new outlook on life.
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days. Speaking with them, showing them his hands and feet, inviting them to touch him – “a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Lk 24:39). This was no vision, or dream, or figment of their imagination. Jesus even ate with them often. After these 40 days, there could be no doubt that this was the very same Jesus, now risen bodily from the dead for the salvation of all people. After being convinced of this, there could also be no doubt that they too would be resurrected from the dead and see Jesus in their own flesh one day. That they would finally rise above all that’s wrong in the world, all that threatens to destroy, and they would be in paradise. Your God does not leave us dead in sin. He raises you to life through faith in his risen Son.
The disciples watched as Jesus ascended into heaven. It was the last time they would see Jesus in this world, save in their dreams – one lasting impression to sustain them through God knows what, for the rest of their lives. He stood there, death all behind him, love in his eyes, scarred hands lifted up… blessing them. The image is the gospel itself – what we could never have earned or deserved – God standing there with blessing. We are never cursed, never condemned, never given to endure the living God’s face turned away in anger. We are blessed.
Then Jesus said, “you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). It was the last words they had from him. And with that he was taken from their sight, lifted from the Mount of Olives, and held for a moment in the expanse until a cloud hid him from sight. He left his disciples standing on this hill with their heads thrown back toward heaven, squinting at the sky, faces filling up with the expanse of blue and white, until angels interrupted, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus… will come back in the same way you have seen him go” (Acts 1:11).
“You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). This is last commission Jesus gave to his followers. Our purpose in life and reason for being here. Look up! Be heavenly minded, yes! And do earth some good while you are here.
But, can I do any good? We often fall into the mindset that we can’t be of any earthly good. That we simply do not have any power to what we say – anything persuasive enough to really change the world. That the world is too dark, too sinful, already too far gone for us to really be able to do anything good. If only we had some real power, some real authority in the world.
The disciples sought this power and authority when they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:8). They perhaps thought that the only way they could be witnesses was if Jesus set up an earthly kingdom and earthly glory alongside the promised spiritual reign of Christ. Would he now do what many hoped the Lord’s Anointed would do? – bring back the days of David and Solomon, when the kingdom of Israel was at its greatest. Because certainly witnessing with the power of the Holy Spirit called to mind a very specific picture in the disciples’ minds. There were many examples from the Old Testament when the Spirit of the Lord was leading prophets to speak his Word and perform powerful miracles. Certainly they recalled the Spirit that was with the judges, kings, and prophets, leading them to crush Israel’s enemies. The apostles would have been stirred with these images of warring and prophesying for the Lord as opposing nations fall and kings are turned from wickedness.
All this the apostles certainly would do. They would perform works more miraculous than the feats of Samson, David, and Elijah. Striking down a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey is a small thing compared to the miracle the Spirit works when he turns a person’s heart from sin and self-reliance to grace and trust in Christ. Sending the prophets of Baal running for the hills after calling on the Lord to set an altar ablaze is a small thing compared to the drowning of a sinful nature in baptism, dying with Christ, and rising a new creation. This miracle of faith would not confine itself to the Holy City of Jerusalem. It would spread to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
“You will be my witnesses.” You don’t need the authority of an earthly kingdom backing you because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [Jesus]” (Mt 24:18). You are his witnesses. You don’t need the power of sword or bow, nor do you need a prophet’s hands or staff. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). As a witness to the testimony of Christ and by the Spirit’s power, you will overcome the hearts of nations, teaching them also to look up! Look beyond the brokenness of this world to a heavenly home. You will be teaching people not to judge God based on the life experiences in the comparative split-second of time they’ve lived under the enemy’s flag. To withhold the judgment the unbelieving heart wants to make based on the things we see in this world – God’s masterpiece ruined by sin and death. These were never the plan. The beauty that remains is a whiff of another country, a heavenly one, where everything is just as it should be forever. Some things just won’t be right until we’re home. So look up! “Set your hearts on things above” (Col 3:1). And do earth some good with the authority of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Knowing that Christ is the way to a place called heaven is precisely what is required if you are to do any real, lasting good on earth. Fix your eyes on Jesus. Throw your head back. Rise above all of this. Fill your eyes with glory. And at the lunch table where you work, at the funeral of a friend, at the bedside of your little children… you will be his witness.