(sermon 5/28/17 – Ascension Sunday)
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.But 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 ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Cyrus was a veteran of the Civil War. Even though he was born in Michigan, as a young man he was living in Tennessee when the war broke out, and he served as a member of a Tennessee infantry regiment. After the war, he studied law; he moved west and became a Kansas state senator; a few years after that, when he was still just 29 years old, he became a U.S. District Attorney. But Cyrus had to resign that position soon when he got caught up in a scandal, being caught taking bribes and kickbacks from railroad companies. After his resignation he became a heavy drinker, which among other things led to him abandoning his wife and two daughters. He later remarried and had a son, but throughout his life his relationships with his children was rocky at best. By most standards of his time, young Cyrus was hardly a paragon of moral virtue.
But then one day, Cyrus saw the light – he got religion, and a particularly fundamentalist strand of it at that. And maybe trying to make amends for his life’s shortcomings up to that point, and applying all of his lawyerly gift for detail and laying out the evidence in a court case, Cyrus threw himself into the task of publishing a new, detailed study Bible. It featured “chain references” in the margins, where a reader would be directed to other passages of scripture that dealt with the same topic. His study Bible also made a very carefully laid out argument, based on a very literal reading of the Bible, for the theology of an English minister named John Darby. Darby’s theology held that throughout history, God dealt with humans in a series of different ways, each with particular rules, in seven different eras he called “dispensations;” each one following the other until the final dispensation, Christ’s return to earth when he would rule for a thousand years. If you’ve ever heard someone in Christian circles talk about “Dispensationalism,” this is what they’re referring to. Before Jesus would establish his thousand year reign, according to Darby and Schofield, there would be a period of terrible chaos and tribulation on earth, but Jesus would return and take all the true believers out of the world – in what Darby called the “rapture” – where they would apparently cool their heels in eternity for a while and not have to endure the tribulation, until Jesus would return once and for all and end the tribulation and start his thousand-year rule. If you’ve ever heard someone talk about “Premillenialism,” this is the theological belief they were talking about.
If any of that sounds familiar to you – and I’m sure that it probably does – you can likely thank Cyrus Scofield, and his famous Scofield Reference Bible, which was published in its final form in 1917, just a hundred years ago this year. It came out at an unusual time in history. For years, people had a feeling of hope and optimism, that human beings and civilization were on an unbreakable upward arc, moving toward greater and greater enlightenment. But by 1917, these thoughts were destroyed, and people were demoralized by the chaos, the destruction, human carnage of death tolls previously unknown, caused by World War I, and people thought that the world may very well be coming to an end. It was also a time when Christian Fundamentalism was probably at its peak in the U.S. Fundamentalists and Evangelicals latched onto the Scofield Reference Bible with gusto, and its theology, which laid out a series of signs that a person could look for in world events in order to know when Jesus’ return was imminent, ended up having a massive influence on American Christianity and our culture.
It still does. When I was in my teens, and the modern nation of Israel was only 30 years old, all the Evangelical Christians were holding their collective breath because, according to Scofield, Jesus would return to earth within one generation after Israel was restored, and at most a generation would be about 40 years, so… start packing your bags. And I remember shortly after graduating from college in the early 80s, having a conversation with some good friends who were in the process of buying a house, and they were torn – should they get a 20-year mortgage and build up equity sooner; or should they just go for the lower monthly payments of a 30-year mortgage, since Jesus was going to return before it would be paid off anyway, so home equity would be a moot point? I kid you not, this was a serious conversation.
Those were the days when a man named Hal Lindsey wrote a best-selling book called “The Late Great Planet Earth,” which was basically just a fictionalized, dramatic telling of the end-times predictions of Schofield’s study notes. the book was intended to literally scare the hell out of you so you’d get right with God and get raptured and not have to endure the tribulation. More recently, Tim LaHaye did the same thing with his “Left Behind” series of books.
Whether it’s Scofield or Lindsey or LaHaye, or John Hagee or any number of other people, they all end up being preoccupied with this question, this obsession, of trying to figure out precisely when, and precisely how, Jesus was going to return to earth. It still goes on, when we look at all the chaos in the world today – when we see, as Jesus put it, wars and rumors of wars, which we especially think of on this Memorial Day weekend; and violence, and terrorism, and shootings, and world leaders behaving badly and social and cultural unrest and fracturing; and we wonder how much worse can things get? Surely, these are signs of the end times, surely it must mean that Jesus is going to return soon and put an end to all this madness. But when??!
It’s the exact same thing that Jesus’ disciples ask him in this passage from the Book of Acts. This is the account of Jesus’ ascension, his physically leaving the earthly realm, is the sign that God has not only validated Jesus’ earthly ministry, but now he’s been made the Lord of all. This is Jesus’ farewell conversation with them before he goes. And as you heard, they ask him, is this the time you’re going to establish your kingdom and set things right? Is it now? And if not, when will it be?
When they ask this, Jesus essentially tells them – and I suggest, by extension, Darby and Scofield and Lindsey and by extension, us – to just chill out. Don’t waste energy getting all worked up about that question. Instead, he told them, be my witnesses in this world. Proclaim God’s good news of love and peace and forgiveness and reconciliation to all people, in your words and deeds. Live lives of peace and gratitude for this good news. And don’t worry. Jesus tells them, you’ll be able to do this, you’ll be empowered by the Holy Spirit that God is about to give to you. Jesus tells them to just stay focused on what I’m really calling you to do. All that other stuff, all the worrying about when he’s going to return, is just going down a counterproductive rabbit-hole and keeping you from the really important stuff.
At about the same time that Hal Lindsey was cranking out his book, there was another person writing, only he was writing songs. He was a popular contemporary Christian musician named Keith Green. I really liked Keith Green’s music; I had all his albums. He was a Christian hippy, basically, what back then people called a Jesus Freak. He had a big bushy beard and moustache, and great big head of wild, curly, hair – straight-laced Hal Lindsey probably hated him. In any case, he wrote a song about this same idea, telling people to just have faith in God, and in that faith, to stay focused on what Christ told us to concern ourselves with, and not to worry about things that were basically above our pay grade, things that were up to God – that, as the title and lyrics of the song put it, “He’ll Take Care of the Rest.”
In this story of Jesus’ ascension, Jesus tells his disciples that he’ll take care of the rest. He makes it clear that we don’t have to know every detail about God’s plans for the universe. We shouldn’t stress over all the details that Cyrus Scofield was trying to nail down and prove beyond a reasonable doubt. For that matter, given that this is the account of Jesus’ ascension, we don’t have to know precisely all the literal workings of that, either – Jesus’ ascension “up” into heaven, when we know that God and heaven aren’t literally somewhere “up there,” maybe hiding just behind the third cloud from the left. What we do have to know is that God has promised to always be faithful to us, and to strengthen us and equip us for what we’re actually called to do – to be the embodiment of Christ in the world, sharing God’s love with all those around us. As for the rest of it, maybe it turns out that at least in this case, the hippy was a better theologian than the lawyer.
Thanks be to God.