Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Ascension Day, 2nd June 2019

Psalm 68; Isaiah 44:1-8, Ephesians 4:7-16 – see

‘I believe in God’ – we believe in God – ‘the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord, who was: …. conceived …. born … crucified … buried …. descended …. rose again … ascended,… and sitteth on the right hand of God the father almighty’.

On Thursday we celebrated Ascension Day. At the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, when the disciples were all together and Jesus appeared to them, after he had been resurrected from the dead, he said to them, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you’. When he had said this, ‘as they watched, he was lifted up and a cloud removed him from their sight’. (Acts 1:9)

The first bit points to what we’re going to remember and celebrate next Sunday, that is, the coming of the Holy Spirit, Whit Sunday, Pentecost. But this is the Sunday after the Ascension, and we are still thinking about Jesus’ Ascension: up, down, ascending, descending – disappearing.

It’s quite interesting that the Ascension is only described twice in the Bible, in Acts and in Luke chapter 24, which some scholars think may be a late addition. So possibly it is only the second book of Luke’s gospel, the book of Acts, that tells you anything about the Ascension.

Prof. John Barton, in his new and very good book, A History of the Bible, [2019, London, Allen Lane], makes the point that our creeds date from the second and third centuries AD and reflect the concerns of the church at that time. (Barton pp 326-330). The things that they thought were important then, creation, the Virgin Birth, suffering under Pontius Pilate, being crucified, dead and buried, being resurrected from the dead, ascending into heaven and then sitting in judgement at the end of time, have been emphasised and at the same time have cut out Jesus’ healing miracles and his teaching – there’s nothing in the creeds about them. Raising Jairus’ daughter, bringing Lazarus back to life, turning water into wine, feeding the 5,000: nothing: turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, the Sermon on the Mount: not mentioned. Not even Jesus’ New Commandment, that ye love one another, even as He has loved you: not mentioned.

This sifting out of what the church considered to be important, what Prof Barton calls its ‘rule of faith’, is quite challenging for us. It’s not obvious to us why the Ascension should be given such prominence, should be in the creeds, whereas loving one’s enemies and being a Good Samaritan aren’t.

I think that we would all say quite categorically that, although we believe the things in the Creed, we also believe in the other things as being very important in our Christian witness. Those important things should include trying to carry out the teaching of Jesus, trying to love our neighbours as ourselves.

It’s very clear that, when we try to understand the divine, to understand how God works, what God is, that we can only grasp things in a very partial way. It may be that, although the Ascension doesn’t get mentioned very much in the Bible, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be a key belief. Our lessons today and our psalm emphasise the power and might of God – and the Ascension is one aspect of that power, an illustration of it.

There is a children’s hymn which has always made me smile, ‘Our God is a great big God’. I suppose it makes me smile partly because that sort of language, a great big God, encourages you to think of a mighty figure high above the clouds, up to whom you would go, and up to him, as his father, Jesus went.

In our Psalm, 68, we see this ‘great big God’: there are some wonderful images in Psalm 68, which I commend to you. We only sang the first six verses, but if you’d like to get your little blue Prayer Books out again and turn to page 426, you can follow it again. [Page numbering from the Cambridge edition]

‘O sing unto God, and sing praises unto his Name 

 magnify him that rideth upon the heavens, as it were upon an horse; praise him in his Name JAH, and rejoice before him.

  He is a Father of the fatherless, and defendeth the cause of the widows 

 even God in his holy habitation.

  He is the God that maketh men to be of one mind in an house’ – he makes people agree together – ‘and bringeth the prisoners out of captivity’… And then there’s a splendid line, ‘…  but [God] letteth the runagates continue in scarceness.’

I wondered what ‘runagates’ were. If you just turn that word over in your mind, listening to it, you suddenly realise that it is the same word as ‘renegades’. And indeed the dictionary confirms that. Renegades, the bad people, ‘continue in scarceness’. They have short commons.

It’s the same kind of god that Isaiah, as well, is proclaiming in our first lesson.

‘I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring’.

This is the God of creation, but also the God who sustains as well as creates. Pouring spirit upon seed; only God can make things live. Think of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians chapter 15, where he talks about how resurrection to eternal life works, with a seed, being fertilised again.

St Paul again, in his Letter to the Ephesians, has this wonderful sentence, quoting Psalm 68,

‘When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.’

