Preached at St. Thomas’ Church, May 13, 2012 by the Revd Chris Bowhay. Audio at bottom of post.
“And [Jesus] led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven (Luke 24:50-51).”
On July 8, 2011 the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was the 135th and final Shuttle Mission, and with its departure came the end of an era. The first Shuttle, the Enterprise, launched on November 12, 1981; I was thirteen years old. We used to get up early in the morning to watch the launches on TV before going to school. I will never forget January 28, 1986–the day the Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off. My high school wheeled every television it had into the halls so that we could watch that terrible disaster over and over on the news. That evening President Reagan addressed the nation during what was supposed to be his speech on the State of the Union, and I will never forget his benediction of those astronauts and the schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, as he said, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” The two dozen Shuttle launches from 1981 through 1986, with their triumphs and its disasters, marked my adolescence with a sense of possibility, of wonder, and of bravery.
I will always regret not travelling to Florida to watch a launch and its display of awesome power in person. At T-minus 16 seconds, a massive sound suppression system doused the entire platform with 350,000 gallons of water to protect the vessel from the sound waves that would soon bounce back from the ground. At T-minus 10 seconds, the main engine pumps began to charge the combustion chambers with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. At T-minus 6 seconds, the three main engines were ignited. Immediately, all the water that covered the orbiter flashed into a massive cloud of steam. At T-minus 0 seconds, the huge nuts that held the orbiter to its platform were detonated, which freed the Shuttle to lift off. The intense torrent of fire that rushed from the engines at the speed of sound triggered shockwaves that the onlookers could hear and feel from miles away. As the Shuttle lifted skyward at speeds of over 17,000 miles per hour, it began to roll, pitch, and yaw until it was upside down, which allowed the pilots to see the ground beneath them slip away. It took only 8 seconds for their view to shift from blue skies to the darkness of space. Condensation clouds trailed from the wings of the craft, leaving a visible mark of their progress to the heavens. Then, at T-plus 126 seconds, explosive bolts that connected the reusable solid rocket boosters detonated, letting them parachute to the ocean for recovery. Six minutes later, the main fuel tank was jettisoned, just after the Shuttle finally shook free of the Earth’s atmosphere.
I wish that I could have stood just once among the crowds who stared up at the sky and watched the Shuttle and its crew disappear from their sight. What those crowds could not see, and did not know, and perhaps could not have understood even if they knew, was that as amazing as the Shuttle’s departure was, its payloads and its missions were even more amazing. The vision and the technology that made the Shuttle possible paled in comparison with the vision and the technology that was the Shuttles’ deeper purpose. With the deployments of the Spacelab, the Magellan probe of Venus, the Galileo probe of Jupiter, the Hubble space telescope, and countless communication satellites, the Space Shuttles’ missions literally changed the way we see and understand the universe.
Today is the Sunday after the Ascension. After Jesus died on the Cross and after He rose from the dead three days later, Jesus spent forty days with His disciples. On that fortieth day, Jesus led His followers to a mountaintop, He blessed them, and then He was carried up into the sky where He disappeared into the clouds and entered Heaven. It must have been an amazing sight. In fact, the disciples were so overwhelmed by what they saw that God sent two angels to refocus their attention on what Jesus told them to do next. The angels said, “ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:11).” Hearing the angels’ message, the disciples returned to Jerusalem to await the Coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, as Jesus had told them to do. At Pentecost, which we will commemorate next Sunday, those disciples received the power of the Holy Ghost to fulfill Jesus last command to them to go to all nations, to baptize them, and to teach them everything that Jesus had taught.
Like the spectators at Space Shuttle launches who were so dazzled by their departure that they forgot their more important missions, we sometimes can become so dazzled at the thought of Jesus’ ascension that we forget or fail to understand the even more marvelous mission behind it. Standing, in our imagination, at the blastoff point with the dumbstruck disciples, we forget or fail to understand Jesus’ Heavenly destination and Jesus’ purpose once He got there. Fortunately, the Bible gives us a picture of what happened next, when Jesus returned to the Throne of God which He had left when He become Incarnate among us. The scene is portrayed in the Book of Daniel, the visionary prophet held captive in Babylon in the 6th century before Christ. In the seventh chapter of his book, Daniel gives us the view of the Ascension from Heaven’s perspective. He describes a scene of a conquering hero returning from battle to receive a crown from the proud king who sent him out. The proud king is God the Father, whom Daniel calls “The Ancient of Days,” which means “the old one.” Jesus is called “the Son of Man,” which means “the human one.” Daniel says:
“I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of Days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened…
… And behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14).”
According to Daniel’s vision, God the Father is about to open the books of judgment to condemn the sins of the whole world. At that moment, Jesus returns from His victory over sin that He secured through His Death and Resurrection. Jesus boldly strides before the Throne of God where He intercedes for those for whom He shed His Blood: He intercedes for us. God the Father accepts Jesus’ loving sacrifice of Himself for all mankind, forgives the sins that He was about to condemn, and crowns Jesus as King to rule alongside Him. Daniel’s vision of what happens in Heaven after Christ’s Ascension is both a courtroom and a coronation. In the courtroom of Heaven, Jesus is our Advocate—our lawyer—who points to His Blood and says, “I paid the penalty that they deserve. I sacrificed myself so that all charges against them would be dropped. They sin, but I died. Case closed.” In the coronation of Heaven, God the Father says, “My beloved Son, you have done all things well. You are their priest and king. Come sit at my right hand forevermore.”
Like the Space Shuttle blasting skywards with fire and clouds, Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven was spectacular. In the same way that the Shuttles’ missions were even more spectacular than their departure, Jesus’ heavenly mission to become our intercessor and our king was even more spectacular than His Ascension. His mission at His Ascension literally changed the way we see and understand the universe and our place in it. One day, Jesus will return in the same way He left. We may see His return in our lifetime. On that day He will reveal—for all to see—the victory that we now perceive only by faith. Until then, we pray for the grace to love God and each other the way He loves us. Until then, we pray for the strength to forgive each other the way He continually forgives us. Until then, we pray for the privilege to work with Him on earth so that we might reign with Him in Heaven.
Image credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Tom Farrar