If the majority of your church experience has been anything like mine, you are familiar with two important days on the church calendar: Christmas and Easter Sunday.
Well, let’s be generous and toss in a third: Good Friday.
Those three days are the ones that count…the rest are Roman Catholic.
That’s what I would have said ten years ago. I’d heard about Advent, Ash Wednesday, and Lent, but I was pretty sure that those were things related to Mass and priests and all that other “spooky stuff.” Little did I know that the church had a rich tradition of living into the story of Jesus throughout the year so as to shape the life of the church.
The days and seasons of the church calendar help the church to remain fixated on Jesus. That is something that I need, and I can’t help but wonder if it is something that the church desperately needs in order to turn its gaze away from the other things that it tends to fixate on.
If I hadn’t been introduced to the church calendar, and its purpose, I wouldn’t have known that today was Ascension Day. I would have simply thought that it was Thursday. I would have given no thought this morning to the ascension of Jesus, its meaning, and its implications for today, and for all the other Thursdays of my life.
Ascension Day takes place forty days after Easter Sunday (therefore always on a Thursday). We are told that after Jesus was raised from the dead he spent forty days with his disciples speaking about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). After this period of forty days, Jesus commissioned his disciples and then “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9 NRSV).
What does it mean he was lifted up (ascended)? What about this cloud that took him out of their sight? Was he levitating? Did he fly?
The terms “lifted up” and “clouds” have nothing to do with what was physically taking place. Rather they are a reference to the apocalyptic vision in Daniel 7.
First century Jews believed that one day God would vindicate Israel after years of suffering at the hands of the pagan empires. The first eight verses of Daniel 7 describe four great beasts that arise out of the sea (the place of chaos and monsters), each beast representing a powerful empire that oppressed Israel.
- The first beast is like a lion and represents the Babylonians.
- The second beast is like a bear and represents the Medes.
- The third beast is like a leopard and represents the Persians.
- The fourth beast is described as “terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong” and represents the Greeks.
The fourth beast has ten horns, referring to the ten kings of the Seleucid empire. Seleucus I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, founded the Seleucid kingdom after Alexander’s death in 323 BC. From these ten horns emerges a little horn, which is Antiochus IV.
The scene then shifts from the beasts coming out of the sea to the throne room of God. In Daniel 7:9-12 we read that the Ancient One (Ancient of Days in Aramaic) takes his seat on his throne and there, surrounded by countless angels, he holds court against the beasts (the empires who have oppressed Israel). The verdict is that dominion is taken from the beasts and the final beast is destroyed.
What happens next is breathtaking, but first let me set the stage.
In Genesis 1-3, human beings are created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth. These humans listen to the serpent (a beast) and the result is that humanity and all of creation is subjected to rulers who rule according to the image of the serpent rather than according to the image of God. Jesus is the human being who will rule according to the image of God and therefore restore humanity and all of creation.
That said, we return to Daniel’s vision…
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being [one like a son of man in Aramaic] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14 NRSV)
Let’s look at this passage very carefully now…
- The one like a human being is Jesus.
- Jesus is coming with the clouds of heaven (Acts 1:9 – a cloud took him).
- Jesus comes to the Ancient One. He is arriving at the throne of God and presented to him.
- Jesus is given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples nations, and languages should serve him.
- Jesus’ dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
The disciples believed that when Jesus was lifted up in Acts 1 that he was taken on a cloud from them and to the Ancient One. That means that Acts 1 is the fulfillment of Daniel 7. In Acts 1 Jesus is given dominion and glory and kingship…that shall not pass away. We know this because in the very next chapter of Acts we read of Peter preaching that Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God and that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah.
As I stated earlier, this is breathtaking!
Ascension Day is HUGE!!!
Today we are celebrating the dominion of Jesus! Today we are celebrating the glory of Jesus! Today we are celebrating the kingship of Jesus! Today we are celebrating the fact that the dominion of Jesus is everlasting and his kingship shall never be destroyed!
Ascension Day is HUGE!!!
Today is a reminder to tyrants, to oppressors, and to the empires of the earth — your dominion has been taken away; don’t get cocky because your lives have been prolonged for a season!
Ascension Day is HUGE!!!
Today is a reminder to the terrorized, to the oppressed, and to the captives of the earth — your king is coming and you will never suffer again!
Today is not just any old Thursday. It is Ascension Day…the Thursday that calls the world to remember.