It has two examples of what I’m sure you will all immediately identify as a Cognate Accusative – the example in the textbooks is usually to ‘die the death’. Here we have, to ‘capture captivity’, which is what it literally says in the Greek, and to ‘give gifts’. It’s a figure of rhetoric where the object in the sentence is the substantive of the verb. It’s sometimes called a ‘cognate object’. ‘Cognate’ means ‘known by’. He captured captivity, he led captivity captive – and he gave gifts.

There is a nod to the ‘man upstairs’: ‘He ascended up on high’. And that of course makes Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, tackle the logical implications of that. ‘Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?’ A number of preachers down the ages have taken this literally, and explored whether, in this period before the Ascension, Jesus went down into Hades, into Hell.

But just a minute! I don’t think I can get much further in this sermon without someone calling me out for talking arrant nonsense. The fact is that these days, or at least since Bishop John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’ in 1960, we just don’t think of God as being anywhere in particular, located anywhere either up or down. If we talk about heaven, sitting at the right hand of God, ascending up on high and so on, we must of necessity be talking figuratively. Because the minute you allow God to be defined in time and space, he can no longer be the ultimate creator. In order to be omnipotent, to be the ultimate creator, God must be outside the confines of space and time. Therefore he isn’t up there or down there or out there, or anywhere in particular.

But there would be something terribly bleak about worshipping a god whom you could not visualise. I suppose the opposite of that is the Jewish way in which no one can speak the name of God. We see this again in Psalm 68 in verse four. God is called JAH. There are no vowels in Hebrew, so JAH represents ‘Jehovah’, the name of God. We need pictures. We need images: the picture is a picture of heaven.

There are some wonderful pictures in Psalm 68, which I commend to you. We only sang the first six verses, but if you’d like to get your little blue Prayer Books out again and turn to page 426, you can follow it again.

‘The earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God’

‘Thou, O God, sentest a gracious rain upon thine inheritance 

 and refreshedst it when it was weary.’

You can just see these people plodding through the desert. ‘Lone and dreary, faint and weary, through the desert thou didst go’ [Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us – James Edmeston, 1791-1867 – Common Worship hymn 496, v2].

Again in Psalm 68:

‘Kings with their armies did flee, and were discomfited’

‘Though ye have lien among the pots, yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove’.

The modern translations actually duck this. What is having a lien among the pots? I think it means, having a lien is being tied up, tied up with household chores. Having a lien among the pots – but you will have the wings of a dove! A dove with silver wings and feathers like gold.

Then there are these hills. God’s hill. You remember the second chapter of the book of Isaiah:

‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

That’s what happens on the mountain of the Lord. And here in Psalm 68,

‘Why hop ye so, ye high hills? this is God’s hill, in the which it pleaseth him to dwell.’

Again, modern translations don’t try to translate the hopping business. I have a feeling that the translators of the King James Bible have introduced a glorious and rather touching image of people in a crowd, towards the back of the crowd, jumping up and down, hopping, in order to try to see over taller people in front, to see what is going on. ‘Why hop ye so, ye high hills?’ However high you are, God’s hill is higher.

And then,

‘Thou art gone up on high, thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men’.

The wording which St Paul quotes from this in his letter to the Ephesians is ‘he gave gifts to men’ (ἔδωκεν δόματα τοῖς ἀνθρώποις). I think it’s one of those reverse meanings, ‘that’ll learn you’ rather than ‘that’ll teach you’. You have given gifts, is the right sense, I think, rather than ‘received’ them.

What a wonderful picture of God this all is! But where does it leave us? We have this wonderful picture of God, which we have to admit is pretty fanciful. Have we just invented God, in fact, ourselves? That takes us back to the bare bones of our belief in the Creed. Those startling statements about Jesus, that he was born of a virgin, died, rose again from the dead, and ascended into heaven.

It’s not facetious to say, ‘You couldn’t make it up!’ But whereas it is completely beyond our human capabilities to understand the nature of the divine, God, and we have to resort to figurative language about being in heaven ‘up there’, ascending and descending, even so, we can grasp what happened to Jesus, in a much more straightforward way. We know what it was for him to be born and to die. We can understand what the resurrection looked like, through the eyes of Doubting Thomas.This is God among us. But to say that Jesus ‘ascended into heaven’ brings us back to the figurative, to the divine realm which is beyond our comprehension. But we can see enough to realise that it is perfectly coherent to say that the fact, the history, of Jesus, invites us to have faith in God, in the divine nature. We didn’t make it up. And then we can progress in faith so as to become the body of Christ, not ascended, but here on earth, just as St Paul so elegantly puts it:

‘Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.’