Overwhelmed with Joy -- An Ascension Sunday Sermon
When have you been “overwhelmed with joy?” What moments in your life were so joyous that you couldn’t hold it in? These aren’t your ordinary joyful moments; the kinds that are there and then they’re gone. These are the moments in time that you can’t forget. These are those definitive moments that stand out and mark your life forever.
For instance, there was the joy that I felt when the Giants finally won the World Series. The Giants moved to San Francisco the year I was born, and for the first fifty-one years of my life – they came up short of a championship. I bitterly remember game six of the 2002 World Series, when they Giants were a mere six outs away from their first championship, and then everything fell apart. But 2010 was a very redemptive moment. All the pain and anguish I’d experienced over a life time dissolved into great joy! You will know what I mean by this when the Lion’s win the Super Bowl!!
But as much joy as that event brought me, it pales in comparison with the day that Cheryl walked down the aisle and joined me in marriage. Then there was the day I became a father. I was a bit concerned about being a father, whether I had the skills necessary, but when the nurse handed him to me joy flooded my soul, and in an instant I was ready. These are two of the most joyous days in my life, days that mark my life to this day.
These were also days of new beginnings. It wasn’t enough to exchange rings – Cheryl and I have had to live together through thick and thin, but the joy that poured over me that day has continued to nourish my relationship with Cheryl. And, it wasn’t enough simply to hold Brett that one time and feel like I had accomplished fatherhood. The joy that I felt at that moment has been the sustaining presence that has nourished my life as a father to this day.
There are other moments of great joy, moments when I was overwhelmed by the joyous presence of God. There is, for instance, my baptism as a teenager in a creek. There is also that moment of my ordination to a ministry, now twenty-seven years back, that would define my sense of vocation from that day on, even if the way in which I would live out that vocation wasn’t completely defined at the moment. I figured I was going to enter a ministry of teaching, not that of a pastor, but God has a way of changing the direction of our lives. But that moment in time was one of overwhelming joy from which I continue to draw to this day.
So, what moments of great joy mark your life? When has God opened the eyes of your heart so that you might see God’s vision for the world?
Today we celebrate the Day of Ascension. If you’re a liturgical purist, you would have done this on Thursday, marking the end of Jesus’ forty-day sojourn with the disciples. But, since we didn’t have a service on Thursday, we’re celebrating Jesus’ ascent into heaven today.
The story of the Ascension can easily get lost. There aren’t any major Ascension hymns or special events connected with it. It can simply be a blip on the screen as we move from Easter into Pentecost; from the Resurrection to the outpouring of the Spirit on the Church. But, this is an important moment in our story. It’s the time when Jesus takes his leave of us. Moments like this can be sad. It’s hard to say good bye. Graduation day is a similar kind of moment. There is joy in the accomplishment, but there’s also the sadness that comes from the sense that you may never see many of your friends ever again.
The Ascension story forms the conclusion of Luke’s Gospel and the opening word of Acts. In the Gospel, Luke tells us that Jesus is sharing a meal – the true last supper – and as they eat together, he teaches them one last time about the kingdom of God and their responsibilities to this realm of God. He opens up the Hebrew Scriptures and shows them that everything that has happened – his death and his resurrection – is in line with this biblical story. But so is their continuing mission to bring to the world the message of repentance and forgiveness.
He tells them, in his own way, that if they’re to fulfill their mission, their vocation, then he must remove himself. Like a mother or father bird who pushes their fledgling chick out of the nest the first time, so that the chick can test its wings and fly, Jesus gives us permission to take up our calling. He removes himself from their presence, so that the Spirit of God can lift their wings so that they can soar. This promise, which Jesus gave them, continues on with us. The wind of the Spirit continues to blow, lifting our wings, so we too can soar and enjoy God’s reign in this world.
As Luke tells the story, Jesus blesses the disciples and then is taken into heaven. Unlike the version in Acts, there is no staring into the heavens or gentle reminders from heavenly visitors. No, what we hear is that they worshiped him, and then they returned to Jerusalem “overwhelmed with joy.” At least that’s the way the Common English Bible phrases it. The NRSV, which we read together, renders verse 52 with the words: “And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” The difference is slight. There is great joy in either case, at a moment when we expect sadness, but I’m struck by the use of the word “overwhelmed.”
They could have been overwhelmed with sadness. We would understand. Jesus is leaving them. They could feel abandoned and even lost and alone.
Hear the word “overwhelmed” as it’s used in the 61st Psalm. This time, however, we hear it through the voice of the King James Version:
Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer.
From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy. (Ps. 61:1-3 KJV).
Whether we’re overwhelmed with sadness, fear or with joy, the Psalmist reminds us that our hope is rooted not in our own devices, but in God. As the Book of Hebrews reminds us – “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 NASB).
The disciples have not yet experienced the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit that is to come upon them at Pentecost. They’ve watched as Jesus has left them behind as he ascends to the right hand of God, but instead of feeling abandoned, instead of feeling overwhelmed with sadness, they are “overwhelmed with joy,” and they return to Jerusalem where they can be found in the Temple, continuously praising God.
. Do you feel this overwhelming joy washing over you this day? What is it that warms your heart and leads you into joyous worship of God? What is it about God’s presence that stirs you to live your faith with boldness?
We face many challenges today. Some here may feel lost and alone. Maybe you feel like God is absent. Maybe there are financial challenges that you must deal with. Maybe it’s a loved one who is deceased, whom you miss greatly. For many of us Jean’s death leaves us with that sense of loss. Or maybe it’s a physical situation that keeps you from living as full a life as you would like.
Whatever is the case in your life or mine, where is there joy? What nurtures your spirit in such a way that you can joyfully celebrate and sing the praises of God, from the depths of your toes to the tops of your heads – whether those heads are covered with lots of hair or not? That is the question of the Day of Ascension!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 20, 2012