This is a sermon that I gave at Neon United Methodist Church for Ascension Sunday (16 May 1999). The Scriptures for that Sunday were Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 13 -23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53. This was my next to last Sunday at Neon. The following week I moved from Kentucky to New York to start a new life.
In everyone’s life there are particular dates or periods of time that one remembers. I will always cherish June 7, 1973, and July 7, 1976, as those are the birthdates of my daughters Melanie and Meara. And I will always remember the summer of 1995 when I served as the chief supply pastor for the Parsons District of the Kansas East conference. It was during that summer that I began to feel that I could be a preacher, even if I did not have my own church.
And for the most obvious reasons, I will always remember the period from November, 1998, to May, 1999, when I was the pastor of Neon United Methodist Church. For whatever happens in the coming years, I will always know that this church as the place that I was first called a pastor.
And whether I really want to or not, I will always remember the spring of 1968, my senior year at Bartlett High School in Memphis. For that spring was a time that changed the way we saw things and the way we viewed the future.
Of course, the most outstanding memory of that spring was the labor strike in Memphis that brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to Memphis. And while I may have no conscious memory of the night when he was killed, I do remember some years later the speech that he gave the night before he was shot.
“I have been to the mountain top,” he said, “and I have seen the Promised Land.” With either prophetic overtones or with a fatalistic view of the threats on his own life, Dr. King then said, “I may not get there with you.” I do not know if Dr. King was using the passage from Exodus where God took Moses to the top of the mountain and showed him the Promised Land that had been promised to Israelites but that was the passage that comes to mind.
Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land — from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negev and the whole region form the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” (Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 4)
For because of the transgressions of the Israelites, God required that they wander in the wilderness for an additional forty years. And Moses, though he had himself done no wrong, would not be allowed to enter the promised land but God did allow him to see that when just a dream was for many.
But Moses did not have to worry about getting to the Promised Land because he knew that the mission of the Israelites would be accomplished. Moses knew that he had the individuals, such as Joshua, who can lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.
The other event of my senior year that will always stand out in my memory was the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy. To many, the problems and difficulties that we encountered throughout the seventies might not have been so hard had Senator Kennedy lived. I cannot speak to that point but I do think that things would have been different had he lived.
Throughout the primary elections of that spring, as Senator Kennedy sought to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, he would often quote George Bernard Shaw, “Others see things as they are and say ‘why?’ I see things as they could be and say ‘why not?’”
To see things as they are is to just dream of the present; to see things are they could be is to have a vision of the future. When Moses stood on the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land, he saw the future for the Israelites. Both Dr. King and Senator Kennedy saw a future of hope and promise that were not just dreams of things in the present.
I think that it is important that sometime in your life you have a “mountaintop” experience; that at some point in time, you see the dreams that you have for the present time changed into a vision of the future and that you have that vision transformed into an action. Moses stood on the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land that his ancestors could only dream of yet he knew that Israelites under the leadership of Joshua would soon move into the Promised Land.
It was that way for the disciples as well. For while they were with Jesus, He taught them all that they needed to know so that they could continue His work. And then He took them to the mountaintop outside Bethany where they saw him ascend into heaven – “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”
The ascension of Jesus to Heaven on this day can be seen as way of telling the disciples and ourselves that the mission of Christ has now been transferred to us – “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The disciples also saw a vision of the future in the Glory of Christ.
”After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into the heaven.”
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians speaks of the “eyes of the heart.” This was an awareness of what was to come; a vision of the future for the Christian church. Paul knew of the faith that the Ephesians had and perhaps of the great things that they were doing in the church and in that area.
For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.
Over the past few weeks, I have spoken of the vision that people have for the Methodist Church in Kentucky. That vision applies to the Neon Church as much as it does to any other church, present or planned. The words of Paul are as true for us today as they were for the Ephesians some 2000 years ago.
The coming years offer much hope but only we if have the same vision as the Ephesians had. It is a hope built on the faith in Jesus Christ and knowing that we are saved through Christ.
When John Wesley started the Methodist Revival, he never anticipated the birth of a new church. All he wanted to do was awaken the Church of England to the needs of the people and to preaching the saving grace of Christ. But the success of the revival could only come about when he, Wesley, had accepted Christ in his own heart. Until that time, all Wesley thought was a dream.
When Wesley turned his live over to Christ, the dream turned into a vision because the Holy Spirit was now a part of Wesley, just as it was to be for the disciples. So today, I ask you “do you just have a dream of the present or is it a vision of the future? Is your life centered in Christ?”