May 13 was the least known, possibly most important Christian holiday—Ascension Day. It should kick off big-time Christian parties, like those after the Prime Minister is sworn in–but bigger. It remembers when Jesus—Immanuel, God-with-Us—returned to heaven after his crucifixion and resurrection. From there he rules the universe at God the Father’s right hand.
Trouble is, we often think: “Great! Jesus is off in heaven. Meanwhile, where is he when my family breaks up? When my parent or spouse dies? When my fiancé dumps me right before the wedding? When I study my brains out, but miss the cut for university.” Others have asked similar questions.
In Matthew 14, King Herod beheads Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist. The disciples fear they’re next. Yet Jesus heads off to pray away the grief of John’s death and sends his friends off alone to practice rowing on a storm-prone lake. Soon a hard wind churns up waves like the gales of November.
The disciples grumble, "Great! Jesus takes a personal retreat and leaves us alone." Maybe that’s how we think about Jesus’ ascension: "Little good Jesus does in heaven while we rock on the world’s waves. Is this ‘God-With-Us’? More like ‘Us-Without-God.’”
Soon the disciples see something and hear a voice: “I AM”—roughly translated, “I’m here.” Those are familiar words. They know who’s there.
Israel heard those very words after they felt God abandoned them for 400 years in Egypt. That same voice from a burning bush told Moses, "Tell ol' Pharoah, 'I AM THAT I AM' is sending you." In other words, Immanuel--God-with-Us.
God's voice echoes over centuries to scared disciples. "I AM is with them on stormy water, like “I-AM” was with Israel in Egypt.
Then there’s Peter. He half-believes, half-doubts. "IF it IS you, Lord, tell me to come." We too have hopes and fears, faith and doubt. “I want to run for public office, but what if I turn corrupt?” “I’d like to upgrade–but what if my friends laugh when I take night classes instead of heading to the bars?”
Still, cut Peter some slack. He does call to the only one who can give a new start to a life mixed up in drugs, drink, promiscuity, thievery, indifference or laziness.
That’s exactly what Jesus does. He doesn't hand out books full of ready answers. Yet his word across waves penetrates Peter’s fear: "COME."
So Peter steps out of the false safety of the boat into his wavy world. Jesus is waiting. Peter walks on water, until he takes his eyes off Jesus. Maybe he thinks, "Hey! I’m good at this all by myself.” Suddenly all he sees are wind and waves. Peter’s name means “rock”—which is just how he sinks, even though he was looking at God.
We know Peter too. We start with a flourish because we believe Jesus’ words, "Don't be afraid." But maybe we take our eyes off Jesus and take credit for ourselves. We start revising God’s projects with our goals, our pocketbooks, boosting our reputations and influence.
So, our lives become littered with projects started and not completed. Big plans with good intentions shrink into embarrassing apologies. We can’t walk on water by ourselves. Waves wash up to our necks.
Finally Peter cries, "Lord, save me." With a touch, a hand, Jesus reaches out and lifts Peter back onto the waves, then into the boat. For a time the lake is calm, because Jesus isn’t only the master of our doubting hearts. He’s also the ruler of seas, winds and waves. When we do see and hear Jesus, his overwhelming presence overpowers fear and doubt.
Always, no matter who or where you are, Jesus is walking on your world's waves. He still says, "’I AM’ with you--on the waves or in the boat. I'll pull you up when you sink and take your eyes off me."
That’s the trouble—and promise--of Ascension Day: God is with us. Will we see God?