“Mission Accomplished, Accomplishing Mission”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
May 8, 2016: Ascension of The Lord
On May 1, 2003, President Bush stood on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to announce that major combat actions in Iraq had come to an end. Behind him was a banner nearly 30 feet in length draped on the front of the ship that read, “Mission Accomplished”. It was a very proud moment to be an American, given that the horrors of 9/11 weighed so heavily on our collective memory. It has been a little over thirteen years since that very proud moment. Only it turned out that the mission was far from being complete, and even today there is still so much work to be done. The mission to bring peace and justice to the Middle East is taking far more than anyone had planned for or expected.
In many ways, the Ascension of Jesus is the same. This is a day to be celebrated and honored. It is a day to come into the house of God and worship, to sing and make music to God. It is a day for great joy, because today marks the accomplishment of God’s mission. But it is also a day for us to contemplate and understand that God has given us a mission, a mission that is yet to be completed.
God’s mission has been abundantly clear from the beginning. The opening pages of Scripture tell the story of a God who was about the work of creating, redeeming, and sustaining, from the moment that God spoke creation into being. Creating the light, separating it from the darkness; creating the sea monsters and birds of the air; bringing forth plants and trees and flowers; shaping the first humans from a handful of dust—the first seven days of creation tell us a lot about God. Peaceful, gentle, thoughtful, deeply interested in who and what he has created—that is our God.
Further on in the story, God’s mission intensifies. God calls Abraham and Sarah to go from their home and set out to a place God has prepared for them. God promises them children more numerous than the stars in the sky. Sarah laughs at God’s promise—she is old, and so is Abraham, and they are well past their prime for raising children. God makes good on the promise and Abraham and Sarah’s family grows beyond anything you might see on reality TV. God created for himself a people to call his own, and God guided them, cared for them, loved them.
But then God’s people fell on hard times in Egypt. They became slaves, victims of ethnic phobias, people oppressed so terribly that they were literally bent to the ground. Pharaoh refused to let them go, so God raised up Moses to set them free. Moses lead the people of Israel out of Egypt and across the Red Sea on dry ground. On that side of the river they were prisoners; on this side of the Red Sea, the people were free.
Freedom was difficult for the Israelites. They did not like having a leader, and they especially did not like this God who was constantly talking to them and asking them for their love and devotion. The Israelites rebelled. They rebelled and worshipped other gods. They rebelled and went to war for no other reason than sport. They rebelled and turned their backs on God, who had delivered them, who had set them free.
God tried to gain their love over and over. God tried laws to get the Israelites to focus their attention on him. God sent prophets to warn the Israelites of their sins. God sent judges and kings and queens, hoping that one day they would turn back. God tried everything, but nothing got their attention: no words, no famines, not even days without sunlight. Nothing seemed to work.
God did not give up on God’s people. God tried one final time to get the people’s attention, to bring them back from darkness and into light, to get them to turn from their sins and return to God. This time it was not with words, but with The Word. This time it was not a famine, but bread from heaven that would lead to eternal life. This time it was not days without sunlight, but days filled with so much light that the darkness could never overcome it. When nothing else worked, God took on flesh and lived among us. An angel told his parents to call him Jesus.
Jesus was born as we are, though without the luxury of nurses and doctors. Jesus grew up as we do, with a mother who chased after him when he wandered off, and a father who taught him skills that cannot be found in a text book. Jesus had friends like we do, companions for the journey who ate and drank with him, wept and celebrated with him, made promises and kept them sometimes. But Jesus was one with God and did not sin, so he was entirely like us. His whole life pointed to God.
Jesus did not just live among us as another face in the crowd. Jesus spent his days living in a way that the human race had yet to encounter. For Jesus, life was not found in an abundance of things, but rather in the ways that he bought life to the world around him. We’ve heard the list before: healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, opening the ears of the deaf. We call them miracles because that is what they are, but to Jesus they were just ways of bringing the dead back to life. Jesus did not heal the man who was lowered through the roof to bring fame to himself; he healed the man lowered through the roof to show how life-giving it is to have friends who truly care. Jesus did not open the eyes of blind people as some parlor trick to please the crowd; he opened the eyes of the blind often to show that it was not the blind people who were blind. The sick, the diseased, the paralyzed; Jesus granted new life to each one, because God’s purpose for all people is life…life in abundance.
Jesus got folks’ attention, in a way that prophets and kings and queens couldn't. Jesus got folk’s attention, but that attention was not always positive. It was the religious leaders who felt the most threatened, and that is understandable. Here is a man who claims not only to be the Son of God, but God in the flesh. Here is a man who claims that he can destroy the temple and re-build it in three days. Here is a man who has gained a following of people who worship him instead of worshipping the religious establishment. Jesus got folks’ attention, and they decided that he had to go.
They did their worst. They condemned Jesus to death and made him carry his own cross. They crucified him on a hill outside of Jerusalem where the city’s trash is dumped. They executed him with two criminals: one on his left and one on his right. Even when he was most in pain, Jesus spoke peace and love. Jesus died and Joseph of Arimathea came and buried Jesus in his own tomb, an act of love. They thought they had taken care of the matter; they thought Jesus was gone. Actually, everyone thought that he was gone, even the disciples who heard Jesus talk about rising from the dead.
