6 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
7 Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, 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 end of the earth.”
9 After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11 They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem—a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they entered the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter, John, James, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James, Alphaeus’ son; Simon the zealot; and Judas, James’ son— 14 all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m an avid fan of films, but I guess a better and more accurate thing to say is that I’m a fan of art in general—film, books, paintings, sculptures, and among them, music. I have an eclectic taste, but one of my favorite artists is one of the most eclectic artists of the past 40 years. Of course, I’m talking about David Bowie.
There’s no way to cover the vast swaths he cuts through in the music industry, but for the moment, I want to consider one of his more popular hits, dating back to 1971—“Changes,” from his Hunky Dory album.
It’s a great song, and one of the first to really get me hooked on his music. It’s a really odd song. It doesn’t really fit with a lot of pop music from the time, with the quick mood changes from uptempo mo-town horns to soft Elton John-esque piano verses to a bouncy 60’s anthem chorus. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The song is entirely about change. The verses really bring this out—even though have the time you can’t understand what he’s singing, because, you know, it’s David Bowie. But check out these lyrics:
“I still don’t know what I was waiting for/ And my time was running wild/ A million dead-end streets/Every time I thought I’d got it made/ It seemed the taste
was not so sweet/ So I turned myself to face me/ But I’ve never caught a glimpse…” “Ch-ch-Changes/ Time to face the stranger/ Don’t want to be a richer man/ Just gonna have to be a different man/ Time may change me/But I can’t trace time.”
It reflects the life of many people back then, as it does now. Time doesn’t ever seem to stay still. Every time we think we have a handle on things, things change on us, and we have to face the reality that maybe life isn’t turning out the way we wanted it to be, but if we want to be better, we have to face the changes. I love this song, and so do many others, partly because it’s catchy but also because it hints at a greater truth: facing change is hard, but necessary.
Change has been the over-arching motif of the past few weeks, if you’ve taken to noticing it. Change comes as the result of something happening, big or small. Since Easter, we’ve seen all kinds of changes. Through doubt, surprise, sharing, persecution, and insight, changes have come to us through the miraculous work of Jesus Christ and the powerful inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It all leads up to this last part, the last story of Jesus on Earth until the very end. But it’s not the last story for us.
As with the form and function of the song “Changes” mirroring its lyrics, the point of the Ascension of Jesus Christ is that it’s not the end of the story, but rather the beginning of many new ones. All of the aftershocks that came from the resurrection are echoed in the Ascension. The disciples experience doubt and surprise as their Lord rises to heaven. It’s an experience shared by many of them, and after it’s over, they share in devotion, prayer, and communion. The disciples, in asking Jesus when the kingdom will come, are really asking when their persecution will end. The angels give the disciples insight as to what happened, and will happen.
Despite all these elements being present in the passage, the hardest shockwave is the one that all these others orbit—saying goodbye. Letting go. The disciples have experienced unequaled joy in the revelation of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, and that their friend is among them after having died on the cross. For forty days, they enjoyed his return, but, as with all good things, this one had to come to an end. Jesus tells them that they will soon be baptized by the Holy Spirit. He tells them that it is not for them to know when Christ’s kingdom will be realized, and at that, he ascends. And that’s it. That’s all there is. Jesus, their friend, is gone, and they don’t know when he will return.
For the disciples, this is shocking. Never mind the fact that he gave them the mission to spread the good news of resurrection to the four corners of the earth. Never mind that he equipped them with the power of the Holy Spirit. Never mind all the teachings he gave them in his ministry, or the healings he performed. The single most shocking thing for the disciples is that they felt they had lost Jesus, not once, but twice now. Saying goodbye is hard enough to do once. Doing it twice is gut-wrenching. However, if Jesus is anything, he’s a teacher, and the best teachers know that the most important lessons are the ones you have to learn the hard way.
Saying goodbye is one of the hardest ones someone has to do, especially if it’s to someone you love. Some of you have perhaps stayed in your hometown of Lufkin all of your lives, which if you have, congratulations are in order. That’s not an easy thing to do these days! Additionally, many of you have a hometown that you can definitively call your hometown. I, on the other hand, do not. I moved around a lot as a Pastor’s Kid. Because of that, I had to learn how to say goodbye a lot. The first time I moved, I was three, so I didn’t really remember moving, and it wasn’t that hard. The first time I remembered moving was the hard part, because that was a conscious time I had to say goodbye. I cried. A lot. I hated my parents for moving. I wanted to stay home, with the friends that I made, in the town that I knew. For days, I threw tantrums and generally made life miserable for parents who were just trying to do the right thing for us. In hindsight, I realized that moving that time was definitely for the best. We were moving from Sweeney, TX, to Pasadena, on the southeast side of Houston. It was night and day. I grew to love Pasadena in ways I didn’t love Sweeney. I made new friends. I had new opportunities. Sure, I missed my old friends, and yeah, I missed the huge backyard we had at the Sweeney house, but soon I had new friends, different experiences, and a new life. I learned in that time that saying goodbye, while difficult, is never the end. It’s always just a beginning.
The sooner we understand that saying goodbye inevitably leads to saying hello, the sooner we can embrace the deeper meaning of the resurrection. This is what all of it leads up to. We must be able to say goodbye in our lives, at least better than the disciples did. They stood there, staring up at the sky for God knows how long, astounded, shocked, trying to stay where they were. They were afraid to move, afraid of the changes that they needed to face. They were afraid of saying goodbye, because it’s impossible to know what’s on the other side of that goodbye.
Thankfully, they had those random angels to snap them out of our stupor and get back to work, to go on being devoted, to sharing in communion, and to do so in new ways with new people. They were called to go out into Samaria, and Judea, and to all the world. And they did. And so are we.
The resurrection leads us to say goodbye, sometimes to many different people. The most important person you need to say goodbye to is yourself. We need to let go of our old selves, ourselves as they were before the resurrection, the sinful, broken, dying and dead selves. We need to say goodbye so that we can make room for the new selves we receive in Christ, the new life, the new mission, the new power of the Holy Spirit. We need to say goodbye so that we can say hello. Whether we know it or not, we are changed in the resurrection. In the ascension, we are forced to come to terms with it, and move on to the next adventure. Thanks be to God for new adventures. Amen.