I want us to think for a second about how difficult the Ascension must have been for Jesus. Now this may seem like an odd thing to say. Joining God in Heaven, returning to one’s rightful home must have been a joyous occasion, something Jesus had long been looking forward too. I’m sure that’s partially true. But this morning, I want us to imagine all that Jesus had to leave behind, how fearful and apprehensive he must have been to entrust the world to us.
All of us are leaders, so we can all relate to Jesus’ dilemma in some manner or another. But for imagination’s sake, let’s pretend that we all are visionaries and creators of a not for profit organization. Each one of us has been given some huge dream about how God is calling us to completely alter the scope of our world. Maybe we are longing to create an organization working in a children’s village to provide children with a home and a family. Maybe we are building up an organization which is trying to recycle the rubble from a recent earthquake so that people can re-build permanent, earthquake resistant homes. Maybe we are working in a war-torn area, protecting children from the consequences of war as well as providing education and advocating for their human rights. Maybe we are striving to bring safe water and improved sanitation for hundreds of thousands of people in Uganda. You get the idea. Whatever the organization is, you are the person who created the vision. You are the person who gave blood, sweat and tears to make it happen. You are the person who has worked 20 hours a day, 365 days a year to push it forward. You are the one who has made all the connections, learned the necessary political hoops which must be jumped through, and established trusted partnerships with local people. And good fruit is starting to blossom everywhere, but it is happening, for the most part, because of your hard work.
For no matter how hard you try, the people under you just do not seem to have the passion, the wisdom, the vision and charisma to make the movement happen without you. Every time you delegate responsibility, every time you hand them a major project or new initiative, it fails. And it didn’t just fail, it explodes into a thousand pieces, and you are always the one who has to pick up the crumbs. You love the people working for you. I mean, bless their hearts, they are all good people who want to make the world a better place. They want to really partner with people in need to find new solutions to our world’s problems. But nothing, and I mean, nothing gives you any indication that your organization won’t completely combust if you dare to step back, even just a little. And yet this is exactly what you know you need to do, for your own sanity, for the sake of your family, and because you feel God pulling you towards something different. God’s voice is calling out to you, saying trust me, you have done what I’ve called you to do. Now I’m calling you to something else, and everything is going to be just fine. However, everything inside of you pushes you to hold on tightly. To keep going, to remain just a little longer until circumstances change.
Jesus must have been feeling something similar those days near the end of his ministry and following the resurrection. Jesus’ entire life was consumed by one thing – creating a revolution. Bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. He breathed, ate, slept and dreamt about it. Everything he said and did had it in view. Jesus was wedded to his Kingdom, to the way his people could be if only their eyes could be opened and their hearts unburdened. For Jesus, the Kingdom was another name for society as he dreamed of it. The world the way it was always meant to be.
However, no matter how often he preached about it. No matter how many different ways he tried to explain it. No matter how many miraculous signs, how many healings, I mean even the resurrection itself, wasn’t enough for Jesus’ disciples to have any clue what this Kingdom of God was all about. Most of the time, they were blubbering idiots. Every time they were given a chance to show Jesus that they understood this kingdom and were ready to participate in making it a reality, they completely dropped the ball. They were always standing in Jesus’ path, opposing his wishes, failing to live up to his expectations. Then they betrayed him and abandoned him. Jesus couldn’t have had any confidence that things would get better if he entrusted them with more responsibility. Sometimes I’m amazed that he even kept them around. I would have certainly dismissed them all, if I was him.
Amazingly, not even the resurrection could open the disciples’ eyes to the reality of God’s kingdom. For we are told that Jesus “appeared to [his disciples] over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” He even gives them instructions about what to do in order to receive the Holy Spirit. Wouldn’t it be astonishing to know what Jesus shared with his disciples following his resurrection. What different teachings Jesus could now share on the other side of his death.
You would think that surely, now, they would finally get what Jesus’ kingdom truly looked like. But they still do not. It is like they do not hear a word Jesus shared with them those forty days. They are still completely preoccupied by their previous hopes which remain unfulfilled. Verse six states the question they ask Jesus on the Day of the Ascension: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even now, they still can’t see Jesus as anything other than a political Messiah.
If I were Jesus, this is not the moment I would have Ascended. This is not the moment to let go, to leave, to entrust the movement into these disciples’ hands. Clearly those forty days were not enough. These disciples needed to be held back a grade so that they could go over the same material again. Maybe, just maybe, that would enable everything to finally click for them.
It is really hard to leave when all the signs point to everything falling apart in your absence. The pressure, the apprehension, the stress, this causes most people to cling tighter to their dreams, their work, their church, their commitments. If you have ever watched Shark Tank or Beyond the Tank, then you have probably recognized that the problem which threatens to undermine almost all these new start up companies is the same – it is the owners’ difficulty to let go – to release a bit of power, a bit of vision by entrusting other people to aid him or her in their dream project. They never want to let go, especially in times of uncertainty and crisis. They never want to entrust any power to another. It always takes a shark to strong-arm them into letting go, just a little bit.
