May 17, 2015
Ascended Yet Approachable
If I asked you to describe your image of God, what comes to mind? Does this image change if I ask you to focus and describe only the God we read about in the Old Testament? I went through this exercise, and I thought about how God is often portrayed. In art, God is frequently depicted as an old man with a large beard, wearing a white gown. Usually this figure is sitting or standing in the clouds looking down, a father or grandfather figure looking over his creation. In the movies, God is often represented, not as a physical figure, but as a loud, booming bass voice speaking from the heavens; perhaps there is even a beam of light coming from the clouds from which the voice originates. There are also the Old Testament Biblical images of God, such as the pillar of fire, the burning bush, the clouds around the peak of mountains, as well as a voice on the wind. There are many ways in which we can “see” God.
If I asked you to describe God’s character, what words would you use? When we think about God, especially in the light of the Old Testament, we often hear God described as something large and commanding, an overseer looking down from the heavens. God, in the context of the Old Testament, is often described as vengeful, jealous, punishing, etc. With these characteristics, comes a sense of distance or a sense of power in which we cannot understand. I don’t know about you, but when I think about God as the Old man in the heavens looking down, I don’t feel a closeness. Rather, there is a gap and a feeling of separation. It makes me feel small and insignificant. The analogy of an insect looking up at a human looming above comes to mind. When we see God in this way, he is an imposing figure, perhaps even intimidating. It’s much like when you are a young child and you feel shy and uneasy, when you meet an adult who is strange or new.
Of course, God is not this way; these images of God taken from the Old Testament as non-approachable, overbearing, and vengeful are only a few images and descriptions of God that have transcended the years. These views of God often stem from the stories of violence and war, or events such as the great flood and the exile of the Israelites. Taken singly, and out of the entire narrative of the text, it is easy to interpret these events as vengeful or horrific acts of God. However, if God were really this way, why would anyone love and obey him? As I was thinking about the many characteristics of God, I thought of creator, almighty, powerful, loving, grace giving, understanding, just, everlasting, and the list goes on. God is in fact, a God of love, compassion, and justice. God is beyond limitations of time and space, an all-powerful, majestic, sovereign, eternal, omnipresent God. These are the characteristics of God, which people have faith in, that people trust. These latter descriptions better define who God really is; however, even these words fail to describe God, completely. God is so much more!
Since the beginning of creation, God has longed for a relationship with his children. His love for us is so great that God attempted to build a relationship with us. He gave his people the Laws of Moses, judges, kings, leaders, and prophets, to guide and help them to live lives that would be a blessing to themselves and others, as well as to become closer to God. However, sin acted as a barrier between God and his children. As I spoke about last week, barriers can be a hindrance; they can be restrictive, and harmful. Barriers can be difficult to break or breach; however, with God all things are possible.
When Jesus came to the world, as the Word incarnate, it was God coming into creation in the form of a man. This was an act of abounding love and an example of God’s grace. Jesus was God’s answer to the problem of sin. Jesus was the way of destroying the barrier between God and us. Jesus was God’s plan to repair our relationship with him.
In the scripture passage from Luke, which we read this morning, we find Jesus saying goodbye to his followers. Jesus starts by reiterating his purpose for coming to the world and opening the minds of his disciples so that they truly understand who he was. As Jesus reminded his followers in this passage, he came to fulfil everything that was written about him in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms. Jesus came to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day. Living here on earth, Jesus experienced what it is to be human. He experienced what it is to feel tired and weary, to feel fresh and energetic. He knew how it felt to be hungry and thirsty, or to feel full and satisfied. He experienced happiness and sorrow, joy and frustration. Jesus also experienced loneliness, betrayal, rejection, pain, suffering, and ultimately death. Some of these are beyond most of our imaginations, beyond our comprehension. However, it is through his life and experiences, Jesus can identify with our own experiences.
After reviewing his purpose and what he has accomplished, Jesus then continues his farewell speech by encouraging his disciples, by emphasizing that they were witnesses to all the great things he has done, and that there is more to come. Their work was not finished. He promises them that God will send a power from above to them, which will help them in their work. We know that this power is the Holy Spirit, sent to guide and lead us on our journey of faith; the Holy Spirit, who is God’s presence in the world, is here to help the Church share and spread the Good News of the Gospel.
Jesus then leads his disciples out as far as Bethany and begins to bless them. As the blessing continues, he backs away and is carried into heaven. Just like that, while he is speaking, Jesus is lifted up to sit at the right hand of God the Father. Out of the ten verses from this passage, only half of a verse describes Jesus’ ascension into heaven, half a verse! It would be possible to be caught up in the text, and miss this short phrase. However, six words, “…and was carried up into heaven” was all we need to know, that Jesus left his earthly existence. The exit of Jesus from our world is significant in many ways, one of which is that it creates a new image and understanding of God.
We are told in this passage that the first thing the disciples do after Jesus ascends into heaven, is that they worshipped him. This is significant because these followers of Christ were pious Jews, just as discussed last week in describing Simon Peter being a Jewish Christian. They would have attended and worshiped in the synagogues. As we read in this passage, they worshipped continually in the temple in Jerusalem, even after Jesus left them. Many if not all of them would have continued to follow many of the Jewish laws and customs. What makes the worship of Jesus so important and significant is that the Jewish faith upholds the belief that God alone is to be worshipped. This stems from the first commandment. So, for them to worship Jesus, meant that they believed that he was God. They believed that the Jesus that they followed, lived alongside, learned from, and saw suffer, die, and rise from the grace, was truly God. From this point on, it was no longer possible to talk about God without speaking about Jesus as well. The image of God had changed. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the same God who led the Israelites out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses, the God who gave the gift of the Ten Commandments, and the God who sent prophets, judges, and kings to help his people was now seen in a new light, and a different way. The relationship between God and Jesus altered the picture of God for the disciples, and this continues to this day for us.
In reality, Jesus’ ascension into heaven didn’t change God’s character, God has always been a God of love. Even though we read sections of the Old Testament filled with violence, or when we listen to critics who depict God as tyrannical and vengeful, God in fact has always wanted a relationship with his people. What did change is how we relate to God. In many ways, Jesus gives us an image of God, which we can better understand. Even though, none of us were around to see Jesus walk the earth, it can be easier for us to imagine Christ as a person, flesh and blood. We also can take comfort knowing that God, through the life of Jesus, understands us. Because of Jesus, God knows what it is like to be human. God identifies with our pain, our suffering, our longing, our needs, and through this, we can gain security. God knows and understands us, and this helps us to connect with God. This in turn affects our relationship with God. In many ways, Jesus has made God seem more approachable.
If we return to the questions, I asked at the beginning, do your answers change when we replace the word God with Jesus? If I asked you to describe your image of Jesus, what comes to mind? The Good Shepherd, Teacher, Saviour, Messiah, King of Kings, Lamb of God, Servant, Bread of Life, Light of the World, etc.? These images and names for Jesus have an air of authority, yet they are still comforting, even inviting. If I asked you to describe Jesus’ character, what words would you use? There are many words, but here are some: holy, righteous, loving, kind, friendly, powerful, compassionate, forgiving, just, empowering, etc. There is something about these names and descriptions of Jesus that give comfort. They represent love, security, and grace. As we know, God and Jesus are one, along with the Holy Spirit; making up the Holy and eternal Trinity. We can come to God, our Creator and Sustainer, just as we can come to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus, we may see God in a different light; a God who knows us, who understands our struggles, a God who has also experienced life on this earth. In this way, our God is the Almighty, the Creator, sovereign, and eternal, however, our God is also approachable and seeking a relationship with us, amen.