We are not left behind

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Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension 2016

In the 1920s a man by the name of Albert Brumley was picking cotton one day on his family’s farm in Oklahoma. As he was struggling through the heat, and his sweat, and the prickly cotton bushes, he started to sing a song to himself. It was a popular song of the day called the Prisoner’s Song, about a man leaving his girl behind and being sent off to prison, and longing to escape and be with her again:

 

 

I’ll be carried to the new jail tomorrow

Leavin’ my poor darlin’ alone

With the cold prison bars all around me

And my head on a pillow of stone

 

Now if I had wings like an angel

Over these prison walls I would fly

And I’d fly to the arms of my poor darlin’

And there I’d be willin’ to die.

 

With his back breaking from stooping to pick the cotton, and being surrounded by these dead sharp bushes that poked and tore at his skin, Albert thought to himself: this too is prison. This life with its pains, and struggles and eventual death, this life can be a prison.

 

Albert reckoned that he was in prison of sorts, just like the author of that popular song, and then he thought: If I could escape the wall of this prison, where would I go? He began to think about his devout Christian faith (being raised in the Church of Christ) and how that faith for him not only offered the promise of eventual freedom, but in fact gave him a sense of freedom right then. So when he got back to the house at the end of his long day of toil he sat down and wrote this song…his version of the Prisoner’s Song:

 

Some glad morning when this life is o’er,

I’ll fly away;

To a home on God’s celestial shore,

I’ll fly away

 

I’ll fly away, Oh Glory

I’ll fly away;

When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,

I’ll fly away

 

When the shadows of this life have gone,

I’ll fly away;

Like a bird from prison bars has flown,

I’ll fly away

 

Just a few more weary days and then,

I’ll fly away;

To a land where joy shall never end,

I’ll fly away

 

That song that Albert wrote would become one of the most popular and most recorded gospel songs of all time. Now, not everyone that ever put pen to paper to write a hymn was inspired by God; some hymns are just awful; but I think that Albert was. Albert was because there is something about singing that hymn that actually sets you free, right when you sing it. It isn’t just about thinking of some future day, but in the realization that our lives belong to God, it makes that future day today. If you have ever had the chance to sing that song at a funeral or when you were really struggling or down, then you might just know what it feels like to have your spirit fly. It isn’t just the person being buried that is flying away, it is us too. The amazing thing about this song is that you don’t have to wait until that glad day when this life is o’er to fly away, the moment you sing it you already begin to fly away, you already begin to experience freedom from the prison of this life and you already begin to experience the joy that shall never end. When you sing that song you too are flying away, you are not merely left behind.

 

Today is the Feast of the Ascension, a day when we remember that after our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, he ascended into heaven in the sight of his disciples. Now you might expect those disciples to be distressed or heartbroken that their Lord had left them; that he appeared to fly away into the clouds; but that is not what happened. When Jesus died people went home beating their breasts, but when he ascended into heaven they went home rejoicing, with great joy and they dedicated their lives to worship and blessing God. They were not abandoned or left behind, quite the contrary: a part of them ascended with Christ.

 

Saint Augustine, when he wrote about the Ascension of our Lord said:

 

Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth.

For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.

 

If we have committed ourselves to Jesus Christ, if he already has our hearts, then when he ascends into heaven a part of us goes with him. We are not left behind, we are not trapped in prison, because his ascension has set us free. A part of those disciples flew away with Jesus, he didn’t just take their humanity and their human flesh, he took their hearts, and by gathering all those things unto God, he redeemed them.

 

The life that Jesus ascends to at the right hand of the Father is one of constant praise, worship and adoration and joy. It is that life to which the disciples try to mold their lives as much as possible: imperfectly and in earthen vessels, but still the old Jerusalem seeking after the new Jerusalem.

 

Today we remember Jesus going to his eternal home on God’s celestial shore, but we are not left behind or abandoned: we go with him. We may have to wait a few more weary days until that glad morning when we will be gathered together with Christ and all his saints, but just like singing Albert’s song, we don’t have to wait until then to fly away and be set free.

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