John 14:15-21; Acts 1:1-11
Right after World War II, a U.S. Army officer and his wife were stationed in that country. Japan had been devastated by the war. The economy was in shambles. Unemployment approached 60%. People came to the army wife’s door daily looking for work.
One man said he could do wonders for her garden if she would only give him a chance. So, for the first time in her life, the young woman hired a gardener. He spoke no English, but the wife, through sign language and pencil and paper gave him instructions about where to plant, prune, and pamper her garden. He listened politely and followed her instructions exactly. The garden emerged as the finest in the neighborhood. When she finally realized that this man knew far more about the work than she, the wife stopped giving him directions and gave him free rein in the garden. And that garden was magnificent.
Then one day the gardener came with an interpreter who expressed the appreciation but the regrets of the gardener. “He will no longer be able to care for your garden. He must leave.”
The wife expressed her regrets and thanked him, through the interpreter, for making hers such a fine garden.
Then she asked the interpreter, “Where is he going?” The interpreter replied that the gardener was returning to his old job as the Professor of Horticulture at the University of Tokyo.
I can imagine, can’t you, the look that must have come over that woman’s face when she discovered, upon his departure, that the man she’d been directing in planting and pruning was far more than a novice gardener.
Well, imagine the expressions on the faces of the disciples on the day of Christ’s ascension into heaven. Stunned, shocked, stupefied, blown over, overwhelmed, astonished; I don’t believe there is a word that can fully approximate the magnitude of their amazement. The disciples had already had the “mountaintop experience” of the transfiguration when Peter, James and John saw Jesus’ appearance change right before them. In Matthew, chapter 17, we’re told that His face shone like the sun, His clothes became as white as the light and Moses and Elijah appeared standing next to Him. The oft-repeated appearances of Jesus after His death and resurrection brought His followers great joy and convincing proofs of His divine nature. Day after day of mountaintop experiences. But, on the fortieth day after His resurrection, after having given His disciples final instructions, Jesus slowly ascended until a cloud hid Him from view.
In Acts 1:10, we read that the disciples were looking intently up into the sky as He was going when suddenly two men dressed in white, who must have been angels, appeared beside them. The pair told them that this same Jesus would return in the same way they’d seen Him depart. Matthew 24:30 tells us to expect to see Him again in the same resurrection body, in the clouds, and with “power and great glory.”
Jesus ascended in this way to impress upon His followers that His bodily presence would soon be replaced by the Advocate/Counselor/Guide/Comforter promised in John 14:16. Ten days later, He sent the Holy Spirit.
Witnessing the ascension of Christ was a true mountaintop experience, an epiphany, an “aha” moment, a life-changing moment. Many of us speak of having had mountaintop experiences with God, but none – of course – are in the same league with the Ascension of Christ. True “mountaintop experiences,” however, always leave us filled with awe and wonder.
I get aggravated when I hear the word “awesome” used to describe the most mundane, humdrum, mediocre, dull, boneheaded, inane, and stupid things. We’ve really chopped away at what we expect from “awe” by slangifying the word “awesome.”
“We had such an awesome time playing badminton!” No, you really didn’t. “He did an awesome job cleaning the toilet!” No, he really didn’t.
I like the definition in the American Heritage Dictionary for the word awe: “A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might.” I would really like us to reclaim and rehabilitate the word “awe.”
When was the last time you were filled with awe at the awesomeness of God? When did you last have a true mountaintop experience? Have you become so preoccupied with the inconsequential and the non-awesome that you’re failing to seek what and who would truly fill you with awe?
Have you been awed by what Christ has called you to do? The disciples sure were. The last thing Jesus said to them was, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The disciples couldn’t fully grasp what lay before them. All they knew was that their Lord had confidence in them and He had promised they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. They responded with confidence in the Lord. Still, they were weak human vessels and must have moments of great apprehension when witnessing for Christ in a hostile world.
In Stuart and Jill Briscoe’s book Pulling Together When You’re Pulled Apart, the authors share a story from when they were first married and living in England. They were looking for ways to minister to those around them but very carefully overlooked the youth hangout across the street from their house called the Cat’s Whisker. Stuart was a staid young banker in a very proper British bank, and he just didn’t feel that he could mingle comfortably with the rough looking crowd at this club.
But finally, Stuart got up his courage and walked into the Cat’s Whisker. He found a tough-looking young man and his leather-and-chains clad girlfriend and began to talk to them. They were surprisingly open to him. Through a series of questions, Stuart led them to see that every inanimate object around them was made for a purpose. Then he told them that they were created for a special purpose too. Stuart explained God’s love and God’s plan for salvation to this young couple. After he finished, Stuart asked them if they believed that. The young man answered, “No, and neither do you.”
“What do you mean? Of course I believe it,” was Stuart’s shocked reply. “No, you don’t and I’ll tell you how I know you don’t. This story is so wonderful that if you really believed it you would have been down here before tonight to tell us,” the young man shouted. With that, the young man walked off, leaving Stuart in his shock.
If you have ever tried to talk with a stranger about your faith in Jesus Christ, you will appreciate Stuart Briscoe’s apprehension. It’s intimidating under the best of circumstances, but then think about the brutal world in which the disciples lived.
“Men of Galilee,” asked the two figures in white. “Why do you stand looking into the sky?” Awe. Apprehension. Sorrow at parting. They had looked to Jesus for guidance, for strength, for spiritual nourishment. How would they manage now? He promised a comforter, a guide; He would send the Holy Spirit. And, because He did, the disciples would move on to the greatness Christ had promised them.
Perhaps there is some apprehension in your life right now, some uncertainty about whether Christ is with you as you move through your days. Focus on the Christ of the Ascension, the Christ who is high and lifted up, the Christ who has sent His Holy Spirit to guide and to strengthen you.
When Jesus ascended into heaven, He didn’t leave us lost and alone. He sent us His Holy Spirit as Advocate, Counselor, Guide, and Comforter, to give us strength, to give us power for the living of these days. Get real and bring your honesty before God. Pray for a breaking down of walls. Pray for the removal of any spiritual barriers you’ve erected to keep you from seeing and serving the Lord. And then look to Jesus – our awesome, awe-inspiring God – and see if doesn’t take you to the mountaintop for an epiphany, a sudden understanding of the way things work and the way He wants to work in you.
Working off of notes in my files from a sermon by King Duncan. I believe the sections on the Japanese gardener and the Briscoe book were taken directly from that sermon.
Photographs by Donna Hailson.