Several years ago, back in the 1990s, I was challenged by a friend to read Philip Yancey’s best-seller The Jesus I Never Knew. That book is older now but it’s still worth reading. Yancey’s chapter on the Ascension struck me for how it illustrates the challenge of this part of our faith. He wrote…
“Living two millennia after the disciples, I look back and marvel at how little difference the church has made in such a world. Why did Jesus leave us alone to fight the battles? How can it be good that he went away?”
“…the Ascension represents my greatest struggle of faith – not whether it happened, but why. It challenges me more than the problem of pain, more than the difficulty of harmonizing science and the Bible, more than belief in the Resurrection and other miracles. It seems odd to admit such a notion – I have never read a book or article conceived to answer doubts about the Ascension – yet for me what has happened since Jesus’ departure strikes at the core of my faith. Would it not have been better if the Ascension had never happened? If Jesus had stayed on earth, he could answer our questions, solve our doubts, mediate our disputes of doctrine and policy.”
That line of thought has stuck with me, and it came to mind when I looking over John 12:34-36 a few weeks ago. In the New Testament era there were religious people who believed the coming Messiah would never leave – something like a savior with no Ascension. The text goes as follows…
The crowd answered [Jesus], “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”
For background, this took place on Palm Sunday. Jesus was in conversation with His disciples after some Gentile interest has emerged. They came to Philip, Philip went to Andrew, and Andrew presumably didn’t know what to do so they both went to Jesus. And Jesus said it meant that the hour had come. (This is in John 12:20-23.) Jesus referred to His cross with an agricultural image: It’s like a grain of seed, that must fall to the ground and die to eventually bear fruit. So Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (12:25-26).
Jesus then prayed for God’s glory and there came a theophany: The voice of God was heard out loud. Jesus interpreted it, emphasizing that it came for the sake of the crowd (12:27-30). Then He explained what it meant: Satan will be expelled, divine judgment will happen, and the cross will become the means of drawing people near (12:31-33). With that I think of the crosses that are lifted high on the steeples of so many churches in America. It’s a beautiful thing, partly because it maintains the witness to God’s redemptive love.
But it’s also a troubling thing. The cross was an enormously violent form of execution. And the talk of it certainly confused the crowd that was listening to Jesus. They had no room in their belief system for anything like it. The Messiah will come, they thought, but then He’s supposed to stay for good. There’s no death, and certainly nothing like the Ascension.
But this is why we need to pay attention to Jesus’ response (in verses 35-36). He uses an image of a traveler at dusk, going through a sequence of observation, exhortation, warning, and exhortation that concludes on a note of hope.
Observation: The light is among you for a little while longer. In other words, Jesus will not always around like this. And in a way the same is true with each one of us. We learn to cherish the people who are around because they won’t always be here. We cherish the light that they shine.
Exhortation: Walk in the light. There are special opportunities that come with each moment of history. We don’t want to miss the moment. One pastor I know said this: “God shows up in the worst of times.” God is giving opportunities now that won’t always be there. We don’t want to walk away from them.
Warning: He says to walk in the light lest darkness overtake you. I’m remembering a time back before we could use our cell phones as flashlights. I was in my office in a country church, and the power went out. I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. To get to the parsonage across the street, I had to use my intuition and sense of touch for where the sidewalk was. It was a relief to get a flashlight! Darkness overtook me.
But Jesus speaks here of spiritual darkness. We can think of this in relation to what all is out there – on TV, in politics, in the world, in the media, in realm of “religious” ideas, and all the crazy things that people are doing. Dan Haseltine, a popular Christian musician, said this a few weeks ago: "I think America has reach its obnoxious belligerent suburban drunk junior in high schooler phase. If it keeps this up it won’t get invited to prom." The darkness can overtake you. Jesus speaks of it as something that pursues us, like the end of day approaching for a traveler on the road. If you’re being preyed on, that affects how you think about things.
But fear should not dominate. The good news is that light contrasts with darkness because light is more powerful than darkness. A single candle and give light to a darkened room. Darkness has no parallel power. So this leads to His final word…
Exhortation: Jesus says that while you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light. Belief here is not just an act of cognition. It means having faith, having a sense of trust. The light is illuminating the traveler’s path; don’t doubt it! And Jesus also thinks of it as a kind of family relation. He speaks of becoming children of the light. You’re in God’s family when you put your faith and trust in Jesus. This is why Jesus said that we’re like His mothers and His brothers and His sisters when we walk in faith (Mark 3:35).
This is good news that we certainly carry with us. We’re part of God’s family. Christ has ascended, but He certainly isn’t gone. And we have a mission before us. Philip Yancey articulates it well: “Would it be too much to say that, ever since the Ascension, Jesus has sought other bodies in which to begin again the life he lived on earth? The church serves as an extension of the Incarnation, God’s primary way of establishing presence in the world.”
May the Lord help us in this calling.
I am a husband, a Congregational pastor, and a native Kansan currently living in Thermalito, California. In the past I have also been a prison chaplain and a youth pastor. Interests include reading, railroads, prog rock, KU, and the KC Royals.