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.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Whether we like it or not, most of us live by our calendars. We mostly use them to plan our futures. But they also take care of the past.
I have a drawer full of my pocket calendars from at least the last two decades, which serve as record-keepers of events in my family’s life. In those little calendars I have notes about every event – from my kids’ soccer games and pediatrician appointments to where we went out to dinner some night in 2007. If we’re on an extended family vacation, I write a journal on my computer. But day-to-day, I keep everything at my fingertips.
In the past, paper calendars were what was most at our fingertips. Some were big – our denomination still provides book-size calendars with every imaginable religious or UCC-related holiday listed. Some are medium-sized, which we can keep in a purse. Today we have smartphones, which include calendars that actually tell us what to do. “Siri/Alexa, remind me when it’s time to leave for my doctor’s appointment.” Then, based on our location and the traffic, our phones can tell us not only WHEN but WHERE to go.
In our Monday-through-Friday lives, many people are required to be connected to their company’s calendars through Outlook or some other calendar or planning app. Companies and colleagues can put things on our calendars, and expect us to be in the appropriate place at the appointed time.
Personally, I stick with paper. I worry that if I depend on my phone, I could lose my ability to re-charge it if there’s a power failure – whether in my town, or because of a foreign attack on our nation’s electrical grid – a power failure that would render me inoperable, because I won’t know where I’m supposed to be! So I stick with paper.
Whether digital, paper, or in our heads – our calendars tend to drive large portions of our lives.
So imagine how the very first followers of Jesus must have felt about his answer when they asked him, “What’s next? Is this the time?” This is the conversation from our scripture reading this morning. Jesus is having a final debriefing before leaving on a trip – a vertical and heavenly one, which we recognize in our liturgical calendar, of course, as The Ascension. Understandably, his disciples have questions.
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” they ask. It’s a reasonable question. Jesus’ disciples had been on an emotional roller coaster with him in recent days. For three years, they followed him. They heard him often talk about a special time to come. He began his ministry telling them that the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, was at hand. They listened as he told stories – about banquets, mustard seeds and treasure buried in a field – that he said were ways of describing this new reality to come.
They were with him when he had entered Jerusalem several weeks earlier. They saw the crowd waving palm branches and shouting their praises. By riding a donkey into the city, Jesus was fulfilling a prophecy that announced God’s rule and reign (which was a pretty huge statement). They thought that certainly, THIS must be the time.
At the Last Supper, he seemed to confirm it. “I will not drink the fruit of the vine again until I drink it with you in my Father’s kingdom.” They must have thought, Next stop: the kingdom of God.
But instead of a coronation, there was a crucifixion.
It felt like it was all over. Their hopes were dashed. The dream of the restoration of the kingdom seemed to vanish. So what now?
Then, as quickly as it was over, it was back on. Jesus was alive. Hope WASN’T lost. Clearly, the kingdom must be coming! After forty days of being with a post-resurrection Jesus, during which he continued to teach them about God’s kingdom, he calls a special meeting. Expectations must have been high. What was he going to do? What was he going to say? This MUST be the time when he was going to announce how the kingdom of God would come on earth as it is in heaven, just as he taught them to pray.
For the crowd surrounding Jesus that day, the tension was probably palpable. “Now? We want to get this on our calendars. So if not now, when?”
They want to pencil in the kingdom day. They want to know which week they need to clear for this world-altering event. They want to know the deadline so they can be sure to be ready.
To these questions, Jesus gives a bewildering answer, which is basically, “That’s none of your concern.”
He actually says it more politely: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that [God] has set by [God’s] own authority.” The gist of it is: “Let ME worry about the timing. You just get to work on what YOU’RE supposed to do.”
And then he’s gone. The disciples and the rest of the followers are left bewildered, staring into the sky.
The disciples have their calendars in hand, and for them, and for those of us who live by our paper planners or smartphones, Jesus’ attitude is frustrating.
Because it’s hard to leave things in the hand of God. It’s hard to let go and let God take care of things. It’s hard to trust in divine providence and just be faithful to the promises that God has made.
How are we supposed to respond? We ask, “It’s not for me to know the ‘times and seasons’? Really?! How am I supposed to function with so little information?”
The problem is that the kingdom of God doesn’t fit into our calendars. Jesus doesn’t give us a list of tasks we can put in our phones.
Instead, Jesus calls his followers to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The timing concerning the reign of God on earth is for HIM to worry about. OUR concern is to live out the mission of the church and the call of God TODAY.
On this Sunday, our scripture passage is about The Ascension, Jesus rising up through the power of the Holy Spirit. Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon the multitudes. Whether up, or down, whatever the date, whatever the timing, our role is to be the people of God every day, and to do what God wants us to do right now. We’re not cramming for a final exam. We’re not trying to meet a deadline before a performance review. We’re called to be faithful EVERY day.
Jesus calls all of us – those with him gathered on that day, those in our pews today, our confirmands who just expressed their faith and commitment – Jesus calls us all to be his hands and feet, at home, at work, at school, in our traveling, while running errands, and wherever else life takes us.
Jesus calls us to sanctify our time, and put it wholly in the service of God and for God’s work. Jesus calls us to let God interrupt our calendars and plans, and let the Holy Spirit take us to unscheduled places and unexpected moments.
So let us live each day doing works of compassion, justice, healing and goodness, whenever we can. Whether Jesus is ascending to heaven, or whether his spirit is descending to earth, may we look close at hand and see him always among us. Amen.