A Sermon Given to Haven Fellowship Church
May 28, 2017
By Stephanie and Jesse Coyne
It is Ascension Sunday, 40 days after Easter, the last Sunday for the crosses to be on our front lawn. This is the day marked in the church calendar as the time when Jesus finishes his mission on Earth and is raised into heaven.
It’s a time of goodbyes, long farewells, sadness, and the overwhelming feeling of being left behind.
But that’s not right, is it? In the passage of scripture that we just read in Luke, the disciples are not grief-stricken like they were after his death. Instead, we find them rejoicing—they are worshipping, they are in the temple continuously! This is the first time in Luke that they are seen worshipping Jesus.
The disciples, to this point, seem confused in most of the stories we read in the Gospels. What did they misunderstand about Jesus? In what ways was Jesus different than they expected him to be?
Along with the Pharisees and scribes, teachers, Jews and Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23), Jesus’ teachings and actions were hard for most people to understand. Instead of a Messiah who was to be King—powerful and mighty—Jesus acted in most un-kingly ways. You know the stories: He ate with tax collectors and sinners. He talked with women. He taught and modeled servanthood. What a King.
If we back up a little in this 24th chapter of Luke, before the verses that we have heard today, verses that the Seekers’ Sunday School class are becoming very familiar with, Jesus appears to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus says to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”
Now back up a little more, to verse 21, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They’d seen him die. If Jesus were to come and restore Israel, then he couldn’t die. He couldn’t be defeated by the Roman power. But he was—the disciples saw him defeated, crucified on a cross. And they didn’t understand.
As readers, we know the whole story, from beginning to end, and we are right there with Jesus—how can the disciples not understand?
But think about it like this: What’s the oldest story that you know about your family or a family member? Do you know stories that are older than one generation? Older than two? Even more? Every family has at least one character whose stories are famous…or infamous.
My grandmother lived by herself in upstate New York for many years. During that time, she would stop at my parents’ house during the holidays on her way to Florida each year. What was initially a weeklong visit stretched into several weeks and eventually more than a month-long tenure over the years. Whether that extension is true or just how it began to feel is difficult to say.
I’m not sure if it was the time alone or her marriage to a military man—my grandfather was in the Air Force—but she grew used to having things done her way, which she increasingly attempted to enforce at our house during her holiday visits. My brother was told that one of his friends, who was a large fellow, was not allowed to come over anymore because he was “too big,” and “took up too much room.” But the antics that made us laugh the most were when we began to discover sticky notes posted around the house with various sets of instructions. On the microwave, there would be a reminder to “you people”– her affectionate name for her family—to cover our food when heating it up. On the dishwasher, we were chided for not rinsing our dishes before putting them in or for using the same cup throughout the day. At the time, her behavior seemed frustrating or even comical, and yet I’m practically ceremonial about rinsing the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. My wife can testify.
The women are strong in my family also. My mom can go head-to-head in any competition about grammar, American history and literature, baseball, or college football. She has also been known to break up a fight between high school boys just by giving them “the look.”
Her mother, my grandmother, also a sports fanatic, is a real-life illustration of fiscal responsibility, reusing and recycling way before those words were part of a catchphrase. A widow for nearly 40 years now, she scrimped and saved, but she also gave generously to her church and to those families around her that needed extra money.
Her mother, my great-grandmother, became a single mother when my grandmother was young, maybe 7 or 8, yet she managed to employ several men to build her family a house during the Great Depression. She ran a little goods store and let people charge items on their account, even when she knew that those accounts might not ever be paid.
On my Dad’s side of the family, my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, Nanny and Papaw, were known for their laughter, never missing a chance to do so, though they sometimes had to remind each other that laughing would be their course of action.
Papaw lost his job during the Great Depression and decided that he would buy a car on the way home. Facing Nanny was not the easiest thing to do, and not only did he have to explain the car, he had to tell her that he was fired. Papaw was able to catch her in a breath in the middle of her diatribe and offered, “Pearlie Mae,” let’s laugh. And they did, believing that everything was going to be okay.
Most of the more legendary stories star Nanny. She never disappointed. I don’t remember a lot about her, but I knew that she was the only one who could put my dad in his place with a one-line quip like, “I’m going to trade you in for a dog and then shoot the dog.” She fussed at me for not stripping everything off a drumstick. She made chicken and dumplings by hand. She won a bass fishing contest, out-catching many fishermen, including her husband and therefore made it onto the cover of the national bass fishing magazine. And once, she fell into a flower pot and was found preaching the southern gospel with four letter, rather un-holy, words.