A few days later, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother James went to the tomb to pay their respects and anoint Jesus’ body. It was their custom and a way to process the horror they had experienced. When they arrived, to their amazement and fear, the door of the tomb was rolled away and Jesus was gone. He was not there, just as he said. An angel told them that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee; there they would see him, alive!
For fifty days Jesus appeared to the disciples and the women who followed him. He continued to speak of peace and love, of how his resurrection from the dead had set them truly and finally free. No more sin, no more death, no more powers of darkness; Jesus had wrestled with them in the tomb of his own death, and he had won. He commanded the disciples to go, go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He told them to and tell all people in all places the good news he had told to them.
Then he was gone from them, sucked up into heaven in a whirlwind of clouds and light. The disciples returned to Jerusalem and were constantly in the temple praising God. The mission of God—creating, redeeming, and sustaining—the mission that God had set out from the opening pages of Scripture to do was now accomplished. The ascension of Jesus was the finale. Death had been defeated. Sin no longer had power. Darkness was never again going to triumph over the light. The disciples were constantly in the temple praising God because it was done: mission accomplished.
We’re here today praising God in this temple for the same reason. The whole history of God with God’s people comes to a great finale today as Jesus ascends into heaven. All the years of wandering, all the idols we’ve worshipped, all the times we have bowed down to or been brought low by sin…all of it is finished. The holiness of Christ’s life, the goodness and mercy he brought into the world; the horror of his death and the miracle of his resurrection—the end of his story is his ascension. The strife is over, the battle done. The victory of life is won! Mission accomplished.
Yet, the work is not done. Even though Christ’s ascension into heaven marks the end of his ministry and the accomplishment of God’s mission on earth, Christ’s ascension is a beginning…our beginning. The world we live in today is not much different from the world the disciples lived in, and it is not much different from the world as it was ten or twenty or thirty years ago. God’s people are still warring with one another, over land, over money, over power. There are still those who are desperately poor, desperately hopeless, desperately hungry and thirsty. Sin persistently tries to get its hooks into our hearts, and the darkness of evil is looking for new and unique ways to shut out the light. The ascension of Christ is our beginning, because there is a lot of work to be done. Christ’s ascension into heaven is the beginning of our mission to preach the good news of Christ, to shine our light into the dark places, to show in what we do and say that Christ is risen and nothing can separate us from his love. Today we must decide how we will go about accomplishing this mission.
This is a daunting and scary task, considering how pained and broken the world is that we live in. It is easy, now more than ever, to understand why some of the earliest Christians lived their whole lives in secluded communities, surrounded by high walls. The world out there is wild and much larger than any one of us, so it would be easy to stay here, hidden away and secure. But Christ said ‘go,’ not ‘stay,’ and in going we have his blessing. We have his blessing and we must simply follow his lead.
We accomplish our mission when we remember that the God of our faith is a creator, a redeemer, and a sustainer, and we must do what we can to clear the path so that God can do these things—sometimes that means getting out of God’s way.
We accomplish our mission when we, as people of faith, represent the God of our faith in everything we do and say. This means we must do as Jesus did: speak peace when there is conflict, show love when and where there is hatred, take the high road even when the low road is so much easier. This shows to the world the God that is depicted in the Scriptures: peaceful, loving, just and merciful.
We accomplish our mission when we do not succumb to war for the sake of power, argument for the sake of shaming the opponent, or silly name-calling, fear, and lies for the sake of personal or professional or political gain. This is not power. This is not what it means to be great or faithful or a good. Power is found in weakness and in humility, in knowing when to speak and when to listen, in seeking the peace of everyone even your enemy, and in taking up your cross daily to follow Jesus.
We accomplish our mission when we constantly worship and praise God, here in this place in all the places we find ourselves each day.
We accomplish our mission when we teach the faith to our children, our grandchildren, our neighbors, our friends, and those we have yet to meet.
We accomplish our mission as we welcome new life into the world as a gift from God and give thanks to God for the gift of life as we lay the dead to rest.
We accomplish our mission when we feed the hungry and give cool water to the thirsty, surround the hurting with our presence and our prayers, strive for justice, and work for peace.
And we accomplish our mission when we take into ourselves, no matter the circumstances of life or the events of the world, that we are claimed, called, and deeply loved by God not because of what we do but because of who we are: children of God. When we take this into ourselves, believe it, and live it, we’ll show the same to everyone we meet because they too are children of God.
When we accomplish our mission—and we work on it every day we are alive—the mission of God is also accomplished. It is mind-boggling to imagine that God is relying on us to do these divinely important things, but God is, and God knows we can do it. Today is the beginning and there is a lot of work to do. So go. Go out into the world and live a way that brings the love and transforming power of God into everything and to everyone you meet. With God’s help, may it be so for you, for me, and for all creation. Amen.