This is the most inspirational aspect of the Ascension. Jesus refuses to let his fears of failure completely paralyze him. He refuses to let the inadequacies and inabilities of the disciples force him to stick around and remain in control. He lets go when it was time for him to let go. He didn’t stay for longer than he should. He didn’t let his dreams, his successes, nor his failures derail him from doing the thing God was calling him to do next. He trusted that his God was in complete control. And that the revolution, the kingdom, didn’t rely solely upon him. It would continue, and it would continue morphing into something beautiful apart from him. Not even Jesus, the son of God, was a necessary component in bringing it to
fruition. So, at one of the worst possible times, Jesus lets go. And he entrusts the future to others.
And guess what? Jesus’ absence was exactly what the disciples needed. This absence is what empowered the disciples to do the work which Jesus started; it brought about their transformation. For everything seemed to change when Jesus went away – when he was taken away – and they stopped focusing all their attention solely upon him… once he stopped being the object that they concentrated on. It is only when Jesus left that surprising things began to happen in their lives. They began to say things that sounded like him; they began to do things they had only seen Jesus do before. They became brave and capable and wise. Jesus’ absence enables him to become more deeply and permanently present in the lives of the disciples. It is almost as if Jesus never ascended but instead exploded, so that he was everywhere, wherever his disciples went. Soon those blubbering idiots became capable leaders. The listeners became preachers. The converts became missionaries. The healed became healers. The disciples become apostles, witnesses of the risen lord, and nothing was the same again.
And that is only because Jesus risked letting go. He risked entrusting the disciples when everything they did and said told him that they weren’t ready. That now wasn’t the right time. Jesus let go when the easiest thing would have been to clutch tighter, to keep holding on. Jesus ascended. This is what enabled his disciples to ascend as well.
This morning, we are celebrating the dedication of three beautiful girls. Nico, Wren, and Cora have brought so much life into this church. And their lives have and will continue to bless Karina and Jose, Ryan and Jenn for years to come.
I’m convinced that this lesson of learning to let go is one of the most important, and yet one of the most difficult lessons which parents must continuously learn. Lodged deep within our fallen condition, we have the strong desire to possess, to control, and to protect the lives of our children. The relationship between parents and children often unleashes the most extreme forms of narcissism and individualism. I’m sure our school teachers can tell dozens of stories of parents acting irrationally, placing the needs of their child above the needs of everyone else. We all know parents who suffocate their children’s freedom because they have specific desires and dreams for their son or daughter.
The act of baby dedication is such an important act because it is all about helping parents learn to let go of this joyous bundle of life which they created. It is an act which reminds parents that they must resist the urge to see their children as their possessions, as extensions of themselves. Instead, they must learn to be parents who surrender their claims and dreams to their child. Parents must learn how and when to be absent so that their children can feel empowered and emboldened to become the person who God has created them to be.
In a few moments, I’m going to be asking Ryan, Jenn, Karina, and Jose an extremely difficult question which is part of the litany: “Do you promise to gladly surrender your children to the ministry God has in mind for them, even if it might involve going to the ends of the earth?”
This is not a question that a parent typically thinks about when a baby is so young. Surrendering your child to the ministry God has in mind for her is something which will most likely occur years down the road. Like, for example, when you are Katherine’s age and you feel God pulling you to serve in Nicaragua. But the reason we ask you this question today, is because we know that learning to let go is a process, a long process, that parents must start on day one because of the difficulty of the task required. For the surrendering of one’s desires, wishes, and goals for their daughters is something which runs against the grain of our society.
And our calling as a church is to help aid them in this difficult task. All of us, single and married, are called to be responsible for the well-being of all the children of the congregation. We are all called to be mothers and fathers who help bring up these children in faith. We are called to create safe spaces of love and nurture which aid Ryan, Jenn, Karina, and Jose in letting go of their children to God and the church. In other words, we are called to help prepare these parents for the day of baptism, when the nature of their relationship is forever changed – and parents must encounter their children through the lens of this new family where all are brothers and sisters.
All of us, though, ultimately must learn to let go of everything in our lives … the lives of our closest loved ones … and then … our own lives … before we die. And most often, this letting go will not come at an opportune time. It will come at a time when it appears that there is no one else to take over. When all indications are that things will fall apart, if you release control, just a little bit. What Jesus reminds us in his Ascension, is that our insecurities and our fears of failure should never cause us to clutch on tighter. Perhaps our absence is what will give others the space and motivation to live into their identity and callings.
What is it that God is calling you to let go of? What is it that you are resisting out of fear of failure or change? As we celebrate Ascension Day, let us remember Jesus, our example. The one who believed that nothing relies solely on us. That God is ultimately in control of history. And that God is at work, creating something beautiful, often without, or even despite, of us.