Genetics prove difficult to overcome, and even now, two of my cousins, my sisters, are bravely and gracefully—with undeniable strength—each fighting battles of their own. One is wading through the waters of a foster care adoption and the other has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Perseverance, independence, and humor are their traits, traits that may be familiar in your families too, and even though their stories may seem more like myths, if you were to meet any of these women, you would understand and thereby believe every story to be true.
While genetics themselves are hard to get around, my families’ stories have laid a good bit of the groundwork for who I was to be—for who I am. Would I be as independent as I am (or as stubborn!) if I didn’t know the stories about those who came before me? I think the answer is no.
Family stories, even cultural legends, become so famous, so mythological, that their morals and the boundaries they possess are often imposed on the next generation. This is the first question for us—how did the stories passed down, for generations, for hundreds of years, through war and destruction and exile—how did these passed-down stories affect people’s understanding or misunderstanding of Jesus?
Dennis Green, once the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, yelled during a post-game press conference, “They are who we thought they were,” not able to explain his team’s loss to the Bears.
But Jesus was NOT who they thought he was. He was not the Messiah they were expecting, if they were anticipating an individual to intervene at all.
The expectations about a Messiah were broad and diverse, but the one nearly universal attribute is that he would be someone from the line of King David who would restore Israel to its golden age; the glory days as when David was king—and that it would be even better. This “messiah” would be Israel’s ideal king who would raise an army, cast off foreign oppressors, and bring peace and prosperity to Israel and to the world. Think of the vision in Isaiah 11 where the wolf and the lamb lie together, the cow and the bear graze together, and the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:1-10)
Diving a little further, what were the expectations of 1st century Jews? Reading again in Luke 24, we go back to the Emmaus road. As the two disciples were walking along speaking to the stranger, they explain to him their hopes about the one who caused the raucous in Jerusalem; they hoped that he was the one who would “redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21) – a very loaded phrase.
The need for Israel to be redeemed is a theme found repeatedly in the OT because Israel constantly needed redemption after their continued cycles of sin, punishment, and reconciliation. The disciples on the Emmaus road hoped that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel once and for all. They expected that the messiah was the one who, through God, would break the pattern.
Take Psalm 72, part of which we read earlier, for instance. “May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.” It is one of about 10 “Royal Psalms,” which paint pictures of Israel’s ideal king. These Psalms were sung repeatedly through the generations. They form the foundations for later anticipations about one final anointed king or messiah who would come and right all the wrongs for the final time.
Most Jews in the 1st century expected that God was going to act in a decisive way to right the wrongs of his people. A new age or era would dawn so that Israel would never again fall into the destructive pattern of sin and rebellion. However, they had different ideas about how God would accomplish that task. Some thought God would intervene directly, others thought that it would take place through angels. Only some expected a specific individual or individuals, “a messiah.” None, so far as we know, expected Jesus.
From the beginning, God approached creation with covenant language. But humanity kept getting it wrong, so God, a God who pursues reconciliation, kept trying to re-establish the covenant. Even Jesus’ prayer included the desire for God’s purpose to be completed: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Micah 7:18-20 assures Israel of God’s commitment and the prophet also speaks to God being like no other:
Who is God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us.
However, Micah also reminds Israel of her part of the covenant. You know the verse, Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Time after time, God’s children proved that they could not overcome sin. God’s answer—to come to earth to see for himself! Jesus, God incarnate, walked and talked with humanity. Jesus experienced temptation. Jesus felt the pangs of hunger. Jesus suffered physical pain. And yet, he remained faithful, unlike Israel.
God’s people longed to be unified, they longed for the temple to be rebuilt, but again, they were unable to overcome sin. They fell to temptation, they cried for manna. They wanted the prosperity portion of the covenant to be fulfilled. They longed for these things to happen, not because they’d ever experienced life in that way—but because they had been told for so long that that’s how it was going to happen.
But Jesus came along and started saying things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
How could Jesus possibly be the one to redeem Israel?
Why was this a question for the Jews? If Jesus fulfilled all of these prophecies, how did they miss it? The very simple answer is that he died. That is why the message of the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews. (1 Corinthians 1:23) That is why the disciples were so often confused and angry, especially when Jesus started talking about his death. Read the end of Mark, chapter 8. Jesus asked the disciples who people thought he was and he got a range of answers. Then he asked the disciples who they thought he was and Peter got the gold star by answering, “You are the Christ.” But then what happens right after? Jesus starts talking about his death and Peter is rightly upset and even rebukes Jesus for saying such things. Peter just said that he was the Messiah and the Messiah was not supposed to die. To which Jesus famously responds, “Get thee behind me, Satan. You are thinking of the things of man and not of the things of God.” Your understanding of what the Messiah is here to do needs to be transformed.
