"Lest You Start Cloud Gazing," by Claire Helton
based on Acts 1:1-11
Moses had lived a long and full life. He had made difficult choices; he had drawn closer than anyone to what was really real, he had liberated his people and led them through their wandering, until finally, they had made it here to the brink of the promised land. And now here, at the end, he stood on the mountaintop overlooking the land that lay waiting for them. He felt as if he could see the future that lay before his people with his own two eyes, and it was a future as textured and complex as the landscape before him, a future of mountainous highs on either side of the depths of the valley of fear. God would be with them, and he had no fear. He knew his time had come. If there was one thing he had learned coming face to face with the divine, it was this: The story would not end when he did. And when he had breathed his last, they say it was God’s own hand that buried his bones in the ground; the final resting place of the great leader who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, a secret that God alone knows. And so, in some ways, it’s as if he is still in our midst.
Centuries later, Elijah walked along the riverbank with his apprentice, imparting a few last words of wisdom. He had a feeling that his work here had been accomplished, that his time was drawing near. His apprentice, Elisha, made one last request, asking for a guarantee that the spirit that had animated Elijah would live on in his own ministry, that he would be, truly, a son of Elijah. The great prophet knew enough to know that this wasn’t a guarantee he could offer, because so much depended on the choices his young apprentice would make himself. But he was not troubled by not knowing what would become of his legacy, because if there was one thing he had learned in coming so close to the divine, it was this: The story would not end when he did. And when his time had come, they say he was whisked away, gone in an instant, not dead – even – just gone, carried away on something like a chariot ablaze with the glory of the God he had served. And so, in some ways, it’s as if he is still in our midst.
And then there’s Jesus. Not just coming back from the grave, but coming back never to enter it again. Here, in the first chapter of Acts, forty days after that fateful Easter morning, we find Jesus on a mountaintop: the new Moses, approaching the end of his time on earth, gazing out on the future of his people, of all people, with hope; we find Jesus, the new Elijah, imparting a few last words of wisdom to those who would carry on his legacy, and disappearing in just as mysterious a fashion.
One might begin to think the people of God have some kind of fear of death, the way they go so far out of their way to tell the stories of their heroes as stories of people who never really died. It certainly doesn’t make for a “do as I do” kind of faith.
But in holding these stories up next to each other – which is something the gospels invite us to do when they tell the earlier story of Jesus’ transfiguration, on a mountaintop, joined by who else, but Moses and Elijah – when we hold these stories up next to each other it does seem that a theme emerges. After all, Jesus ascends, and yet in some ways (in so many ways), he, too, is still in our midst.
These stories of biblical heroes discovering, and helping us discover, that the story God is telling is not a story that could ever end with the death of any one leader, that this isn’t a story that gives death the last word – they’re stories that provide anchor points in scripture for this central line of truth that we hear from the lips of Jesus himself – this truth that the kingdom is here in our midst. Let me give you the whole scene:
In the gospel of Luke, written by the same author as the story of the ascension we read today, there comes a passage toward the end of Jesus’ ministry when he speaks in parables about the kingdom of God. It’s like a mustard seed, he says. You plant the tiniest seed and up comes not just the mustard bush you’d expect but a tree so full of life and generous of shade that birds make their nests in it and the people find rest at its base. That’s what the kingdom is like.
Or in another way, he goes on, it’s like the smallest measure of yeast. You drop in just a pinch and then watch as it causes the whole ball of dough to rise. That’s what the kingdom is like.
The conversation goes on for a while and then the Pharisees step up with a question. They want to know when this reign of God will begin. Or, more likely, they want to get Jesus on record proclaiming a date so they can use it later to discredit him.
But you’re missing the point! Jesus tells them. The reign of God doesn’t come in a visible way. You can’t say, ‘See, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ No – look, he says, gesturing to the open space between them: the reign of God is already here in your midst.
It’s the same lesson Jacob learned when he had just started out on the journey that would lead him to become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. In need of a safe place to rest, in fear of retribution from those who wished him harm, running away from the only home where he had ever known God to reside, he fell asleep and dreamed of angels and a ladder, and became acquainted with this truth: that God cannot be contained. And so he proclaimed, “Surely God is in the midst of this place, and I did not know it.”
It’s the same lesson the tribes of Israel would learn through difficulty and sorrow, when centuries later they were carried into exile, leaving behind them the temple, the only place they had ever known God to reside. With the full expanse of a desert between their new home and the one they had built for God, the nation of Israel in exile learned to settle in, and to come to terms with the truth that somehow, God was still in the midst of them. The death of their nation hadn’t been the last word; there was life to be had, there, too.
It's the same lesson Jesus taught over and over in word and in deed throughout his ministry: proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God, giving himself fully to that truth in his willingness to love beyond respectable boundaries, and then, even, to die – for he, too, like Moses and Elijah, knew in his bones that this story would not end with his death.
And when it didn’t, when he didn’t even end with his death, but his days on earth were coming to a close, he gathered his disciples to him, he gave them a few last words, and as they looked on, he rose for a second time, and this time, disappeared before their eyes. They stood there, staring into the heavens, and suddenly, two passersby walked up behind them, shielding their eyes, trying to catch what it was everyone was looking at.
Only, they weren’t just passing through, they were messengers of the God who can’t be contained, and they came to ask a simple question. What are y’all doing? Why are you looking at the sky?
It’s a question that ought to ring in our ears every time we find ourselves waiting on God to intervene. Why spend your time gazing into the clouds when, in truth, Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed are both right here, as close as your next breath? As real as your next-door neighbor? Why, on earth, are you looking at the sky?
Friends, what is it you’re looking for from God? Is it a physical need you long to have met, or is your spirit uneasy in this season? Whatever your longing leads you to pray for, I’m not saying don’t pray about it – but be vigilant, lest you start cloud gazing. You can look to the skies, friends, but the clouds will keep rolling by, for the kingdom of God is in our midst, it’s all around us. In the love that we share. In the justice we seek. In the mercy we grant to one another, and to ourselves. The kingdom of God is within us. Alleluia, alleluia. Amen.