The messiah was supposed to be a king who raised an army and led Israel to freedom and glory. He was not supposed to be a peasant who suffered and was killed as a rebel. We have no evidence of any Jewish group anticipating that their messiah was going to die and be raised from the dead. Now the astute Bible reader is no doubt thinking, “what about those suffering servant passages in Isaiah 53 about the one who was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquity?
To answer that question, we can again return to Emmaus. Twice, in verse 27 and again in our passage in verse 44, Luke tells us that they didn’t understand who Jesus was until he explained to them from Moses and the prophets how all those things applied to Him: “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (45) Only after Jesus had been crucified and raised from the dead did his followers look back and search the Scriptures anew for signs of the messiah in light of the reality of who Jesus was.
Many of the texts like the Suffering Servant or the Virgin birth were not messianic expectations in the 1st century. Only in light of what Jesus said and did were his followers able to see these texts as applicable to Jesus—that they in fact did point forward to Jesus—but they could only see that by looking back.
As for us, we live on this side of the resurrection. We can search the scriptures and draw the same conclusion as the disciples: Jesus is the Redeemer we needed, even if he’s not exactly what we expected.
And yet in certain ways, He was exactly what they were looking for.
The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy—he was the son of David, a point made three times in the opening chapter. The very first verse of Matthew – the very first verse of the New Testament – begins “this is the record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David.” Jesus himself makes a few of the connections to the Old Testament for us by beginning his ministry in the synagogue, reading from Isaiah 61 about good news being preached to the poor, sight being given to the blind, freedom being offered to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor being announced. (Luke 4:18-21, Isaiah 61:1-9) Jesus then proclaims that those words were being fulfilled in their midst. In other words, he says, “here are the things you expected would happen when God finally acted to ‘redeem Israel.’ I am the one who is here to bring all these things about.” And what did Jesus do during his ministry? He preached good news to the poor, healed the blind, and so on.
We have heard the stories and on occasion, we’ve even witnessed his power. Surely, we have, at some moment in our lives, felt his Spirit move within us. But even if we proclaim Christ and teach Christ, and live as though we are prophets and disciples, we must admit that our humanity muddles both our expectations of Jesus and what we perceive are Jesus’ expectations of us.
As followers of Christ, and more to the point, as humans who follow Christ, we do not always have the clarity of an informed reader. Our minds are often closed to what Christ is teaching us.
Aren’t there times when we, in our daily lives, walk along roads with Jesus and yet we do not understand that he is with us? Our self-assurance and ego blind our eyes to the majesty that is around us.
Aren’t there times when we love the kingly models of Jesus, even the powerful, warrior models of Jesus, but we push aside the notion of servant leadership that was modeled for us by Jesus?
Aren’t there times when our hearts are burning with things we know to be true, and yet we still seek more proof that God is speaking to us?
We live on that Emmaus road, as blind as the disciples, and the prayer we sing is “Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus!” But how do we want to see Jesus? Surely not as someone who washes feet! Faith that is talked but not walked is so much easier, right? But this is not passive faith—this is a faith that does require something of us, and not in ways that are always comfortable or self-serving.
Seeking power, having power, being in power, seems like a good way to ensure that God is proclaimed as Lord above all lords. But we have to remember the stories of those who were powerless and yet, by their faith, helped God’s purposes be accomplished.
When we close our doors, we may succeed in keeping out some trouble, but we must also remember that we are called to love our neighbors. We are called to love our enemies. And Jesus, our model, ate supper with people who were despised. He supped with people who were feared.
Remember Psalm 72: “May all kings fall down before him.” And also, “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people and give deliverance to the needy.”
This is not a simple faith. This is a faith whose foundational stories come from exiles, from widows, from mourners, from sinners. This is a faith that began in love and whose roots are found underneath a cross.
And it is a faith that looses binds, sets captives free, and reconciles the sinner.
This is a faith that will take us to the depths of despair and longing and it is a faith that will bring us up into proclaimers of unfathomable joy. Oh that we will be as active in our rejoicing as those foolish disciples. Oh that we would see Jesus here one earth, resurrected in our own lives.
Great is your faithfulness, oh Lord. Oh, that we will be able to faithful to you.
Open our hearts and our minds and allow us to live into all that you would have us be. Remind us that we are not left behind, dear Jesus. Allow us to feel your presence on whatever roads we walk on in this life. Amen.